We Can’t Leave Outer Space to the Capitalists

Space policy is already a site of class struggle, and the mining and militarization haven’t even begun. It’s left-wing space policy or barbarism.

A SpaceX Falcon9 rocket blasts off the launch pad on Wednesday, February 11, 2015. (Red Huber / Orlando Sentinel / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

The world’s most irritating oligarchs all want to be astronauts, from Jeff Bezos to Elon Musk and Richard Branson. When SpaceX’s April rocket launch ended in a “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” schadenfreude was inevitable. After all, these men are taking wealth ripped from their exploited workforces and siphoned from the public through state subsidies and launching it into space. They’re basically conscripting warehouse workers, delivery drivers, and beneficiaries of tax-funded programs into the role of Atlas, eternally struggling to hold up the sky. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking, under these circumstances, that humanity is better off remaining earthbound.

But all of this is precisely why the Left can’t ignore space. Between distaste for its boosters, very real concern about its environmental impact, and an entirely reasonable prioritization of any of the infinite array of social and economic concerns on Earth, space policy has hardly been a focus for the Left. But that’s a mistake, as space is an issue of deceptively paramount importance for our immediate and long-term futures.

Space Policy Is Already an Arena of Class Struggle

It’s quite possible that space policy will begin to impact Earth’s working class as soon as in the next two decades. Consider this: vast quantities of critical materials are available in space, and we can be sure that capitalists are looking upward eagerly at them. The importation of these resources at any scale will cause severe economic disruption. Minerals remain a cornerstone of many economies around the world, and shifts in their prices would have economic consequences for millions, maybe billions, of people.

But we don’t even have to look that far into the future to see the effect of space policy on Earth’s workers. The resources cosmocapitalists may gain in space are no less important than the resources they are already taking from Earth in order to do so. It is not rocket fuel, first and foremost, but the stolen surplus value of Amazon workers that powers Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. SpaceX owes its prosperity to US government subsidies and business — in other words, resources we could be investing elsewhere and profits at the expense of the state. All of this means space policy is an area of class struggle right now.

Moreover, capitalists are currently lacking in productive investment opportunities, with the present economic conjuncture characterized by sclerotic productivity growth and shell-game economics in which desperate investors hurl buckets of cash at glorified scam artists. Space promises likely disillusioned and always profit-motivated capitalists real, material growth and returns. Once private space efforts reach the stage where reliable and low-cost launch is available — a stage they are desperately working toward — we can expect serious investment and speedy developments. This means acting now is important.

The Left’s inattention to space policy is understandable, not least because the Left is in no position to seize control of the skies even in the United States, let alone abroad. There are real reasons we might not want to anyway, but putting that aside for the moment, there is no domestic mass workers’ movement capable of seizing control over an area that both generals and oligarchs are laser-focused on. Even if such a movement could stop space capitalists here at home, they would simply ignore borders and move their facilities to whatever nation would allow them to act on their designs.

The power of capital and the sheer magnetic attraction of space — a resource-rich environment that as far as we know extends infinitely — mean it is virtually inevitable that private space firms will continue to expand for the time being. But despite starting out at an enormous disadvantage, the stakes are too high for the Left to justify not even trying. We must accept that space will continue to grow in importance as a battleground between the haves and have-nots, and that the Left has a natural role in that battle. Our strategy begins with envisioning what that battle would look like, both to see why it is worth fighting and to consider how.

Space Capitalism Will Be a Nightmare

What does capitalism in space look like? Its future is easy to predict based on the past several centuries of capitalism. People sent to man Elon Musk’s moon base would be in a similar position to the men aboard the British vessel Sea-Venture headed to Virginia in 1609. When a storm left them shipwrecked on uninhabited Bermuda, they decided they preferred living there to the starvation and hierarchy of Britain’s first permanent colony in America. Only through a vicious campaign of executions and repression were they forced back onto the Virginia Company’s colonization plan.

Workers in space would be even more dependent on supply lines in a naturally hostile environment than the Sea-Venture’s crew were in Bermuda. Musk could coerce workers into submission by sending his workers decade-stale memes instead of food until they cringed or starved to death, whichever came first. If this seems too spectacular — hopefully starvation would lead to backlash and regulatory response — consider smaller-scale alternatives, like kicking workers’ family members out of extraterrestrial company towns, consigning them to lives of loneliness. Space expands both the mute compulsion of economic power and the coercive capacity of violence that define capitalist political economy on Earth.

Capitalist control of space will threaten us here on Earth, too. Economic and political instability are already sources of profit, but this is at least somewhat constrained by the basic proximity of elites to the rest of us. New Zealand panic bunkers aside, the Peter Thiels of the world cannot fully escape living alongside the working class. They can weaken nations and poison water, but they’d rather keep governments compliant and functioning, at the very least to mitigate risk by rendering investment climates predictable.

But space changes the game. In the medium term, space will create both an escape hatch and release valve for capital. Thiel and Bezos can command their empires from the safety of their moon bases, while market conditions propel desperate workers to staff them. More speculatively, we can imagine subject populations, prisoners, and political enemies deported to Martian oubliettes or lonely asteroids. Capitalists already act like this — moving to tax havens, profiting from prisons — and it is obvious that they will take advantage of the further opportunities space presents for such behavior.

To briefly jump into what might also seem an outlandish, but is a very important, realm, we must also consider the militarization of space. Already, space weapons are a matter of interest. A more sustained extraterrestrial industrial capacity expands this to almost unimaginable possibilities even in the short term. Consider kinetic bombardment, a proposed technology in which objects with high mass, like tungsten rods, could be dropped at orbital speeds onto the Earth, which results in incredible destructive power. At upper feasible limits, these “rods from God” could approach nuclear levels of destruction, without the lasting effects and with the possibility of scaling up or down: kinetic bombardment can destroy cars as easily as cities, which would make deterrence much more fragile if not impossible to maintain. Imagine virtually invincible, nearly undetectable, and infinitely powerful drone weapons.

Whether in the hands of generals or billionaires, this would be a weapon of terrible power. Expansion into the vastness of space would make constraining the development of these and other weapons much more difficult as well. In practice, of course, this is not going to lead to a single Bond villain holding the world at tungsten-rod point. The reality could be even worse: numerous actors doing exactly that, without the deterrent risks of nuclear weapons. War in space imperils Earth.

Even putting aside prospective weapons and considering only existing capabilities, space has vastly more material than Earth. This means that a nation or corporation with serious space capabilities will have profound material advantages, after moving beyond the precarious early stages of space exploration. Beyond material considerations, space expansion also presents enormous diplomatic risks. It is not difficult to imagine how squabbles over an asteroid mine or lunar base could lead to unintended deaths and spiraling escalation — wars have started over far less. Space, in summary, is a force multiplier for every kind of human conflict, and the result will be some combination of subjugation and chaos.

A Leftist Response

As grim as it all sounds, we are not defenseless against the space capitalists. We have our own weapons. First, much of what I have outlined is currently in violation of international treaties. This seems like a flimsy reassurance, given that treaties are violated constantly, but it does buy us time and provide opportunities for alliances. Capitalists will need to sort out the legal and political complications of space before they can weaponize or colonize it. Actors who might otherwise be hostile to many left goals on Earth have shared interests here, and the nightmare scenario I have outlined should be equally terrifying to them.

That said, pessimism and fearmongering can become numbing, and alarmism is a poor foundation on which to build a future, no matter how alarming the alternatives are. Instead, alongside attention to the dangers of capitalism in space, we can organize around a vision of space for the people. Even our brief forays into space have produced an incredible bounty in terms of research, and further experience and exploration holds the possibility of untold realms of knowledge with which we can improve the human condition. The vast resources of space, currently not owned by anyone, can be used to improve conditions on Earth. Why tear up soil full of life when we can tear into lifeless asteroids? And why should capitalists, who have only made it this far on the backs of workers and the state, be allowed to profit from this?

The impact of space on mining exemplifies its broader material possibilities, which could be the foundation of a popular program for space development. Proponents of degrowth rightly point out the finite nature of resources on Earth. Space offers the possibility for resource development, manufacturing, and even habitation that do not — beyond the serious costs required to initially develop a presence in space, which are worth considering and minimizing — harm Earth or the life on it.

Those of us on the left tend to feel understandable revulsion at capitalist greed and the extraction it demands. But production and consumption are not the exclusive province of capitalists, and we do not need to moralize around resources in space. We might find mines ugly and waste immoral on Earth, but the asteroid belt has no exploited population to steal mineral rights from and no water to poison. At its most extreme, space development offers an end to scarcity, and with it the economic coercion capitalism relies on. We can build a new political economy, so long as we keep the old one from dominating this new realm.

Practically achieving this begins with recognizing the need for a left vision of space. As for what that vision looks like, some contours seem already obvious. Nationalization of existing space assets will be necessary but not sufficient — the state and the market are overlapping institutions. Looking further ahead, the cornerstones of capitalism, private property and individual contracts, must not be the basis for life in space. Building on existing laws and norms rejecting property in space, we can construct public-ownership structures beyond the horizon (and hopefully then import them back to Earth). Rather than selling one’s labor on a market, labor in space could likewise be centered around collective benefit. This is practical as well as moral. In the precarious but infinite environment of space, cooperation rather than competition may be competitively favored: socialist communities may be able to survive and thrive in a manner capitalist colonies will not.

As loathsome as some of its most high-profile proponents have been, the argument that humanity should expand beyond Earth is appealing for another reason: it is a simple fact that Earth will eventually become uninhabitable. “Longtermists” obsessed with the distant future have been rightly skewered for prioritizing cosmic simulated minds over real existing ones, but that does not mean we should not care about the far future at all. Human community is the one part of our existence that transcends death, and we should not accept an end to it. For the same reasons that we advocate a sustainable presence on Earth, we should prefer to sustain life, human and otherwise, in the universe more broadly.

And while it’s hardly a rallying cry, the possibilities of life beyond Earth also demand leftist attention to space. Whether it impacts Europan microbes or galactic civilizations, capitalism will be at least as harmful for life in space as it is for life here. “Space colonization” has received well-deserved criticism as a paradigm. The alternative, though, is not withdrawal (which the Left simply does not have the power to compel anyway) but space solidarity: the creation of communities beyond Earth that respect each other and any other life we might encounter, viewing the rest of the universe not as a place to exploit, but as a home away from home, worthy of respect along with its denizens.

Capitalist space visions are houses on sand. Their hope is a lie, and their promised abundance merely colonialist extraction. Leftists can offer real hope for a world of class justice and human dignity. To be clear, the pursuit of this vision must be prioritized appropriately: we cannot sacrifice Earth or its people for a space future. This again is exactly why we must do our best to take the reins of space development, rather than leave the rest of the universe to the rich.