Portrayal of futuristic socioeconomics in sci fi

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Portrayal of futuristic socioeconomics in sci fi

Post by Megabot » 2018-06-06 09:48pm

Being familiar with the main site's "The Economics of Star Trek" essay which argues that the Federation is communist, on a whim I decided to google it to see what people think about it. One result which turned up was a thread on what seems to be a Marxist subreddit called r/ShitLiberalsSay (I was a bit confused about the title at first, then I realized it clearly refers to economic liberalism rather than social liberalism), where a number of people try to rebut the essay by arguing about how a post-scarcity society where no one has to work but chooses to isn't an unrealistic vision of the future. One particular exchange about the socioeconomics of Star Trek and particularly DS9, and futuristic societies in general I found to be rather interesting:
USER 1:
It's like a weird, liberal version of communism that runs on pure ideology and replicators. The closest that Star Trek ever came to radical leftism was Deep Space 9; coincidentally, it's also my favorite Trek series hands down.


USER 2:
The one that tried to mix currency, jingoism, entrepreneurship, and state paranoia into Federation society? How do you figure?


USER 3:
Because it showed that the namby-pamby liberal ideology of the Federation only really applies to the rich core worlds like Earth, and people on the fringes needed to result to violent struggle to defend their homes. It also portrayed terrorism and sabotage as a valid method to fight back against fascist oppressors. It portrayed brutal racism and subtler forms of bigotry faced by black americans in the 20th century and envisioned the 21st century as a hyper capitalist shithole where poor people are rounded up into lawless enclaves where they murder each over scraps while the rest of society simply calls them lazy bums and don't give a fuck. Rom also leads a workers strike and launches the first successful labor movemnment in Ferengi history. Section 31 is also a good analogy for the CIA, support the idealized life of its citizens through clandestine terror campaigns and assassinations.

DS9 may not be Marxist, but it's a lot more aggressive and radical than any of the other series.


USER 4:
If all that had actually been intended as an incisive commentary on the idealism of Roddenberry-era Trek, that'd be true. But to me it just looks like a failure of imagination on the part of the DS9 writers. They set out to make Star Trek more "realistic," and the only realistic world in their minds was a neoliberal one. For all Roddenberry's many faults, he at least had the ability to comprehend that people will be different when they're living under different material circumstances. Just as a medieval peasant and a 21st century industrial worker would be incomprehensible to each other, that same 21st century worker would seem very alien to someone in the 24th century (and vice versa). His notions of exactly how that would happen and what form it would take were silly and idealistic, sure, but in some ways preferable to the DS9 writers' assumption that neoliberal individualism and military/security statehood will persist indefinitely into the future (part of that, of course, is also Roddenberry's fault; he was in the Navy, so he conceived of Starfleet as a navy, which was his failure of imagination).

There's obviously no guarantee that whatever economic arrangement we have 400 years from now will be communism, but we can practically guarantee that it won't be capitalism. Of course, even in DS9 whatever system the Federation has probably can't meaningfully be called capitalism (it's hard to tell; things like Sisko's father having a restaurant really muddy the issue), and yet the superstructure is virtually identical with some minor tweaks. It's like bad historical fiction that simply reflects the modern sensibilities of the writer but with different costumes, only projected into the future instead of the past.

Roddenberry tried. He failed miserably because he was a drug-addled liberal, but he tried. The DS9 writers just shrugged and said, "lol I guess there'll always be the same ol' shit because human nature, y'know?"

Two points in closing:

1. I'm not at all a fan of the notion that science fiction should be a reflection of modern issues and problems but with spaceships. This is related to the historical fiction analogy above. Extrapolating from modern conditions via science fiction is great; taking modern conditions and slapping lasers on it is intellectually lazy. This is why LeGuin is one of my favorite authors. Even Frank Herbert with his weird feudal fantasies knew better, though. Science fiction doesn't have to labor under the burden of being "topical."

2. All that being said, you make a lot of good points that really affect how I look at DS9.

I think it's a valid argument that a replicator-based society, post-scarcity or not, would almost certainly have the different economic and social arrangement than isn't comparable to any past or present socioeconomic system, communism or otherwise, and any "realistic" portrayal of the far future by all means shouldn't resemble modern earth in the slightest. Writers often create dystopian futures with a stereotypical working class struggle of an underclass of exploited laborers and the like, but with the recent increased awareness of automation gradually making a human workforce smaller, if not obsolete entirely, and the possible looming need for a basic income system, The Expanse's vision of future Earth seems like a more realistic dystopian vision of the future, at least one that hasn't collapsed due to the government having the common sense to remedy the working class's obsolescence with basic income:


Avasarala: Did you know that the majority of people on Earth don't have jobs? They don't work at all. They live on Basic Assistance, which the government provides.

Draper: I did know that.

Avasarala: You call them "takers," I believe.

Draper: Yes, ma'am.

Avasarala: It's not that they're lazy, you know. It's just that we can't give them enough opportunities. In this building it's easy to forget...

Korshunov: With all due respect, madam, where are you going with this?

Avasarala: Wherever I goddamn like!
Star Trek's vision of the future based around a replicator-based economy is considerably more optimistic, of course. But either way, something like the Honorverse's portrayal of "The People's Republic of Haven" where a basic income creates a permanent underclass of lazy dolists who don't want to work and results in an economy that constantly teeters on the edge of collapse and can only be sustained by the Republic conquering and looting nearby star nations sounds more and more like bullshit. Something that Weber himself apparently seemed to eventually realize, as I recall that Haven was later retconned as a dystopia caused by greedy oligarchs exploiting its universal basic income that was originally intended for good.

But even so, writers like David Weber and Lois McMaster Bujold create futuristic settings that are supposed to be set centuries or even millennia into the future but are more or less economically and socially comparable to modern-day earth just with FTL and space warships and lasers, and maybe some basic social progress extrapolated into the future like racism and sexism and homophobia no longer existing. Though even this can seem very sketchy and dubious at times, like the complete absence of explicitly non-heterosexual characters in the Honorverse until Eric Flint came along. Or The Vorkosigan Saga where women are explicitly stated to be pressured to be homemakers and homophobia is alive and well except on the hippie Beta Colony, and let's not even get into weird shit like Barrayar's hyper-patriarchal warrior aristocracy or Cetaganda's creepy two-tiered aristocracy where upperclass women are routinely married off against their will as trophy wives to warrior caste men as a means of keeping the latter in line. I suppose this can be understood to a point considering these works are clearly a product of the 80s and 90s, but even so...

Still, it's pretty clear that most people don't care about how realistic a futuristic society is written, as long as the author tells a good story. (Or alternatively, caters to a certain niche's political views...) It is, after all, pretty much impossible to tell exactly what the far future will look like, so people's definition of 'realism' in that regard will differ greatly. But I still consider it a fallacy to call the Federation "Communist" when that kind of system isn't comparable to modern day economics, due to being based around technology that doesn't even exist yet. As this blog post says in response to Picard's speech to Lily in First Contact:
This future isn’t even on the communist-capitalist scale that we only think of when it comes to contemporary economics. The United Federation of Planets is a “non-monetary economy” where internal capital does not exist, people can get whatever they need when they need it thanks to advanced technology and highly-efficient distribution systems, and trade with external organizations is funded through monitored allowances so as not to destabilize foreign economies.

Basically, the idea is that once the survival and comfort needs of a population are met then they can devote all their time to personal, community, and societal enrichment by pursuing their own dreams free of worry. Want to be a scientist? Go to school tuition free and have access to all the lab equipment you need. Want to be a gourmet chef? Find a kitchen you like or open one on your own and cook as much as you want. Want to explore the galaxy? You can still do any of that other stuff, but now you do it on a spaceship!

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Re: Portrayal of futuristic socioeconomics in sci fi

Post by B5B7 » 2018-06-07 07:01am

\Avasarala: Did you know that the majority of people on Earth don't have jobs? They don't work at all. They live on Basic Assistance, which the government provides.
Now obviously this character is more enlightened than many people living in contemporary real life. However, there are still a couple of erroneous assumptions being made that are reflective of contemporary attitudes.

Consider these following people;
A: works in a factory and is paid to produce widgets that have no real value to society but as can be sold to produce income are considered of worth.
B: works in a childcare centre and is paid, to look after children that are not his/her own.
C: spends time at home looking after own children, and is not paid (a normal role for many women prior to the 1970s).
D: spends eight hours a day researching material for a book they are writing, and is not paid.

Now contemporary mainstream viewpoint is that A and B are contributing members of society, but that C and D are not, even though what they do may end up being much more important.
Until society updates its attitudes, and with the rise of the robots this is more urgent, then there will be massive upheaval.
Similarly, any story set in future (ignoring many whose main purpose is entertainment, not heavy thoughts about economics) that seeks to claim to have a realistic portrayal of future economics, must reject these contemporary attitudes and take into account future realities that are already manifesting.
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Re: Portrayal of futuristic socioeconomics in sci fi

Post by Zixinus » 2018-06-07 07:21am

The problem is that in the end of the day, you still NEED to define how your society actually works and how wealth are distributed. Saying "it's a form of economy that we haven't conceived yet" is a cop-out because it just refuses to answer the question or just says "I don't know". It also feels disingenuous where said system SEEMS to be communism and its descriptions have a lot in common with communism or some sort of communism, but it is outright denied that it is communism. So WHAT is it?

Even with technology far advanced than we can currently comprehend, there has to be limits on what it can do and limits on how much it can make. The technological infrastructure that supports the civilization and the civilization itself also has to be maintained, kept alive. Who is important and rewarded for this has to be answered.
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Re: Portrayal of futuristic socioeconomics in sci fi

Post by Simon_Jester » 2018-06-07 08:24am

Megabot wrote:
2018-06-06 09:48pm
[snip Marx reddit quotes]
I do think there are some interesting insights into the Marxist approach to non-Marxist people on the left...
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:P

But more seriously, let's go on.
I think it's a valid argument that a replicator-based society, post-scarcity or not, would almost certainly have the different economic and social arrangement than isn't comparable to any past or present socioeconomic system, communism or otherwise, and any "realistic" portrayal of the far future by all means shouldn't resemble modern earth in the slightest. Writers often create dystopian futures with a stereotypical working class struggle of an underclass of exploited laborers and the like, but with the recent increased awareness of automation gradually making a human workforce smaller, if not obsolete entirely, and the possible looming need for a basic income system, The Expanse's vision of future Earth seems like a more realistic dystopian vision of the future, at least one that hasn't collapsed due to the government having the common sense to remedy the working class's obsolescence with basic income...

Star Trek's vision of the future based around a replicator-based economy is considerably more optimistic, of course. But either way, something like the Honorverse's portrayal of "The People's Republic of Haven" where a basic income creates a permanent underclass of lazy dolists who don't want to work and results in an economy that constantly teeters on the edge of collapse and can only be sustained by the Republic conquering and looting nearby star nations sounds more and more like bullshit. Something that Weber himself apparently seemed to eventually realize, as I recall that Haven was later retconned as a dystopia caused by greedy oligarchs exploiting its universal basic income that was originally intended for good.
In Weber's defense some of the hints of this were always in place. Even in the early novels, the Legislaturalists responsible for the system were always corrupt, and the party bosses responsible for delivering Dolist votes to allow the Legislaturalists to keep up hereditary dynastic rule via 'elections' were always cynical and corrupt, at least in historically modern times on Haven. And it was pretty much always a feature of the system that it became truly dysfunctional only as a long-term consequence of the collapse of the educational system, which took place under the willing complicity of the Legislaturalists.

But to a real extent yes, this was a retcon; I suspect that Eric Flint or someone else took Weber aside and had a few quiet words with him about how daft it was to assume that an economy would clog up and die due to reduced workforce participation alone, in a setting where straight out of Book One we have ample examples of heavily automated manufacturing and engineering processes enabling a few people to do huge amounts of work.
But even so, writers like David Weber and Lois McMaster Bujold create futuristic settings that are supposed to be set centuries or even millennia into the future but are more or less economically and socially comparable to modern-day earth just with FTL and space warships and lasers, and maybe some basic social progress extrapolated into the future like racism and sexism and homophobia no longer existing. Though even this can seem very sketchy and dubious at times, like the complete absence of explicitly non-heterosexual characters in the Honorverse until Eric Flint came along. Or The Vorkosigan Saga where women are explicitly stated to be pressured to be homemakers and homophobia is alive and well except on the hippie Beta Colony, and let's not even get into weird shit like Barrayar's hyper-patriarchal warrior aristocracy or Cetaganda's creepy two-tiered aristocracy where upperclass women are routinely married off against their will as trophy wives to warrior caste men as a means of keeping the latter in line. I suppose this can be understood to a point considering these works are clearly a product of the 80s and 90s, but even so...
To be fair, there's a place for deliberately retrogressive societies in science fiction, to act as a foil for protagonists with modern or post-modern sensibilities. As art, it's very useful.

It's also a good way to explore things that we would otherwise be unable to really imagine a modern-ish protagonist even getting to explore. Like, what even drives a feudal aristocrat? Are they just a stupid dickhead who does terrible things for no reason? A lot of people I see on SF forums today seem to think so, but it's more complicated than that. All people are products of a time and a culture, and the ability to explore and understand that in a nuanced way only arises when you write historical fiction, or science fiction in which deliberately retrogressive societies are introduced.

Star Trek routinely brings this up, by having the post-modern* protagonists encounter worlds on which things like slavery, grossly unfair judicial processes, or various forms of warlike tyranny are common.
__________________________________

*In the 'after modernity' sense, not as some kind of slur against their philosophy.
Still, it's pretty clear that most people don't care about how realistic a futuristic society is written, as long as the author tells a good story. (Or alternatively, caters to a certain niche's political views...) It is, after all, pretty much impossible to tell exactly what the far future will look like, so people's definition of 'realism' in that regard will differ greatly. But I still consider it a fallacy to call the Federation "Communist" when that kind of system isn't comparable to modern day economics, due to being based around technology that doesn't even exist yet...
I wouldn't go this far. Remember, Marx's definition of communism was deliberately a prediction about the future, about what would happen at some later time.

Now, the main flaw in his analysis (which some of his successors in Marxism have at least partly corrected for) was the assumption that the basic relationships between the rich elite, the up-and-coming nouveau riche, and the laboring masses would persist essentially unchanged for several generations.

But if a time traveler from the far future told Marx "we've achieved true communism, and the chief characteristic of our society is that the means of production are so easy to obtain that anyone can have nearly anything they want with at most trifling difficulty," I doubt Marx would be surprised or say "no, that is not true communism, TRUE communism is a 20th century industrialized dystopia ruled by a bureaucratic elite disguising themselves as a 'vanguard party.' " Even though when we today think of 'communism' as in 'that thing the USSR had,' we tend to think of, well, what the USSR had. Namely, a 20th century industrialized nation ruled by a bureaucratic elite disguising themselves as a 'vanguard party,' in what was by the standards of post-WWII developed countries rather a rather dystopian society.
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Re: Portrayal of futuristic socioeconomics in sci fi

Post by madd0ct0r » 2018-06-07 11:28am

It is always easier to imagine the end of the world then your current changing into something better. Complexity is hard, and any society is going to be so complicated and contradictory that it's going to be hard to show in digestible writing.

I was watching a Deliveroo rider scoot past last week. A couple of years back I would have scoffed at the idea of cycle couriers for takeaways being a huge growth market in a rich western country. Of course, rich dosen't capture the detail or complexity of a student town with a historic sailor population from around the world.
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Re: Portrayal of futuristic socioeconomics in sci fi

Post by Simon_Jester » 2018-06-07 11:47am

You're right in broad.

In the narrow Deliveroo case... Well, given that door-to-door delivery of takeout food is a thing, while carryout meals are also a thing...

It's safe to say that "get your food delivered from the restaurant to your doorstep by a courier" services have always been wobbling on the edge of profitability, ever since the mid-20th century when the now ubiquitous phone network and the newly money-rich-time-poor middle class incentivized it. Having the food be delivered by a cyclist instead of a car is just an adaptation to local conditions; I'm pretty sure similar arrangements have been around in New York for some time. Having the courier work for someone other than the restaurant is a novelty- that's the part enabled by new technology.
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Re: Portrayal of futuristic socioeconomics in sci fi

Post by Elheru Aran » 2018-06-07 02:21pm

A big part of portrayals of the future is that we are still going to be humans human'ing along for a pretty good while, AI singularities and extensive gene-tech augmentations aside. Once you set aside economics, politics and technology, we haven't changed too much as a species in the past few millennia. The general assumption is that this isn't particularly going to change, and thus we will be largely similar in the future to how we are now, just with... rayguns rather than rocks on sticks. How accurate that is... is somewhat up to debate, but I do think there is a point to the idea that basic human nature and relations won't particularly change.
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Re: Portrayal of futuristic socioeconomics in sci fi

Post by FaxModem1 » 2018-06-07 03:56pm

By the same token, culture does change, and that affects family dynamics. I remember how people were bewildered by Doctor Who's portrayal of an ancient Roman family was exactly like a modern day British one in "The Fires of Pompeii", as compared to how a Roman family would have actually worked. Civilization and culture can drastically affect the family dynamic, and how things work. See how the old Lost in Space TV show has John Robinson as the leader of the family, while the Netflix remake has Maureen and John on more equal footing.
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Re: Portrayal of futuristic socioeconomics in sci fi

Post by Simon_Jester » 2018-06-07 04:19pm

The thing is, a lot of the ways we express our basic nature do depend on material conditions. Our modern concept of courtship and dating is very different from the concept that prevailed a few hundred years ago, or even that which still prevails in other parts of the world with more or less the same technological base but different background culture. And yet mating impulses are possibly THE biggest thing you'd expect to be fundamental instincts of human nature and not subject to change...
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Re: Portrayal of futuristic socioeconomics in sci fi

Post by Elheru Aran » 2018-06-07 04:24pm

Simon_Jester wrote:
2018-06-07 04:19pm
The thing is, a lot of the ways we express our basic nature do depend on material conditions. Our modern concept of courtship and dating is very different from the concept that prevailed a few hundred years ago, or even that which still prevails in other parts of the world with more or less the same technological base but different background culture. And yet mating impulses are possibly THE biggest thing you'd expect to be fundamental instincts of human nature and not subject to change...
Arguably the mating impulse is the same; it's the culturally appropriate method of expressing those mating impulses that varies.

But yes, cultures do change as well. That's something various authors have succeeded at, some better than others; Le Guin, Stephenson, Clarke, and so forth. I think it's safe to say we are all aware that painting the future as "20th century America, but with rayguns" isn't really going to fly.
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Re: Portrayal of futuristic socioeconomics in sci fi

Post by K. A. Pital » 2018-06-07 04:34pm

It’s pretty simple.

Rodenberry: an optimistic vision of a secular communist future, written in the 1960s when human optimism about space exploration and technology was at a high.

Daniel Abraham & Ty Frank: a pessimistic vision of cyberpunk capitalism and oppressive colonialism in space, written in the early XXI century. Basically modern world transplanted into space, rich “core worlds” with some forms of social support, dirt poor Third Worlders enslaved by hideous corporations in cahoots with highest levels of “core world” government bureaucracies, etc.

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“Avasarala” lol. One of the underappreciated characters, but definitely not a protagonist.
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