The billionaire space race of the twenty-first century is in full swing. Within the last year, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have themselves travelled into space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched satellites and landed rockets successfully.
These shared achievements do not necessarily reflect shared purpose. As Fred Scharmen explains in his book Space Forces: A Critical History of Life in Outer Space, the protagonists of the space race have different aims for their explorations. Branson is most modest, primarily concerned with creating an industry of space tourism with Virgin Galactic. Bezos is a whole-systems thinker with ambitions to integrate space into his totalising logistics conglomerate: his plan is for an industrial base with ‘millions of people living and working in space’. Musk is perhaps the most philosophical, apparently concerned with the preservation of humanity. He wants to colonise Mars and make ‘humans a multi-planetary species’.
Divergent as their conceptions may be, what’s shared by these billionaires is the ambition to the expand spheres of capitalist accumulation beyond the physical constraints of Earth. The current plan is for a future that would doubtless see the extreme inequalities of capitalism on Earth reproduced beyond it.
Privatise the Moon?
Into this debate recently waded neoliberal think tank the Adam Smith Institute, whose new report Space Invaders: Property Rights on the Moon attempts to challenge the idea that space capitalism must be conducted by and for those with the most wealth and the biggest companies already on Earth. Researcher Rebecca Lowe essentially proposes the privatisation of the moon, putting forward ‘rights-based classical liberal’ system of property for space and outlining the ‘vast benefits’ it could provide.
In Lowe’s system, a free market governed by the forces of supply and demand would determine the size of moon plots available and the rates of rent individuals would have to pay. Proprietors would keep all profits accrued on their plot, but the rents would go to a central fund used to support more individuals to access space travel and therefore compete in the market of extra-terrestrial property. In this way, Lowe argues for the creation of a perfect free market by breaking down barriers to entry. Per the Adam Smith Institute’s liberalism, the state, in this scenario, exists to maintain the conditions of the extra-terrestrial free market and do little else.
Lowe presents her proposals as distinct from the imperfections of billionaire oligopoly. Its ‘vast benefits’, she suggests, include opportunities for new scientific discovery, democratised space exploration, and—perhaps most dubiously—incentives for responsible stewardship of land in space. That’s despite the fact that the commodification of land in this way on Earth is already causing catastrophe.
Commodification and Crisis
The unsustainable extraction and commodification of the Earth’s resources in the pursuit of private profit—something Lowe’s model maintains at its core—is at the root of capitalism’s crises of biodiversity loss, mass species extinction, and global heating. This is all on a planet with an ecosystem far more resilient in itself and for human life than anything we might construct amid the fragility and precarity of outer space.
Space capitalism, then, would have its own structural contradictions beyond those that exist on Earth. We can speculate about its crises based on the history of domestic capitalist overproduction: with the profit motive transplanted into this system of property, space capitalists would be incentivised to extract resources or reconfigure land beyond sustainable limits. Physical safety may be sacrificed. What would the consequences of territorial conflict be? What would be the implications of financial crisis? Would shocks to currency or fuel supply leave people stranded?
Capitalism’s desperate and myopic drive to create new markets from which to profit means these questions are barely considered by either its ideologues or its practitioners. Whatever crises may transpire, however far away they may be, we know that within capitalism they are more likely to be experienced as disaster. We also know that it’s the working class who bare the largest burden, despite having done least to contribute. Of this pattern repeating itself under any form of future space capitalism, we can be sure.
Space Travel for the Masses?
Arguments against space exploration from the Left often begin by questioning why we should spend so much time and resources exploring space while we haven’t sorted out the problems we have here on Earth: poverty, extreme inequality, ecological breakdown. It’s also often highlighted that space exploration has been linked to the terrestrial military-industrial complex: far from solely working to achieve a utopian interplanetary future, SpaceX has, for example, been a regular receiver of Pentagon contracts for the development of military technology. Space exploration and colonisation are not for the working class: these are elite projects serving the narrow territorial and economic interests of those at the top.
There are arguments on the other side, too. Some make a Keynesian case about the value of the investment: whether or not we value space travel in and of itself, the multiplier effect goes into overdrive. Others have agreed with mainstream claims about the broader benefits for scientific innovation which could contribute to solving technological problems on Earth—not that poverty or ecological collapse fall into this category.
The most compelling argument for space travel is probably a humanist one: there’s something transcendental about the achievement of moving beyond our Earthly home and embracing the possibilities and risks of space travel. In this vein, one could mount an argument against a crisis-laden space capitalism but for a vision of ‘space travel for the masses’, utopian as it might be.
Whatever we think about the morality or utility of space exploration, though, these conversations are happening. The Adam Smith Institute is publishing ideas about how to carve up the moon and most efficiently generate profits from its colonisation; Branson, Bezos and Musk are incorporating space travel into their corporate identities and expansion plans—even if those plans consist mostly of using space travel to distract us from the disastrous effects of their class’s hoarding and extractivism here on Earth.
Lowe’s report states: ‘Space is a real-world thought experiment; an infinite canvas on which we have the chance to rethink the lines we should draw.’ Those of us opposed to the universal imposition of capitalist markets should not forgo this opportunity: the drive to privatise the moon (whether under the ownership of the plucky entrepreneur or oligarchic billionaire) should instead provoke conversations about how to place stricter limits on capitalism’s most dangerous excesses. With an eye on space, the principles of such limits could include obligations to avoid exacerbating ecological crises on Earth as part of the new space race, massively bolstering the labour rights of those involved in companies carrying out exploration, and plans for a collective democratic management of property in space—if and when the time comes.
As a pre-condition, we cannot allow the future of human life to continue to be defined either by oligarchic ownership or profit-seeking markets. If capitalism is allowed to continue this kind of blind expansion without resistance, it will be working people—on Earth and perhaps beyond—who experience its most devastating consequences.