Without getting into depressing (and obvious) specifics, I’ve been thinking about fascism lately—specifically the concept of “utopian fascism”. As is often the case when grappling with such issues, I turned to science fiction for a guide. Fortunately, there is a fictional government perfectly suited to explore the question “can democracy and universal prosperity ever be successfully combined with fascism?”: Star Trek’s Federation.
The Federation’s exact political structure is sometimes difficult to pin down, but it seems to be a combination of a democratic interplanetary parliament, a massive military alliance, and a totalitarian bureaucracy.
Now don’t panic! This isn’t going to be super depressing nor is it going to be about space Nazis (unless you count the above-pictured episode TOS episode “Patterns of Force”). When I talk about fascism, I’m talking about the philosophical concept as it dates back to Rome, not the actual horrific reality of modern-day fascism. I am not about to ruin all of our moods by writing some anti-Starfleet propaganda… at least, not too much of it. What I will do is take a look at how the Federation is utopian, how it’s fascist, how (and if) the two can be combined, and what that all says about our vision of a perfect government.
Before we get into the fun bits, I should explain what I mean when I discuss fascism here. Fascism draws its name from the Latin “fascis”, meaning “bundle of wood/sticks”. The concept is that a society is made of many different elements, but bound together as one, they are all stronger for it. All the iconography you’ve seen in various government symbols where a bird (usually an eagle) holds a bundle of sticks in its talon is, in fact, a reference to this Roman concept. The civilization is the sticks and the state is that which binds them. While class, race, cultural, and/or religious hierarchy and persecution are a seemingly inevitable byproduct of modern fascism (as evidenced by the horrific evil that real fascist governments have always perpetrated), it is not actually inherent in the philosophy itself.
Now if If I’m going to call our beloved Federation fascist, I need the least horrible example I know of, and that core concept is it. From a structural standpoint, that concept describes the Federation near perfectly. The civilization is made up of an almost incomprehensibly diverse number of sentient species, bound together in mutual aid and cooperation. In many ways the government is modeled on the United Nations; it is essentially a parliament of other governments. It binds them together and unites them as one. But that federated government has near total control over a huge amount of space and uncounted billions of lives. They have civil rights and they operate on a principle of mutual respect and noninterference, yes, but if you’re in Federation space, Starfleet probably has jurisdiction over you and the firepower to enforce it.
Let’s examine a few of the ways in which the Federation is presented as utopian and/or fascist, at least a few of the big ones.
First off, the Prime Directive. Referenced in the Trek continuity as far back as Archer’s days, the Prime Directive is (as the name implies) the most important law, overriding any others. While the complete text of the Prime Directive is not known to fans, portions of it, along with a very good understanding of the general concept, are. Essentially it states that under no circumstances should any member of the Federation allow a member of a “less developed” species (one that has not discovered warp drive or made first contact with an alien from beyond their solar system) to discover any information not currently available to their civilization.
While the Prime Directive is shown to be a moral and usually wise principle, it is also sometimes shown to be chillingly amoral in its application. In the TNG episode “Who Watches the Watchers”, there is a particularly telling moment. A cloaked Federation outpost has been observing a proto-Vulcan civilization that is on the verge of a renaissance when they suffer a massive technical failure. When the Enterprise shows up to help, the outpost is exposed and some villagers become aware of its presence. One of them is severely injured as a result, and Dr. Crusher beams him to sick bay. When Picard confronts her, she says “he would have died” if they had not beamed him up, to which he responds, “Then you should have let him die.” Crusher is horrified as, I assume, were most viewers. Picard just advocated allowing an innocent bystander to die from an injury the Federation caused in order to prevent the native culture from finding out about the outpost; that’s harsh, Jean-Luc!
But while this initial moment shows how the Prime Directive can be ethically dubious to say the least, the later events of the episode paint a more complete picture. You see, the guy they saved remembered being taken in a beam of light to a strange place where “the Picard” brought him back from the dead. As a result, this civilization on the verge of a massive breakthrough is suddenly worshiping an all-powerful and ever-present god, eventually to the point of human sacrifice (well, technically Vulcan sacrifice). So what does the Picard do? He’s not only violated the Prime Directive but proven why it’s needed: a native civilization now worships him as a god. First he tries to explain. He shows one of the bright young leaders of the town (a matriarchal society—bright indeed) the Enterprise and explains everything. She eventually understands, but the town cannot. Picard is then put into a position where he can either play god or die… and he chooses death. He is willing to die to prove that he isn’t a deity come down from the heavens. In that moment he proves that the spirit of the Prime Directive is to protect the weak from the powerful, the Federation included.
That aspect of the principle, the overriding desire to protect other cultures from your own influence, is arguably a key reason that the Federation doesn’t descend into oppression. Drawing inspiration from the Vulcan IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations), they realize that monocultural hegemony and colonialism are a threat to all sentient life, rather than a way to expand their empire. Restraint and respect for other cultures goes a long way towards demonstrating that a vital component to our fictional utopian government is real cultural interchange and diversity rather than uniformity. In the case of the Prime Directive, that means a principle that is the exact opposite of colonialism: go to any lengths to prevent the contamination of native cultures by a Federation identity, no matter how diverse that identity is. Unlike Rome (or the Romulans) they do not conquer those weaker than themselves or force their identity on anyone.
However, that principle works both ways. Robert Beltran (Chakotay from Voyager) said in an interview that failing to intervene when they could save entire cultures is a form of oppression, or in his words, “a bunch of fascist crap.” That’s not a bad point. Even given the Picard god thing, why not occasionally say, “Hi, we’re people from a far away place and we have some medicine for you. Ok, bye,” or something to that effect? One example in particular, “Homeward”, really brings this point home.
In this episode, Worf’s human brother has been undercover studying one of these “less developed cultures”. The entire population is about to be killed by an apocalyptic storm. Worf’s brother, Nikolai, tries to use a force field to save one village in a way that the villagers have no idea that any technology has been used. The villagers believe Nikolai to be a shaman from a different village who knows which spots are safe from the storms. While that seems outlandish, it would not have been out of line with the culture and had already proven a successful ruse. So the opportunity exists to save a planet’s civilization in a way where the survivors will just think they got lucky, but that’s still an unacceptable violation of the Prime Directive. Picard argues that by deciding to save one group while the rest of the species dies, they are interfering in the species’ natural development: extinction. They are so committed to noninterference that they want to let an entire race die rather than risk some theoretical contamination that might come about centuries in the future.
Again, this is all justified by the idea that interfering in other cultures’ development almost always ends badly—a principle borne out not only by Trek history, but real human history as well. Even in this altruism, however, some of the cold authoritarianism of the Federation is exposed. While their goals are noble, their ideology is considered more important that the survival of entire species. Make no mistake, there are countless examples of Prime Directive violations ending incredibly badly. In fact, it can be argued that most of James T. Kirk’s most famous missions are proof positive why the absolutism of the Prime Directive is so vital. When the Federation interferes with cultures, either accidentally or by design, you almost inevitably get a gangster planet, a Rome planet, a Nazi planet, or a proxy war with the Klingons that devastates a native civilization. There are numerous other examples of the ethical complexity of the directive itself, including a key one from Enterprise, but I think the point is made.
While it has some major hypocrisy, it does seem then that the Prime Directive is a vital component to our fictional utopian fascist state. The government is entirely committed to preventing itself from destroying or eradicating other cultures which keeps it out of exploitative endeavors. While it can be argued that it is also a form of elitism (if they can’t save themselves, we won’t do it for them) the Prime Directive seems to mostly fall in the utopian camp.
Another aspect of fascist governments is absolute dedication to the primacy of state sovereignty. Whenever a group threatens that or seeks to go its own way, they are declared terrorists and enemies of the state. There are numerous examples of Trek episodes exploring the intricate morality of terrorists and their motivations, but there is one group that is used to really examine what that means as applied to the Federation itself: the Maquis.
Before diving into this plotline, I should first point out one key aspect of the Federation I’ve only alluded to before. While the Federation is a massive interplanetary alliance, it is also the government of Earth and the one with authority over the majority of humans. The connection between the Federation and human power (even in some cases human supremacy) is impossible to ignore and a recurring source of tension among some of the galaxy’s species. If you’re human, you’re usually seen as a member of the Federation. When it comes to the problems with the Maquis, that conflation of a genetic identity (human) with a political one (Federation citizen) is a key part of the problem, as it has been in real life.
It is important to note here where the fictional Maquis got their name: a real life resistance movement against the Nazi occupation of France. Like those diverse real-life groups, this group of fictional humans have been living in the middle of nowhere, trying to make a life for themselves away from the Federation and its massive bureaucracy. They are technically Federation citizens in Federation space, but the Federation has pretty much left them alone and that’s how they like it. However, with the end of the Cardassian wars, that sector of space was granted by treaty to Cardassia and all Federation citizens were to leave the newly demilitarized zone. Having spent a very long time building their new lives, many of these citizens were not eager to comply.
The Maquis took up arms against the Cardassians. Using knowledge gained from Starfleet defectors and Bajoran resistance fighters, they mounted a guerrilla campaign against the Cardassian military. It would seem at first glance that the Cardassian empire is cast in the role of the Nazis here—because they are. Much of Trek is political metaphor and the Cardassians are used in this story to represent a Nazi-esque fascist state. But the Maquis are considered terrorists by the Federation as well. While many sympathize, even at the highest ranks, and some even covertly support them, the Maquis are seen as a threat to the Federation. By unilaterally deciding not to abide by the terms of a treaty the Federation negotiated (without these colonists’ input), the Maquis were not only risking another costly war with the Cardassians, but were also challenging the idea that the Federation has the right to tell humans what to do in Federation space and exposing their unified front to factional infighting.
This was so great a transgression that Captain Sisko, a Starfleet captain, was willing to use weapons of mass destruction against a civilian colony… to make a political statement. Even if this was an unauthorized action and nobody was likely to actually die, the Captain was so dedicated to sending that message that he was willing to do the unthinkable. In that episode (“For the Uniform”) we see that even if the Federation represents diversity and freedom rather than uniformity and oppression, they do still have the concept of treason against the state and it remains the highest offense. In dire circumstances, the Federation will go to great lengths to protect their ideology and their way of life. Granted, this is set in terms of “there are hundreds of billions of lives at stake here”, but still, that is a trait of fascist governments, not usually one we generally want in a utopia.
I have mentioned that a uniform identity is also a key component of fascism. In most of our real examples of it, that identity is either ethnic or racial, and the result is almost inevitably tragic. But in the case of the Federation, that does not seem to actually end up being a negative. It would seem then, that the Federation is able to accomplish a utopian form of fascism only by expanding that identity to encompass at the very least all humans, if not all sentient life.The Vulcan principle of IDIC again seems to be key. A respect for the sanctity and diversity of life not only prevents cultural contamination via the Prime Directive, it also broadens that “uniform identity” to accommodate anything from humans and Vulcans to sublime insanity clouds and adorable killer rock monsters. By embracing wildly different races and cultural identities and taking a salad bowl approach to cultural integration, the Federation manages to prevent a uniform identity from becoming a dystopian monoculture.
That sheer scale can, in some ways, also be seen as a key component to our theoretical utopian fascist government as well. Baked into much exploration of the Federation, there is the notion that its structure is so massive and complex that nobody can really manage it. With all their bureaucracy, they can’t be involved in the details of most people’s daily lives even if they want to. They can’t easily become tyrannical because nobody could effectively manage it all without an incredibly diverse group of individuals spread over like a quarter of the galaxy. It is less a government than a concept, an idea. Granted, that idea comes with hundreds of thousands of regulations and protocols, but a government so massive it feels small and remote seems to be a core component of why the Federation mostly works.
So is the Federation a fascist utopia then? Yes and no. In his book Island, Aldous Huxley posits that a true Utopia can thrive when it is isolated, culturally decentralized (no major religion, no central economy, etc.), bound together by a sense of community, and not a target for external powers. When the Federation is at peace, they usually seem to fit the bill. The Federation is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to turn into a tyranny (unless you’re brain-controlling bugs). They manage all the details that people don’t want to be bothered with, provide for the common defense, fund research, and make you fill out tons of paperwork but otherwise generally stay out of the way. They create progress and opportunity for ever-increasing billions and slowly spread utopia. Their technology allows people to be provided anything they need and liberates people to pursue their dreams unhindered by the concerns of food, clothes, and shelter.
If we can say that the Federation is, in some ways at least, both fascist and utopian, is the conclusion that fascism can be a positive form of government? I’d say that our definition of “utopian” is more important than our definition of “government”. In our view of utopian society, we seem to want a government that is capable of doing almost anything we need/want a government to do, yet one that rarely interferes in anyone’s personal freedom barring truly significant collective need. When taken to ideological extremes, most forms of government/political philosophies including various incarnations of anarchism, communism, and democracy can theoretically be made compatible with this desire. The Federation shows that a form of fascism can achieve this as well, but only when the identity it enshrines is broad enough to encompass literally everyone.
I’d say history, both our real history and that which we see in Trek, suggests that while “utopian fascism” may indeed be possible, starting with the utopian part rather than the fascist part is the only way to go unless we want to end up in the mirror universe.