The New Statesman in December 2016 had Yo Yushi visit a Star Trek convention in Birmingham where he recalls amongst other things," In a 1988 episode of The Next Generation, the captain of the USS Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), lectures a 20th-century executive who has been defrosted from cryogenic preservation about the Federation’s economic beliefs.
“A lot has changed
in the past 300 years,” he says. “People are no longer obsessed with
the accumulation of things. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need
The businessman protests that without money his
life would have no purpose. Picard responds that “the challenge” of life
is merely to “improve yourself”, and to “enjoy it”. If that sounds
striking today, it was doubtless more so when the episode first aired in
the United States, just a year after Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good”
speech in Wall Street gave the free-market Washington consensus its most abiding slogan.
Actually, ’post-scarcity economics’ is a contradiction in terms as
academic economics defines itself as the study of how societies and
individuals allocate scarce resources. The opening chapter of a typical
American textbook (Economics by Byrns and Stone) is headed ‘Economics:
The Study of Scarcity and Choice’. Paul Samuelson, in his much more
widely-used textbook of the same title, invents ‘The Law of Scarcity’:
‘If an infinite amount of every good could be produced, or if human
wants were fully satisfied, it would not then matter if too much of a
particular good were produced. Nor would it then matter if labor and
materials were combined unwisely… There would then be no economic goods,
i.e., no goods that are relatively scarce; and there would hardly be
any need for a study of economics or ‘economizing’. All goods would be
free goods, like air.’
This is not a ‘law’ but a definition and an odd one at that. In its
normal sense ‘scarcity’ means there’s not enough of something, that it’s
in short supply. But economics defines it as a situation where
Samuelson’s ‘infinite amount of every good’ cannot be produced, i.e. as
the absence of sheer abundance.
For Byrns and Stone ‘a world in which all human wants are instantly
fulfilled is hard to imagine.’ But this is just what Star Trek does
imagine and what its creator, Gene Roddenberry, insisted should be a
background assumption. It is thus a direct challenge to economics and
Accusing Roddenberry of espousing ‘utopian socialism’, a certain
Gardner Goldsmith asserted that a ‘no-money society’ was a fantasy:
‘Like Roddenberry, many thinkers have tried to envision a world in
which there is no need for money, no market exchange, and no property.
And every one of those thinkers, whether be they followers of John
Lennon, Michael Moore, or Karl Marx, has overlooked one key insight:
man’s nature does not change.’
As if we hadn’t heard that one before! Paul Krugman made a more
intelligent point that, while replicators might be able to produce
material things in demand, they wouldn’t be able to provide services.
Star Trek is of course fiction. But Roddenberry’s assumption raises the
question of what humans would do (besides exploring space) if they
didn’t have to work to satisfy their needs. Provide services for each
Even in 2-300 years time humans will still have to put in some work to
satisfy their needs, if only to maintain the replicators. But this
doesn’t undermine the case for a society based on common ownership of
the means of production where exchange and money would therefore be
redundant and where people work at what they do best and take according
to their needs.
Scarcity has already been conquered, not in the economists’ eccentric
sense of the absence of sheer abundance, but in the sense that the
resources, technology and human skills already exist to produce enough
satisfy likely human needs and wants. No need to wait for the invention
of replicators to establish this down here on Earth in the 21st century.
Adapted from a Cooking the Books article in The Socialist Standard
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