Cleopatra and the Cult of Post-Scarcity

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Homer: "Gee, mister Burns, you're the richest man I know, way richer than Lenny."
Burns: "Yes, but you know: I'd give it all just to have a little more."

Much has been made of Star Trek's Utopian, Socialist, and somewhat Maoist vision of a "Perfected" humanity in a perfect future. This has gone on for such a long time now, and is such a pop-culture touchstone that it's hard to say "You know, that doesn't make a lot of sense" without people getting upset. In fact, Trektopia is so ubiquitous in pop culture that most of us don't ever even wonder about it, or how it came to be. Instead, we just sort of accept it when we're told, "Once upon a time in the future something happened, and we all became better people."

For those that actually feel the need to practice intellectual Trekian Apologetics - and a distressing number of people do - this whole thing hinges upon the existence of the "Replicator," a transporter-derived technology that lets you instantly, magically produce anything at a whim. Thus everyone can have food, books, violins, condoms, booze, feminine hygiene products, or the Complete Babylon 5 series on DVD whenever they want it.

In a world free of want, these Apologists argue, there is no need for greed, and this allows us to improve ourselves, to become better people, to make the whole universe see the light of Kalifornia Uber Alles liberalism.

Ok, fine. A "Post-Scarcity" society, one in which *ANYTHING* is readily available, would certainly change things. But would that lead to us being better people?

I don't think "Plenty" is a cure for greed, ignorance, or just being a jackass who likes to slap women around. I think that as the standard of living went up through the 19th and 20th centuries, and crime went down, it seemed reasonable to assume that, and even hope for it. But we reached a point in the 1960s when pretty much everyone could have pretty much anything they wanted, frequently for little effort, and it didn't make us *good.* It just meant a lot of people got the crabs. The '70s were an age of excess, where people basically turned to self-destructive indulgence. LBJ's "Great Society" had a *lot* of money and time set aside in an attempt to eradicate poverty among children in America. This was a good and noble plan, and certainly it helped a *lot* of kids.

BUT: money doesn't mean people love you, it doesn't mean you have any sense of self-worth, it doesn't mean you don't have the wrong number of chromosomes or somewhat off-kilter brain chemistry. As well-intentioned as the Great Society was, it *DOES NOT* mean you're not a sinner, it doesn't change human nature. It just means you won't starve, and you have a place to keep your extra shoes.

Since the great depression it's been an article of faith for the left that any problem can be solved by throwing enough money at it. Trek's "Post scarcity" society is basically an outgrowth of this "Throw money at it, and people won't be jerks anymore" mindset, which was in its heyday at the time.

But you know what? There's always gonna' be people who want to do bad stuff just because they like to do bad stuff, and I can prove it: Pick any kingdom you want, go through the history, and you'll find it replete with rulers utterly free of want who did utterly horrible things simply because they wanted to do them. It wasn't ignorance, or poverty that made Cleopatra the Fourth stab pins into her slave girl's breasts, she just liked the sounds they made when they screamed.

"Brave New World" described a functional utopia, but it didn't seem like a nice place to me. In Niven's "Known Space" stories, people have an indefinite lifespan, all the education they want, no end of leisure, plenty of easy jobs for those as want 'em, and plenty of hard jobs for those as want 'em, and no apparent poverty. And what do they do? They distract themselves with fashion, entertainment, and 24/7 orgies. John Varley's "Eight Worlds" series, you have a similar "Post-Scarcity" society where everyone has everything they want, and an indefinite lifespan, and the economy is basically notional. Sex itself isn't enough to keep them occupied, so they turn to death sports.

Lem's stories touch on these themes quite a lot: Utopia doesn't make people good, it simply makes them more industriously bad because the limitations of having to work for survival have been removed, and with those gone, most of one's normal emotional range vanishes, too. Much - most - of what we are is based around "I want..." and if you take that away, then what's left of us? Ever notice how rich kids take drugs and stupid risks just as much as poor kids? It's because they want to feel something, but their pampered life insulates them from feeling.

I think the most spot-on take on this point is from Dostoyevsky's "Notes from Underground," in which the Underground Man points out that the real horror of utopia isn't that Cleopatra stabs her slaves, but that the slavegirls themselves are so benumbed by a life free of want that they come to long for the pins.