Putting the fiction into science fiction. The Doctor can see all of human history… yet still thinks capitalism is a “mistake”.
He is a 2000-year-old alien who stared into the Untempered Schism and saw all of time and space, then stole a machine that could traverse the entire span of temporal existence to any location in the known universe and several even beyond it.
More recently, he’s been employed as a professor at a British university, enthralling his students with lectures on science and philosophy informed by many lifetimes of experience and a deep, unparalleled knowledge of the entire cosmos built right in to his genetic code.
Despite this, it seems that even a mind as powerful as the Doctor’s is utterly helpless to resist the influence of the left-wing Marxist academics he must surely call his colleagues. This became abundantly clear in the most recent episode, aired this Saturday on BBC1.
‘Oxygen’, the fifth episode of the revived show’s tenth series, finds the Doctor and his companions, Bill and Nardole, stranded on board a deep-space copper-mining station with the zombified corpses of the station’s occupants.
We learn that the company, through an automated algorithm that prevents waste, charges its employees for oxygen, given to them through special suits which – spoiler alert – end up terminating their occupants when the algorithm determines their lives to be a waste of resources because the station isn’t profitable.
Naturally, despite the glaring holes and contradictions in this entire premise, our newly indoctrinated Time Lord sees fit to declare that the real enemy is not the zombies that wander around electrocuting people to death, but instead a more sinister and destructive tyrant – “Capitalism”.
If the mere mention of humanity’s dominant economic model fills you with more dread than an unexpected robotic voice behind you saying “Exterminate!”, you may be one of the left-wing progressives this series of Doctor Who has targeted with plenty of warm feels and self-satisfied nods to modern social activism.
Many of these efforts have been directed through the Doctor’s latest companion, Bill Potts, a black working-class lesbian, facets of a diverse identity that the writers have been sure to point out continuously.
This has been handled both well and not so. In episode three, for example, Bill is taken back to London 1814, a place she notices is “a bit more black” than expected. The Doctor concedes that “history’s a whitewash”, and then justifiably punches the episode’s racist villain when he demeans Bill. As someone fervently opposed to identity politics, this was, I felt, a well-handled exploration of historic race issues: subtle and fleeting moments of exposure that weren’t unnecessarily preachy.
Cut back to episode five, and we are given the opposite. Now in the future, Bill stares incredulously at the blue-skinned Dahh-ren, who is evidently the victim of regular treatment of this sort and accuses her of racism. In her defence, she informs him that she’s “usually on the receiving end”; as a student in a posh modern British university whose entire flat-hunting friendship group and both prospective love interests are well-spoken white students, I’d politely suggest that it’s unlikely that she’s “usually on the receiving end” of anything except 3am shots in the local nightclub.
But, I digress. I could go on to poke holes in the model of supposed capitalism shown in ‘Oxygen’. Wouldn’t oxygen be provided as necessary capital to the Chaos Forge’s employees as part of their contract? If not, why would they sign a contract where the price of oxygen exceeded the value of their earnings, or that authorised their deaths if their labour provided no value? If the suits can be controlled remotely or automated, why employ humans at all?
The answer to these questions is that the humans themselves are not actually employees, but commodities. As commodities, the algorithm assigns them a value based on the surplus they produce (or not, in this case), and utilises or terminates them accordingly. They are slaves, pure and simple.
Definitions are important here. Many people – including, it seems, the Doctor – believe capitalism to be a system of property ownership and accumulated capital, within which people themselves are basically commodities. This is a fundamental error and must be corrected here, not least because in our wider Western set of ideals – in which the individual is elevated over the collective – there is absolutely nothing more abhorrently counter-factual than the notion that slavery and capitalism are compatible.
What is capitalism? In purely functional terms, it is an economic arrangement in which the means of production and distribution are privately owned and operated for profit. More abstractly, capitalism is not really an “arrangement” at all, if we understand the word “arrangement” to imply intent. I say this because capitalism – unlike other systems yet devised by man – doesn’t require any form of central planned governance or organising principle (though it certainly benefits from the latter; e.g. currency), and can arise as the amalgamation of voluntary transactions that take place between free individuals.
Individuals. Voluntary. These two terms are the foundation of the entire capitalist ethos. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, “Capitalism is based on the recognition of individual rights, which entails the banishment of physical force from human relationships”. Why? Because “individual rights” are life, liberty, and property, and these can only be removed by forceful or coercive actions: murder, imposition, or theft. To remove or restrict any of these is to disrupt the conditions in which capitalism properly functions.
The Chaos Forge and its owners are not capitalist by any ethical measure, and the functions of their activities observably breach two of the three natural individual rights. The first, obviously, is life, as demonstrated by the executive command to turn the station’s workers into zombies.
The second is liberty, for the following reason: a human being is not a commodity, but her labour is. Her labour is a service she provides to an employer to generate capital, for which she is given a wage. That is a consensual relationship between two parties which most certainly cannot be broken by violating either side’s fundamental right to life.
Capitalism is a symptom of the individual freedom on which it depends. In its absence, capitalism ceases to be; the remaining economic functions would more appropriately be called corporate feudalism if there’s a human input, or the perfect economics computer simulation if there isn’t. This is an important distinction, and one the Doctor fails to make aboard the Chaos Forge.
In doing so, he also declares capitalism to be a “mistake”. Let’s drop the pretence, and see this comment for what it is: the populist opinion of the show’s writers, not the observation of an all-knowing alien being.
On the off-chance that Jamie Matheson or Mark Gatiss read this, may I point out the irony of opening an episode with a Star Trek quote, then passing final judgement on an economic system that has given cheap and easy access to technology that would’ve been considered too advanced and far-fetched for that franchise when it was released.
May I also point out that absolute poverty is at an historic low, falling rapidly and is predicted to be eradicated in under two decades, all because of capitalism? You may not be aware of that, but the Doctor most certainly would be. That you make him deliver an asinine, uninformed critique whilst physically blind is, I think, a rather apt metaphor for those who agree with the assessment he made.