Podcast on the Politics of Star Trek

The Institute for Humane Studies has produced a podcast in which I discuss the politics of Star Trek, especially it’s favorable portrayal of socialism, which I previously wrote about here and here. I single out Star Trek: The New Generation as the Trek series most committed to socialist ideology and most unwilling to give any credence to criticisms of the Federation’s ideology, while noting that Deep Space Nine is much better about presenting alternative points of view in an interesting way, and raising questions about the Federation.

As a bonus, there’s a discussion of Star Trek’s replicator technology, and why it is that some things can be replicated while others cannot!

For a contrasting perspective on the politics of Star Trek, see this recent series of posts by science fiction critic Abigail Nussbaum, which analyze The New Generation ((like me, she is more fond of Deep Space Nine). Nussbaum makes many good points, but I disagree with her bottom-line view that the Federation is a “cultural imperialist” projection of present American and Western values into the future. She reaches this conclusion in part because she simply ignores the Federation’s socialism, which is of course antithetical to much of present-day Western society. Thus, for example, she argues that series is based on a Cold War analogy with the Federation playing the role of the US and the villainous Romulans that of the Soviet Union. But once you take due account of the fact that the Federation is socialist, while the Romulans have a relatively capitalist economy and a political system based on that of ancient Rome (the precursor of the modern West), it is far from clear that her analogy works.

Instead, it is the Federation that turns out to be a sort of kinder, gentler Soviet Union. Both are multicultural, federal, socialist states with an official ideology of egalitarianism. But the Federation lacks the Gulags, secret police, and mass murder (or at least we never see them on-screen!). Meanwhile, the Romulans represent several of the negative qualities that many leftists associate with the present-day West: elitism, arrogance, and intolerance for other cultures. The same can be said of many other Star Trek villains, such as the Ferengi, who represent the supposed evils of capitalism. At some level, of course, Star Trek is a projection of Western values. After all, egalitarian socialism is a Western ideology. However, Trek is far more hostile to the present-day West than Nussbaum and some other left of center critics recognize.

Despite these criticisms, I actually like several of the Star Trek series, and admire them for taking on some big issues. My beef with the producers’ approach to socialism is not so much that they take a more positive view of it than I do, but that they don’t even consider the possible problems with the system, despite its horrendous historical record.

NOTE: The transcript accompanying the podcast includes many small errors in transcription (e.g. – the Ferengi currency is “latinum,” not platinum).