By: Alex Mell-Taylor
The first time I considered that work could be different than it is today came from watching an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993–1999). The protagonist, Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), was talking to his father, Joseph Sisko (Brock Peters), who I learned ran a Creole restaurant back on Earth in the 2370s. Joseph found it hectic to manage it, but he didn’t work because he had to pay bills or get health insurance. In fact, his chosen profession was technically obsolete. No one had needed to make food by hand in hundreds of years, thanks to protein resequencers and later replicators.
The citizens of the Federation did not need to work for subsistence. They lived in a post-scarcity, arguably socialist society where people performed labor simply because they enjoyed it. It was a conception of work that was a radical departure from everything I had ever known. All other discussions of work before this moment had been about how I could make money for others. My family spent my early years encouraging me to be a lawyer, accountant, or any position that made significant sums of money. Enjoyment was always an ancillary concern.
Star Trek showed me a world where I could produce labor free from the constraints of others. It is a source of inspiration for millions of people, and strangely enough, that often includes billionaires who are many times the ones dictating the constraints of our labor.
If we want to make the vision of this show a more tangible reality, however, we will have to create a world where they no longer exist.
It cannot be overstated how some of the most popular billionaires on the planet love Star Trek. Bezos allegedly once considered naming Amazon MakeItSo.com after the catchphrase of Star Trek captain Jean-Luc Picard (Bezos also made a cameo as an alien in Star Trek Beyond (2016)). Elon Musk once said in an interview that he wants to make “Starfleet happen.” Bill Gates once dressed up as the character Spock to market a Windows launch.
However, in the universe of Star Trek, these men would not have the power and influence they have in our world. The Federation does not permit concentration of wealth among its citizens, a point stated explicitly in the Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994) episode The Neutral Zone, where the crew of the USS Enterprise-D unfreezes three individuals from the late 20th century. One of them is a financier, who is horrified to hear that not only do his financial assets no longer exist but that all of society has shifted away from capitalism. “A lot has changed in the last 300 years,” Picard quips at the financier after the latter demands to speak to his lawyer so he can get ahold of his bank accounts.
In fact, the races that do still engage in capitalism in the series are often depicted as barbaric and backward. The Ferengi, a group of short, orangish brown, lobed-eared aliens, are not only capitalistic but also incredibly sexist. They keep their women in a state of slavery. Ferengi women are barred from wearing clothes, traveling without a male escort, or earning a profit. As the Ferengi Quark remarks to Benjamin Sisko: “The way I see it, Humans used to be a lot like Ferengi: greedy, acquisitive, interested only in profit. We’re a constant reminder of a part of your past you’d like to forget.”
Humanity has abandoned capitalism and moved towards a socialist government where people work towards what they want rather than being driven by scarcity. “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things,” Picard continues in his speech to the financier. “We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.” Citizens engage in work they desire, free from the limitations of the old world, and this radical vision is something we don’t see advocated for much in pop culture or society at large.
Billionaires will often ignore this message and instead point to the show’s technology as a way to get to this future. Star Trek, after all, has technology like replicators and transporters that play with the fundamental building blocks of the universe. The argument goes that we need to expand our technological capacity and move out into space to achieve that futuristic standard of living. When asked to defend his space venture Blue Origin at the Living Legends of Aviation awards ceremony in 2019, Billionaire Jeff Bezos remarked:
“What sounds like freedom to me is moving out into the solar system, where we have, for all practical purposes, unlimited energy, unlimited resources. We’d have a trillion humans in the solar system, and then we’d have a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins. That’s the world I want my grandchildren’s grandchildren to live in.”
However, this point of view is not how the idealistic future in the show came to be. The origin of the Federation began before the emergence of replicators and transporters, to the very beginning of warp drive. The inventor of it, Zephram Cochrane, made First Contact with the alien race the Vulcans and chose to extend an arm out towards them in peace. That peaceful intention is the real basis for the Federation, as unchecked technological growth in the show had decades earlier culminated in a devastating third World War that decimated the Earth’s population.
The Federation grew over the years because of a philosophy of valuing peace, multiculturalism, and equality. Admission into the Federation does not just require the development of advanced technology (i.e., warp drive) but also a level of political unity, equal rights, and the removal of a caste system. When, for example, the Bajorans in the season 4 episode of Deep Space Nine, Accession, revive their ancient caste system of D’jarras, it causes the Federation to doubt their candidacy for admission. “You realize,” Captain Sisko lectures the new Bajoran Emissary, “That caste-based discrimination goes against the Federation Charter. If Bajor returns to the D’jarra system, I have no doubt that its petition to join the Federation will be rejected.”
Our world would not qualify for admission into the Federation either, and not simply because of a lack of warp drive, but because we also maintain a rigid caste system of our own. We have inequality structured through the accumulation of capital rather than by religion, with upper-class people at the top and lower-class people at the bottom. It would be considered barbaric by the future humanity of the show.
The majority of this planet’s inhabitants have very little, while a few can dream of conquering the stars, which goes against the spirit of equality valued by Federation worlds.
Our current caste system exists not because we lack the resources to provide for our population but because we choose to allocate them elsewhere. Over the last couple of decades, the rate of food production has increased faster than population growth, but people still go hungry. Most food scarcity, in fact, involves a level of human complicity, where human organization, whether it be because of the disruption of war or economic deterioration, determines if something will develop into a full-blown famine. The scholar Amartya Sen published a famous work to this effect in 1981 titled Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. He outlined how “entitlements” (e.g., labor, property, or cash, etc.) give people access to food, not necessarily the production of food itself. If these entitlements are not widely available, as what tends to happen during periods of disruption, then people starve.
We see this same gap with housing. While America has an alleged housing shortage, this is not because we do not have the technological capacity or the resources to building affordable housing. Much of our approach to housing is devoted to palliative care, such as providing shelters for the unhoused or incarcerating unhoused people who interfere (or inconvenience) property holders. If housing were a priority, however, we could solve it rather effectively, something we see in pilot programs that purchase homes for the unhoused with great results (see Permanent Supportive Housing programs), which are not only more ethical but end up being cheaper than jailing unhoused people.
The same can be said of healthcare. At 17.7 percent of our GDP, the US spends more on healthcare than any other country, but that spending does not lead to greater outcomes. We proportionally have some of the highest numbers of preventable deaths in the developed world, and Americans likewise spend more on healthcare to obtain these frankly subpar results. This gap is because, unlike other developed nations, our government has not begun the administrative steps to regulate the costs of drugs and procedures. We have largely left it up to a hodge-podge of uncoordinated and sometimes unscrupulous actors.
This inequality is a political decision. We have developed impressive technologies, but our caste system prevents us from distributing them equally. Our institutions and leaders value preserving wealth inequality over solving the manageable logistical hurdles that would provide everyone with an adequate standard of living. If we were to expand our technological capacity to the levels of the Federation but did not change our policies, there is no reason to believe that it would push us towards a post-scarcity society — after all; it didn’t change how the Ferengi did things. It would just mean that some rich people would have replicators while others are still toiling away merely to survive.
This caste system impacts our ability to have citizens produce the type of labor seen in Star Trek. We know from numerous studies that a baseline of resources helps people be more productive, happier citizens. People have better outcomes when they have greater access to housing, food, and healthcare. When you don’t deny people resources, like food and a home, it frees them from the drudgery of surviving and lets them do other, more advanced forms of labor. This isn’t controversial, except maybe to the people who want to work against the spirit of the Federation and ignore scientific reality to maintain their power.
Imagine what you would do if the artificial scarcity of our world did not constrain you. If you knew with certainty that your very subsistence would not be threatened if you stopped selling your labor to another, what would you do? Imagine the projects you could start; the people that you could care for; the discoveries that you could make. The advocates of our caste system like to point to the innovation and jobs they have created, but the sad reality is that their hoarding has actually stifled generations of advancement. The potential of the many has been constrained so that a few bad men can go into space.
The Federation is not the world envisioned by men like Jeff Bezos. He is not fighting for greater equality but rather for a thousand or more lucky people to get to be successful because of economies of scale.
The Federation is a reality where everyone can work towards whatever form of labor that they wish, even if it’s to work on a craft centuries obsolete. It is a world where we are all Mozarts and Einsteins, not simply a few, because the artificial scarcity of today does not exist.
It’s easy to call this vision utopian, but the barriers we face are logistical rather than technological or fantastical in many ways. As we have already covered, our society already has an impressive technological capacity. We have the ability to split atoms, fly through the void of space, modify our food, and soon even our DNA.
This is not reinventing the wheel. We have been perfecting the craft of agriculture, housing, and healthcare for thousands of years. There is nothing utopian about providing everyone a baseline standard of living on a planet that evolved to provide us with such things. Yet, there is something weirdly dystopian about claiming we do not have the resources for such efforts but can somehow simultaneously jumpstart a new, perfect civilization from scratch 244.05 million miles away.
In truth, billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk do not want to build the Federation, but rather a new Ferengi Empire, where we are not free to labor for anyone but them. A world that prioritizes the comfort of the few over the safety and happiness of the many, and if there’s one thing a Star Trek fan should be appalled by, it’s that.