Sunday, 22 December 2013

Pioneers wanted! Capitalism, Marxism and living on the moon.

"Space travel leading to skylife is vital to human survival, because the question is not whether we will be hit by an asteroid, but when. A planetary culture that does not develop spacefaring is courting suicide. All our history, all our social progress and growing insight will be for nothing if we perish."

Gregory Benford and George Zebrowski, Skylife, 2000

Starting a discussion of capitalism - in space or anywhere else for that matter - by quoting Rosa Luxemburg isn't a good plan. Dear old Rosa believed that capitalism needs a frontier - a periphery - to succeed. And, like most Marxists who talk about capitalism as if they own the term, Rosa gets it wrong. Still this didn't stop the chap from Lenin's Tomb getting all confused about space (and capitalism) in the Guardian.

Capitalism really isn't the point when we talk about space exploration. Google 'commercial exploitation of space' and you get pages of learned, legal tomes with titles like:

Law and Regulation of Commercial Mining of Minerals in Outer Space
Commercial Utilization of Outer Space: Law and Practice

Creating a legal framework for the commercial exploitation of outer space

Now this writing suggests two things to me - firstly that the capitalists really are interested in space. And secondly that the controlling hand of government is placing constraints on making money out there in the great blue beyond.

More importantly, exploration - and that's all we've done so far - never really interested capitalists, even the ones who termed themselves "merchant adventurers". Where we are familiar with space, commercial exploitation is commonplace and successful:

On 10 June 1995, International Launch Services was established, upon the merger of Lockheed and Martin Marietta companies, to market Proton and Atlas launch services to the commercial satellite telecommunications marketplace worldwide. Prior to the merger, each of these companies were competing in the commercial launch services market with the Proton and Atlas rockets. Lockheed entered the launch market in 1993 with the establishment of Lockheed-Khrunichev- Energia International (LKEI), the joint venture to exclusively market the Russian Proton launch vehicle. Similarly, Martin Marietta had entered the commercial launch arena with the family of Atlas launch vehicles. Neither rocket was new to the market, however, and provided a combined heritage foundation of more than 450 launches at the inception of ILS.

Despite the persistence of government controls and restrictions on space exploitation, capitalist progress has been made (and I guess we shouldn't mention Richard Branson selling over-price trips into space to celebrity millionaires).

The real problem here is that our Marxist confuses the fact that lots of goodies undoubtedly lie below the surface of the moon (and all over the solar system) with whether those goodies are actually worth exploiting. Right now we're doing a pretty good job (whatever the greenies say) of fuelling our world - in most cases we're not running out of stuff and where we are there are some pretty useful alternatives that don't require us to go to the moon to get them.

What we have to consider here is that we need a sort of unholy alliance between the controlling government and the free spirit. People like John Leeming are needed:

“You seem to fit the part all right. Your technical record is first-class. Your disciplinary record stinks to high heaven.' He eyed his listener blank faced. 'Two charges of refusing to obey a lawful order. Four for insolence and insubordination. One for parading with your cap on back to front. What on earth made you do that?'

I had a bad attack of what-the-hell, sir,' explained Leeming.” 

So the government gave Leeming a state-or-the-art super-duper scout ship to explore the galaxy. Just as government funded Columbus, subbed Magellan and encouraged (if turning a blind eye to piracy is what we mean by 'encouraged') Drake. Because it got them out of the way by sending them off into unexplored oceans. If they died, it was their risk. But if they found something the government could take the credit.

Our Marxist lives in something of a binary world - the choice is between timid capitalism:

Of course, under capitalism the state's ability to explore the unknown is limited by its priority of making things work for business, or developing a greater war machine. States don't need an immediate return on investment, but if they're to justify taxing profits, they need to demonstrate some sort of plausible return. Hence, there's always more money for military arsenals than spaceships. 

And glorious socialism:

So, this is what we need. First, international socialism. And to paraphrase Lenin, socialism = soviet power + interstellar travel. Don't ask me how we get that, we just need it as a precondition for everything else. Second, an international space exploration programme, funded with the express purpose of adding to the sum of stuff and human knowledge. Third, a popular space tourism programme. 

I'm not intending to try and unpick the ignorance of demanding a system that is a myth to replace a system that is a fact. Instead, I want to offer another alternative - we'll call it the Eric Frank Russell system. We'll invite independent minded, pioneering sorts (with a scattering of John Leemings) to go and live on the moon. Not a few of them but lots - we'll charge them with the task of creating the means to live there, the ways to reach the moon and the way they'll run the place when they get there.

And hopefully what we'll get won't be international socialism or corporatist capitalism (the two choices our Marxist offers us) but this:


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