Monday, October 3, 2011

Star Trek and Postscarcity Consumerism

James Doohan and Simon Pegg as Scotty

Even if many Americans have lost track of the full promise of the American Dream - the dream that a nation's wealth is measured not simply by how great it is, but how greatly it is shared - our cousins in Scotland have not. I have no idea what they're putting in scotch eggs these days, but between Charles StrossKen MacLeodGrant Morrison and Mark Millar, the Scots have a lock on myth creation at the moment. The Godfather of this second Scottish Enlightenment is Iain M. Banks, who describes his Culture novels as his own "secular heaven". But while Banks says that he "could [n]ever write in someone else's universe like Star Wars or Star Trek, as it would be too restrictive" his Culture series clearly picks up where Roddenberry left off - projecting into a distant future where the United Federation of Planets has grown into a galaxy-spanning civilization of multiple humanoid species and massively powerful artificial intelligences. 

Like Roddenberry, Banks' first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, imagines a future in which the concept of money is regarded "as a crude, over-complicated and inefficient form of rationing." Roddenberry never really filled out the world of tomorrow too far beyond the bridge of the Enterprise, but the glimpses he gave us were what gave his universe its great appeal. Banks' books fill in crucial territory about life in a Star Trek-like postscarcity world, "where the capacity of production ubiquitously and comprehensively exceeds every reasonable (and in some cases, perhaps, unreasonable) demand its not unimaginative citizens could make." 
Kirk explaining that as a matter-of-fact there is no money in the future and after a reboot, offering to buy Uhura a drink.

Like the Federation, Banks' Culture is imagined as a cashless society where housing is free, work is voluntary, citizens are enlightened free of every imaginable bigotry and peace loving. Like the Federation it is a largely cloudless socialist utopia. Banks describes it as "completely spiffing, super and brill," but admits, "if the books said that and nothing else they'd induce nothing but yawns." To make for more enjoyable reading (they're really fun) he writes from "the point of view of somebody who's skeptical about or even opposed to the Culture." This also allows Banks to explain the hows and why-fors of free housing, and other postscarcity schemes.

As far as I know (I am not a Trekkie), Roddenberry never explained how his cashless society worked - and while I haven't read all of the Culture novels (yet) Banks takes care to explain life beyond capitalism. In his imagined universe the inefficient rationing of market capitalism has been replaced by algorithmic driven logistics. In the Culture humanoids flourish and have a say, but immensely powerful artificial intelligence, or Minds, organize all of society's incidental affairs. The Culture is a fantasy almost as old as ideal worlds - a nanny state with no need for nannycams.
Socrates (469-399 BCE) V'ger (1979)

In Book V of the Republic Socrates imagines the ideal guardians for the Just City: a class of men raised to believe a "noble lie," that they have no parents and are instead the children of earth. These guardians trained in statecraft would not be allowed to form families, but instead would have many partners and their children would be raised communally: 
So, as I am saying, doesn't what was said before and what's being said now form them into true guardians, still more and cause them not to draw the city apart by not all giving the name "my own" to the same thing, but different men giving it to different things--one man dragging off to his own house whatever he can get his hands on apart from the others, another being separate in his own house with separate women and children, introducing private pleasures and griefs of things that are private? 
In his latest book, The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama points out that Socrates' guardians are the dream of rule by slaves. "The idea that there is a tension between loyalty to the family and  just political order" is a problem in all societies. Banks' Minds can easily be imagined as both slaves and rulers not unlike the Mamluks and Janisaries of medieval Islam. According to Fukuyama, Libertarians like Friedrich Hayek believe that, "The bulk of knowledge in a society was local in character and disperses throughout the the whole society; no individual could master enough information to anticipate the effects of a planned change in the laws or rules." Banks makes an end run around Hayek and imagines a class of individual that could master the information, and would do so without subverting the system to benefit itself or its family - the Minds require no noble lie. 
The quiet dispair of Saarinen Tulips on the original Enterprise; Ten Forward twenty-five years later.

The most interesting parts of the Culture novels are not the hows, however, they are the why-fors; the moments when Banks pauses to explain what meaning work, or anything else, might have in a world where all material needs were met effortlessly, and where artificial Minds and mechanical drones can outmatch any human effort, ability, or craft where medicine has conquered addiction and every imaginable STD and social dysfunction.  In the series' third book, Use of Weapons, Banks has one of his skeptics question an academic - who could as easily be taking part in an orgy, sitting by a pool, or studying his field of interest - why he instead voluntarily chooses to clean tables at a bar:
"Of coarse I don't have to do this... but"--he slapped the table--"when you clean a table you clean a table. You feel you've done something. It's an achievement... My wiping a table gives me pleasure. And people come to a clean table, which gives them pleasure. And anyway"--the man laughed--"people die; stars die; universes die. What is an achievement, however great it was, once time itself is dead? Of course if all I did was wipe tables, then of course it would seem a mean and despicable waste of my huge intellectual potential. But because I choose to do it, it gives me pleasure. And, "the man said with a smile, "it's a good way of meeting people."
Americans deeply under the sway of flowers of Hayek and his half-with step-daughter Ayn Rand, have set to attacking the foundations of consumer culture by means of democracy. The American Left believes that it is democracy that is under threat and that consumerism is the enemy, but I respectfully disagree. The Koch brothers and other right wing reactionaries, are exactly that: reactionaries. They pretend to worship free markets but they are hypocrites and hate mongers; the real God these so-called Libertarians worship is not free markets, it is private property. The most remarkable aspect of Star Trek as the founding myth of consumerism, however, is that the moment property enters the picture the utopia is instantly transformed into a dystopia. (Continue reading.)
Friedrich Hayek and the trouble with property in a postscarcity economy.

1 comment:

  1. But the big difference between the Culture and Star Trek is the role of artificial intelligences. That's why the Culture can be labeled as a "computer-assisted anarchy".
    See "Artificial intelligences and political organization: An exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks", article in Technology in Society 34(1):23–32 · February 2012