All Commentary
Tuesday, April 1, 1997

Star Trek and Collectivism: The Case of the Borg

Star Trek Shows What a Society Ruled by the Collective Mind Would Look Like

Dr. Yates is adjunct research fellow with the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994).

Star Trek is easily the most popular science fiction epic of all time. Over the past three decades, the saga has given birth to four television series, eight motion pictures, dozens of novels, and a variety of paraphernalia—including technical manuals of the Enterprise, English/Klingon dictionaries, and even books on such themes as leadership lessons in Star Trek. The odyssey launched by Gene Roddenberry has generated a rich and complex history of the future and garnered a worldwide audience of millions—not to mention enormous profits for Paramount Pictures, owner of the lucrative Star Trek trademark.

Star Trek‘s vision of the future is optimistic, implying that we humans will eventually conquer our major faults, transform our planet into a poverty-free ecological paradise, go to the stars, and become a civilizing force throughout our quadrant of the galaxy. The vision is also rather statist, at least by implication. The political philosophy of Star Trek appears only in (sometimes inconsistent) bits and pieces. A world-government-as-savior theme appears in several episodes. At the same time, ironically, the United Federation of Planets, despite its civilizing influence, is centralized, bureaucratic, procedure-laden, and sometimes utterly unable to handle the complexities of new challenges (its prime directive—not to interfere with indigenous cultures on developing worlds—is violated countless times).

There is environmental correctness. For example, in an episode where the Enterprise is on a mercy mission to a world whose inhabitants devastated their natural environment, chief engineer Geordi La Forge asks something like, Why didn’t they just do the sensible thing and regulate emissions? Suggestions are also rife that all cultures are equal, a staple of multiculturalism.

The Borg

Despite such (occasionally glaring) flaws, Star Trek nevertheless presents perhaps the most disturbing example of full-fledged collectivism currently available. This depiction occurs in four episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG), the paperback novel Vendetta, and the movie Star Trek: First Contact, released last November. These all feature encounters between the Enterprise and a race known as the Borg, the deadliest foe yet faced by the Federation.

The Borg are a race of cyborgs, the product of a technology that hardwires artificial intelligence directly into the brain and central nervous system. Immediately after birth, Borg infants receive neural implants, which provide physical nourishment as well as information from a network connecting all the Borg brains and nervous systems with the rest of their technology. The Borg grow completely dependent on the implants, with every Borg brain in contact with every other Borg brain at all times. They share a group mind—a kind of organic Internet accessed with thoughts instead of computers.

Thus, their vast spaceships automatically go where the group mind wills, and if damaged, the craft repair themselves. There is no hierarchy or chain of command in any normal sense. Significantly, this group mind was eventually labeled the Borg Collective. The Borg have numerical designations instead of names and a repulsive physical appearance. Surgically implanted mechanical devices often replace their eyes and limbs. Individual Borg have extreme difficulty initiating action or even reacting to immediate surroundings without a cue from the group mind that can see through their eyes and communicate through their implants.

The Enterprise crew first encounters the Borg in the second-season episode Q Who? when the whimsical and enigmatic character Q, member of a race of omnipotent beings who call themselves the Q Continuum, hurls the Enterprise into a previously unexplored region of the galaxy. The Borg’s one obsession, the crew quickly learns, is to assimilate other intelligent life forms, adding new technologies to their own and thus improving themselves—destroying the other races in the process. It is impossible to reason with them, since one can’t communicate with them in any ordinary sense. When they have selected a target, they are relentless.

In short, Star Trek’s writers have succeeded brilliantly in presenting their audience with an unsettling vision.

In The Best of Both Worlds (the cliffhanger that ended the third season), the Borg attack the Federation and zero in on Earth. After destroying a number of Federation outposts, several Borg appear on board the Enterprise and kidnap Captain Picard. They assimilate him by giving him implants and create the evil Locutus—who inherits Picard’s encyclopedic knowledge of Federation technology and defensive capabilities. The Borg use this intelligence to launch an apparently unstoppable attack on Earth. Against seemingly hopeless odds, the Enterprise crew figures out how to exploit the Borg’s weakness—their total interdependence and dependence on a technology consisting of subroutines and programs instead of procedures capable of being checked by individual minds. The equivalent of a computer virus essentially shuts them off!

This story from the 24th century has lessons for us as we approach the end of the millennium. Some might interpret these episodes as a commentary on how much we fear having our humanity overwhelmed by technology in a world growing more computerized every day. It is true that technology is a double-edged sword, capable of being either friend or foe of liberty, depending on how and by whom it is used.

The Threat of Collectivism

I believe the Borg stories yield yet a more important message. Ayn Rand once wrote that there is no such thing as a collective brain. The writers of ST:TNG and First Contact, intentionally or not, have given us a chilling depiction of what a collective brain would look like. Their vision can be viewed as an extended metaphor for what collectivism offers individuals: a stark choice between submission to naked force or destruction. Captain Picard was violated in the worst possible way—his body is literally no longer his own, invaded by the alien will. In a terrifying sequence early in the second part of The Best of Both Worlds, the alien technology renders Picard less and less human and more and more Borglike. He is aware of what is happening but powerless to stop it—a close-up reveals a teardrop on his otherwise expressionless face. Picard’s handling of the situation, however, demonstrates individuality in action: eventually he breaks through the will of the Collective and is able to communicate to the Enterprise crew the clue that destroys the Borg vessel.

The Borg conform well to the notion that collectivism is essentially parasitic. The Borg subsist by assimilating other cultures, adding new technologies to their own. The Borg are the ultimate users, Q had explained to Captain Picard in the earlier episode. They’re not interested in humans. They just want your technology. They’ve identified it as something they can consume.

Back here on Earth, the histories of Marxism, Nazism, and other harmful ideologies show that every form of collectivism that has risen to power has had to enslave its citizenry and plunder its neighbors to survive. Collectivism thrives in our society among those who advocate taxing and redistributing the fruits of other people’s labor instead of producing and trading goods in a free market. Collectivism, too, advocates the use of force when necessary. In its politically correct permutations in academe, collectivism is virulently anti-intellectual and regards individuality as an enemy concept. In operation, collectivists have an ugly track record that rivals that of the Borg in Star Trek.

It is interesting that eventually the Borg become somewhat humanized. In the episode I, Borg, the Enterprise recovers a single severely injured Borg from a wrecked spacecraft and nurses him back to health. At first he displays abject terror at his isolation, but slowly he acquires a sense of his own personhood and even a name, Hugh. Captain Picard considers sending him back with another virus to destroy the Borg Collective but, ever the moral actor, rejects the idea as genocide. Nevertheless, Hugh has been infected with something even more insidious from the collectivist point of view—the subversive concept of individuality. Several Borg appear in the two-part episode Descent, the last of the ST:TNG Borg episodes—having been forged into a group following Data’s evil twin, Lore. It is unclear whether the entire Collective has been infected and destroyed or just this small part of it. In Star Trek: First Contact, the Collective goes back in time—a frequent Star Trek plot device—to destroy humans and their deadly virus of individuality. Ironically, in First Contact, the Collective has a queen—who looks and talks very much like an individual, asserting, I am the Collective.

Of course, this implicitly recognizes that no collective race such as the Borg could exist. Technology, even if once mastered, does not perpetuate itself without individuals to maintain and further develop it. Marx, the great philosopher of collectivism, correctly observed that human beings must produce the means of their own survival; he incorrectly thought that since capitalism had permanently solved the problem of production, the primary problem was to ensure the just distribution of goods.

However, it turned out that societies dominated by collectivism became economic, cultural, and technological backwaters. The problem of production was not solved, because it requires myriad and ongoing human actions. We inhabit a physical universe that does not take care of us. Our minds are, indeed, our means of survival: We must discover regularities in our surroundings and act based on objective causality. This process does not become either automatic or optional merely because a civilization has reached a certain stage of technological development. The illusion to the contrary contributed to the downfall of Marxism.

But now that Marxism has fallen into disrepute, new collectivist endeavors take such forms as multiculturalism, radical feminism, and extreme environmentalism. Ayn Rand identified the reason why collectivism never has and never can work. With no collective brain or intellect, there can be no collective action; all actions attributed to groups are really metaphors for ordered sequences of actions taken by individual members of the groups.

Thus, contrary to another philosopher of collectivism, Jean Jacques Rousseau, there is no general will. In practice, collectivism has always forced individuals to be free, in Rousseau’s words, by assuming that true freedom can be had only by giving up individuality and immersing oneself completely in a collective. The basic problem is that there is no collective mind. We are not Borg. Most of us have no wish to be. This is why we find such imagery repulsive.

Anyone who finds collectivism tempting ought to seek out those Next Generation episodes featuring the Borg. Thanks to Star Trek, it is no longer impossible to imagine what a society controlled by an actual collective mind would be like. It isn’t pretty.

  • Steven Yates, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer and consultant living in Columbia, S.C. He is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (ICS Press, 1994).