Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Star Trek: Utopians at War

HG Wells, JT Kirk

"This is now a war for peace" wrote the Radium Age scifi master, H.G. Wells, in 1914, "This is the greatest of all wars, not just another war - it is the last war!" In 1932, as if answering Wells directly, but also predicting the rest of the 20th century, the Nazi jurist Carle Schmitt wrote "Such a war is necessarily unusually intense and inhuman because, by transcending the limits of political framework, it simultaneously degrades the enemy into moral and other categories and is forced to make of him a monster that must not only be defeated but utterly destroyed."

In his intellectual history, The First Total War, David A. Bell argues that peace, as Wells understood it as an end to barbarism, was born along side democracy during the Enlightenment, and that just as Schmitt saw it, had transformed all war into existential battles against savages; that it was the utopia goal itself that had modern warfare "unusually intense and inhuman." It might seem to make sense then that in the aftermath of the most destructive of the 'wars to end all wars' and in the shadow of the very real possibility nuclear holocaust, Gene Roddenberry imagined an utopian warship. But Star Trek wasn't just a later day democratic myth; it was the first great myth of consumer culture. The Enterprise was not built for total war, it was built to fight wars of conscience - exactly the sorts of wars consumerists fight.
Captain James T Kirk: Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of Horatii (1784)

Bell writes that, since the earliest moments of the Enlightenment, "The dream of perpetual peace and the nightmare of total war have been bound together in complex and disturbing ways, each sustaining the other... During the eighteenth-century, as in previous centuries, most Western cultures accepted war as an inevitable, and ordinary, facet of human existence. Western rulers saw war as their principal purpose and fought constantly." Total war was an innovation of early modern democracies in which for the first time war had come to be seen in a "new manner, as an unfathomable extreme, set outside the ordinary bounds of social existence, that could only end in total victory or total defeat."

As grim and bloody as the terrible religious wars of the Reformation were, Bell points out in their aftermath, "Armies were relatively small, major battles relatively infrequent (though devastating when they occurred), and civilians relatively well treated." Those were the earliest moments of the Enlightenment. That trend of aristocratic "restrained warfare," argues Bell, led to "secular eighteenth-century writers described peace as the culmination of entirely natural social changes that were already visible and taking place according to scientifically observable laws." For the first time, thinkers could begin to imagine the permanent absence of war and their imaginations "followed a common path of historical evolution from savage beginnings toward ever-greater levels of peaceful civilization, politeness, and commercial exchange." According to Bell, no sooner than that perpetual peace was conceptualized, did it become the justification for all out war.
James T Kirk the reluctant warrior.

Once the aristocratic model of "virtually permanent but restrained warfare" fell away, and war became for those early moderns something barbaric, outside the fabric of civilized norms all bets were off. The dream of perpetual peace "produced the widespread conviction" Bell writes, that one's "enemies were themselves bent on a 'war of extermination.'" Bell reluctantly agrees with Schmitt's judgment, that it is the modern concept of peace that "helped demonize enemy populations and made it almost impossible to see enemy soldiers as honorable adversaries or enemy noncombatants as innocent bystanders." And at the same time war began to be seen as "the ultimate test of a society and of an individual self. They began to imagine it as elemental, cleansing even redemptive."

Stalin, Hitler, Tojo and perhaps Patton may have adopted that ideal of war as cleansing and redemptive, but by the second half of 20th century few moderns saw war as anything beyond a terrible necessity. That model of the more reluctant warrior is the ideal consumerism inherited from American democracy. Every order has its founding myth. And while Enlightenment thinkers rejected the aristocratic ideal of perpetual war, Bell describes the importance of Spartans as manly exemplars for democratic hawks from Rousseau forward as uncompromising defenders of perpetual peace. That the Battle of Thermopylae was invoked by the racist Frank Miller film in thee rush to war against Iraq is a symptom of America's retreat from consumerism - Thermopylae is one of the founding myths of modern democracy. Kirk is more Cincinnatus than Leonidas
Captain Kirk; King Leonidas

James T Kirk is a democratic manly man, but he was conceived durring a moment in which American democracy was making way for consumerism, he pointedly mild in comparison to the un-compromising militancy of King Leonidas, but that is because consumerism not only made far more radical promises of equality than any democracy ever had before; consumerism did so without ever appealing to the Puritanical utilitarianism that had long stiffen the spine of democracy's hawks.

Democracy promises truth and justice. Consumerism promises fun and happiness. Americans invented consumer culture but they have slipped back into more war-like democratic habits of mind. Before the Cold War was finished they initiated the War on Drugs, and while they still fight that war with a venom they have given the majority of their attention to the War on Terror. These are the wars of a democracy. They are existential threats fought against inhuman savages. Even the Iraq War, which was a naked resource grab, wrapped itself in the rhetoric of apocalyptic threat. But consumer culture has by now spread to every nook and corner of the globe. So while the Star Trek franchise no longer resembles the consumerist utopia it began as, there are now other myths created by those who grew up far from the light of America's shiny future.
Constant Nieuwenhuys, New Babylon (1959-74); Pax-Starfleet (2009)

David Bell writes that although Karl Marx "saw class conflict (which is conflict within societies, not between them) as the motor of historical change, he still believed it would eventually lead to a condition of social harmony and perpetual peace." Like Marx, the early 20th century utopianism of Corbusier, other inter-war Modernists and some of the more recent utopian prognostications of contemporary sigulitarians, all the visionaries who have projected the abundance of modern industrialized economies forward to imagine cornucopian economies have descended "from precisely the liberal Enlightenment-era thinking that dismissed war as primitive, irrational, and alien to modern civilization." The promise has always been that the new wealth will be accompanied by peace; that when we are all rich we will all be civilized and there will be nothing left to fight over. 

The architect Constant Nieuwenhuys was a year older than Roddenberry, and like Roddenberry spent almost thirty years imagining an anti-capitalist postscarcity utopia. According to Mark Wigley, Constant's New Babylon was a "60s paradise of love and solidarity and all that" that Constant realized "people will actually kill each other, because we’re dark, miserable creatures... He spent the last four years of the project showing the horror of what it would be like to live in New Babylon." Constant's despair is the grim aspect of the Enlightenment dream of perpetual peace that inspired him to imagine New Babylon in the first place. Constant lost faith in the logical ideal of the Enlightenment. In his Culture novels, the scifi author Iain M Banks breaks with the Enlightenment attitude towards war, and imagines a utopian civilization that make the logical choice to fight a war. Most crucially Banks explains what Roddenberry and his heirs never did - why someone like Kirk, who could have lived a long life of luxury that today's wealthiest consumers would covet, would choose to spend his life aboard a war ship. 
In Star Trek violence is always a failure of logic.

The parallel between Banks imagined militant utopia that fights a war against an enemy of religious fanatics and the neocon 'clash of civilizations' is easy to make, but that parallel is false. Banks was in no way imagining a doctrine of "preventive war." In the twilight of the Cold War, Banks imagined a war fought by decadent happy consumerist anarchists against imperialist idealists. But Banks is careful to say that the Culture was not threatened physically by their enemy, that he is imagining a war fought not out of utility but out of choice

The utopia Banks imagines is an idealized EU rave on a galactic scale - an anarcho-socialism of well-fed and creative secularists screwing each other's brains out juiced up on designer drugs. Francis Fukuyama calls history's "last man... men without chests" and imagines them "concerned above all with his own personal health and safety... content to sit at home, congratulating themselves on their broadmindedness and lack of fanaticism." Since WWII we have entered a second era of "restrained warfare", the incidence of war, especially between democracies, has been in steady decline over the post 60 years, peopled by men supposedly too self-concerned to rouse themselves to war. Banks is able to imagine what men without chests would fight and die for. 
Red Shirts

In his first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, published two years before the fall of the Berlin wall, Banks does what the inheritor's of Roddenberry franchise have failed to do, articulate why a society so "beyond considerations of wealth or empire," a society of atheist hedonists who can afford to indulge any desire, would desire to go to war for what they believe in. "The Culture's most precious quality... and treasured possession" Banks explains, is it's "clarity of conscience." The only desire that Banks imagines the Culture can not satisfy from within itself, and therefore would be willing to go to war for is "the not to feel useless."

Bell Wrote his intellectual history of war in 2007, well into the two wars made by Americans after the September 11th attacks. "Today, these twin languages of war and peace define the extremes of Western, and particularly American, thinking on the subject." writes Bell. I think he is half right. The reasons for starting the Iraq War were a moving target, but on its face it was the sort of war democracies fight. With us, or against us; an existencial threat, and supposedly fought for peace. It seems more likely that it was on the agenda well before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That it was a strategic war with great geopolitical utility.  There is very little about the Iraq War that can give a consumer culture any degree of "clarity of conscience." 
"Beam me up Scotty, this planet sucks."

But with the war in Afganistan, while obviously poorly conceived and incompetently executed, the Bush Administration entered exactly the sort of war they had no interest in, and had repeatedly dismissed and maligned before September 11th as "Nation building." Afganistan began as a response, but all along the war has been more like the intervention in Bosnia or the attempt to pull Somalia out of anarchy. Those were wars where there was no oil; no need for new military bases or wealthy allies who needed help. Not the Bush family's typical war. These were wars fought, not only in the absence of an existential threat, but very little strategic importance.

These were also exactly the sorts of wars Banks imagined. Wars fought by peoples largely absorbed in concerns about their own "personal health and safety... congratulating themselves on their broadmindedness and lack of fanaticism." That is a pretty fair assessment of Bill Clinton - the president that actually lead the American people to fight wars that had no obvious national utility. But rather than "sit at home" as Fukuyama predicted, US consumerists rallied in support of wars that gave their comfortable, safe lives deeper meaning; they were fought in order to satisfy American, Asian, and European consumerists' "urge not to feel useless." Clinton wasn't a capitalist, he was a consumerist. (Continue Reading)
The forces of consumerism.

1 comment:

  1. Fightung for peace us like working at pleasure.. (:

    Consumption is pleasure, production is pain..

    Pleasure is expression, pain is repression..

    Until we give up work as a method of growth, we will have repressiun and (as Freud and Marcuse note) neurosis.. Which, un a global age, unfortunately, can be somewhut outsourced.. (:

    Unjoyung pleasure--consumption--us beung utself.. Not just being useluss.. We're afraid uf beung itsulf.. Uf not workung.. Of not beung "needud" Evun though that's whut we want most.. (:

    Beung useless, happy, sad.. we're afraid uf all beung.. Because we're so used to nd enamoured wuth doung.. Production.. (: Thus we protest nd fight whun exhausted rathur than rest and relax..

    But all thus us changung.. We're literally switchung over frum the sympathetic (fight/flight) to thu parasympathetic (rest n repose) nervous system un a globul levul.. (: It ain't cute but ut's gonna be ultimately beautiful.. (:

    Wun luv..