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The Totalitarianism of the Borg

image of Enterprise spaceship and Borg Queen

WARNING: The following article contains minor spoilers for Picard seasons 1 & 2 on Paramount+.

Sir Patrick Stewart has once again returned to our screens as the iconic explorer, archaeologist, writer, historian, diplomat, and Earl Grey drinking machine that is Jean-Luc Picard. The first season of Picard saw Starfleet’s greatest officer come out of retirement to save the life of Soji, a woman with a mysterious past. As a result, we saw him make new friends and enemies, tackle a nefarious cabal, and attempt to come to terms with his failing health. Permeating the thoughtful narrative were philosophical issues galore, including what makes us worthy of moral consideration, how we find or create meaning in the face of death, and whether the ends can justify the means.

While only a few episodes in, Picard’s second season is shaping up to be equally thought-provoking, challenging our perceptions of personal identity and what we are willing to sacrifice or destroy to secure our survival. It also reintroduces us to several familiar faces, one of which featured heavily in the show’s promotional material, the Borg Queen. So, in honor of the return of one of Star Trek’s great villains, I wanted to explore the Borg’s totalitarian tendencies.

The Borg are a group of cyborgs that search the galaxy for assimilatable people, technology, and cultures. They are not made up of a single species but consist of countless ‘drones’ whom they have forcibly assimilated into their group. There are no individuals within the Borg as each drone is linked together via a hive mind called “The Collective.” Once connected, individuality is absorbed and subsumed. The individual becomes a techno-zombie, possessed by the vast hive mind.

The Borg’s ultimate goal is biological and technological “perfection.” They seek this by harvesting anything distinctive from other races. Because of this unrelenting process of assimilation and incorporation, the Borg are one of Star trek’s most formidable entities. A single drone can assimilate an entire starship, and a single borg vessel can destroy entire fleets or raze a city to the ground.

In their debut, Q describes the Borg as:

the ultimate user. They’re unlike any threat your Federation has ever faced. They’re not interested in political conquest, wealth, or power as you know it. They’re simply interested in your ship, its technology. They’ve identified it as something they can consume.

In their pursuit of perfection, the Borg leave no room for freedom of choice, equality, or compassion. On the contrary, the collective sees these traits as inefficiencies; obstacles on the path to perfection. As Seven of Nine – a Borg drone later freed from the collective – observes while aboard a Starfleet vessel, “you’re erratic, conflicted, disorganized. With every individual giving their own small opinion, you lack harmony, cohesion, greatness.” The disdain Seven of Nine expresses for the individual’s worth, and specifically for the value afforded to the expression of that will, is in direct opposition to Jean-Luc’s philosophy. As he states, in no uncertain terms, when the Borg captures him:

Capt. Picard: I have nothing to say to you; and I will resist you with my last ounce of strength.

The Borg: Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.

Capt. Picard: Impossible. My culture is based on freedom and self-determination.

The Borg: Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.

Capt. Picard: We would rather die.

The Borg: Death is irrelevant.

Indoctrination into the collective erases all prior relationships with friends, family, religious affiliations, political memberships, and even one’s species status; the Borg consume them all. Even death lacks meaning for the Borg as death is merely the loss of the individual.

The portrait of the Borg painted here – a horrifying force assimilating everything into its structure, to the exclusion of all independent thought and actions, for the propagation of its survival and goal satisfaction – is terrifying. However, the Borg are more than tyrannous; they’re totalitarian.

Totalitarian governments attempt to control every aspect of their citizens’ lives through coercion and repression. As Alan Haworth highlights in his book, Totalitarianism and Philosophy, totalitarianism attempts to achieve total control via (i) the constriction of space and/or (ii) the conflict of wills.

The constriction-of-space model eliminates areas, be they conceptual or physical, where citizens can act autonomously. But, this is difficult to achieve as there are always ways for citizens to rebel and ways for states to exert more control. So, as Haworth argues, this avenue is more aspirational than anything else. A totalitarian state aims towards the total restriction of autonomous space even though such a state is unattainable. Or, in his own words:

This is, thus, a model of the relationship between control and liberty from which it follows that there is an inverse ratio between increase in control by the rulers and decrease in the area within which the ruled are free to act, in which case we must be forced to the conclusion that total control is a practical impossibility since – as the argument presupposes – rulers only have total control when their subjects cannot, as it were, ‘move’ at all, and that is something that could only happen – or so I take it – when the rulers are in a position to direct every single action and thought of those they rule.

The conflict-of-wills model envisions totalitarianism coming into full fruition when the oppressive government enforces its will upon its citizens, dominating their desires. This form of totalitarianism is more subtle than the overt constriction-of-space model. As Hannah Arendt remarks in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “[t]otalitarian terror achieved its most terrible triumph when it succeeded in cutting the moral person off from the individualist escape and in making the decisions of conscience absolutely questionable and equivocal.” This mode of totalitarianism subverts autonomy’s foundations and makes the previously unimaginable possible.

The Borg, however, do both of these. They invade the body and mind of the assimilated so entirely that they effectively enact both formulations of totalitarianism at once. The collective is housed just as much in the ships it commands as in the drones at its disposal. It maintains an all-pervasive watch on those who make up its quasi-species; there is no room for deviation from the collective’s will. More troubling, however, is their capacity to dominate the will of the individuals it assimilates. Even if room for deviation existed, the drones don’t have the capacity to take advantage of it. The Borg hive utterly dominates their will.

The portrayal of the Borg in the Star Trek franchise illustrates something important about totalitarianism’s nature. Namely, that as a political system, it demands unflinching obedience to the goals of those in power and cannot stand, nor survive, a populace that rebels against it. Indeed, when drones have regained their independence, the collective sees this as an imminent threat. The power of the Borg and the totalitarian state comes from their ability to dominate the wills of those they hold in their power. Thus, it is paramount to reject the urge to comply or be consumed by their pursuit of perfection or security. Neither the Borg nor the totalitarian state is invincible. Resistance isn’t futile.

“Stand Back and Stand By”: The Demands of Loyal Opposition

photograph of miniature US flag with blurred background

An incendiary essay is currently making the rounds. Glenn Ellmers’s “‘Conservatism’ is no Longer Enough” is a call to arms: “The United States has become two nations occupying the same country.” The essay details a kind of foreign occupation:

“most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term. […] They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else.”

Given this dire situation where there is “almost nothing left to conserve,” “counter-revolution” represents “the only road forward.” Those brave enough to grasp this grave truth also possess the clarity of vision to see that “America, as an identity or political movement, might need to carry on without the United States.” For if true patriots fail to find the courage to mobilize and take action, “the victory of progressive tyranny will be assured. See you in the gulag.”

While it may seem irresponsible to grant such obvious propaganda further attention, this piece of writing is worthy of consideration for two reasons. First, it bears the seal of a prominent conservative think tank. Published by The American Mind with direct ties to the Claremont Institute (where Ellmers graduated and serves as fellow), the essay is endorsed by a body with not insignificant conservative cachet. The various fellows and graduates, for instance, have ties to major universities. It would be a mistake to see this as obscure preaching to a small flock; the narrative communicated by the piece is emblematic. This isn’t everyday internet debris; this is an intellectualized version of the hard-right’s position serving as mission statement for the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy whose name Ellmers invokes.

Second, the essay has important implications for the various efforts to overturn the results of the presidential election, the January 6th Capitol riot, as well as voting legislation in Georgia (and elsewhere) attempting to restrict the franchise to “real” Americans. Ellmers’s essay offers a compelling framework by which to understand the motives of those behind these events. Like Michael Anton’s “The Flight 93 Election” (another Claremont fellow whose piece was published by the same body), Ellmers’s essay paints the current political moment as a desperate choice: fight or face extinction, rush the cockpit or die.

Ellmers’s essay has received attention in no small part due to its eerie similarity to Weimar-era German political writings. Echoing the kind of language used by Carl Schmitt – the constitutional scholar and jurist who embraced National Socialism while penning substantial critiques of liberalism – the essay emphasizes the need to declare a state of emergency and purge those who have infiltrated the state and subjected American politics, all in an act of restoration and purification. “What is needed, of course,” Ellmers claims, “is a statesman who understands both the disease afflicting the nation, and the revolutionary medicine required for the cure” — a pronouncement which seems strikingly similar to Schmitt’s explanation of the role of the sovereign to normalize the situation by embracing the responsibility to deliver the miracle of the decision – that is, the extra-legal authority to say whether everyday legal norms should apply.

Likewise, the essay seconds Schmitt’s conviction that the basis of politics rests on distinguishing friends from foes and treating them as such. For any state to continue to be, it must be willing and able to forcibly expel those who might undermine its fundamental homogeneity in order to save itself from corruption from within. Again, following Schmitt, the essay issues a dire warning on the supposed political virtue of tolerance and questions our blind faith in democracy’s ability to assimilate conflicting and antagonistic viewpoints and house them under the same roof.

Lost in all the fascist rhetoric is an important philosophical problem. The challenge is familiar to students of political obligation: how can citizens feel any tie to the law when it isn’t their team who’s making the rules? It is what David Estlund has called the “puzzle of the minority democrat”: how can those in the minority consider themselves self-governing if they are subject to laws they have not explicitly endorsed?

This is no small thing; resolving this tension is the key to the bloodless transition of power. Ensuring citizens can adequately identify with the law and see themselves sufficiently reflected in their government is a necessary component of the exercise of legitimate political authority. We need a compelling answer for how citizens might still see themselves as having had a hand in authoring these constraints even when their private preferences have failed to win the day. Why should those in the minority sacrifice their own sense of what is right simply because they lack numbers on their side on any particular occasion?

Our answers to this puzzle often begin by emphasizing that democratic decision-making is essentially about compromise. Majority rule acknowledges our basic equality by publicly affirming the worth of each citizen’s viewpoint. It privileges no single individual’s claim to knowledge or expertise. It grants each citizen the greatest share of political power possible that remains compatible with people’s basic parity. From there, explanations begin to diverge.

Some accounts emphasize the duty to live by the result of the game in which we’ve been a willing participant. Others highlight the opportunity to impact the decision, voice concerns, and engage in reason-giving. A few maintain faith in the majority’s ability to come to the correct decision.

Regardless of the particulars, each of these accounts makes a virtue of reciprocity; individual freedom must be balanced against the equally legitimate claims to liberty by one’s fellows. Refusing to acknowledge this binding force usurps others’ right to equal discretion in shaping our shared world and thus violates our moral commitment to the fundamental equality of people.

These considerations about how best to accommodate deep, and potentially incompatible, disagreement have important implications for our politics today. For example, the ongoing debate over reforming the filibuster is a conversation about, among other things, the appropriate portion of power those in the minority should wield. Different people articulate different visions of the part the opposition party needs to play. But we seemingly all agree that this role must be more robust than one wherein those in the minority simply bide their time until they can rewrite the law and install their own private political vision. Instead, we must continue to articulate the significant demands the concept of loyal opposition makes on all of us. Responsible statesmanship is not solely the burden of those who wear the crown.

Is It Wrong to Be a Nationalist?

photograph of Trump hugging flag on stage

When President Trump declared himself a “nationalist” last autumn, some wondered if that was good or bad for the country. One writer pointed out that “for many Americans, mention of the word summons up visions of Hitler and Nazism.” Michael McFaul, the ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, tweeted: “Does Trump know the historical baggage associated with this word, or is he ignorant?” Shortly after Trump’s declaration, President Macron of France warned against “chaos and death,” calling nationalism “the betrayal of patriotism.” 

The largely negative reaction to President Trump’s self-identification as a nationalist presents an opportunity to examine timely ethical questions: What does it mean to be a nationalist in 2019? Is being a nationalist morally wrong? Is nationalism inherently noxious and inevitably violent or is it merely warped and twisted to justify noxious and violent acts?  The distinction is important in uncovering whether the political force should be condemned outright or tolerated and even supported. 

Examples of nationalism’s marriage with racism, ethnic cleansing, and genocide punctuated the last century. Ethnonationalism, and its entanglement with religion, plagued the Balkans, most recently in the 90s when Yugoslavia splintered under the pressure of civil war. A desire for Hutu ethnic supremacy in Rwanda led to the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi Rwandans. The extreme, racialized fascism espoused by the Nazis resulted in the Holocaust. Sensitivity to the ‘nationalist’ label is understandable. 

Opponents of President Trump’s hugging embrace of nationalism may be nobly motivated to prevent those moral evils from recurring. But to conclude that the mere expression of nationalism entails the tolerance of or advocacy for such evils is wrongfully anticipatory. To automatically conflate nationalism with the acts it has dubiously been used to justify neglects the intellectual complexity of the concept. The fundamental question is: Can nationalism exist without the violence with which it is so often associated? Or does the prioritization of a nation’s interests at the expense of all others represent incitement?

To answer this question, one must define nationalism and parse through its different varieties. The “nation” has been called “an imagined community” of strangers because most individuals will never know the majority of their fellow compatriots. When using this definition of nation, it is clear that a strong force is required to bind these strangers and foster a sense of shared community. 

Ethnicity is often used as this binding force. Ethnic nationalism is based on promoting a singular culture, religion, and language and securing its dominance in defining national identity. The potential for violence is obvious: preferring one culture over all others leads to the relegation or exclusion of others and can sour into the aforementioned evils of the 20th-century. It points to homogeneity, and establishes clear in-groups and out-groups.

Civic nationalism, on the other hand, avoids cultural preferences–and the potential of violence–and bases national identity on shared liberal, democratic values. One example of this form of nationalism is Scottish Nationalist Party, whose raison d’etre is independence for Scotland, defines the country’s national identity not by race or ethnicity but rather democracy and self-determination. The United States of America, lacking any formal endorsement of a national religion or language, is another prominent example of civic nationalism, even if some may endeavor to define the country’s identity through a racial or cultural lens. Merely the existence of these different forms of nationalism suggests that it can indeed exist without violence. 

But even if the concerns about the historical baggage associated with the term “nationalist” are assuaged, there remains other reasons to be critical of it. Placing the question of nationalism within the context of globalization and an increasingly interconnected world reveals as much. President Macron, who has called for strengthening the powers of the EU, characterized nationalism as “our interests first, who cares about others.” While his condemnation appears unconditional, he demonstrates the threat it poses specifically to a globalized world. 

Rising nationalism and populism in Europe has been reflected in the elections of anti-establishment parties, support for Eurosceptic leaders, and, most notably, Brexit. And it is perhaps the erosion of commercial borders caused by globalization and the cessation of governance to more distant political bodies that has led to this resurgence of nationalism; a resurgence driven by a fear of “losing” one’s country.

If the goal is to further the interdependence of countries, to strengthen international bodies, and to encourage the free movement of people and goods, and with them, culture, nationalism is certainly an obstacle. But if the goal is to support localized governance and ensure nations retain their sovereignty, nationalism is inevitable.

It is important to recognize then that to criticize nationalists is to criticize the concept of the nation, too. For those who oppose nationalism, the only possible implication of their opposition is that the nation is not worth supporting with such fervor or pride, a lost cause running counter to the progress of a globalized world. But for as long as the nation exists and is the predominant base upon which the modern state is structured, promotion and prioritization of one’s nation should strike no one as inherently wrong.