Science Fiction and Civic Participation
Science Fiction is about possibilities; to consume Science Fiction is to think about those possibilities. Much of Science Fiction is Space Opera, the telling of tales on a grand scale! Galactic Empires rise and fall, computers rival and even exceed Man’s intelligence, humans evolve into new forms. Sometimes however, Science Fiction examines the possibilities open to all of us on a scale in which the average woman can see herself and how she interacts with the world. So we realize that consuming Science Fiction can lead to us thinking about your own possibilities. Science Fiction can be a conduit for how people examine the paradigms that otherwise may seem to be out of our reach. People are born into systems of Capitalism and Communism; many never think deeply about the underlying morality of whether these systems are right or wrong and how these systems compare to their personal values. Society (whichever society a person finds themselves in) has a vested interest in portraying itself as the best possible system; society has every reason to discourage its members from questioning the possibilities of change. As Rousseau said, “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” Science Fiction can be an antidote to the blinders that Rousseau was warning us about.
Most of today’s Political Theory is written on a scale that the average person may have difficulty relating to. While Political Theorists may be practiced in the art of understanding how the vast political forces express themselves in our daily lives, those who are not conversant in Political Theory will often have difficulty seeing this. (This is a prime force related to alienation which Science Fiction may help with). For example, many people have difficulty relating to Locke’s justifications for political consent and private property through the use of a theoretical social contract combined with natural law as a justification for modern liberal democracies. This issue is particularly salient when we examine questions surrounding work, consumption, and participation in people’s everyday lives. How do people come to think about their place in society?
Science Fiction has always had to pay attention to issues of participation and economics, if for no other reason than that those are a huge part of our lives and so cannot be ignored. Engage in world building and before too long economics will need to be dealt with, it would be impossible for example to think of a Utopian novel that did not deal with the question of how its invented societies’ economy worked. This has been true from the beginning when Thomas More wrote the work that lent its name to the sub-genre. More’s Utopia was thought up from scratch and so he had the luxury of setting any circumstance that he wished to build his economy and to use to that economy to make any political or economic point that he wished. Even so he was maddeningly elusive in describing the economic underpinnings of his economy other than to say it was managed by a class of people specially educated for the task, the “syphogrants.” These syphogrants had the best interests of their countrymen at heart and managed the economy so that everyone worked but 6 hours a day, and in this time they produced more than enough material goods to keep the entire country happy. More’s people lived a pastoral life, they were brought up to be content with simple physical pleasures and to devote their time and energy to pleasures of the mind in place of creature comforts. They wore simple cloths which did not stand out from what others wore, they did not take more resources than they could use, and they were content with this lifestyle. He was so vague about the details of how the economy worked however that at different times his work has been used to support ideas as divergent as mercantilism and communism.
More had the opportunity to build his world so that every aspect of it supported the ideas he wished to express. It was a far-off island that had few security concerns, good farmland and a serviceable climate, no overcrowding, and a seemingly homogeneous population in terms of ideology, religion, culture etc. Much of VSF reflects a much more realistic world in terms of diversity of opinion, lifestyle, ideology and all of the other circumstances and beliefs a modern audience would expect to see in such a work. This is partly an accident of how these shows are produced in that they are a product of many different writers, directors and producers, the need to fill many hours of television, of having many different characters and a wish to be relevant to a modern audience. The result however is a more nuanced reflection of the real world, and so these works result in a dramatic presentation that is more likely to speak to the average person. Importantly it also mitigates against the tendency of some films to speak to one concept. The movie District 9 for example is about discrimination while the movie Soylent Green is about environmentalism. Science Fiction television franchises however often have a more dimensional presentation of their characters’ lives than we have seen in the past; with questions of economics, politics, discrimination, colonialism, nationalism and more combining into one story. In this way these stories can be a more realistic representation of how the average person experiences the world.
The reality however is that Science Fiction often exists on a level that can be difficult for people to relate to. While many politically oriented people who consume VSF are interested in thinking about large scale paradigm shifting ideas, many others just want to be entertained. They may be content with the economic system they find themselves in, they may genuinely believe it is the best economic system they can hope for. But that does not mean that they are happy or that the system is beyond reproach. When VSF tells stories about economics it is also telling stories about power and control. Who has the power to control how an economy is structured? Perhaps it is politicians, or it could be corporate elites? Or a combination of the two. Or does that kind of power even exist? Perhaps we are at the mercy of a system made manifest by historical accident. Does “the system” (if an engineered purposeful economic system even exists) control us, or do we have the agency to take control of our own lives? It might be that it is the type of person who is just interested in living his or her life and is not looking at the grandiose ideas prevalent in VSF that stands to benefit the most from being exposed to these concepts. It could also be that VSF is the most likely way that the average person will be exposed to this way of thinking. It is the person who is the least likely to investigate these ideas that is the person who will suffer the most when they lose (or never develop) a sense of agency; to not understand how the world you live in works is to risk being taken advantage of.
Star Trek’s Portrayal of Refugees
Star Trek: The Next Generation’s episode “Ensign Ro” provides some interesting perspectives on these issues. This is a character driven episode in which a newly introduced crew member is shown to be a member of a race (the Bajorans) whose planet has been colonized by another more powerful race. The Bajorans have become refugees without a home of their own and as a result they have no political voice. They therefore have little in the way of an economy or the ability to fend for themselves.
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In this way the Bajorans are not dissimilar to the Palestinian or Jewish diaspora, or any number of refugee communities. No doubt African American or American Indian communities can see many similarities between their place in society and the Bajorans. The Bajorans have decisions to make as a society and as individuals. As a society, do they militarize and fight for independence? Do they work non-violently to appeal to the better nature of their tormentors? On an individual level how do they work towards a better life for themselves?
Ensign Ro has taken the path of individual empowerment. She left the refugee camps that she grew-up in and joined another society, in this way she is the quintessential American. Like Russian, Polish, Jewish, Arab, Chinese, Japanese and members of many other cultures she has left everything she knew to make a better life for herself somewhere else. This is one of the most consequential decisions a person can make for themselves and their family, it will change everything that follows. Ensign Ro shows she may have come from a place without power, but she is not powerless, she left because she believed that those around her were “lost, defeated” but she “will never be.” How many refugees will see this in their camps or temporary homes and decide as she does? How many people in America will see this and know that they are like her, that they or their family have had to make a similar decision?
The Bajoran leader, Keeve Falor, has made a different decision. He has stayed where circumstances have placed him, and he tries to make the best life possible for his people. He criticizes the Federation for turning a blind eye to their suffering because they live on the wrong side of “a line on a map.” He tells Picard that “We live in different universes you and I, yours is about diplomacy, politics, strategy, mine is about blankets. If we were to exchange places for just one night you might better understand.” This is the plight of the average person, even one who is a leader. Political and historical forces have their own momentum that few normal people can influence, but all people must make their way in those currents.
Keeve Falor’s comment about blankets make an impression on Picard that many viewers might take notice of. Ensign Ro began the scene by giving her jacket to a little girl because she was reminded of herself at that age. The girl is living in a refugee camp and is presumably cold and perhaps hungry. The Bajorans material prospects are not good, as refugees the Bajorans have been displaced from their homes and their ability to have an economic life. How can you have industry when you might not even have any rights to be where you are? Yet it is so easy for Picard to provide for them. With just a command to his crew he provides blankets and medicines “before nightfall.” The Federation world is different from our own, they live in a “post scarcity” environment that we might have trouble imagining. But when a refugee looks at the modern West might they not think in similar terms? One side has so much while the other side has so little. How many viewers, from either side, wonder, is this fair? Picard wonders why “In an age when technology should be able to feed and clothe all of them, that they should live like this”. To which Ro replies that she wouldn’t. On a societal level these are huge issues that strike at the heart of our political systems and our sense of morals. Ensign Ro brings these questions down to an individual level. Without being overly ideological the episode asks those who are watching, what is fair?
They Live depicts Economic Exclusion
You do not need to be a refugee to experience these issues however, since at least 1971 the American working class has experienced significant economic disruption. In 2020 the top 1% of American households by income accounted for 15 times more wealth than the combined bottom 50%. Trends in income distribution, asset distribution and poverty rates have all been worsening for the bottom 90% of American households. In 1988 John Carpenter explored the issues facing the working class in America when he released They Live. This was the era of “Reaganonomics” during which Neo-conservative economic policies were popular in the Republican lead government. These policies were an attempt to improve the economy through the use of the “Laffer curve” (a hypothetical inverse relationship between tax-rates and tax-receipts) and the intentional suppression of the money supply in an attempt to control inflation. These policies caused a marked reduction in social services because of reduced government income; when combined with a rise in elements of social conservatism which favored entrepreneurial activity over social activism, rates of homelessness and unemployment began to rise. America began to notice the contrasting levels of income and well-being between the top and bottom of the social ladder.
In John Carpenter’s They Live a down on his luck working class man (although his name is never given to us in the movie, in the credits he is listed as “Nada”) has moved to Los Angeles to find a job. After being ignored by the government unemployment office he ends up homeless and hungry, living on the streets. He eventually finds a construction job where he meets “Frank” who is supporting his wife and two children who he has left behind in Detroit and has not seen for six months. Frank brings Nada to the homeless encampment where he is living because he cannot afford anything else.
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Within the film’s frame of reference Nada is of course the embodiment of the socially conservative poor person who will support the very system that is not working for him. “I deliver a hard day’s work for the money, I just want the chance” he says, “It will come. I believe in America. I follow the rules.” This sets the White Nada in opposition to the African American Frank who has a much darker understanding of the politics of his day. The audience is meant to see Nada as a political conservative who is sure that if he works within the system he will be rewarded. Whereas Frank who has also worked within the system (he is a blue-collar worker, probably union, with a wife and children) has lost everything. Further, Frank attributes the lose not to impersonal market forces but to the greed of the management class. Nada listens and is respectful, but he seems unconvinced. “You should have more patience with the system” he says. Until this point the film has been a simple drama, but after this conversation, while residents of the homeless encampment are watching television, it becomes Science Fiction. A “hacker” breaks into the broadcast telling people that they are being manipulated, “Our impulses are being redirected.” What impulses are these? “The poor and the underclass are growing, racial justice and human rights are non-existent. They have created a repressive society and we are their unwitting accomplices.” Nada listens, but he still does not believe. He is not ready to question the system in which he has placed his faith.
Then something happens which shakes Nada to the core. He comes into possession of a pair of sunglasses, once he puts them on, he learns the truth of his situation.
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The sunglasses are an analogy for Nada’s previous condition, they represent what Frank and the hacker has been trying to tell him. They trigger the change in Nada’s frame of reference through which he comes to question the system. For most people it is an intellectual and emotional journey which they must take to break out of their previous assumptions and attitudes. As Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence, “all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Nada has suffered greatly at the hands of the system, yet he (and those like him) have clung to what they were familiar with. John Carpenter is telling us that once we are committed to a system, we would rather suffer its evils as long as we are able before we are willing to question it. Nada experienced the homeless encampment with Frank, he listened to Frank’s explanation of how the system worked. He heard the hacker, but he was “asleep.” He needed the glasses to jolt him into awareness, just as Carpenter hopes the film will jolt the audience. Now that Nada sees the aliens, he understands that he is being controlled. Previously he was content to work within the system, believing that if he played by the rules of the system, he would be rewarded. “I believe in the system” he said, “I just want the chance.” Carpenter is telling us that Nada never had a legitimate chance.
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Once Nada understands the situation, like many converts, he becomes committed to making a change, he seeks out and joins the resistance. When the audience is introduced to the resistance, they learn that the aliens are simply seeking resources. Just as Western corporations have been criticized for plundering the Third World for their resources, we learn the aliens are “free enterprisers” seeking to take what they can from our world. And just as Western corporations have used indigenous people as a means to take control of their countries, so do the aliens use us. “Most sell out right away” we are told, “We’ll do anything to be rich.”
“They Live” is inspired by the plight of the poor and disposed during the Reagan Revolution. John Carpenter, along with many social progressives, were frustrated by what they considered the successful brainwashing of many working-class Americans. Why were so many people willing, even eager, to participate in a system that seemingly worked to their detriment? As the author Thomas Frank says, “For the Republican Party to present itself as the champions of working-class America strikes liberals as such an egregious denial of political reality that they dismiss the whole phenomenon, refusing to take it seriously.” This begs the question, why was this happening? The hacker said, “Our impulses are being redirected.” What impulses are these? Presumably our impulses to be masters of our own fate, to take charge of our lives and to live as we please. Instead, we are lulled into a false sense of well-being, into believing that if we play by the rules the system will take care of us and we will experience material well-being. They Live is Science Fiction as social commentary, it identifies a problem and attempts to show the audience what the problem is, and to an extent how the problem is manifested in their lives. In this sense it provides a social service, it points out a problem (this is assuming the audience actually agrees with the premise of the movie). In the end the aliens are (presumably) defeated when their true identities are shown to the people.
In an interview about this film John Carpenter said, “I truly believe there is brain death in this country.” He made the point that people are not willing to question authority, they look around and see the world, but they do not question. Most people are products of the system, they play their part by working, consuming, obeying the authorities and not asking questions. People do have a right to live as they please, it is not a requirement that all citizens should be as engaged as John Carpenter would like. But if they are not, what are the consequences? They Live is making the point that no one is necessarily looking out for the average citizen’s best interests. In fact, the average citizen may be seen more as a resource to be exploited and a profit center than anything else.
Sometimes though Science Fiction has specific suggestions for ways that people can make their lives better, ways that they can fight exploitation. One example would be Deep Space Nine’s examination of labor and the right of workers to unionize. We see the Ferengi, who are a species devoted to “profit,” in particular they are devoted to profit that is extracted from others through business deals. The spirit of profit has subsumed their culture so that it is the driving force of how they live, and it is the pursuit of profit that drives them into the galaxy in search of money. The idea of profit is so fundamental to them that it becomes the yardstick by which they measure their self-worth, they judge each other only by how much profit they have and how that profit is attained. They live by the “Rules of Acquisition” (one of which is “A man is only worth the sum of his possessions”) which have become a kind of religious doctrine in Ferengi society. The Ferengi never willingly question their own motivations, that is until the producers want to make a point. In season 4 of Deep Space Nine the episode “Bar Association” shows us Quark who owns a bar and casino; as a good Ferengi; he has been exploiting his workers (including his brother) to the point of exhaustion. As in real life the workers are more inclined to suffer then to take a chance to remedy the situation.
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Rom, the bar owners’ brother and employee is seeing a doctor after having collapsed on the job. After questioning him about his situation the doctor comments that the workers need a union, to which Rom explains that the doctor does not understand, “Ferengi workers don’t want to stop the exploitation, they want to become the exploiters.” Rom is in a sense owned by the system, the only avenue he can see for his own advancement is to work within the system’s guidelines. Rom’s expectations of what is possible are confined to what the system provides.
The workplace is often unkind to employees, profit motive and competitive pressures conspire to minimize their worth. If the employee cannot look past what the system provides, they have little hope of improving their material position. Further, in most Capitalistic systems, the power to make decisions lies exclusively with management, resulting in the alienation that the working class may feel towards their own labor. When times are good there is often enough resources to keep everybody happy, but when times get tough it is the worker who suffers first. Workers can only be pushed so far though, eventually they can take no more. Unionizing though is a dangerous step for workers, it is only likely to happen when they are desperate to remedy poor and sometime dangerous working conditions, or when they cannot make enough money to live a decent life. Often the motivation to form a union happens when the worker is most vulnerable. Unionizing therefore requires solidarity, which can be difficult in the best of times; to maintain unity in the face of inevitable opposition is a tall order.
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Notice the conceptual problem the Ferengi have with the concept of a union. Rom, the most devoted adherent to the idea can barely say the word at first. His fellow workers are at first confused and then aghast. Previously Rom had said that “Ferengi workers don’t want to stop the exploitation, they want to become the exploiters.” Like John Nada from They Live, the Ferengi are in a sense asleep. After all, only a few people can be the exploiters. But if you “believe in the system” as Nada said, as Rom believes at first, you think that someday you might be the one who does the exploiting. Only when it becomes apparent that this will not happen are the workers ready to move past what they thought of as the correct way to live. Rom’s hesitation disappears as his conception of what Ferengi society allows changes. Rom asks his compatriots, “Were Ferengi, and when a Ferengi sees an opportunity what does he do?” In this case the opportunity is the union, and he intends to “grab it”! “We’ve been exploited long enough, it’s time to be strong, take control of our lives, our dignity and our profits!” he says. Rom has equated forming a union with the Ferengi pursuit of profit, allowing him and his fellow workers space to organize the union while still being part of the society that he clearly values.
Unions typically promote themselves through a combination of economic and moral arguments, these arguments however often put employees in competition with “free-market advocates” who promote the idea that the owner of a business should be able to set the working conditions of “his own company” even when the company in question is publicly traded and run by the “management class.” (This of course ignores issues of the alienation of labor as has been pointed out by Marx, see “The 1844 Manuscripts” for example.) Free-market thinking has been prevalent in America and has had a tremendous (generally negative) impact on the perceptions of the place of unions in America. While a discussion of these arguments is beyond the scope of these paper, we must note their place in the public perception of unions. Science Fiction can show us one way past this argument. The ability to meld conceptions of individual agency with the paradigm of free enterprise (aka profit) is not new or particular to Deep Space Nine,although the concept may well be new to those who watch Deep Space Nine. Unions depend on convincing employees that they have the agency needed to take charge of their own destiny, it is not inconsequential when this same argument is viewed outside of the workplace. This episode may well expose many employees to a way of thinking about the propriety of unions that they would not be exposed to otherwise.
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In addition to the economic and moral arguments, unions recognize that workers must feel empowered before they will participate in the labor movement. Previously we had seen that the bar workers were so afraid of the “FCA” (Ferengi Commerce Authority) that they at first refused the chance to stand-up to management. The tendency of the state to side with management in labor disputes is well documented and need not be rehashed here, though it has huge consequences for prospective union members. Quark, the bar owner, starts from a position of power and so attempts to ignore his employee’s pleas, even to the point of being contemptuous. In the end the workers come to understand their inherent power, by withholding their labor they force concessions from management.
It is it not enough that the bar workers have rationalized their acceptance of the union process, they must change the inherit power dynamics in order to provide themselves with a better life. We see that although there is no actual change in the amount of power that the bar workers have from the start of the episode to the end, the workers go from a state of not recognizing their power to one of actualizing their power. This is of course a vastly oversimplified stylized portrayal of how these power dynamics actually play out in the workplace, nevertheless they present the audience with a legitimate path to economic and social change. This is really about one faction’s attempt to set boundaries versus another factions attempt to open opportunities. Should people be limited to working in system that may or may not work for them (Nada) or do they realize that they can become masters of their fate (Rom)? Some forces would rather that the question never comes up, without the realization that change can happen, nothing will change. Those who see what Rom accomplishes may not necessarily start or join a union, but they may have their eyes opened about what they can accomplish in terms of participation and economics.
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 For a simple explanation of the psychology see Ronald E Riggio’s explication of Joanne Ciulla research at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201712/why-do-people-vote-against-their-best-interests
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