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So Say We All: Battlestar Galactica and Liberalism

Battlestar Galactica is not a show about liberalism. It’s primarily a show that acts as a metaphor for post-9/11 America. But in that exploration of terrorism, 9/11, and reactions to it, BSG offers rich ground for exploring the philosophy that underpins American politics (even the conservatives): liberalism. What’s more, the genre of science fiction in which BSG operates is a perfect medium for exploring an ideology that is rooted in a mythical state of nature. Warning: Major spoilers after the cut, so enter at your own risk.

Liberalism, a Down and Dirty Definition

Liberalism is an ideology fundamentally about individual freedom. The best society allows individuals to live as they choose. So why, then, would society want government? Government enters into the equation because people are self-interested, and as such will end up encroaching on the freedom of others in the course of pursuing their own goals. This is why people enter into a social contract that allows a limited government.

This VERY basic definition comes mostly from Locke, who I feel offers a good foundation on which to rest this analysis since much of American liberal ideology rests on Jefferson’s initial interpretation of the Second Treatise on Government in the Declaration of Independence. I’m not forgetting Rawls and other modern American liberal theorists, but for the purposes of a single blog post, I would like to stick to this particular strain of thought because it is the lifeblood of our politics.

A quirk of liberal theory that I would like to keep in mind is the state of nature: that mythical space where government doesn’t exist and which represents humanity at its most basic. Locke says this place is inconvenient and that people are prone to take your shit. The state of nature does two things: it sets up the idea that no one is really better than anyone else and it also suggests that you can’t really trust people. As you read, keep the idea of mistrust and individual freedom in mind.

The Liberalism in Battlestar Galactica

I like to think of BSG as a show about living with liberalism. Locke didn’t invent liberalism; he just expressed a way of thinking that valued individual freedom over all else, but he never lived with that political reality or even the name liberalism.It wasn’t until Jefferson plagiarized the Second Treatise of Government for the Declration that theory entered into a working political system. What BSG does very well is take a system that has had some years to evolve into working institutions, and critique it.

Individual Freedom

BSG begins with humanity losing the luxury of individuality. With around 50,000 humans left in the universe, the moral imperative becomes not individual freedom, but survival. As Laura Roslin notes at the end of the miniseries, “We need to start making babies.” The other side to this coin are the cylons, the eight models (you meet a few more later) we meet at the beginning pulled between desiring the unified consciousness they value and the burgeoning individuality their newly evolved, humanoid personalities seek.

Within the surviving band of humans, freedom is given up under threat, but no one feels good about it. The most interesting study in this is Lee Adama, the son of the admiral, the ace pilot, the perfect military man and son. He joins the institution most likely to strip away your selfhood for the good for the good of the many, and he’s damn good at his job. Halfway through the series, though, Lee takes up the law, Roslin’s democratic foil to Adama’s fighting instinct. At the start of the series, Roslin calls Lee “Captain Apollo.” Lee corrects her, saying Apollo is just his call sign. Roslin says, “Captain Apollo has a nice ring to it.” See what she did? She gave him something a little different from everyone else, the thought that he is not part of a mass. So it’s hardly surprising when he leaves the military to explore his democratic options.

Lee’s most interesting moments are at the trial of Gaius Baltar. Lee is nervous, shy, ashamed at what his peers will say but also determined to do the right thing. In the closing statements that will let Baltar off the hook (much to the horror of Roslin herself), Lee says:

We make our own laws now; our own justice. And we’ve been pretty creative in finding ways to let people off the hook for everything from theft to murder. And we’ve had to be, because … because we’re not a civilization anymore. We are a gang, and we are on the run, and we have to fight to survive. We have to break rules. We have to bend laws. We have to improvise.

Each of the humans, in this moment of hideous survival, are making their own rules according to their rational self-interest. Sure, Baltar surrendedered to the cylons on New Caprica, but what would anyone have done? Baltar really had no social contract to be beholden to. Once those nukes stripped away humanity, well, all bets were off and people can’t go around pretending we’re a unified people. No, everyone’s on their own, and everyone’s got to do whatever they can do to keep going. It’s the individual that’s at stake here, not humanity, because without the ability to make individual decisions about what’s best for number one, everyone’s going to die.

The cylons add another dimension to this. In the episode “Six of One,” we see the cylons at their most divided. The seemingly cohesive cylon society is seen splintering over whether to allow their foot-soldier models to have sentience. As we learn in this episode, the Raiders and the Centurions are thinking models whose sentience is shaved down so that they do not find themselves. The cylons divide over whether to allow these models to evolve to greater intelligence or to continue to suppress their individuality.

Before this episode, the cylons are all collective consciousness and creepy threeways with Gaius Baltar. In this episode, we see a serious division. This comes to a head when one of the Sharon models defects over the Cavil’s side. Apparently, a model has never voted against itself, becoming an individual on its own. 2s and 3s and 4s may disagree, but you’ll never see two 3s fighting over cake and pie. The cylons, too, are fighting this battle because if they don’t find their indidual freedom, then they might be up shit creek with the humans.

How does all of this talk of individual freedom end? It ends (giant, motherfraking spoiler here so just fraking stop if you haven’t watched this show) when the humans find our Earth, our space and a bunch of proto-humans to mate with. The cylons lose their ability for resurrection and decide to stick around, fuck some humans and make some Heras. And the cylons give some individuality to the Centurions, who go off somewhere to do their own thing. At the end of it all, the individual thrives, the decisions we make, stupid and idiotic and dumb as they are, carry weight. Humans don’t make a city, no, they  go their own way and figure it out. Liberalism: allowing stupid decisions for all.

And as I watched this ending, I got warm fuzzies, all the while yelling at the screen, “You idiots!” Which is exactly how I feel about American liberalism. The individual is important to me. So is freedom. I want all of us to make our own decisions, but sometimes I’m just not sure those are the best for the worst off.

The State of Nature

BSG is located in a space both after and before the state of nature. The social contract is glimpsed at the beginning, as Laura Roslin attends to her bureaucratic ceremonial duties and then, by some freak of mathematics, is made president in an emergency effort to retain representative democracy should the worst happen. But as Lee says, they’re just a band. A ragtag bunch of nobodies who are making it up as they go along. The show stays in this proto-state of nature for a while, until everyone lands on earth, shoots the fleet into the sun, and goes back to nature entirely.

The BSG state of nature is much more hopeful than Locke imagined it. People can be rotten (hello, Tom Zarek, meet Gaius Baltar), but they can also be really great or simply complexly nasty (Starbuck and even Roslin). The BSG state of nature is maybe a little more Rawlsian. I know I said I’d like to stick to Locke, but maybe Rawls can help us work around this. Rawls defines not a state of nature, but a Veil of Ignorance. When policies are made, no one knows if they are the worst off or the best off, leading to decisions that will benefit you if, once you enter the real world, you happen to be the worst off in society.

Let me put this out there: I’ve always hated the state of nature. It makes no sense to me to imagine a time without government because I seriously doubt that humanity never had government. Maybe millions of years ago when we first climbed out of the rift valley, but I doubt it was anything like Locke imagined. Rawls solves this problem by making it more of a thought experiment, but then again, we can’t divorce our experiences from our political decisions. If you take the state of nature as simply a way of saying we are equal, then okay, I can buy it, but as a justification and explanation for government? No way.

That said, the BSG state of nature flips the distrust of people inherent in Locke’s state of nature by making it full of the promise of life and humanity. Adama asks early in the series why they are even bothering to save themselves. The final episode shows it’s because they’re people, just muddling through, no better than any other cylon or any other human.

It’s the same idea that we are all no better than any other that Locke first proposed, but it’s distrust of everyone else is tempered by grief. By the end of BSG, everyone is exhausted by death, fear, and the categorization of us and them. No one wants to move and it’s much easier, after all of that bullshit, to call it a day and let people be people. Of course the final (very cheap) trick the show plays on us is to see us all going the same way again. All this (this state of nature, this crazy push for freedom) has happened before, and all this will happen again. Maybe, BSG is suggesting that we’re never really outside of the state of nature. All of the social contract hooey is just a story we tell ourselves to pretend we’re good enough to make our own decisions.

Where does this leave us?

Ultimately, I think the show embraces the ideas of individual freedom and even takes some hope from the state of nature. After all, where things go wrong is when the side-effects of liberaism are allowed to run unchecked. Here I am thinking  of the distrust of the Other. Liberalism has a funny way of categorizing people. Since we’re all equal, we can’t have class. But we can judge people on their ability to make the most of themselves and on whether they are allowing others to have their way. The cylons, ultimately, destroy the human race because humanity doesn’t want to allow them to be because in their being, they threaten our being. And the humans throw it right back at them.

I like to end this as Roslin delivers one of the more ironic line of the show, “All right, Admiral Adama. As President, I have determined the cylons be made extinct. The use of biological weapons is authorized.” Adama sighs, “So say we all.” And she laughs softly, “… So say we all.” Those words of democracy that say everyone has had their say and agrees to a contract that protects their interests, turned to take it all away from those who threaten it most, the Other. And everything goes to fraking hell from there.

Everything about liberalism in this show is done with a wink. Yes, ultimately the balance rests on individual freedom and a social contract, but these people have lived with the best and worst liberalism has to offer and know enough to laugh a little when saying, “So say we all.”

What I didn’t talk about

A lot. This show is deep, y’all, but this is maybe a first step, an initial foray into understanding what a popular text can say about a system that is in our blood. I didn’t read a lot of extra stuff while I did this. Most of the critiques of this show are really about George Bush and 9/11, which is all well and good. Some of the better writing I ever saw about the show was on Television Without Pity (the analysis of Six of One played a role in this). Jacob does a very good job of bringing in larger themes and not making this all about post 9-11 America.

Episodes referenced here:

  • “Six of One”
  • The miniseries (which really isn’t as interesting as the rest of the series)
  • “A Measure of Salvation”
  • “Crossroads”
  • “Daybreak” Parts 1, 2 and 3

Leave your ideas/critiques/thoughts on future stuff in the comments! I love hearing them! This is deep shit, so I definitely love the collaboration.

11 replies on “So Say We All: Battlestar Galactica and Liberalism”

Interesting! I also disagree on a number of points, especially this: “At the end of it all, the individual thrives, the decisions we make, stupid and idiotic and dumb as they are, carry weight”

That was absolutely, emphatically not the ending I got out of that show. At the end, all human decisions were meaningless: the day was saved not by human (or cylon) action, but by a deus ex machina in the form of dead Racetrack’s trigger finger. Individuals don’t make decisions–they’re just borne inexorably along in a tide of events.

I think the first season, maybe season and a half is a better example for what you’re trying to get at. Those episodes really focus on the weighing of needs of the collective vs. the individual. I’m thinking here of 33, Water, Bastille Day, Final Cut–these episodes are about negotiating a balance between two goods in a world gone batshit. I think the show, at its best, is about making a society–about how individuals can best relate to and find meaning in each other. Which is the concern of political theory and science generally, not just liberalism.

I think there’s also a postcolonialist criticism/reading to be had here, but I’ll be the first person to admit I don’t know shit about poco theory, so I’m going to leave it well alone.

I guess I should just disclaim the fact that I watched BSG since the beginning and I’m still mad at it for putting me through the damn wringer. Seasons 3 and 4 are basically dead to me.

I actually don’t think the “point” at the end of the show is either the point you propose or the point sallysassypants proposes because it’s actually both (more or less). Individuals absolutely do make decisions, and those decisions have meaning and carry weight … for them. Those decisions (and resulting action/inaction) may not be consequential to the fate of the humans/cylons, but that doesn’t mean those decisions didn’t happen, or are devoid of meaning. And, in fact, that’s a pretty anemic idea of meaning – impacting directly the fate of all humanity – if that’s what you’re boiling it down to.

The individuals, human and cylon, in BSG are trapped in a set of shitty/weird/impossible circumstances and in systems over which they have little control; however, they are still agents in very basic ways, even in their choice to live (the foundational existential choice). You may not agree with the sentiment, but I think the show is very clear on this point.

I totally agree that the ending of BSG was really unsatisfying. And i totally agree about the post-colonial criticism in it as well. I have many problems about Sharon’s portrayal in the show.

I think the ending, too could be read how you see it and the other way. I think the All this has happened before and all this will happen again gets more to your point, but I think that this it also has the promise of opportunity and the willingness to change.

I don’t know that I am totally behind your analysis here, and I’m actually quite skeptical about calling the post-cylon apocalypse BSG world any kind of proper state of nature, and I also have some serious quibbles with your reading and application of Locke, I do agree that BSG is largely a show about negotiating liberalism, and it plays on our both simple and sophisticated ideas about what constitutes liberalism.

I think we see a fascinating parallel story between the humans and cylons, where humans are thrust into circumstances where they have to negotiate their individual freedoms/expressions of individuality with the pressures of the common good (for humans only initially, but the cylons eventually come into consideration, too), and the cylons are thrust into circumstances where have to negotiate their adherence to the common good (for cylons initially, although things get complicated when the human-appearing cylons become self-aware as cylons) with a burgeoning recognition of individual freedoms/expressions of individuality. This bilateral negotiation is really the heart of liberalism, providing the central tension that limited government is, in normal circumstances, supposed to deal with.

One key way in which we see this negotiation take place on BSG is, unsurprising, in the portrayal of systems of representative government (human and cylon). (That there is government with authority – if contested authority – until we get to Earth at the end of the series is one of the reasons I don’t think we can say the vast majority of BSG analogizes a state of nature.) The show throws opens up question such as: “what constitutes representation?” “is representative government possible under these conditions?” “is representation a value that can get traded away just like everything else?” “is representative government relevant?” “from where does representative government get its authority?” … and so on. Lots of interesting stuff there.

Thanks for the critique. I always struggle with whether Locke is where to start or whether it’s more worthwhile to start with someone more contemporary, but I do feel strongly that Locke has a large role to play here.

And a question I just thought of from yours is when do we get to a point where we have to renegotiate the terms of government? Do we throw this aside for a temporary state of nature and reevaluate where we are? And of course, I’m never going to be comfortable using the state of nature because I’ve never really gotten behind the premise, but at some point you do need to deal with it if you are going take up the idea of liberal theory. I might not have hit it on the head here, but I do sense a sort of renegotiating of the terms of the social contract from within a space that both is and is not governed (does that make sense?).

At any rate, I completely value everything you have to say and am very pleased to get this type of feedback!

“I do sense a sort of renegotiating of the terms of the social contract from within a space that both is and is not governed (does that make sense?).”

Yes, and – at risk of getting too esoteric – I think you have resources in Locke to think about this, but those resources aren’t really in Locke’s state of nature, which is a very specific condition (and one that is much less bleak, I think, than your gloss on it), but in the mechanics of civil society and government that allow government to be dissolved – allow the right of revolution – without everything going to hell in a handbasket (as in Hobbes) and society disappearing. The choice isn’t simply between the state of nature or government: Locke, and other liberal theorists, imagine intermediate (non-temporal) “states” between the two. These “states” take on different names – the people, the community, society, civil society, the nation, etc. etc. etc. – but they complicate the picture, and complicate it in ways that I think would be useful to you in thinking about the “space” in which BSG operates.

In terms of BSG, it is worth asking whether the terms of government are being renegotiated at any given time, or if the terms of the social contract are being renegotiated at any given time. This opens up interesting questions, actually, about human/cylon interaction; for example, do cylons posing as humans tacitly consent to a social contract by entering human society? That kind of thing obviously strays into the nitty-gritty, but I think BSG challenges us to think about them.

Really, I’m picking at theory-specific things that don’t exactly enthrall a general audience, and I know this basic liberalism stuff is just a starting point for you for discussing BSG. I don’t mean to be obnoxious with my critique because my intention is to further the discussion as you requested and to prompt more questions for possible future installments on BSG.

This is absolutely the direction I want this to go in and I really appreciate this. Being outside of academia, I sometimes am too separate from the more esoteric questions, but they are just as important as the more surface, practical concerns. I really appreciate this types of pushes. I’m not really responding to what you are saying here, obviously, because I have a lot to think about. I think this is definitely more of a series, and perhaps I’ll have to do some mapping of where I can take this.

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