Popular Culture and the Political Values of Neoliberalism. George A. Gonzalez. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2019.
With topics ranging from religion to the Vietnam War and everything in between, it is difficult to imagine new ways to study Star Trek. Focusing mostly on the classic Star Trek series (1966-1969) and The Next Generation (1987-94), Popular Culture and the Political Values of Neoliberalism examines the Hegelian notion of the absolute (the concepts we use to make sense of our complex world, boiling down to our normative values of what is moral and ethical) through the lens of popular culture, and specifically the Star Trek franchise.
George A. Gonzales begins by delving into the Hegelian absolute, positing that it can be separated into higher and less attractive values. The higher aspects include such traits as compassion and love, while the less attractive values share the same qualities as the neoliberal, capitalist society—such as greed, power, and conceit. The introduction establishes the parameters of the study by noting the absolute can be understood by the public through examining popular culture. It becomes evident that the higher aspects of the absolute promote a just society while the lower values of the Absolute lead to instability as well as psychological neurosis.
The rest of the book is separated into themes, with emphasis on identity politics, the mind, and American politics. One of the more interesting chapters in the book is the first. Chapter 1 examines the capitalist neoliberal contexts of our society. To examine greed and the destructive addiction of power as well as its ill effects on our society, Gonzales offers the example of the Ferengi, a species introduced in the Next Generation series. The Ferengi worship capitalist ideology like a religion. Gonzales compares the Ferengi with society’s billionaire class and its goal of accumulating more wealth and power. To make his point about the ill effects of capitalism on society, Gonzales shows how the Ferengi are indifferent to the social effects of the profit-making regime they have created, and are blind to the suffering and poverty they cause. Holding the negative values of the absolute in high regard leads to this unregulated neoliberal capitalist world regime, and only through following the higher absolute values can the ills of neoliberalism and capitalism be overcome. Gonzales elucidates that the Star Trek franchise is making a statement about the need to pursue societal justice, resulting in a classless society.
In Chapter 2, Gonzales pushes back against analytic philosophy and its disbelief in anything that cannot be seen in the material realm. The point Gonzales argues is that technological advancement solely driving societal and political progress is dangerous, and something the Star Trek franchise cautions against. Citing the Borg as example, the antagonist cyborgs assimilate technology and knowledge from other alien species in their drive for perfection. Gonzalez notes that technological development can serve as a basis for justice and freedom, however politics must be done correctly, or in other words, geared towards the higher absolute, not the analytic.
Gonzales posits that the field of Star Trek Studies has been maligned by two flawed assumptions.
- The original Star Trek series is a metaphor for the Cold War.
- The Federation represents a pro-American political point of view.
Chapter 3 makes an argument that Star Trek rejects the Cold War and American nationalism. Gonzales picks and chooses episodes to highlight his argument, while ignoring those that back the overarching assumptions in Star Trek studies that give credence to the assumptions that Star Trek is indeed an analogy for the Cold War and does represent some pro-American views such as individualism and freedom. What Gonzales points out, maybe unintentionally, is that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, Star Trek’s original series can both push forward American political points of views and at times be a metaphor for the Cold War, while at the same time Star Trek can also act as a cautionary tale to the potential unregulated power of American foreign policy, nationalism, and capitalism.
In Chapter 4, Gonzales spends too much time denying Star Trek has problems with issues of race and representation. His treatment of scholars’ work who point out related flaws of earlier series in the franchise left me feeling uneasy. That said, Gonzales does shows quite well how Star Trek linked racism and class oppression.
Chapters 5 and 6 concern issues of the mind. Chapter 5 engages with how our mind is naturally wired to seek out the good, and actions against such good will result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The good equates to furthering what Marx called “the progressive dialect,” which Gonzales says is derived from the Hegelian absolute. While further clarification on the good would certainly be helpful here, the point is still made that when soldiers are put in a position where they do not know what or who they are fighting for, they often suffer from PTSD.
Chapters 7 and 8 turn towards the United States. Chapter 7 looks at art as knowledge with a focus on American foreign policy, whereas Chapter 8 suggests that the destructive values of neoliberalism allowed for the rise of Donald Trump. In briefly breaking away from the Star Trek franchise, Gonzales examines the political values of Breaking Bad, arguing that the show’s values are the same destructive values of the neoliberal American society that elected Donald Trump.
The work is not a study of popular culture and neoliberalism as the title suggests; instead as noted, it looks predominately at the Star Trek franchise with somewhat brief references to other works throughout. Popular Culture and the Political Values of Neoliberalism is an interesting study that illustrates how people can gain an analytical understanding of political reasons through art. The overarching argument that political actions are in response to the various values of the absolute players hold (be it the values that are considered positive such as compassion or the values that are negative such as greed) and the questions explored are relevant for today’s society as wealth inequality continues to grow.
An excerpt of the book is available here.