Autocracy and Star Trek

Like many youth of my generation, I watched the original Star Trek in reruns and Next Generation and Deep Space Nine in real time. I enjoyed the shows but can’t really claim to be a Trekkie. I was already in graduate school when Next Generation began so I could not help but to scrutinize the shows for scientific accuracy. I was impressed that the way they discovered life in a baby universe created in one episode was by detecting localized entropy reduction, which is quite sophisticated scientifically. I bristled each time the star ship was on the brink of total failure and about to explode but the artificial gravity system still didn’t fail. I celebrated the one episode that actually had an artificial gravity failure and people actually floated in space! I thought it was ridiculous that almost every single planet they visited was always at room temperature with a breathable atmosphere. That doesn’t even describe many parts of earth. I mostly let these inaccuracies slide in the interest of story but I could never let go of one thing that always left me feeling somewhat despondent about the human condition, which was that even in a supposed super advanced egalitarian democratic society where material shortages no longer existed, Star Fleet was still an absolute autocracy. Many of the episodes dealt with strictly obeying the chain of command and never disobeying direct orders. A world with a democratic federation of planets, transporters and faster than light travel still believed that autocracy was the most efficient way to run an organization.

For most people throughout history and including today, the difference between autocracy and democracy is mostly abstract. People go to jobs where a boss tells them what to do. Virtually no one questions that corporations should be run autocratically. Authoritarian CEO’s are celebrated. Religion is generally autocratic. It only makes sense that the military backs autocrats given that autocracy is already the governing principle of their enterprise. Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and became the Dictator of Rome (he was never actually made Emperor) because he had the biggest army and it was loyal to him, not the Roman Republic. The only real question is how democracies even persist. People may care about freedom but do they really care all that much about democracy?

3 thoughts on “Autocracy and Star Trek

  1. One thing I’ll put in is that although Starfleet is autocratic, there was a lot of autonomy or practical leeway in the way it governed, which maybe added a good balance. The only evidence needed is that the crew members are constantly violating the rules, even the Prime Directive, yet they return each week to fight again. Evidently they are not kicked out for their constant insubordination. It’s hard to reduce such a forgiving attitude to written rules though, so on paper even a forgiving or relatively free culture can seem more autocratic than it really is. I think probably what a lot of people liked about Star Trek was that the individuals did make decisions based on their own consciences often—despite the supposed Rick of being court-martialed.

    Back in the real world, I wish we could encourage our kids to both take the rules seriously and exercise principled insubordination when needed? But how to pull that off? Make them watch Star Trek!

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  2. The Federation, to whom Starfleet reported, is extremely democratic and most rule is devolved to member planets, which also mostly appear to be democratic. Starfleet itself is mostly autocratic, but vessels are constantly in life and death decisions with no time for deliberation. Are you really proposing that decisions on the ship be made democratically under those conditions?

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