Throughout the years, there have been many suggestions and arguments made about what the Borg could represent. The most common one I have seen is to compare the collective to communism. Certainly, there are parallels, but I have other thoughts.
In Star Trek, analogies are often held loosely, and shows are written to be intentionally vague. The nature of postmodern art is that the meaning is supposed to be left up to the viewer. What is true for you, is simply true. If the Borg speak of communism to you, then that is what they represent. Simultaneously, the Borg may speak to others of consumerism, or of colonialism, and that is equally true. They do not have to mean one universal thing to everyone.
Of course, when it came to writing my Voyager fanfiction, I had to make a decision about the Borg. I researched what others had to say. I do not like to make arbitrary judgements all on my own; I wanted to listen to what the Borg meant to the fandom before I decided on how to write them. Only then did I go back and rewatch Borg-focused episodes and features, with the goal of choosing for myself what I thought they could represent. What follows is my own interpretation, so take it for what it’s worth.
The initial concept behind the Borg was to create an impossible adversary. “The Borg are the ultimate user,” Q told the Enterprise-D’s senior staff in the episode Q Who. “They’re unlike any threat your Federation has ever faced. They’re not interested in political conquest, wealth, or power as you know it. They’re simply interested in your ship, its technology. They’ve identified it as something they can consume” (TNG 2x16). They did not respond to the usual tactics. Discussion and diplomacy were useless. They did not listen, did not care to listen or reason with you. There was no reason; there was only consumption. They took what they wanted and felt no remorse.
The great irony of the episode is that it showed how much Q and Picard mirrored one another—and, by extension, the continuum and the Federation. Picard accuses Q of being egocentric and proud, and says that the Q wrongfully believe they have the right to judge so-called lesser species simply because of their superior abilities. Yet, Starfleet is just as haughty. Picard believes that they are prepared to face anything they find in the final frontier of space, because humanity has evolved and learned how to handle conflict. In the end, Picard is forced to face their very real frailty in the face of the Borg.
Picard’s words to Guinan at the end are, I think, the crux of the entire episode. “Maybe Q did the right thing for the wrong reasons…. Perhaps what we most needed was a kick in our complacency to prepare us for what lies ahead.” At the climax of the show, and in his reflective dialogue with Guinan, Picard begins to realize that the Federation has become too proud, just as he accused Q of being. Picard acknowledges his shortcomings, his weakness, and he admits to Q that he needs the entity’s help. The Borg cannot be defeated by Federation ingenuity alone, and attempting to do so would likely lead to their own downfall.
From there, the Borg developed a great deal more depth and complexity, often in controversial ways. Initially, they could be seen as an other creature, an alien. They were not anything like us. They were beyond anything we could comprehend. As they developed, however, they became too much like us, and that upset a lot of fans. For some, that took away from the fear factor; for me, it deepened it.
In fact, I see the Borg as being a projection, or a warning, of what humanity has the possibility to become. It is uncomfortable because it shows us the dark side of that which makes us human—the drive to be more, better, than what we are.
The quest for perfection is explicitly stated as the central goal of the Borg, and yet it is our own goal, as well. ‘Anything you can do, I can do better.’ This is the very thing that makes us grow as a species. Competition drives self-improvement. It inspires us to achieve higher and higher goals. When we see someone accomplish the improbable, we idolize them. Yet, the moment something great is accomplished, someone else immediately begins to work out how to push that accomplishment even further. We hunger and thirst to overcome challenges. We are constantly raising the bar higher. This is the essence of our species.
This, of course, is obvious. Still, many resist seeing themselves within the Borg. At least, they insist, we do not have to assimilate others to better ourselves like the Borg do.
We colonize. We steal land and assets, and we exploit or slaughter those from whom we took it.
We appropriate what we like from other cultures without bothering to understand or appreciate the meaning of what we took within its rightful context. We are not interested in the culture itself, or the people who created those cultures. We simply consume them, assimilating their work into our own structure, divorcing it from the culture that gave it birth and life and meaning, and claiming it as our own.
We force or coerce minority populations to assimilate into majority culture. We do not hate you, we insist. We wish to make you better. Why would anyone resist? Everyone should want to be like us. Many times, this attitude can hide under a guise of tolerance; it is perfectly fine to be black, or Latino, or Jewish, or female, or LGBTQ, or disabled, or old, or mentally ill, or poor—but only if you can think and act like the rest of us. Thus, we erase the other, and commit cultural genocide.
This is precisely what the Borg do, and they succeed because of it. It has made them a juggernaut, an unbeatable opponent, and it is easy to struggle with the fear that it is useless to fight back. “Resistance is futile,” they say, and more often than not, they are right.
Yet, something in you resists anyway, something that frustrates the Borg because they cannot understand it. Why would anyone resist an opportunity to be the best?
The cost of perfection is too great. Uniqueness and diversity are absolutely worth preserving; this is the lesson we learn as we watch the Borg. We cheer for the Enterprise, and for Voyager. We fall for Hugh, Seven of Nine, and One. We are incensed on behalf of the Borg children who never had a chance to be individuals or to make their own choices at all, until Seven gave them that chance. In this, we begin to understand why everyone must be free to be uniquely themselves, why we must respect and preserve diversity rather than appropriating and destroying others for selfish gain. In this, we come to understand that homogeny is death.
Then, along comes the spider—the Borg queen. Who, or what, is she? What does she represent?
The queen was left, as is the tendency, incredibly vague at her inception. This opened up a great deal of discourse about her. “I am the Borg,” she tells Data (Star Trek: First Contact). She is the personification of the collective consciousness, the one who is many. She is a paradox—an individual who is not truly an individual, but rather the composite of billions of individuals linked together to think as one mind.
She is the mob mentality.
She is a collection of internalized oppression that has been turned against others, oppressing them in the very same way she has been oppressed.
She is the authoritarian who insists that she acts with the will of the people, but who is blinded to the reality of her oppressive power over them. She does not fully comprehend that because of her power and privilege, she is merely bending them to her will.
She believes in what she is doing. She, like Q and Picard, believes her actions are for the greater good. Individuals are children, or second-class people. They are inferior and stupid, and they need someone to force them to become that which they have the potential to be but stubbornly resist. She may appreciate a few unique flourishes that they can add to the collective, and may appropriate some of their ideas and innovations for her own culture. Still, it will not change the fact that all others are inferior and must be assimilated for their own good, and the good of the collective.
It is a basic truth that power corrupts. We do not know how the queens came to be, but clearly they have begun to lose sight of the ideals that used to drive the Borg. The more we see the queens, and the more humans come into conflict with them directly, the more twisted and corrupt they become. In time, they almost seem to be human themselves.
How many times have we watched this happen? We put someone with great promise on a pedestal, hoping that maybe they can bring us closer to perfection. Then, they turn on us, and use us for their selfish gain instead. How do you fight back when, by the time you realize what has happened, the person in power has the ability to control you in every possible way?