Starship Troopers is perhaps the best-known novel of science fiction master Robert A. Heinlein. Unlike many science fiction novels, the longevity of Starship Troopers’ reputation has at least as much to do with controversies over its themes as the quality of the writing and storytelling. I am afraid there is no getting around using the f-word here—there is significant debate as to whether Starship Troopers, which glorifies martial virtues and a highly authoritarian political constitution, is fascist. This debate is muddied by the 1997 movie based on the book, which the filmmakers intentionally used as an artistic opportunity to engage in a reductio ad absurdum of militaristic culture. Putting the movie aside, I want to explore the political economy of the novel itself. My claim is simple: Starship Troopers is not fascist. Instead, it is an exploration of certain sociopolitical truths that, if ignored, doom a civilization to self-parody by the hemorrhaging of civic virtue.
The novel, told from the perspective of infantryman Juan “Johnnie” Rico, primarily depicts the transformation of a civilian into a soldier. But it is also a commentary on the qualities of a political structure that result in a durable social order. The novel is set centuries into the future, where earth is part of a polity called the Terran Federation, a spacefaring civilization that extends humanity throughout the galaxy. In this civilization, all high school students are required to take a course titled “History and Moral Philosophy,” which must be taught by a veteran of the armed services. Johnnie’s teacher, retired Lt. Col. Dubois, recounts to his students how the “twentieth century democracies” gradually experienced a breakdown in domestic law and order. This occurred as these polities continued to grant more and more rights to their citizens, but did not impose accompanying responsibilities. One result was a spike in crime, such that public spaces were no longer safe at nighttime and many were not safe during the day.
Later in the novel, we learn that international military disaster accompanied domestic political disorder. A vaguely described war—between the “Chinese Hegemony” and an alliance of the United States, Britain, and Russia on the other—so exhausts the Western polities that they lose the ability to even maintain order within the armed services. With the breakdown in social order, veterans of this war eventually take the law into their own hands. They form gangs to police their towns and cities, imposing martial law without any civilian oversight—of which it is unclear there could be any, given the previously mentioned political atrophy. At first, this is unmistakably nothing more than vigilante justice. But through sheer force, they are capable of maintaining a rudimentary peace. The order of martial law is a low form of order; no great civilization can flourish with a boot on its neck. But eventually, not through any formal grant of legitimacy via democratic processes but a gradual acceptance of the new ad hoc regime, regularity returns to the social world. On-the-spot justice gives way to regular procedures for ascertaining guilt and assigning punishment to perceived criminals. As these practices become institutions, civilization shifts from one sociopolitical equilibrium to another. With regularity comes justified expectations of future behavior by the new government, and along with it the rule of law, and the return of some semblance of democratic and parliamentary governance. The chief difference is that society is now quasi-Spartan: only those with a military background can participate in the governance of the polity; key civilian positions are reserved by law for veterans; and those who do not perform at least two years of federal service cannot exercise “sovereign franchise.” That is, they cannot vote.
At various points in the novel, this narrative is referred to in order to point out two important truths about governance. These truths are explored through the interplay of Johnnie’s character development and his eventual comprehension of his society’s governance structures. The first of these truths has to do with the nature of sovereignty. In the real world, we tend to view sovereignty in ethical terms. We answer “Who rules?” by asking, “Who ought to rule?” This is how we continue to affirm democratic legitimacy even though it is obvious that the will of the people has little to do with how modern Western polities are actually governed. This is shown by elites’ panic over the Brexit vote, and closer to home, the admittedly troubling possibility of a President Trump. In contrast, the characters in Starship Troopers have no truck with romantic theories of governance that have no basis in reality. At its root, sovereignty is power, which means force. The quasi-military government of Starship Troopers exists because the founders of the Terran Federation, back when they were little more than a vigilante mob, were willing to impose themselves on others. As it became clear that nobody could oppose them, they became the new de facto government, and eventually the new de jure government. The essential truth of sovereignty, in terms of who actually rules, is that sovereignty is inevitable and, in a higher sense, arbitrary. Why do veterans govern the Terran Federation? The only possible answer is because they can. To be clear: This is not a claim that social order requires violence. It is the claim, as historically robust a truth as can be found, is that someone, somewhere, will wield the sword. To the extent that our political constitutions can be founded on “reflection and choice,” our choice is not power versus self-governance, but responsible versus irresponsible power.
Now we see why so many worry about the glorification of fascism in Starship Troopers. Heinlein had the audacity to explore a world where Sparta works, and is durable. Understandably, this puts our Athenian sensibilities on Red Alert. The novel’s justifications for franchise restrictions, perhaps the ultimate blasphemy in our egalitarian-democratic age, highlight a second sociopolitical truth: Any society that decouples rights and responsibilities thereby enables irresponsible power.
Eventually, Johnnie is recognized as officer-caliber material. He is sent to the Terran Federal Service’s equivalent of officer candidate school, which if anything is more grueling than basic training, both physically and mentally. Chapter 12 of the novel illustrates the intimate link between rights, responsibilities, and a well-governed society in the form of a dialogue between a grizzled officer-instructor and a naïve cadet. The instructor asks the cadet for “a reason—not historical nor theoretical but practical,” for limiting the franchise to discharged veterans. The cadet goes through several incorrect explanations—that veterans are higher-quality beings, “picked men,” or that they are “more disciplined”—before he, along with Johnnie and the reader, are enlightened. The instructor begins by wryly asserting, “I handed you a trick question. The practical reason for continuing our system [of limited franchise] is the same as the practical reason for continuing anything: it works satisfactorily.” This is a repeated emphasis on the fundamentals of sovereignty.
The instructor then goes through the restrictions on voting, or the exercise of political power more generally that have existed throughout history, and in what respect the restrictions of the Terran Federation differ. The answer: “Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage…. He may fail in wisdom, he may lapse in civic virtue. But his average performance is enormously better than that of any other class of rulers in history.”
The instructor takes a realistic, and hence grim, view of political power—again, remember the truth of sovereignty!—when he continues, “To vote is to wield authority; it is the supreme authority from which all other authority derives…the franchise is force, naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax. [The fasces! Flee in terror, democrats!] Whether it is exerted by ten or by ten billion, political authority is force.”
Next the instructor singles out Johnnie to complete the narrative. He asks what the necessary complement to authority is, and Cadet Rico answers “Responsibility.” This pleases the instructor, who finishes explaining why the political system of the Terran Federation has been both successful and stable:
Authority and responsibility must be equal—else a balancing takes place as surely as current flows between points of unequal potential. To permit irresponsible authority is to sow disaster; to hold a man responsible for anything he does not control is to behave with blind idiocy. The unlimited democracies [of the twentieth century] were unstable because their citizens were not responsible for the fashion in which they exerted their sovereign authority…. No attempt was made to determine whether a voter was socially responsible to the extent of his literally unlimited authority. If he voted the impossible, the disastrous possible happened instead—and responsibility was then forced on him willy-nilly and destroyed both him and his foundationless temple (emphasis added).
There you have it: The stark recognition that the right to vote is the right to rule, and that the right to rule without the responsibility of bearing the consequences of one’s decisions is a recipe for infantilism writ large. One may dispute whether this specific form of civic virtue is the safest foundation on which a limited franchise rests. But the key point, that there is such a thing as better and worse voters, and that empowering the latter is a sure path to gradual erosion of social cooperation, is sound. It’s also one we desperately need to hear today.
And now, the inevitable caveats. There is some truth to the claim that, on its own, Starship Troopers is a dangerous form of social commentary. Martial glorification is an inherently slippery slope, as any historian of Wilhelmine Germany can attest. Furthermore, the kind of mind sympathetic to highly hierarchical governance is at risk of mistakenly thinking a whole society can be run like a barracks. These impulses must be tempered by exposure to insightful commentary on what happens when power is, despite everybody’s best intentions, exercised irresponsibly, an unfortunately all-too-common occurrence. But all of these caveats do not diminish the wisdom that Starship Troopers conveys, all the more remarkable for being a work of fiction. If we are unwilling to find a way to structure our political institutions such that rights are firmly coupled with responsibility, we will continue to see a ballooning of the former and an erosion of the latter. The result will not be pretty, and we will deserve it.
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