We can't imagine an "end of history" in sci-fi anymore
On Star Trek, Fukuyama, and Ukraine
If there is any true originator of the idea of an “End of History” it is not Francis Fukuyama, famed economist and author of The End of History and the Last Man, but rather Gene Roddenberry, the inventor of Star Trek. As far as I can espy, Fukuyama is not openly a “Trekkie.” But it’s notable his famous essay “The End of History” came out in 1989, predicting that all world governments would become versions of western liberalism. Star Trek: The Next Generation, which takes place at a literal end of political human history, had already been running for two years.
Certainly, the influence was at minimum one-way. The term “End of History” shows up in a speech by Captain Kirk in the 1991 Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, a retelling of the end of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Yet now the Cold War is resurgent; as I write this, Russia just invaded Ukraine, shattering the world order by bringing war to Europe once again.
How distant 1989 suddenly seems, both politically but also culturally. For thirty years ago in the late 80s, and all through the 90s during the run of Star Trek: the Next Generation, it did indeed seem like history could end. I find it totally unsurprising that the show began airing right before Fukayama published his article that so captured the intellectual zeitgeist and catapulted him to fame. Political thought is downstream of culture, and Star Trek looms large—sometimes I suspect that when people speak of “the West” now, often with handwaving ambiguity, what they are referring to, somewhere deep in their semiotic subconscious, is basically Star Trek. And Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) is the apotheosis of the genre, showing the best future “the West” has to offer; it remains, in both the clarity of its vision and its execution, the superior series of them all.
I cannot be unbiased about this. For Captain Picard was, and always will be, my captain. Imagine the pitch: a crew sails around in a starship doing mostly diplomacy. They host trade negotiations. The finer points of galactic law are debated! He’s a captain, yes, though not of action, no, but of restraint. He delegates often! His trademarks are his equanimity and good judgement, his zeal for measured response. When he is forced to take a vacation to Risa, a “pleasure planet,” he plans to get in some reading, bringing a copy of Ulysses, only to become annoyed when children having fun splashing its pages.
The show’s humor becomes more evident as seasons go on (the first season is quite rough) but Star Trek: TNG eventually sets a tempo all its own of classical music, space chess, and lofty conversations.
In the end, what Picard and his crew are is a fantasy of effective UN peacekeepers. For what is the United Federation of Planets but a dream of a functional United Nations? And in this I think there’s a danger Star Trek: TNG gets presented as the peak expression of neoliberalism or classical liberalism (the terms are often conflated). But Star Trek: TNG is actually quite radically different; it represents not so much an expression of neoliberalism, as some sort of end-of-history evolution of it that mixes in the best elements of marxism—as far as I know, within the class of popular imagined sci-fi worlds, Star Trek alone dares to imagine a future without money. Indeed, the characters are dismissive of, even disgusted by, capital. Libertarians weep, for neither are property rights a meaningful thing in the Star Trek universe—replicators and computers make property fungible.
Yet is it is not a perfectly equitable society, simply an equal one; indeed, a society of fierce meritocratic competition and hierarchical military-esque social structures. Privacy is respected, and there is a clear expectation that people can have a private life delineated from public life. While it is completely color- and gender-blind in terms of roles and relations (especially within humans), it is celebratory of the diversity between alien races. I have to say, as a future, I find the Star Trek: TNG universe immensely desirable. For it’s not actually simply an expression of neoliberalism—it avoids the reductive focus of Adam Smith on the “economic individual” as the atomic unit of society.
While the Federation has overcome much (capitalism, racism, sexism, nationalism), it is not perfect—but it is imperfect because human nature is imperfect, not because it is need of revolution. It is telling that the true enemy in Star Trek: TNG, the “Big Bad,” are not actually the Romulans or Klingons, but rather a transhumanist communist group-mind who openly lead their invasions with “We only wish to raise quality of life for all species.” Unlike the other alien races the Borg even look physically disgusting, for they have lost their individuality as a consequence of their utopianism. When Picard finally comes face-to-face with the Borg hive-mind he is told:
The Borg: Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.
Picard: Impossible. My culture is based on freedom and self-determination.
The Borg: Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.
Picard: We would rather die.
Of course, Star Trek: TNG has been criticized for being heavy-handed (it is) and slow (it is) and preachy (it is). Yet these are also what make it great. Just like you can’t separate Lovecraft’s horror from his repetitive prose, you can’t separate the slow and preachy nature of Star Trek: TNG from how its episodes, at their best, approach moral thought experiments. When does personhood begin? How should a society now at peace treat the warlike soldiers who won that peace? When is terrorism justified? Under what conditions is suicide understandable?
Much has been made of the fact that history didn’t end. Even Fukuyama has reversed course on history’s end, arguing instead that it’s the end of the American hegemony and history will very much continue. And, similarly to how Fukayama’s future is now unimaginable even to him, no contemporary political vision could lead us to the sort of post-capitalist freedom-loving totally-colorblind world-government meritocracy of Star Trek: TNG.
Since the 1990s, there has been a resurgent nationalism on the Right that views the very idea of world government as suspicious; a meritocratic color/gender-blind society is now considered an anachronism by the Left; technology has not led to the lessening importance of money but rather, through cryptocurrency, the foregrounding of it; and the world has split from one global superpower into dual axes, with American and Europe on one side and (it’s looking more and more inevitable) China and Russia on the other.
Which is sad. And it’s reflected in the newer Star Treks, which feel as confused as our current politics. In the recent movie remakes, Captain Kirk runs around like a witless moron from situation to situation, as reactive and emotional as our domestic policy. The even newer Star Trek: Discovery TV series, steeped in dramatic soapy plots, cannot help but come across as Millennials. . . In Space! It’s notable the creator of the old shows, Gene Roddenberry, had life experience: he was a pilot in WWII, and later one of his planes went down in the Syrian desert due to engine failure. He suffered two broken ribs but still dragged injured passengers out of the burning plane—the last one he dragged out died in his arms. He took command of the survivors, keeping them alive in the Syrian desert. When a band of bedouin arrived, Roddenberry talked them into only robbing the dead. And it was Roddenberry who made the final trek across the desert alone to inform the authorities of where they were to be rescued. The writer of the more recent Star Treks attended Wesleyan.
So the shows have become, especially after Roddenberry’s death in the 90s, rather than a definable End of History implicitly assumed to be worth aiming toward, merely another projection of our current anxieties. Just another op-ed. This is not a good thing. For I want to stress that the Star Trek future, while not being a perfect future, was at least a definable good one, an actual potential End of History. The original vision of the Star Trek society had a universal power—both Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan were fans of Star Trek. Yet now, both the modern Right and the modern Left would equally criticize the Star Trek universe, especially Star Trek: TNG, as fundamentally homogenizing. There’s no physical war in the Federation, but it’s worth noting there’s also no culture war. Everyone is basically on the same page. Why? An imperialist world-government established a totally color/gender-blind society that obliterated the cultural differences of Earth. That’s the thing about all viable Ends of History: they are, by definition, homogenizing and imperialist. In this sense then, the Federation is a shallow mirror to the Borg. For at the end of history, it’s all just choosing what homogenous and imperialist culture you want to live in. Otherwise, it’s not an end.
In comparison, what we want now politically seems a ball of contradictions. There’s no self-consistent ending state for any of it, foreign or domestic, which is why there are no positive science fictions we can offer, just more exaggerated versions of our own current political and cultural problems. And with the war in Ukraine, and the Putin-led shattering of our dogmatic slumber, not to mention the horrifically-draining culture wars of the United States over the last decades, perhaps now it’s the time to point out a homogenizing and imperialist but physically and culturally peaceful future like the Star Trek universe is a better future than any other self-consistent alternative.
People underestimate how much fiction impact the lives and opinions of those consuming it, especially if done at that sensitive age of early adulthood. If you asked me to find one product out in the world that represented my morality, normally such an abstract thing, I would be forced to consider pointing to Star Trek: TNG. I understand that may sound completely ridiculous. A popular TV show? Really? Why not the great religious traditions, from the Bible to the Bhagavad Gita? Or why aren’t I naming the great secular minds who’ve cogitated over morality, like Kant or Rawls or Nozick?
Good points. If I were to speak of lived morality more intellectually and spiritually, I would pick something like Tolstoy’s A Confession, especially his notion of “True Christianity.” So it’s absurd to say that a TV show reflects my morality in any sort of complete sense—the show pays little attention to suffering, to the unsuccessful, to the ordinary, to the little victories and defeats of private life—perspectives that, as I get older, I find to be the important and defining features of being human.
Yet, I think it’s not as ridiculous as it first seems to point to a TV show like Star Trek: TNG as worth striving for politically, or even as individuals. As a kind of moral Polaris. For morality is best expressed through examples, not rules or systems of thought. At its core it is the exercise of judgement, and judgement, especially in the real world of history and politics, is always contextual. That’s why morality cannot be written down as a set of axioms, and is irreducible to any finite algorithm. Instead, moral judgement must be shown, again and again, and that’s precisely what happens in Captain’s log after Captain’s log, which you can find anytime depicted in polygonally-low-resolution inside your Netflix account.