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Television

'Star Trek': Space-Time Compression and the Eventual Death of Money

Carl Bozman and Tom Jeannot

Did Gene Roddenberry realize how “Marx-like” the world he imagined was?

Space-time compression describes any phenomenon that reduces the perceived distance or temporal relationship between objects (Kirsch 1995). The introduction of new communication, transportation, and/or production technologies often facilitates space-time compression perceptions. For example, social media has increased the interconnectedness between people in previously unimaginable ways. An individual now has the ability to carry on a simultaneous conversation with thousands of other people, anywhere on earth, instantly and at little or no expense.

The corresponding changes in human perception and behavior brought about by social media are a direct result of computer, internet, and mobile phone adoption. Populist uprisings in the Middle East, the Arab spring, provide one illustration of the consequences, which have been associated with the widespread adoption of social media (Lotan, et al. 2011). Star Trek was prescient in that it predicted the development of these technologies, and many other innovations, during the last 50 years.

Star Trek also introduced the idea of space-time compression on a universal scale long before it was ever coined and advanced as an explanation for the globalizing effects of technology on earth (c.f. Harvey 1989). Consider how human development of warp drive (Star Trek: Enterprise), in conjunction with the inaugural flight of the Phoenix, allowed human beings to transcend both time and space. Warp drive not only resulted in faster than light space travel, it also instantly led to First Contact (Star Trek: First Contact, 1996) with an intelligent species from beyond our solar system. In the Star Trek universe, our species was not alone. The long unanswered question about whether intelligent life was confined to our planet was unequivocally answered in this imaginative adventure. The differences between people immediately fade perceptually in contrast to the obvious dissimilarities with Vulcans and other intelligent species. Rapid adoption of new alien technologies follows and further increase human proximity perceptions.

Technologies like enhanced warp drive, long-range interstellar communication, and molecular replicators all diminish the perceived distance between people as well as facilitate disaggregated production. There's no longer a need to accumulate capital in order to build ever larger and more efficient production facilities. Molecular resequencing technology, as an example, make it possible to efficiently manufacturer almost anything without large and expensive physical facilities. Communication innovations also make it much more difficult for an elite few to restrict information access and extract resources from groups of isolated and disenfranchised individuals. The almost unlimited access to information afforded any member of the Federation ensures essentially everyone can obtain whatever expertise they desire rather than communication technologies being employed as a controlling and coercive force.

Intelligent beings can and do communicate. As a consequence, useful innovations are adopted quickly and there are few difficulties associated with resource allocation and inefficiency. Money loses much of the power that had previously allowed individuals, organizations, and nations to use it to manipulate and control the lives of people. The need for money as either a medium of exchange or a store of value diminishes. In an era of ever increasing interconnectedness and abundance, human beings instead begin to focus more on activities that cannot be easily produced, such as self-improvement and helping others, rather than wealth acquisition.

Gene Roddenberry envisaged an interstellar social and economic environment where there is a progressive “withering away of money” as it ceases to have any intrinsic value. More specifically, at the time of First Contact human beings still use money as a fundamental method to accumulate capital and motivate people (despite or perhaps because of the desperate post-apocalyptic world in which they live). After warp drive and First Contact are achieved, human beings almost immediately face few resource constraints and find themselves engaged in common purpose. The results: poverty, disease, and war essentially disappear as the people of earth unite and prepare to move beyond the solar system.

Star Trek portrays a deeply humanistic future where making money for its own sake no longer operates as a prime directive. Conditions of abundance and interplanetary cooperation, however, present an interesting corollary issue: space-time compression may also inadvertently interfere with the evolution of an unaffiliated or less developed alien civilization. The Federation of Planets' prohibition from interfering in the internal affairs of another civilization is a significant policy development that recognizes the importance of not contaminating the development of another species. This prohibition suits an advanced interplanetary alliance even though it may periodically require the use of money equivalents in transactions with social deviants such as Harcourt Mudd in the original Star Trek television series or in resource exchanges with unaffiliated societies.

Money in the Federation

Karl Marx (1978, pp, 525-41) proposes a somewhat similar economic organization of society without money. His formulation is predicated upon conditions of abundance, which make moot the social necessity of money. He argues that advances in transportation (trains), communication (telegraph), and more efficient production processes (photography), create conditions such that there are more than enough resources for everyone to share and be better off. The conditions of abundance revealed in Star Trek suggest there's even less of a need for money. Capitalist methods of resource allocation, useful under the prevailing condition of scarcity or moderate scarcity, are largely dispensable among members of the Federation.

In a capitalist world, money is the mechanism of commercial exchange. In the imagined world of the Federation, money has fallen into disuse. The Federation is a form of society beyond commercial exchange and therefore beyond a capitalist society. In Roddenberry’s imagination, the social organization of Federation society is prima facie post-capitalist, inasmuch as we cannot help but notice that the use of money has been diminished.

The imagined world of Star Trek appeared half a century ago. But a world without money is a key feature in Marx’s conceptual projection of a post-capitalist, socialist society. Did Roddenberry realize how “Marx-like” the world he imagined was? He envisioned Star Trek at a time when the Red Scare and McCarthyism were still within living memory and Détente notwithstanding, the Cold War was still on, as was the Truman Doctrine, Vietnam, and social unrest at home. Star Trek’s unstated premise requires a socialist reconstitution of society (c.f. Marx, 1978, p. 474). Whether or not we choose to call the world of the Federation a socialist society, it certainly reflects a high degree of convergence with the ideas of socialism. In the following discussion, we emphasize this similarity by highlighting five strong resemblances between Roddenberry’s ideas and the ideas of Marx.

Classless Society. First, the Federation is a classless society, whereas on ordinary television -- take Modern Family, for example -- class divisions are so palpable you can reach out and touch them. In the Federation, there is no permanent army of the unemployed and no working class socially divided against an owning and ruling class, which does not labor. In ordinary television too, these elements are scrubbed, but they are sanitized out of the picture for the purpose of “amusing ourselves to death” (Postman, 1985). By contrast, the invisibility of class distinctions within the Federation serves the purpose, not of pandering to prevailing sensibilities, but of establishing that the categories of class division no longer exist; not on board the Enterprise, not on Earth, and not in the Federation.

Humans United. Second, the Federation takes root on a planet Earth that is no longer a house divided against itself in its cartographic division into nation-states; whereas, the modern nation-state is the political form that appears historically together with capitalism. The Federation posits a one-world political community (or what the Marxian philosopher Bill Martin calls a “global community of mutual flourishing” (Martin, 2008). Its social, economic, and political form of organization bears a striking resemblance to the famous Marxian trope concerning the withering away of the state (cf. Engels, 1978, pp. 717, 755). As Engels might have put it, in the Federation, “the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things” (Engels, 1892, p. 713).

Commercial Exchange. Third, in the Federation, the form of society is post-commercial. That is, society is no longer governed by capitalist rules of commercial exchange. Commercial exchange itself has largely vanished, at least in the regions of space-time that have been integrated into the Federation architecture.

It should also be noted that Star Trek exchange relationships are dissimilar to those in Stalinized societies. Behind the iron curtain, collectivist societies negated the significance of the individual and individual liberties upon which the modern political idea of the West is predicated. Taken to the conceptual limit, such societies would constitute a hive mind like the Borg civilization in the Star Trek series “The Next Generation”. The Borg could have called itself “Communist” in the Stalinized sense of the word, but the post-commercial society of the Federation is the opposite of the Borg. The Borg assimilates and then annihilates difference. By contrast, The Federation values diversity and allows individuals and communities to voluntarily integrate differences in any manner that is consistent with their desires.

Resource Abundance. Fourth, the reason why the society of the Federation is post-commercial is that the condition of abundance, as stated by Engels in particular, has been satisfied. This plenty is created through the development and adoption of warp drive, as well as other technologies, which significantly expand production capacity and make the means of production available to everyone. Such a society not only raises every member’s standard of living, but also ensures everyone “the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties” (Engels, 1978, p. 715). The development of productive forces, preeminently scientific discovery and technological invention, bring about the material conditions of abundance that the rules of commercial society impede, by unleashing their “expansive force” and paving the way for “an unbroken, constantly accelerated development” and “a practically unlimited increase of production itself.”

For what will be produced to catch up with what can be produced, the profit motive must be abrogated altogether (Marx, 1976, pp. 334-36). In the Federation, not only has the modern form of the nation-state withered away, but money itself has withered away! In the post-capitalist society portrayed in Star Trek, there is no need for money since there is no need for a common mechanism of exchange. There is no need for a common mechanism of exchange because space-time compression, taken to its limit, makes resources and goods abundantly available for everyone (and there is no problem of scarcity and no “tragedy of the commons”). Hence, the form of commercial society would be entirely superseded. Money would appear to Federation society to be as primitive and occult as Marx thinks it is.

The transformation in the mode of production necessary to bring about the withering away of money in the Federation, or in Marx’s conception, abolishes wage-labor not by fiat, but by virtue of the elimination of surplus-value needed to generate the money revenues of profit, interest, and rent.

Labor Exploitation. At this point, we have arrived at the Grand Central Station of Marx’s theory of labor exploitation, i.e., his demonstration that the surplus-value, which must be produced in a capitalist society, will result in surplus labor-time. For Marx, the exploitation of labor is necessary to accumulate capital. But capital doesn't have an independent form of existence. The capital-labor relation arises only within the form of a commercial society and in this form, money is the common medium of exchange. But it's also evident that in this form of society, making money necessarily becomes an end in itself (the goal or prime directive of capitalist production and accumulation).

Marx states this prime directive of capitalist society with blunt force: “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!” (Marx, 1976, p. 742). The process of capitalist accumulation requires that, “the capitalist produces the worker as a wage-laborer. This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the worker, is the absolutely necessary condition for capitalist production” (p. 716). “The maintenance and reproduction of the working class remains a necessary condition for the reproduction of capital” (p. 718). This “economic bondage” to capital, money appearing as an independent power, is the essential element of a commercial society (Marx, 1976, pp. 252-57). Money both mediates and conceals the capital-labor relationship, which governs commercial society as a whole (where both mediation and concealment are necessary to capitalist success).

Notably, there's no purchase of labor-power in the Federation, and workers in the Federation are not required to transform and discipline their capacity and potential for work as the sole commodity in their own possession, which they alienate or put up for sale in a wage-labor market. Marx makes a clear distinction between “constant” and “variable” capital (Marx, 1976, pp. 307-19). Constant capital is the sum of money a capitalist spends to purchase the means of production, i.e., the non-labor inputs into the process of production. Variable capital is the sum of money a capitalist spends to purchase the input of labor-power. Constant capital transfers its value to outputs, but it does not produce new value. On the other hand, variable capital “both reproduces the equivalent of its own value and produces an excess, a surplus-value.” Marx writes, “I therefore call it the variable part of capital, or more briefly variable capital. The same elements of capital which, from the point of view of the labor process, can be distinguished respectively as the objective and subjective factors, as means of production and labor-power, can be distinguished, from the point of view of the valorization process, as constant and variable capital” (p. 317).

This is the essence of Marx’s labor theory of value. Under a commercial form of exchange, only the expenditure on variable capital creates the possibility of new value added to outputs. In turn, this surplus-value is the sole source of profit, interest, and rents. So the capital-relation is a parasite on wage-labor. The productive consumption of variable capital in the process of production, producing a surplus-value, is “human labor-power expended without regard to the mode of its expenditure” (Marx, 1976, p. 128,).

In the first chapter of Capital, Marx explains the “substance” of value and its magnitude. He writes that the “substance” of value is a “phantom-like objectivity” (p. 128). That is, it depends for its reality on the body of its host, whose body it consumes like cancer, through exploitation in Marx’s technical sense (surplus labor, unpaid labor-time). In this way, capital accumulation and the exploitation of labor are obverse and reverse of the same coin. With his premises established, Marx concludes: “capital has one sole driving force, the drive to valorize itself, to create surplus-value, to make its constant part, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus labor. Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks” (p. 342).

But there are no labor, industrial, or monetary crises in the Federation and the commodity-form of value and wealth, money, has become obsolete. This transformation occurs by virtue of a revolution in political economy. Under conditions of abundance, goods and services are no longer bought and sold; the very notion of buying and selling things has become as quaint as it is unnecessary. The imagined world of the Federation is a world without money; as is Marx’s conception of “the cooperative society based on common ownership of the means of production.” The withering away of money (and therefore also of the transformation of money into capital and the process of capital accumulation) is an essential feature to both Marx’s understanding of socialism and to Star Trek.

The usefulness of money is severely diminished, if not entirely eliminated. An exchange of equivalent values through the use of money is no longer necessary. The well-known formulation, “from each…, to each…,” is the Marxian principle of justice, which would be the foundation of any just society, once “the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly.” In Star Trek, this utopian vision results from of the adoption of warp drive and other technologies which create the condition of abundance. It doesn't seem misplaced to suggest that the principle of justice operative in the social organization of the Federation is something akin to Marx’s. The outcome, otherwise difficult to imagine and conceive, is the withering away of money and the corresponding process of capitalist accumulation.

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