by Ted Friedman

Most people wouldn't describe the Star Trek shows as politically radical. Compared to the paranoic anti-government edge of '90s creations like "The X-Files," the Trek universe seems a quaint liberal throwback - a safe '60s fantasy of a peaceful future where the Earth lives in racial harmony, and species (usually) cooperate to explore the galaxy. But there's one difference between our own century and the 24th so fundamental we simply take it for granted: there's no money. Nobody ever comes out and admits it, but replicator technology appears to have made capitalism obsolete. When Jean-Luc Picard wants his tea, he doesn't have to fork over any cash—he just tells the replicator, and the machine makes it so. Riker, Data, Dr. Crusher—they don't even seem to have salaries (although they do get vacation time). Nobody ever needs to worry about a bank account, or paying back loans for Starfleet tuition. Sure, the Ferengi still dicker over latinum, but within the Federation, life seems to follow Marx's famous dictum, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

When Jean-Luc Picard wants his tea, he doesn't have to fork over any cash...

I remember when the full implications of this hit me, while watching "Second Chances," the episode in which Riker discovers a cloned version of himself. The double, "Tom," was accidentally created and abandoned on a deserted planet in a freak transporter accident seven years earlier. Will and Tom bicker over the past, and over Tom's rekindled interest in Deanna. Ultimately Tom decides to leave the Enterprise for another starship. As a going-away present, Will gives Tom his favorite trombone in a moving gesture of reconciliation. But all I kept wondering was, "What do you mean, it's Will's trombone? Why does Will get to keep all the stuff? Isn't everything more than seven years old as much Tom's as Will's? Can't Tom sue or something? How's he going to get by in the world with nothing more than the trombone on his back?"

Needless to say, I was missing the point. Federation citizens don't have "stuff." They have simple, immediate, free access to all the necessities of life. They don't need checking accounts or IRAs. The only things they actually own are objects of special personal value—Picard's volume of Shakespeare, Worf's battleh, and of course, Riker's trombone. So when Will hands over the instrument to Tom, it's not simply a nice gesture. He's giving away one of the few things of value he has to give—he's giving away a pretty large piece of himself.

Of course, there's another explanation for why Will and Tom would have so little concern over their assets: they're in the military. Maybe their room and board are simply taken care of by Starfleet, just as any shipboard troops' would be. But by all accounts, economic arrangements in the rest of the Federation aren't all that different from the way things work on the Enterprise. From what little we've seen of 24th Century Earth, it appears there's a replicator on every streetcorner, and easy, instantaneous transporter access to any spot on the globe. Sure, Picard's brother still runs 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 closer in structure to a feudal system than corporate capitalism—they're small, family run, almost self-consciously archaic affairs, creating handcrafted products for discerning consumers. Like Riker's trombone, the wine of Picard's vineyards is less a commodity in our contemporary sense than a special object of personal significance. If all you want is a drink, you can get free synthahol any time you want it.

If all you want is a drink, you can get free synthahol any time you want it.

So how exactly does one pay for Picard's wine and Cisco's jambalaya? Is there a residual latinum-based trading system? Barter? Or do Picard and Cisco just hand stuff out to all comers? How exactly do folks exchange goods and services in the 24th Century? Here, the details get fuzzy—on purpose. As Gene Rodenberry wrote in his initial guide for Trek writers, "If you want to assume that Earth cities of the future are splendidly planned with fifty-mile parkland strips around them, fine. But for obvious reasons, let's not get into any detail of Earth's politics of Star Trek's century; for example, which socio-economic systems ultimately worked best."

Concentrating on Starfleet, then—along with border outposts like Deep Space 9—is a way to evade extrapolating how the vast changes hinted at must actually work in practice. What do people do with their lives when all of their needs can be taken care of by machines? How do they structure their days when there's no need to seek steady employment? What kind of culture might a people freed from want build? These questions—essentially, what would Utopia look like?—are pretty daunting. And answering them is likely to be less gratifying than simply leaving them tantalizingly open-ended. So instead, Star Trek keeps things within the realm of the familiar by replacing the discipline of the market with the discipline of the military. Why do Riker, Data, and the rest of the crew show up for work every day, listen to their bosses, and do what they're told? Because it's their orders.

How do they structure their days when there's no need to seek steady employment?

Star Trek, then, is an ambiguous kind of Utopia. Following the collapse of communism, in an era in which the capitalist system of labor—what leftists once denounced as "wage slavery"—reigns triumphant over almost all the globe, Star Trek offers the possibility that another, better way of life exists. No wonder so many find its vision of the future so compelling. At the same time, however, it shrinks from imagining a fully fleshed-out alternative, instead replacing one familiar social structure with another, in some ways more ominous one: military hierarchy. Marxist critic Fredric Jameson writes that these days, it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Star Trek comes about as close as anything to doing so in turn-of-the-millenium America.   </end>

Photo of Lieutenant Commander Worf
© 1996 Paramount Pictures Corporation.
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Ted Friedman's a grad student and freelance writer living in Durham, NC. He's also the creator of "Watching Star Trek," a film starring Star Trek dolls and Barbies.

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