"Star Trek" is a battle for a worker's paradise; not the embodiment of utopia, but a call for the pursuit of a class conscious social state.
Star Trek, in all of its iterations, is argued to be a model of a utopian socialist future, and one that came without consequence; all strife is because of the external greed of other, less enlightened empires, and that in this future, the Federation provides for all, thus the moral superiority of its ideals. It argues that a better world is possible, but that it is nominally depicted as a utopia isn’t an endorsement of utopian socialism, but an indictment of its use as a rhetorical device, even in-universe, to quell revolutionary politics that serve the people, and not the powerful. It’s not an ideal, it’s an incitement to aspire to be better as imperfect beings, as members of humanity; in short, that the work is never truly done, if the goal is to leave no one behind. It argues better things are possible, but not in its own image, but through addressing class disparity, and to suggest otherwise, is to badly miss the point of, both, the franchise and its creator.
Gene Roddenberry was a notoriously flawed person; a womanizer, his racial politics (while potentially well-intentioned— many stories in Star Trek suggest the writers room working over ideas of how to interpret and mainstream more informed, progressive messages) rarely came across in a productive manner, and even in his career with the LAPD, material concerns plauged him and he sought other forms of income, which eventually led him to show business. One can hardly look at this biography through the lens of what he would go on to create and suggest that Roddenberry did not intend for class struggle to play a key role in building this future; even in becoming a class traitor, he was not able to subsist on these returns, and what good are your values if you must sell them out in order to achieve very little? That seems to be a running theme in a lot of stories over the course of the franchise; the question of “was it worth it?”
But let’s look at the fundamental assertion here in Star Trek’s universe: it’s a supposed utopia, but from the get-go, the Federation is not only highly militarized, its mission of exploration and scientific inquiry seems to occur exclusively before, during, or after major conflicts with outside aggressors as often as it does its own citizens. There are multiple coups led by Starfleet officials. A storyline that arcs three separate series centers around a territory skirmish lasting decades between the Federation and the Cardassians that produces an insurgent group, the Maquis, of colonists on these worlds that are, in the mode of US imperialist-backed occupations producing such blowback, dealt with violently by Starfleet. The existence of poverty, sexual violence, homelessness, scarcity, all manner of insecurity, even on Federation worlds, likewise, suggests this is not even the worst of life in the Federation— consider Tasha Yar’s homeworlds (the omnipresent mention of “rape gangs”, and when the Enterprise-D crew visits this world, it’s literally a subterranean sewer with roving militia). The existence of Tasha Yar's planet, that every series takes place immediately before or after massive armed conflict, and things like the entire Maquis storyline demonstrates that they've created, and then left to fend for itself, an entire underclass of people colonized by an aggressor they were sold out to because, at the end of the day, the Federation colonizes as much as any of its neighbors, and marginalizes anyone who does not subscribe to the bootstrap mentality of joining Starfleet for a leg-up if they are not being provided for within the Federation’s societies.
Deep Space 9, prominently, details many of these issues through the lens of the Bajoran struggle for independence and to join the Federation, and focuses wrestles with the deep psychological trauma that, even outside of war time, can plague Starfleet officers, and how ubiquitous shady double-dealing with ones enemies is, while also introducing a Federation “deep state” in the form of Section 31. Omnipresent in every franchise series, as well, is that the power of becoming an admiral, for example, seems to corrupt almost absolutely— this happens in DS9 during the early phases of the Dominion threat in the form of a military coup, in TOS multiple times with Kirk’s superiors, prominently in TNG during the first season, and even in Voyager where the Maquis are often self-flagellating to fit the social order (one can delineate those values with the practicality of serving aboard a Starfleet ship, but this story is unequivocal in this being an illegitimate struggle, and that Starfleet is more concerned with satisfying the treaty with the bad faith intentions of the Cardassians, than they are with Federation citizens being displaced). However fans may feel about these circumstances, it is far from a unified, secure populace for their material needs; many go hungry, many remain homeless, and some worlds go decades without hearing from the prefects in the form of visiting startship captains. It’s an oligarchy like any other— you have the standouts like Picard and Kirk and Sisko who come from modest, class conscious backgrounds, the tokens for the idea that the Federation is a flat society, but almost exclusively are they alongside generational officers like the Rikers, the Parises, etc.
Charles Fourier once wrote “Under civilization poverty is born of superabundance itself”; in a prosperous world that has class stratification, but no class consciousness, as utopias like Fourier’s tend to be, that superabundance of resources is yours if you participate, but realistically, it’s not a matter of participation, but access; many are denied participation. I bring up these issues in the Star Trek universe not to say the show has no redeeming social commentary; it does, that’s the point, but it’s not the ideal many interpret it to be. It’s intended to look past that a circumstance may be working for you, but is badly failing someone else; utopianism suggests that non-participation in such a society is a rebuke of that prosperity, but it’s typically because of accessibility or even being rebuked by the system itself. An example, Fourier also says “The peoples of civilization see their wretchedness increase in direct proportion to the advance of industry”. The Federation has a massive labor state, and they’re usually only depicted following an industrial disaster, and often, these are citizens of other governments; the only reason their poverty isn’t owned by the Federation is that the Federation is content to consume their labor, but not provide for labor in its own borders (mining, commonly, for example)— they probably would like to take part in the superabundance of the Federation, they’d probably even be willing to enlist in Starfleet (if not attend the academy and become an officer) for their share of it. Is this beginning to sound familiar?
Part of the decline of the British Empire, and now the United States itself, is the off-shoring of labor, for the enrichment of multi-national corporations— as government entities, they ceased to produce anything themselves, while subsisting on the backs of underpaid, overworked laborers in the third world, themselves now dependent upon the business of the corporations who sell the product they manufacture. The Federation solves this by simply being the corporation state, as they have no currency, etc.
The reason I believe this to be intentional on the part of Roddenberry, and subsequent show runners and writers, is that, without fail, these deficiencies are identified, and the state is challenged by figures like Kirk, Picard, and Sisko (Janeway and Archer, to a certain extent, but generally less of the people in both cases); the Bell Riots in DS9 episode “Past Tense” for example is a less-than-subtle suggestion that armed resistance can sometimes not be helped when wealth disparity exceeds the tolerance of the proletariat within an advanced, enriched society that refuses to care for its citizens equitably. This episode takes place in, what is now, our present; a future of extreme wealth disparity, the poor locked away from sight, the propaganda suggesting it is their own doing that they’ve destroyed their own communities— this is intended to not only be prescient of the time in which it was written, but also as a cautionary tale for viewers in the future, but also viewers of the series, seeing these struggles continue to playout in the main series, hundreds of years in the futrure. This is the paradigm for almost every internal Federation matter where the protagonist cast of any series is forced to intervene to uphold Federation values; these are not only socialist values, but Marxist values, the crews of these respective ships are defending from rampant corruption in a supposedly equitable and just, post-capitalist utopia.
There are many such examples, but I’d like to provide one notable one with a high level of relevance to the sort of ethical quandaries that we face today that also, I believe, Roddenberry could have appreciated for his vision of the franchise’s message (as this was produced after his death): Consider the example of Star Trek: Insurrection. This film chronologically follows the Dominion War, which is the core conflict of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 where a species known simply as The Founders have a genetically-engineered super soldier army known as Jem’Hadar. These soldiers, on top of being engineered to believe the Founders are Gods, they are also addicted to a chemical only the Founders, and another subordinate species, the Vorta, know how to produce and administer called Ketracel White, which is used to ensure their loyalty to the latter, which is not hardcoded in their DNA as is their loyalty to the former.
In the post-War era, the Federation is working on a contract with a species known as the Son’a, who are master genetic engineers in their own right. The Son’a are enriched by, during the war, having supplied the stranded Jem’Hadar in the Alpha quadrant with Ketracel White to replenish their supplies during their war with the Federation— they are effectively war criminals in harmonious work with the Federation, who is enthusiastic about the work while concealing its purpose from the crew of the Enterprise, who was summoned after Command Data’s ethical subroutines are violated by what he finds on the planet. Data reveals that the Son’a are exiles from the planet Starfleet believes to be a pre-warp society— they’re actually very advanced, but their ethos is one of simplicity, and they are actually a post-technological utopia, and one that the Son’a are interested in retaking the planet to mine its resources in partnership with the Federation, whose end of the bargain includes resettling the population of Ba'ku, a planet which has naturally restorative properties (which turns out to be how and why the Son’a became masters of genetics, to avoid aging), against their will. Picard, instead of complying with Starfleet’s orders to leave Ba'ku, and thus allow this matter of routine Starfleet business proceed, he leads armed resistance to prevent this from completing.
The utopia of the Federation is, again, an indictment of utopianism; Ba'ku is a utopia nominally, but what’s depicted is a highly cooperative, agrarian commune. The Federation as a futurist utopia is neither scientifically planned, nor is it socialized in any real way, unless, of course, one is of Starfleet, or of some influence already; a nobility detached from wealth, but still enriched materially as a function of status. The conceit is very apparent; the ability to see this, or not see this, is probably as good as indicator as any from where in the class struggle any one character likely occupies. In denying class struggle, where class stratification clearly exists, is to acknowledge that not only is there class war, but that you’re likely already the beneficiary, as long as the underclass continues to be shifted from view of the mainstream— in Insurrection, this was the Enterprise crew until they stumbled upon Ba'ku; in DS9, this was virtually everyone except Sisko in almost all Starfleet matters to do with the conflict between the post-occupation Bajor, and his own class and race consciousness from his experiences on Earth and in histroy; ultimately, even the original series centers, albeit clumsily, on the predication that bigotry doesn’t disappear simply because of utopia, or that a utopia is even possible, but systems of oppression break down when the frameworks that enforce them are abolished, and that does not happen by asserting they no longer have relevance, as many are quick to do even today.
Roddenberry, himself, one summarized the show’s ethos as being centered on the belief that “It is the struggle itself that is most important. We must strive to be more than we are. It does not matter that we will not reach our ultimate goal. The effort itself yields its own reward.”— it’s not a utopia, it’s the call to action to create better societies that don’t achieve an end state of perfection, but that there’s harmony in self-improvement, and in this context, the self includes the equity of lifting up everyone. In delcaring a problem solved, as utopians tend to do, they create this problem of poverty amongst superabundance; there’s an unacknowledged power structure that, even if everyone is declared equal, the imbalance remains— something we see extensively in our society, notably in the post-Slavery-era United States, and how many of the same systems of oppression persist in the modern era in new forms.
“Philosophy was right to vaunt liberty; it is the foremost desire of all creatures. But philosophy forgot that in civilized societies liberty is illusory if the common people lack wealth. When the wage-earning classes are poor, their independence is as fragile as a house without foundations. The free man who lacks wealth immediately sinks back under the yoke of the rich. The newly freed slave takes fright at the need of providing for his own subsistence and hastens to sell himself back into slavery in order to escape this new anxiety that hangs over him like Damocles' sword.” says Fourier. That Fourier falls into the trap many, for lack of a better term, historical revisionsts do— identifying a problem, but suggesting the solution is, thus, self-evident; in this case, through his utopian model- doesn’t belie the fact that his observation is fundamentally correct; solving for a social ill, without addressing the systems that created it, makes true equality impossible, and that’s the world Star Trek, canonically, takes place within, from the wreckage of a post-WWIII Earth, ravaged by nuclear war, amongst great disparities, and this persists into their modern era with rules about “natural progress” of societies in and out of the Federation, and with whom they will associate, with or without admitting them to this utopian realm.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s “Past Tense” Parts I & II Seem Chillingly Predictive - Princess Weekes
Beyond utopia: rediscovering the lost legacy of Soviet design
What are You Sitting On: (Non)mass Furniture in the USSR - Sergey Sdobnov
Murray Bookchin on the New Left
What Is Capital? An Interview With Matt Bruenig | Happy Ending with Nando Vila