Star Trek Gave Us a Utopian Vision of an Egalitarian, Postcapitalist Future

Unlike many classic works of sci-fi, Star Trek offered an optimistic vision of humanity’s future — one where democracy triumphs, exploitation is ended, and everyone’s material needs are met.

Still from Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Paramount Domestic Television, 1993)

It’s the year 2364 and a tatty old space shuttle containing former Wall Street capitalist Ralph Offenhouse, who was cryogenically frozen in 1994, has just been discovered floating through space by a starship called the Enterprise–D. Upon waking, Offenhouse discovers that, although science has found a cure for his previously terminal illness, his bank accounts and investments have all gone. To his horror, not even his beloved Wall Street Journal has survived the ravages of time.

“A lot has changed in the past three hundred years,” the ship’s captain Jean-Luc Picard tells him. “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.”

It’s particularly striking that in a genre that trends toward bleak, dystopian futures, Star Trek is an outlier in science fiction for offering an optimistic vision for humanity’s future. In fact, while it may be overly simplistic to say that Star Trek depicts a socialist society, its utopianism owes much to the ideas of Marx in that it imagines a future where collectivism triumphs, money is obsolete, and every material need is met.

Beyond Capitalism

The show follows, in various incarnations, a spaceship and its crew whose enduring mission is to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” But as Captain Picard explains in First Contact (1996), “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

Instead of working just to live, humans are free to spend their time exploring the cosmos, or inventing, or making art — and sometimes doing all three. This optimistic view of human nature is in stark contrast to films such as Pixar’s Wall-E, which follows the right-wing line of thinking that achieving a postscarcity society (what Keynes calls the “economic problem”) would lead to sloth and hedonism, and ultimately the demise of humanity.

In Star Trek, geopolitics is a thing of the past. Instead, there’s the United Federation of Planets, a United Nations–inspired organization founded on the principles of liberty, equality, justice, progress, and peaceful coexistence, which is dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and the universal enfranchisement of sentient life. It is a world in which economic conditions allow each person to contribute to society according to their ability and consume according to their needs.

It’s worth noting here that Star Trek is a product of a political era that preceded post-Fordist, neoliberal conditions, when different futures were not only imagined but contested. Star Trek: The Original Series aired between 1966 and 1969 — a fertile period for the political imagination in spite of great unrest.

Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator, certainly subscribed to this optimism. He believed that humanity, rather than being doomed to self-destruct, was destined to evolve out of our political myopia. It was thanks to Roddenberry that The Original Series, though dated by today’s standards, was ahead of its time with its multinational, multiethnic, and multigender crew. Famously, the show featured the first-ever televised interracial kiss (in an episode banned by the BBC), and Martin Luther King once said that Star Trek was “the only show I and my wife Coretta will allow our three little children to stay up and watch.”

Today, Roddenberry’s flaws and hypocrisies are well documented. According to his last wife, Majel Barrett, he identified as a communist. But we know from the many accounts of his unethical business practices that he was also obsessed with making money. He preached peace and love but was infamously difficult to get along with. And he flew the flag for feminism while being a notorious womanizer.

Rather than focus on Roddenberry the man, I find it more interesting to evaluate Roddenberry the salesman. When the show aired, there was widespread unrest; the United States was being torn apart by race riots and antiwar protests; and the then–very new and horrifying threat of nuclear Armageddon loomed large on the horizon. But rather than offer an “extrapolation or exacerbation” of these conditions, as culture is prone to do, Roddenberry saw the appeal of a brighter future.

Perhaps he recognized this appeal because he knew better than most how awful humans could be.

The Politics of Technology

When the show was rebooted in the 1980s, the political horizon was narrowing. Yet it was in this decade, just two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, that Star Trek became most notably Marxian. This was all thanks to the introduction of the “replicator,” a futuristic 3D printer that can create anything out of recycled matter, thus solving the problem of scarcity. So far, so science fiction.

But in Star Trek, technology alone doesn’t bring about utopia. As we learn through the introduction of the Ferengi — an alien race whose culture centers around greed and profiteering — the socialization of the replicator is a political choice. The Ferengi’s replicators are privatized, whereas replicators in the Federation are publicly owned.

While concepts such as warp-speed propulsion and teleportation remain firmly in the realm of science fiction, many of Star Trek’s technological predictions have materialized or are coming to pass — including the concept of 3D printing at the molecular level and the increasingly exploitative applications of artificial intelligence. What capitalism renders unthinkable is the politics behind technology: that developments in technology might benefit us rather than usher in further alienation.

Star Trek provides an antithesis to how capitalism predisposes us to view technology, allowing us to imagine what society might look like if technology were used purely for improving our quality of life. Instead of following this path, the morsels of convenience we’ve received through technological advancements are only enough to numb us to the realization that we’ve become locked into a cycle of consumerism and surveillance capitalism.

Constructing Utopia

Another utopian aspect of Star Trek is its depiction of solidarity. Roddenberry had many “rules” that he insisted upon the show following, but his most infamous is what’s become known as “Roddenberry’s principle”: a mandate that conflict must never be between the main characters, only with external forces.

Roddenberry’s argument was that, for the utopian conditions of Star Trek to be believable, the characters must represent the best of humanity. In the episode “Remember Me,” the ship’s doctor Beverly Crusher notes that crewmembers are disappearing. But each time a person disappears, they become forgotten by everyone else; to the rest of the crew, they never existed.

In a typical drama, this would be what’s called a “Cassandra Truth” plotline: the hero discovers a conspiracy, nobody else believes them, and so the hero has no choice but to solve the mystery alone. But in Star Trek, rather than treat the doctor as though she has lost her mind, the possibility that people are being erased from existence is taken seriously and investigated by her colleagues.

Instead of the show’s drama revolving around interpersonal conflict, problems are overcome through teamwork, and very rarely as the result of one person’s heroism. It’s one of the most unique aspects of the show; as viewers, we’ve come to expect conflict between characters to be one of the most fundamental aspects of drama.

There’s comfort in knowing that no matter the scale of the problem, you can trust the characters to communicate their thoughts and feelings, weigh the situation objectively, and work together. But more than comfort, Star Trek continuously offers examples of cooperation, conflict resolution, kindness, and empathy that are in short supply in most modern dramas.

To me, this is perhaps the most radical element of Star Trek. In simply showing the possibilities of cooperation, the show offers something for us to all strive toward — and solidarity is no doubt the first building block required for constructing utopia.

Sci-Fi Optimism

When the time comes for the twentieth-century capitalist Ralph Offenhouse to return to twenty-fourth-century Earth, he’s at a loss. “What will I do? How will I live?” he asks; “What’s the challenge?” The problem is, Offenhouse has never allowed himself to imagine an alternative to capitalism. And to someone that has lived his whole life in a prison, there is nothing more daunting than being set free. Like the prisoner in Plato’s cave, the instinct is to return to the darkness that he’s accustomed to.

In a sense, we are all Offenhouse. We might not all suffer from his peculiar strain of capitalist Stockholm syndrome, but we all, naturally, struggle to imagine an alternative way of living. We all live under the same political system that snuffs out any threats to its existence by design, and it becomes harder to imagine an alternative each day that this system entrenches itself deeper into our lives.

Here lies the power of Star Trek. It’s easy to dismiss utopian science-fiction as escapist, as though capitalist escapism is a lower form of art than realism, but what good does the constant reminder that everything is bad do for society? Negativity is hardly inspiring. And besides, as Gene Roddenberry recognized (politicians take note), optimism sells.