Keep Capitalists Off the Moon

Libertarian think tanks are already gearing up to make the dystopian case for extending private property rights to the Moon. It’s a blueprint for expanding the power of the world’s plutocrats on a scale never seen before.

Astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt collects lunar rake samples from the moon on the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. (NASA)

At its best, futurist thinking represents a flourishing of the human imagination. Emboldened by the invention of new technologies, artists at the turn of the twentieth century envisioned a world largely free of everyday toil, in which the work of machines would allow ordinary people to live fuller and happier lives without the grinding poverty and tedium associated with industrialization. This vision may have reflected a kind of misplaced techno-utopianism, but it was also a genuine expression of progressive thinking in a world of growing class consciousnesses and democratic militancy.

Today, what passes for futurist optimism is often more a sign of civilizational paralysis and economic stagnation — the increasingly absurd billionaire space race offering us a counterfeit vision of utopian promise in the form of climate-destroying vanity flights and dystopian fanfiction about Martian colonies. Unlike earlier iterations of futurism, this plutocrat-manufactured version substitutes the transcendence of earthly inequalities for their extension into the solar system, imagining a century of space exploration planned and carried out by a tiny handful of the world’s wealthiest people. This makes sense insofar as it reflects both the prevailing logic of a top-heavy and decadent global economy and a political order incapable of accommodating real alternatives to the status quo. When a system looks exhausted but reforming it also seems impossible, the only option left is to scale up and hope it yields a better result.

Something like this is at least the implicit premise of a new report from the neoliberal Adam Smith Institute entitled Space Invaders: Property Rights on the Moon, which mounts a Lockean case for the ownership of land off-world. To researcher Rebecca Lowe’s credit, the argument is intellectually quite rigorous and represents a philosophically consistent application of classical liberal thinking. Noting that earlier, more universalist frameworks for the exploration of space feel less viable today than they did in the 1950s or ’60s, Lowe proceeds to consider an approach that is neither nationally or globally based and would instead see individuals “to attain morally-justified property rights in space.”

She’s certainly correct that anything resembling the egalitarian vision of space once represented in the popular imagination by something like Star Trek looks decidedly more distant in a world of transnational competition and disempowered nation states. She’s also right to recognize that the codification of rules and regulations surrounding interstellar colonization are bound to be complex and also that debates about them will inevitably reflect unresolved disputes about the design of existing human societies.

In true libertarian fashion, the case for property rights is asserted as axiomatic and advanced as fundamentally egalitarian in spirit. “Moral property rights,” Lowe writes, “are rights that simply reflect truths about morality, and which do not depend on positive law.” While democratic nations, she argues, may be in a position to “share fairly amongst their citizens the opportunities of the national appropriation of space,” the existence of authoritarian societies means some will be unable to reap the off-world bounty:

Under such [national] approaches, for instance, if democratic Country A was newly allowed to appropriate a certain amount of space land, then separable parts of this amount could, for instance, be made up for grabs amongst competing citizens, on fair terms. But the same could not be expected from authoritarian regimes. There is an egalitarian argument, therefore, that the arbitrary oppression of opportunity that some individuals already face simply by being born in, or otherwise inhabiting, particular countries should not be further entrenched by a nation-focused approach to the governance of space opportunities.

Ethically speaking, it’s not a bad argument. Having basic egalitarian commitments, after all, implies not wanting people to be disadvantaged by the circumstances of their birth or subject to what Lowe calls “arbitrary oppression” — of opportunity or otherwise. The irony is that market societies have such oppression built-in by design, and that modern apologists for inequality regularly invoke property rights as the preeminent justification for not eliminating it. According to this line of thinking, properly functioning markets offer everyone the same opportunities to own and to compete.

The problem, of course, is that they do nothing of the kind. Market societies are, by definition, also class societies in which a comparatively small few own and a much larger group must earn subsistence through wage labor. The latter group produces, while the former extracts rents and skims the surplus value. In lieu of radical measures like the complete abolition of inherited wealth from one generation to the next, “equality of opportunity” is a total mirage and markets inevitably yield social relations defined by entrenched domination.

This obviously has profound implications on its own. But it’s also relevant if we’re considering hypothetical frameworks for the future use of space. What is presently called “private space exploration,” after all, is in practice the domain of a few exorbitantly wealthy billionaires, and there’s no particular reason to think that would change with the extension of property rights onto the Moon.

Putting aside the question of whether lunar colonization will ever be viable or commercially profitable to begin with, the inherent asymmetries in global capitalism mean that any realistic version of it will simply project structural inequality into the heavens: a small few among those who are already rich will own and profit, while others will work and attempt to subsist. (One clue in this regard was offered by none other than Elon Musk when he was asked about the high costs of transport to Mars. His answer? That those unable to afford the price of a trip could take out loans and pay them off by toiling in Martian sweatshops upon arrival.) Equality of opportunity under a system of lunar property rights is thus every bit as mythical as its earthly equivalent.

Rigorous and systematic as it is, Lowe’s proposal therefore suffers from a broader problem inflecting much of what passes for futurist thinking today: namely, that it remains bound up in the logics of the very status quo it promises to transcend. While virtually every era struggles to see beyond its own horizons, what the late Mark Fisher called capitalist realism arguably makes ours unique in this respect. From billionaire-led space exploration to cryptocurrency to the so-called Metaverse, the various technologies and schemes currently claiming the futurist mantle are so inexorably constrained by their allegiance to capital that they are ultimately strained of emancipatory potential.

Plutocracy is bad enough on earth. If humanity ever does expand into the heavens, let’s hope it’s in a future that has left billionaires and class hierarchies far behind.