Monday, March 26, 2012

Capitalism - the final frontier

The communist elements of the Star Trek universe is often obscured because the films and TV shows are centered on the military hierarchy of Star Fleet. To the extent that we see glimpses of civilian life, it seems mostly untroubled by hierarchy or compulsion.

In Star Trek the United Federation of Planets is often described as a type of post-capitalist society where there is no money and nobody wants for material things. In the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Captain Kirk says that they don't use money in the future. "Don't tell me: they don't have money in the 23rd Century?" "Well, we don't." - Conversation between Dr. Gillian Taylor and Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek IV

A first season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called "The Neutral Zone," has Picard getting up on his high horse with a three hundred year old businessman who is revived from suspended animation: The businessman, naturally, wants to get in touch with his agents to find out what has happened to his investments. Picard loftily informs him that such things don't exist anymore. Indeed, poverty and want have been abolished "A lot has changed in the last 300 years. People are no longer obsessed with the acquisition of 'things'. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We've grown out of our infancy."

In the movie Star Trek: First Contact, Captain Picard says that in the future no one is motivated by the desire for material wealth. "The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn't exist in the 24th century... The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity."

Jake Sisko in the Deep Space 9 episode "In the Cards", in an exchange with the Ferengi, Nog: Jake: "I'm Human, I don't have any money." Nog: "It's not my fault that your species decided to abandon currency-based economics in favor of some philosophy of self-enhancement." Jake: "Hey, watch it. There's nothing wrong with our philosophy. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity." Nog: "What does that mean?" Jake: "It means we don't need money!"

According to Tom Paris in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Dark Frontier", a "New World Economy" began to take hold on Earth and throughout the Federation in the late 22nd century, and eventually made money obsolete. He even mentions that in the 24th century, Fort Knox is a museum, apparently to money and capitalism.

Humans have forged a classless, moneyless society free of serious social ills.

The Ferengi were practitioners of a form of capitalism, basing their entire style of trade on the concept of "caveat emptor", or "buyer beware". Ferengi make their money by following rules such as Ferengi Rule of Acquisition 1: "Once you have their money...never give it back." Ferengi Rule of Acquisition 10: Greed is Eternal. Ferengi Rule of Acquisition 27: There is nothing more dangerous than an honest businessman. Ferengi Rule of Acquisition 35: War is good for business. Ferengi Rule of Acquisition 45: Expand or die. Ferengi Rule of Acquisition 202: The justification for profit is profit.

There are two major technological advancements featured in the show that explain how such a society could exist: 1) A replicator that creates any object upon demand, which is capable of materialising any object out of thin air, with only the press of a button.without requiring any human labor, and 2) An infinite energy supply that requires scant human attention to maintain. The primary energy sources in Star Trek are warp cores, and the deuterium, antideuterium and dilithium crystals which power them, offering an abundance of energy. Teleporters, powered by warp cores, offer reliable transportation anywhere around the world (and from the world to the moon and other planets). Not only does it allow for the movement of people, it allows from the bulk transportation of goods to their destination.

Given the technical premises of complete automation and free energy, the Star Trek utopia of pure communism becomes a possibility. The replicator technology appears to have made capitalism obsolete. When Jean-Luc Picard wants his tea, he doesn't have to hand over any cash—he just tells the replicator, and the machine makes it so. Riker, Data, Dr. Crusher—they don't have salaries (although they do get vacation time). Nobody ever needs to worry about a bank account, or paying back loans for Star Fleet tuition. Within the Federation, life follows Marx's, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."
If all you want is a drink, you can get free synthahol any time you want it.

Federation citizens don't have "stuff." They have simple, immediate, free access to all the necessities of life. They don't need bank accounts . The only things they actually own are objects of special personal value - Picard's volume of Shakespeare, Worf's battleh, and Riker's trombone. Picard's brother may still run a traditional French vineyard, while Cisco's dad operates a classic New Orleans restaurant. But these operations seem more like lifestyles than professions; there's no sense that either needs the income to get by. And in fact, both businesses are small, family run, almost self-consciously handcrafted products for discerning consumers.

Yet at other times, capitalism seems alive and well in the Star Trek universe. The Enterprise crew-members sometimes spend "credits". The Federation credit does not appear to serve the role of capital as money does in a capitalist economy: production is not based on the accumulation of capital for reinvestment of production; instead production is undertaken to satisfy human needs, and the Federation credit is likely more akin to a Labour voucher - a means for distributing / rationing goods for individual consumption. Alternatively, the credit may serve as a means of quantifying energy.

Every citizen of the Federation has plenty of food of virtually any type they want, clothes, shelter, recreational and luxury items, and has all their basic material needs easily met. A society based around self-improvement and collectively improving the human race instead of cut-throat competition, and combined with heavy automation, it means labour is essentially free, menial tasks are automated, and goods are made freely available to all citizens due to superabundance.

There is a passage in Capital Vol III, in which Marx distinguishes between a “realm of necessity” and a “realm of freedom.” In the realm of necessity we must “wrestle with Nature to satisfy [our] wants, to maintain and reproduce life”, by means of physical labor in production. This realm of necessity, Marx says, exists “in all social formations and under all possible modes of production”, presumably including socialism. What distinguishes socialism, then, is that production is rationally planned and democratically organized, rather than operating at the whim of the capitalist or the market. For Marx, however, this level of society was not the true objective of the revolution, but merely a precondition for “that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis.”

In the “Critique of the Gotha Program,” he writes that: "In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!"

Socialists are portrayed as hopelessly utopian impossiblists. What kind of society could be so productive that humans are entirely liberated from having to perform some kind of involuntary labour? It’s not that all work would cease, in the sense that we would all just sit around in dissipation and torpor. For as Marx puts it, “labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want.” Whatever activities and projects we undertook, we would participate in them because we found them inherently fulfilling, not because we needed a wage or owed our monthly hours to the cooperative.

Yet we have the promise of widespread automation is that it could enact just such a liberation. Recent technological developments have taken place not just in the production of commodities, but in the generation of the energy needed to operate the automatic factories and 3-D printers of the future. Hence one possible post-scarcity future combines labor-saving technology with an alternative to the current energy regime, which is ultimately limited by both the physical scarcity and ecological destructiveness of fossil fuels. If cheap energy and automation are combined with methods of efficiently fabricating or recycling raw materials, then we have truly left behind ‘the economy’ as a social mechanism for managing scarcity. What lies over that horizon?

The demise of wage labour may seem like a faraway dream today. But once upon a time – before the labour movement retreated from the demand from shorter hours, and before the stagnation and reversal of the long trend toward reduced work weeks – people actually worried about what we would do after being liberated from work. In an essay on “Economic possibilities for our grandchildren”, John Maynard Keynes predicted that within a few generations, “man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” And in a recently published discussion from 1956, Max Horkheimer begins by casually remarking to Theodor Adorno that “nowadays we have enough by way of productive forces; it is obvious that we could supply the entire world with goods and could then attempt to abolish work as a necessity for human beings.”

Socialism, to boldly go where no-one has gone before.

adapted from

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