Intro to Utopian Economics
Can we stop valuing money and work more than people?
By MARTIN REZNY
Economics in utopian science fiction like Star Trek are indeed worth thinking about, as we seem to already find ourselves at a pretty futuristic crossroads. In a single generation, we may enter a world in which machines will do most of the work, or, at the very least, will be able to. Better and cheaper than most humans. Does that fill you with hope, or fear?
In the future of Star Trek, the transitory period between now and the rise of the Federation was pretty scary, rife with conflicts like the Eugenics Wars, with the resulting decline of civilization averted only by the eventual discovery of the warp drive and the first contact with peaceful Vulcans.
Apart from robotics, eugenics are indeed threatening to make a comeback, given the current advances in genetic manipulation. Not only could robots displace the poor workers, but also an emerging uber-race of genetically enhanced (or cybernetically augmented) wealthy elites, who will likely own the robots, may turn most of humanity useless and inferior as well as poor.
Ignoring for a moment outright magical warp drives and replicators, the exact same technologies fuel both the utopias like Star Trek and the dystopias like our present or near future. So what’s the difference? One could say that obviously, the difference is that Star Trek is a fiction and our world exists in reality. Except, many of the technologies and culture norms we now have originated in utopian science fiction works like Star Trek.
The only significant difference that exists between the world like ours and the world like that of Star Trek is actually pretty mundane — wealth distribution, or specifically, the treatment of ownership. Unless a technology runs amok, it’s only a servant of those for whom it is designed, its owners, which means that our problem is only that it serves too few.
In Soviet Russia (and Capitalist US), Technology Owns You
The usual counterargument to what I just said would be something along the lines of “but look at USSR, collective ownership in a technocracy leads to a totalitarian dictatorship”. Except, in communist states, it was the few at the top, the Communist Party elites, who were making all the decisions about what work will the citizens be doing, what will they eat, where will they live, etc. Exactly like now the capitalist elites make those decisions.
The problem, obviously, is total concentration of power, which is achieved through concentration of wealth. It doesn’t matter which few bad people took all the means of production from whom and what story they made up to justify it, it matters that they have it all and can decide who can use how much of it, when, and to what end. Or, more importantly, what one’s not allowed to have or do. In communism and capitalism alike, most are poor.
The utopias like Star Trek differ in that in their economies, means of production are distributed, not concentrated. Anyone can make everything they need at home using replicators, which can be mimicked by our 3D printers (undoubtedly inspired by replicators). Everyone is also supplied with energy, which is abundant and therefore a commons, just like water and food are, and easily can be in our world with current technologies.
Nothing about that is incompatible with reality, assuming you don’t allow your population to grow infinitely. Which doesn’t seem to be a problem, since in developed nations, population growth tends to stabilize. Where Star Trek gets a bit silly is in its abolition of money. Money is simply a mathematical instrument that tells you relative scarcity of something. Even in utopias, you will get scarce goods — real estate, status, spotlight, etc.
The point is that what technology makes possible is that no key material resources have to be scarce. We can produce enough energy, clean water, food, basic tools, and adequate living space for everyone who can fit on a planet. Unfortunately, when all the means get concentrated in the hands of the few, making this a reality is not in their interest, and so we don’t do it.
Instead, technology is being used for things that are aligned with the interest of the wealthy few who wish to keep and grow their wealth — mass surveillance, military dominance, problem creation instead of problem resolution, cultural conservation instead of cultural progress, etc. Further advances in technology will make it worse, especially if they allow the wealthy few to live substantially longer, turning them into cyber-vampires.
Shedding the Yokes of Oppressors
Usually when somebody gives a description like I have just now, what follows is some kind of call for revolution. Well, I’m not going to do that, because it was tried and it didn’t really work. Remember the USSR? Violence has a tendency to result in a charismatic tyrant. It’s not that it’s some kind of mystery what makes the world broken today, the tough part is figuring out what exactly can be done to equalize the distribution of wealth.
First of all, capitalism doesn’t actually have to abolished at all, or the concept of private ownership fully abandoned, as both can function perfectly well in a world with basic needs met and means of production equally distributed. After all, the overabundance of breathable air doesn’t invalidate capitalism. Monopolies are understood to be a bad thing under capitalism proper and most states try to break them down constantly.
Unfortunately, that regulation is currently failing, as Jon Oliver notes in one of his more recent videos. Capitalist logic, or specifically the drive for growth and profit, does have an unfortunate tendency toward consolidation of wealth that has to be constantly counteracted. If state power is not enough to counteract it, what can individual people do?
Fortunately, plenty. Businesses in capitalism still have to actually serve some customers, meaning that many opportunities for peaceful protest exist. I’m not saying that everyone always has a choice, but to the extent to which you have consumer choice, you shouldn’t consider financial price of the product more important than social or environmental price, which are called “externalities” in the economic jargon. Don’t buy products of evil.
If there are no ethical alternatives, try to do without as a form of protest. If you can choose between employers, choose the more ethical one. If you work for an unethical company, become a whistleblower. If some bad people offer you money or other bribe to shut you up or make you look the other way, don’t accept it. And, of course, vote for more ethical candidates, or at least to increase competition, and protest publicly whenever you can.
No paradise is guaranteed forever, it takes constant vigilance and struggle, which was also explored in Star Trek mainly on Deep Space 9, where the Federation faced nationalist and religious fundamentalism and its internal dark tendencies. In a utopian society like Star Trek, I’m sure you’d still have cultural movements or some equivalent of NGOs that help shape policy. Utopia like Federation can always flip into a Borg-like totalitarian dystopia.
The main challenges added by technology today, or in the near future, are the robotization of the workforce in the absence of some solution like basic income that would give everyone the essential means for survival. But the biggest problem is not necessarily the most obvious one — robots have no ethical qualms about what their employer wants them to do to the customers or the environment, increasing the power imbalance and eliminating some of the above-mentioned checks and balances.
It’s also more impossible now to live independently, self-sufficiently, than it was in the past, as more consolidated and centralized advanced utilities can be turned on and off for everyone at once, or any individual, by the flip of a switch. And when monopolies or collusion happen, there may be no alternatives available where to get power from or how to communicate. That’s why distribution of the means of production is so vitally important.
What makes a society or economy a utopia is when you have all the necessities of life available to you and no one can arbitrarily deny them to you. If someone controls most of them, they inevitably can do that and you have very little to no recourse, which becomes especially troubling when it includes social institutions like healthcare or the criminal justice system.
There are currently societies in the world, mainly within European Union, where the so called “post-material” concerns have achieved dominance, where social services are not arbitrarily denied to any citizen and are of high quality, where the environment and human rights are protected, where corporations are held accountable, and which are still capitalist and not totalitarian. The boring solution is to simply keep working toward that.
The Place of War in a Utopia
I can again sense a counterargument coming — “but EU can only function as it does because it’s protected by the US military”, or perhaps some argument related to previous colonial exploitation of third world countries. In other words, advanced civilization can only be built and sustained on the foundation of blood and savagery. Well, I’m certainly not going to argue that one can already start perfect — brutal history is to be expected.
At least in the case of barbarians like the Western Europeans. I’m not even going to argue that MAD, or mutually assured destruction, which is objectively an insane state of affairs, hasn’t played a constructive role in forcing the superpowers to chill out, militarily speaking. Ancient Athens at the height of its glory was still a slaver society. Technological advancement is not mutually exclusive with tribalism or barbarism, but history is past.
Not in the sense that crimes should be forgotten and conquerors shouldn’t make amends, but in the sense that utopias like Star Trek are not about what was. At any point, any individual human, or the whole world, can decide to leave the past behind, as if to wake from a fever dream. Germany in particular seems to have learned from its past, trying to become an opposite kind of historical force. World War II as such is a curious case.
I would argue that in the absence of a positive world-uniting event like the discovery of the warp drive on Star Trek, world can be united into a more ethical, equal, and peaceful state of affairs by a sufficiently evil adversary. While the American empire is by no means perfect, it can be argued that from the perspective of having to live within an empire, the real alternatives were much worse, just like the more fragmented world had more war in it.
Forming a world hegemony specifically in opposition to history’s most elitist and fanatical racists further helped in terms of a shift toward utopia, as one has to distinguish oneself from the enemy. Unfortunately, no victory is ever final, not even such an impressive one in an uncharacteristically righteous war. As time passes, new events or ideas to rally around have to be found. If one’s goal is the steady march toward a utopia, particularly its economy, they have to be ethical ideas that justify more equal distribution of wealth.
The Dystopian Hell of Meritocracy
So, in the spirit of that effort, allow me to deconstruct the most ethical economic idea that still justifies the current dystopian state of affairs — meritocracy. On the surface level, it sounds very appealing, and fair, rewarding people according to their contribution to the society and valuing hard work. A world built around this idea even sounds like a utopia, when in reality, meritocratic societies are exceptionally painful to live in.
The core problem of the idea of meritocracy as applied to the whole society is that in such a regime, everything that goes wrong in your life is your fault. If you can’t get a job for example, it must be because you didn’t pay enough attention at school, because you have a bad work ethic, or because you’re an unlikable, uncooperative, and probably also stupid and lame bad person. No wonder that developed meritocratic societies have the highest suicide rate.
In such a society, nobody cares that genetic lottery is fundamentally unfair, that the quality of people’s upbringing differs, that large part of success is due to chance alone, or that working hard or success are only ethical depending on what it is that you’re working on or succeeding at. In short, in a meritocratic society, people don’t care about other people, by design.
Such a world is a perfect breeding ground for a corporate dystopia, because it divides and dehumanizes people, and it’s also immunized against the steps that need to be taken to move toward utopia. Any utopian economy has to be based on empathy and collaboration, not to mention freedom from being forced to do work that you don’t want to be doing. Necessary solutions like universal basic income or distributed automation of labor are resisted by meritocratic societies on the level of principle.
The favorite meritocratic fiction is that the moment you stop being a bad person that forces people to do crappy work all the time, everyone will just sit on their ass all day. Which, apparently, is an offense punishable by slow death by starvation, disease, and homelessness. Well, if that’s what you believe, then a) you’re wrong, because most people hate not doing anything productive, and b) you don’t deserve to live in a utopia.
If you’d instead argue that the bigger problem is that we cannot afford something like universal basic income, then you’re also wrong, because as long as there are enough resources to do this, which there are, money not being there for it only represents a lack of will, not a lack of possibility. In fact, a number of universal basic income trials are currently being conducted in various places. Economically speaking for the foreseeable future, it’s either something like that, breaking machines, or apocalypse.
The wealthy few and their lackeys will of course argue anything they can to prevent us from moving toward an absolutely possible Star Trek-like utopia, but there’s no reasoning with someone who just wants to keep all their stuff. You can basically substitute anything they say with “I don’t care, it’s mine because it is!” Ultimately, all it takes to make a utopian economy real is to already start acting as if it was, which includes treating rich bad people as if they had no money — if you don’t want to be owned, don’t have a price.
More equal, collaborative, and empathetic economy doesn’t guarantee that there will be no more wars, evil, or any kind of catastrophes, it won’t make everyone happy, and it won’t be self-sustaining, but nothing can guarantee that. The Federation in the universe of Star Trek still has to wage wars, there are prisoners and people of lower or higher status, it even has a shady secret service called Section 31. With all that said, however, a utopian economy, to the extent to which it is possible, is better than what we have.