Who deserves to be a citizen? A reflection on Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

Introduction

This year marks the 55th anniversary of Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein’s ground-breaking work of science-fiction which introduced and popularized many tropes of contemporary military science-fiction, the most well-known being powered combat suits commonplace today in films such as Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 Pacific Rim or Blizzard Entertainment’s StarCraft video-game franchise. Heinlein continues to be a polarizing figure in the science fiction community and beyond, as much for his works of fiction as for his peculiar politics: For instance, he once wrote an ultimately unpublished ad for his local newspaper in favour of nuclear testing after President Dwight Eisenhower unilaterally ended U.S. nuclear tests because , as a Navy and military-industrial complex veteran, he distrusted the Soviet Union and feared falling behind in the arms race during the Cold War.

Most people today know Starship Troopers as Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 cult classic film, which stands very well on its own as an over-the top and at times satirical action flick, but cannot be seen as an accurate reflection of Heinlein’s December 1959 book. What distinguishes Starship Troopers the book is not merely its unique view of inter-planetary human civilization or marines-in-space combat, but the curious political philosophy which emerges from the its compelling narrative. Although the book is set in the future, the political system of the Terran Federation, the civilization-cum-state of the Starship Troopers world, is in some ways more reminiscent of the limited-suffrage Roman Republic or Athenian Democracy than contemporary Western liberal democracy. While many of us today may assume that the future of democracy and politics will continue to be some form of liberal democracy with the core feature of the universal franchise – the right of all adult citizens in a polity to vote and stand for elections – Heinlein looked to a future in which this was not the case. In the Starship Troopers’ universe one does not merely have the right to be a citizen and vote by virtue of what Heinlein called the mere accident of birth; rather, one has to earn this right through Federal Service that tested one’s ability and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good of the polity.

In today’s world, where the right to be a citizen and vote are taken for granted, limited franchise may be an unpopular notion. But we would do well to explore the political philosophy behind Starship Troopers, if only to help stimulate debate about what politics and democracy could – and should – look like in the future.

Robert A. Heinlein, author of Starship Troopers and prolific science-fiction writer.

Did history end in 1806? Revisiting Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History’.

In his famous but often misunderstood 1989 essay The End of History, Francis Fukuyama triumphantly declared the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism” in light of the ideological bankruptcy of all presumptive rivals, what he called the “the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” Although the context of his essay was the occasion of glasnost (‘publicity’) and perestroika (‘restructuring’) in the Soviet Union under the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, for Fukuyama the end of history had in fact begun following Napoleon Bonaparte’s victory over Prussian absolutism at the Battle of Jena in 1806  when “the vanguard of humanity…actualized the principles of the French Revolution.” This victory did not mean the simultaneous actualization of these liberal principles everywhere, but was rather a beginning signifying the end of the dialectical process foreseen by German Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Fukuyama saw the events of 1989 as confirming that the challenges to liberalism by fascism and communism in the 20th century had been mere flashes in the pan and that we had arrived at “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

And what are we to make of the challenges to liberalism that the post-Cold War era and 21st century era have brought, especially the resurgence of nationalism a la the Russian Federation’s intervention in Ukraine and fundamentalism a la the Islamic Republic of Iran’s export of political Islam in the Middle East? The Economist, that outpost of liberalism, has even pondered about the challenge to the ‘invisible hand’ of free-market capitalism by the ‘visible hand’ of state capitalism as seen in the Global South, proclaiming that “The crisis of Western liberal capitalism [after 2008] has coincided with the rise of a powerful new form of state capitalism in emerging markets.” Fukuyama, I think, successfully challenges the universalizability of necessarily particularistic nationalisms and fundamentalisms and notes that “at the end of history it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society.”

Yet with the rapidity of change all around us, perhaps most profoundly technologically, we must stop to wonder whether we really have arrived at the end of history and question our own ability to accurately see the new forms of social, political, and economic organization which  may arise as a consequence. This is precisely what Heinlein does in Starship Troopers, creating a world not wholly incompatible with liberalism but one which nonetheless diverges from it in many ways.

A painting of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Jena, 1806.

The Terran Federation and the Federal Service

This brings us to the question at the heart of this essay: Who deserves to be a citizen? Whereas Western liberalism today favours a nearly all-encompassing franchise, Starship Troopers’ Terran Federation sets the bar much, much, higher. The Terran Federation is an interstellar civilization descendant from our own, created by disgruntled war veterans after the collapse the old nation states following a calamitous war. The political ideal at the core of the Terran Federation is the concept that the vote must be earned by a would-be citizen through a term of service, the minimum of which is two years, in the Federal Service.* While the book gives the strong impression that Federal Service is in fact military service, in his Expanded Universe Heinlein strongly contested this perception, arguing that it is more akin to what one commentator on his work has called “general government service, including military service and what we would call “civil service,” the latter being responsible for ninety-five percent of all Federal Service positions.” In the book the path an individual must take from non-citizen to citizen is elucidated by Juan Rico, a Filipino youth who decides on a whim to volunteer for Federal Service after high school and the protagonist in the story. The book follows his development from a naive youth in peacetime to a citizen-soldier at war, highlighting many of the key aspects of the difficult Federal Service along the way. While the book makes clear that the majority of the population of the Terran Federation are not citizens, they nonetheless appear to enjoy a very broad spectrum of rights and freedoms, and anyone above the age of 18 who can understand the oath of citizenship can volunteer for Federal Service and try to become a citizen.

Much of the controversy surrounding the book since its publication has come from the fact that the Terran Federation (and many assume by extension the author) rejects the notion of the universal franchise in favour of a limited franchise based on military service. This political ideal inverts what the First World War English poet Wilfred Owen bitterly called the “The old Lie” of “Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori (It is sweet and right to die for your country)”, with a character in the book instead proclaiming “the noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and war’s desolation.”

This seems to me to be an apt starting point for discussing what citizenship means and could – and should – look like in the future. Historically, a limited right to vote has been the case and in many ways the universal right to vote has been a 20th century aberration. In the past limitations on the voting franchise, whether in the democratic Athens, republican Rome, or revolutionary America, had been premised on property ownership and wealth, gender, and race, among other things. It is self-evident to our modern sensibilities that such criteria are unjust and not necessarily engendering of the kind of society we would like to live in. At the same time, I am skeptical of the idea of the universal franchise, which as Heinlein notes usually requires little other than the accident of birth and a certain age to qualify. While increasing literacy in our times has likely helped make the electorate more conscious of their responsibilities and better capable of executing them, I would argue that the de minimis conditions of modern Western liberal democracy are wholly insufficient for an informed and effective citizenry. In most if not all of today’s liberal democracies, the citizenry in general have arguably done little in earning the right to vote, and the state of civic awareness of how government works and the issues facing the polity are appalling. In many Western liberal democracies specifically, this state of the citizenry contrasts starkly with their ancestors who often fought within the polity and on foreign battlefields to earn and preserve this most sacred of a citizen’s right.* For Athens and Rome at least, their decline as dynamic polities can at least in part be attributed to the erosion of the hard core of the native citizen-soldiers possessing of civic virtue, the Greek hoplites being replaced by mercenaries and Roman legionnaires by uninitiated barbarians from the provinces. David Rothkopf, Foreign Policy Magazine CEO and Editor-at-large, discussing the more contemporary woe of the American public’s declining civic spirit noted with some anguish that:

“For a country that is the world’s greatest democracy – and one that regularly pats itself on the back for this distinction, hawking its native political theories as avidly as it does its soap and its pop stars – it is remarkable how deficient our political system is. A particularly insidious element of this deficiency is the ignorance of the electorate about their government.”

This once again takes us back to the question animating this essay: Who deserves to be a citizen? The answer may be that very few indeed deserve this distinction. Contemporary electorates, often immense, unwieldy, ignorant of current affairs, and complacent about the responsibilities of citizenship may simply be incapable of meeting the needs of contemporary democratic governance. Citizenship and the vote, if they are to be meaningful and lead to effective governance, requires a citizenry deeply inculcated with civic virtue and knowledgeable of the state’s affairs, and one which has proven its willingness to fight and sacrifice for the political community.

Of course, I am neither advocating nor defending the limited franchise of the Terran Federation as a practical system for governing nation-states today – and neither did Heinlein. For one thing, I have doubts about whether in such a society the rights and freedoms of non-citizens can be adequately protected for long, even if there are explicit constitutional provisions for this purpose. What is more, I am uncertain about what type of service or qualification process would be appropriate for shaping a ‘good citizen’, as civics courses and military service alone appear inadequate. In Heinlein’s view the closest contemporary state to his preferred system of democratic governance is Switzerland.

What I am more certain about is that Fukuyama’s declaration that we have reached the end of history may be premature. The technological revolutions we are seeing today could so profoundly change us that in a few decades, we may scant recognize ourselves. Political and economic liberalism may no longer be up to the challenges we face, and innovative experiments in governance will be necessary to meet these challenges. This is one of the reasons I was motivated to participate in the GovFaces project. GovFaces is a novel platform which allows those citizens truly concerned about the fate of their political community to interact with the politicians who carry out the day-to-day functions of government, learning and contributing at the same time. In the context of the upcoming May 2014 European Parliamentary elections, this is especially exciting because the European Union is an entity which is still in the process of being formed and open to the influence of its citizens. I hope that GovFaces, and myself, can contribute positively to this process.

A scene from Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 cult-classic film Starship Troopers.

*An aspiring citizen can only become a soldier after having completed the service, which can last as little as two years or a life-time. This excludes the possibility that the military dominates government, although effectively all citizens end up being military veterans in one way or another.

**Naturalized citizens may be one of the major exceptions in this regard, because in many (though certainly not all) cases they have to make immense efforts, weather through conscious cultural-linguistic assimilation or citizenship tests, to become citizens. Military veterans in countries without conscription and some civil servants may also be exceptions because of their conscious decision to dedicate themselves and endure hardships in service of the polity.

SOURCES

  • Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein, 1959
  • The End of History?, Francis Fukuyama, 1989
  • The Visible Hand, The Economist, 2012
  • The Nature of Federal Service, James Gifford, 1996
  • DULCE ET DECORUM EST(1), Wilfred Owen, 1918
  • Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power, David Rothkopf, 2005

Farzan Sabet is the co-editor of the GovFaces Blog. He is a doctoral candidate in International History and teaching assistant at in Development Studies and International Affairs the Graduate Institute, Geneva, and co-founder and managing editor of IranPolitik.com. 

Items posted in the Press Review and Analysis & Opinion sections do not necessarily reflect the views of GovFaces. We also welcome contributions to the Analysis & Opinion section. Please contact blog@govfaces.com for details.

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  • Blackwolf

    Actually, that’s incorrect: In Heinlein’s book, anyone can become a citizen, and service in the military is not required – only service to the public. Service meant any sort of public service, not, as is often assumed, since the book focused on military personnel, military service. Public service included positions in government as a functionary or clerk (not a politician), police, fire fighters, medical, forestry, and even librarians, but those are not the only public service positions by far. Heinlein even states in the book that someone who is handicapped and ineligible for military service could still become a citizen by “serving”.