It is a rare thing when human events run ahead of science-fiction predictions. Usually, we’re years behind: According to George Orwell, we should have been living under the boot heel of a high-tech fascist panopticon state since the Reagan administration, while Philip K. Dick had cyborgs digging away as extraplanetary miners during the first Clinton term. But we are running well ahead of Star Trek: According to canonical sources, we were not supposed to encounter the Borg until sometime in the ’60s — the 2360s — but here is Melissa Harris-Perry of Tulane University and MSNBC, some 350 years or so ahead of schedule, announcing that we will be assimilated — and that resistance is indeed futile.
In April, Professor Harris-Perry declared herself at war with the “private notion of children,” in favor of a “collective notion” of child-rearing. “We have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities,” she declared. Once the private notion of family has been abolished, then every child is “everybody’s responsibility,” and objections to the progressive political agenda inevitably evaporate. The reaction on the right was electric, but she remained fixed in her ideology. When critics pointed out that she was in effect calling for the political abolition of the family and its replacement with the state, she reiterated her point in classically progressive language, harkening back to Rousseau: “We as a society, expressing our collective will through our public institutions, including our government, have a right to impinge on individual freedoms in order to advance a common good.”
In other words: Prepare to be assimilated.
The Borg, who make their original appearance in the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, are the perfect expression of the general will, a concept that to my ear is expressed with more appropriate grandeur in the original French — volonté générale (sort of like hearing Shakespeare in the original Klingon). The Borg will is always the general will because there is no private will. The Borg have no private conception of family because they have no private minds. They don’t even have personal pronouns: “We are the Borg” is their standard greeting. Borg children are not born but manufactured, like widgets. The Borg are a synthetic species composed of billions of members of the humanoid races that populate the Star Trek universe, with each individual consciousness obliterated in favor of a “hive mind,” the collective will of the Borg civilization, a process facilitated by the violent insertion of cybernetic implants into members of any species unfortunate enough to come into contact with them. They are the perfect collectivists — in fact, it would be more accurate to describe them as the perfect collectivist, singular: They are no more autonomous individuals than are the neurons in the brain; they will send an individual to certain death with no more moral reservation than you or I would have in clipping our fingernails. But they are multicultural in their way, as expressed by their standing promise: “We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.” E pluribus unum with extreme prejudice.
The use of the word “hive” to describe the Borg social structure has led to comparisons with apiary societies, a comparison that is deeply unfair to our beneficent friends the bees, whose elegant and deliberative social structure is described in Thomas D. Seeley’s fascinating 2010 study, Honeybee Democracy. The use of animal social structures as a screen upon which to project human fears and aspirations is a common literary device: In T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, a young Arthur, transformed by Merlin into sundry creatures of the field, finds himself happily at home among the libertarian geese but oppressed among the jackbooted ants, who practically goosestep with all six legs.
#page# But the Borg are a more perfect expression of the collectivist tendency than any animal known to man, inasmuch as it takes something human, or at least humanoid, to conceive of a horror on the level of comprehensive collectivism. Our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, may be shockingly violent, and female mantises may sometimes eat their mates, but the act of imprisoning a mind — and the dark dream of doing so — is a uniquely human embition. It takes a special kind of fanatic to propose what Professor Harris-Perry proposes; the critical factor is that such a fanatic must believe — and believe hard — that he is doing good. When the crusader Arnaud Amalric issued his infamous (and probably apocryphal) order — “Kill them all; the Lord will know His own” — he believed that he was performing both an act of justice and an act of mercy. Thy will be done.
The idea of the general will is most commonly associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and it is in the modern mind an instrument of political power. But like many of the worst progressive ideas, its roots are found in theology, in this case a debate about the nature of the divine will. The first use of the term “general will” was in this context, in the writings of the theologian Antoine Arnauld. M. Arnauld’s thinking was expanded upon and transmitted by his colleague and admirer Blaise Pascal, from him to the rationalist philosopher Nicolas Malebranche and to Montesquieu, thence to Rousseau. Malebranche detected the general will in the harmonies of nature, while Montesquieu saw it as necessary to the design of proper laws. By the time Rousseau made the phrase famous, it had been transmuted completely into a secular political concept rather than a theological one. But it is a secular concept that still leaves room for a priesthood: Just as medieval divines worked to discern the will of God, their modern counterparts — intellectuals such as Professor Harris-Perry — claim similar authority to pronounce upon the general will, the common good, and public institutions: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of their new trinity.
When the Borg “impinge on individual freedoms in order to advance a common good,” they do so with explicit recourse to the use of force. Democratic politics does so with implicit force — in general, the violence becomes explicit only after some period of non-compliance with the general will as interpreted by such as Professor Harris-Perry. Progressives rarely think of themselves as partisans of violence, but it is through violence that the collective will prevails over the individual will, which is a very large part of the reason that conservatives endorse limited government: One resorts to the use of force only on the most important issues, and when doing so is necessary. For progressives, the general will acts as a sort of open-ended warrant for the use of force to make their social preferences mandatory. Like the Borg, they never wonder whether those they are assimilating might define the common good differently — and the only collective will that concerns them is the will of their own collective. For all their odes to diversity, progressives fear and loathe intellectual heterogeneity, which is why they fear and loathe the “private notion of children” — outside the careful tutelage of the state, parents might fill their children’s minds with any old private notions of right and wrong, liberty, or responsibility, any of which might be out of accord with the general will.
That general will often ends up smelling a great deal like the progressive will. At roughly the same time the nine law professors who rule our country emerged from their meditations with the revelation that engaging in sodomy is a sacrosanct constitutional right — based on a private notion of life in the home — a Georgetown law professor was arguing that parents who home-school their children should be thrown into prison — based on a collective notion of life in the home. Which of those notions should prevail in any particular instance? Our political class is broadly sympathetic to Professor Harris-Perry’s hostility toward the “private notion of children” — unless those children are to be aborted — and therefore homeschooling remains heavily regulated and closely scrutinized by the agencies of the state, which in other domestic cases are scrupulously laissez-faire. What goes on in the home is a private matter, unless it isn’t. Says who? Says the collective will, inevitably, which also has some keen insights about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
#page# The collective will always and everywhere turns out to have a committee chairman behind it, on this planet and across the galaxy. The most controversial event in Star Trek’s development of the Borg occurs in the film Star Trek: First Contact. Whereas the Borg had previously exhibited no hierarchy in their social structure, being a distributed network rather like the Internet, in that film we meet a new entity: the Borg Queen. Here, the writers have obviously taken the hive metaphor to its logical conclusion, and botched it: Bee queens, as Thomas Seeley notes, are often misunderstood as ruling their hives with monarchical powers, when in fact they do not even get a say in political decisions. (Bees deliberate among themselves about the relocation of hives, for instance, but the queen is not heard from in the process.) The Borg Queen is a unique individual, the only Borg to use the word “I,” and serves as the mistress of the consciousness of the collective.
Her presence strongly implies that the underlying Borg ideology is a sham, that the collective will is a fancy piece of camouflage for the will of the ruler. Subsequent Star Trek writers have labored manfully to undo this narrative violence to the perfect collectivism of the Borg, but many of us had long suspected that there was a politburo out there, somewhere, with Borg dachas along the intergalactic Caspian and signs reading “All Borg Are Equal, But Some Borg Are More Equal Than Others.”
The self-serving crusade for the common good is the oldest and most profitable con going, a medicine show of epic imagination and audacity. There is such a thing as the common good, which is what makes those who claim to speak for it so dangerous. To deny their authority is not to deny the existence of the common good; you do not have to be an atheist to doubt that televangelists have a direct line to the Almighty.
“This isn’t about me wanting to take your kids,” Professor Harris-Perry promises. No, it’s about the “collective will” and “public institutions” and the “common good” and anything else but that. But it is worth remembering that her criticism of the “private notion of children” came in the context of an argument for channeling more resources to educational institutions, i.e. institutions of the sort that employ Professor Harris-Perry and her fellow Borg (her father was the dean of African-American studies at UVA) and launder tax dollars into political campaigns for candidates who will advance their economic and political interests. Encountering a devastated planet, one Star Trek character explains: “Before the Borg departed the planet, all of its natural resources would have been converted to energy appropriate to their technological needs.” “Resources” is a favorite MHP word, and on Planet Harris-Perry, those are money and power, which is always what politics is about — except when it’s “about the children,” in which case the agenda is intellectual and political conformity, prerequisites for assimilation into the Collective.
Melissa Harris-Perry, faced with hooting and derision over her remarks, very quickly retreated into hurt ruminations about “hateful personal attacks” — because, God knows, nobody else in political commentary ever gets mean e-mails — and then pulled a straight-up Borg move, abjuring the first-person singular: “This isn’t about me. It’s about us.” So said the Borg Queen. Resistance may be hard, but it is not futile.