18 Jan 2012, 8:39pm

1 comment

Did James T. Kirk need money?

Why did Karl Marx oppose the fair distribution of goods in a society wherein every worker had the equal right to receive the “undiminished proceeds” of his or her labor?

When I asked my son Benjamin how goods or commodities were distributed in the Federation of Planets he didn’t miss a beat:

“They use Starships,” he said.

And when I asked him why they needed credits on Star Trek he answered, quite sensically that they wanted to make sure everyone knew who worked the cameras and that kind of thing.

However, as sane as both these answers were, it seemed to me that I was a long way off from communicating the true meaning of my questions to him. He probably knew something was up which is why he was using common sense against me in such an unsparing way, but I plunged ahead with my own predigested line of inquiry.

“No. I don’t mean the credits at the beginning and the end of the show, but those Federation credits that they’re always talking about. If they have those replicators that can make a ham sandwich, a phaser, or a pint of mediocre Romulan ale, why do they need credits? What are the credits for?

He thought about this for a moment and then mentioned how today, if you’re honest, you have to spend money on music downloads even though you could get it for free. So probably Kirk and Spock got paid in Federation credits so they could pay people who designed really good sandwiches or chairs or whatever. Sure, the technology meant that you could get the chair for free, but then the designer of the chair wouldn’t get paid.

“But why would the designer need to get paid if he could get his Romulan ale free? You see what I mean?”

This returned us to the original question, or would have, if my son hadn’t decided to skip ahead of me down the sidewalk. The six of us, my wife and our four kids, were headed down Woodstock, a busy street with four lanes of traffic, to a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall next to a BiMart. The commingling of agendas, my daughter was debating whether or not Boo the dog really was the cutest dog in the world with my nine year old, while my seven year old stepped dawdled in front of me so that I had to slow down to a crawl in order to avoid stepping on his heels.

Anyhow, I was left to my own inner devices to solve the riddle of why Captain Kirk would need Federation credits on a space ship where there was such a thing as a free lunch.

Now Marx’s scathing Critique of the Gotha Program in 1875 might help us to understand some of the difficulties Roddenberry faced when imagining his TV utopia. Despite aiming at a storyline wherein poverty and want had been eliminated as mankind quested after the stars, if you watch the program you’ll see that Roddenberry can’t helpe slipping back or regressing to 20th century ways of thinking. All the women on the Enterprise wore miniskirts and beehive hairdos because Roddenberry Feminism didn’t go very deep, but the problem of money, of whether or not a Federation officer was paid in Federation credits, just what it meant to live beyond that kind of economy, that was another kind of difficulty. Imagining that world in a convincing way could never be achieved on television or through any other contemporary art form. Imagining a world without money, without want, this would change so much about the world, so many things that we take for granted, that simply to imagine this kind of world would require that one was already on the way towards living it.

So what Marx offers in the critique of the Gotha program isn’t a positive vision of a socialist world, nothing like a fully developed storyline, but rather he points out how many ways one can go wrong when trying to think of how a communist or egalitarian economy might function.

For example, when my son Ben’s answer that the problem of the distribution of goods could be something solved by spaceships is both the kind of mistake that Roddenberry would make, and a legitimate answer. On Star Trek the challenge isn’t determining who gets what ham sandwich or even who gets what spaceship, but rather the question is it collectively determined how what to make and what to do? What was the basis of organizing society’s production of itself? What kinds of relationships between individuals and groups of individuals will function to reproduce the world. What will motivate that reproduction if the threat of starvation is eliminated?

All Marx could tell us was what we wouldn’t do in such a world. For instance, he responded to the German Social Democrats when they wrote: “Labor is the source of wealth and all culture, and since useful labor is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labor belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society.” Marx pointed out that labor actually isn’t the source of ALL wealth, but is rather only the source of what he called “exchange value” under Capitalism. That is, labor produces the value that allows for commodities to be exchanged profitably in a market, but often a use value of a product will be produced the qualities inherent to the product. Also, Marx asks what’s hidden in that word “society?” What does it mean to say that “useful labor is possible only in society”? Marx answered:
Thirdly, the conclusion: “Useful labor is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labor belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society.” A fine conclusion! If useful labor is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labor belong to society — and only so much therefrom accrues to the individual worker as is not required to maintain the “condition” of labor, society.

That is, if we want to live in a world without want, where the threat of starvation is not the prime mover and motivator of production, then we’ll have to imagine a new society. And in imagining this future world we’ll find that the current society will not be able to provide us with any supporting basis for the new world.

This connects to the question of how goods are distributed in Start Trek: Not so much by Space Ships, but socially, and remember that the social, or society, isn’t neutral.

Before the USS Enterprise came around the history of societies was the history of class struggles. All of life before the Federation was a struggle between masters and slaves, Capitalists and workers, but after Spock came on the scene all that changed.

Back to my walk with my family: Before we arrived at the Chinese restaurant Simon offered answer to my question about how good’s are distributed in the world of Star Trek. He said that the purpose of the Enterprise was to search out life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no man had gone before, and that this 5 year mission was the basis of their economy. This was a much better answer than “Space ships.”

The economic questions that we need to ask about a Star Trek universe won’t be about how to distribution goods. Those questions will be, in fact, answered by such trivial suggests as “on Star Ships” or “using transporters.” The economic questions we have to ask about Star Trek will be about how to travel to anothe worlds. Will we really need a Captain if we hope to get there? Just who will we say that we are? How could we say anything without a master?

The dream of Star Trek, of a world without want, a world where the whole goal will be to improve ourselves, is that we might be heroes. That we might become our own heroes. The fear is that most of us will be cast as red shirts and just get to watch while William Shatner kisses the Orion slave girl. The fear is that we won’t be able to name ourselves, or find a collective and yet starring role in history.

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