For Elon Musk, outer space could be the last frontier of private property
But the most elaborate, if still entirely hypothetical, idea comes from SpaceX’s Elon Musk, who wants to launch an expedition to colonize and privatize Mars.
Of the various space billionaires, Musk’s fantasies about the red planet are most directly linked to underlying societal fears. Given the expense Musk has thrown at himself, his goal of privatizing space seems like a way to leave the unwashed masses behind. Mars could one day become the ultimate gated community.
In fact, the fantasies Musk and others engage in play out in the longer history of private property. In particular, their dreams of colonizing space for themselves seem to mirror earlier efforts to consolidate private ownership of newly discovered lands.
Today’s legal and cultural perception of private property has its roots in the “enclosures” of late medieval and early modern England. Much of England’s agricultural land had previously been ‘commonage’, land owned by no one but available for the common use of all local residents. (A North American example of this is the Boston Common, established by Puritans as public land in 1634 and having its origins in this practice of commonwealth.)
But then England started privatizing land that was in the public domain. From 1545 until well into the 18th century, the British Parliament passed more than 5,000 acts privatizing nearly a quarter of Britain’s farmland – approximately 6 million acres – through these enclosures. Much of the land now privatized has been devoted to small-scale farming or given over to large-scale sheep farming.
This was obviously a boon for England’s burgeoning capitalists, as they could now acquire land cheaply. But for the lower classes, the pens were a disaster; the common land from which they had previously made their living was no longer available to them. Resistance to enclosures was virtually instantaneous, from Kett’s rebellion in 1549 to the agricultural outrages that accompanied the English civil wars of the 1640s.
Emerging from the pens, the new English elite have always been plagued by fears of social unrest. They feared that a dangerous new class of “masterless men” would be created. Men who had previously made a living from farming common lands were now seen as dangerous vagrants who were said to be unemployed and roaming from town to town spreading popular discontent. Whether such radical vagrants ever existed is debatable, but fears of them were certainly real.
These fears, in turn, shaped the contemporaneous English plantations of Ireland and the New World. For the elites, colonialism was seen as a safety valve. Not only could property owners claim new private property in Ireland or in colonies in North America, but England could send settlers abroad to mitigate the “mobb threat” to private property in England.
The safety valve of colonialism further strengthened private property. Poet and cleric John Donne called the territory of Virginia the “spleen” and “liver” of England, the place where poisonous elements of the state could be drained. America was seen as a dumping ground for the people who could form a dangerous mob at home. But then, as historian Nancy Isenberg has shown, these dangerous individuals could themselves become responsible owners and supporters of the new status quo.
Of course, this led to the violent dispossession of Native Americans from their lands. Racist assumptions that non-Europeans had less claim to land helped justify their dispossession and further fueled colonialism.
Colonization continued to mix these elements of dispossessing indigenous peoples and settling surplus populations. British use of Australia as a penal colony in the 19th century is well known. Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 was accompanied by claims that Italy was overcrowded and needed space for its surplus people. In a more subtle way, all of the European colonial powers – the British in India, the Belgians in the Congo, the French in Algeria – saw their overseas territories as places to invest excess capital, or as new frontiers where working-class and lower-class Europeans could live middle classes have had the opportunity to achieve a level of social mobility that is denied to them at home. The formal decolonization that began after the Second World War interrupted this use of non-European spaces as a social safety valve. Capitalism seemed to have run out of new spaces to take over.
In an era of decolonization across the planet, the United Nations has stepped in on a different frontier. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty defined all extraterrestrial space as unavailable for any private property, a concept reinforced by the 1979 Lunar Treaty. Legally, space was understood as “res communis”, a common space that is available to everyone but belongs to no one. Space has often been spoken of using a colonial vocabulary; For example, as early as 1962, John F. Kennedy compared a future moon landing to the work of William Bradford, the mid-17th century governor of Plymouth Bay Co. and the architect of anti-Indian massacres. But the actual colonization of space seemed cut off.
At the dawn of the 21st century, the only “outside” space contemporary capitalism could envision seemed to be “seasteading,” the concept that new communities could be created on artificial floating islands. Seasteading was a popular fantasy for Silicon Valley libertarians, as it was believed that such islands existed outside of government control and would circumvent any tax obligations.
But more recently, these libertarian strands have slowly permeated the dominant thinking about space. Michael Griffin, as head of NASA from 2005 to 2009, wanted to launch a private spacecraft sector. Back in 2011, Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, invested $100,000 in an asteroid mining start-up. After 2014, the Asteroids (American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities In Deep Space) Act allowed private mining rights to asteroids, violating the United States’ agreement with the 1967 and 1979 UN treaties on outer space.
Space is increasingly claimed today as an empty space awaiting privatization. For example, Google co-founder Larry Page and former CEO Eric Schmidt have also invested in asteroid mining through Planetary Resources, and Goldman Sachs has similarly devoted itself to extraterrestrial mining.
When Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, his stated goal was the privatization of space, and since the mid-2010s he has been planning a colony on Mars that would feed 1 million people within 40 to 100 years – and also admitted in 2016 that he would “Do not do the best” in meeting schedules. He also tends to downplay the sheer impossibility of this entire endeavor.
These efforts are about more than just resource extraction. While colonization in Ireland and England’s North American colonies was an attempt to export away vagrants and threats to private property, today’s libertarian fantasies of Martian colonization or artificial islands focus on creating societies that the dangerous classes can’t even invade, Musk has acknowledged that travel costs for his future colony could be in the $10 billion per passenger range, but has said that could eventually be reduced to “only” $100,000. His proposed Mars colony would have literally no poor people.
Musk’s vision of the future is a damaged Earth where all resources have been depleted and where a shift to Mars is the only way to escape human extinction.
Musk’s sci-fi fantasies read like a desperate attempt to capture a vision of a better future. But in his depictions of space exploration, the final frontier reveals itself not as a place where we can envision a better world, but as a frontier already assumed to lie within the life-web of capitalism. It’s just one more space to be privatized in capitalism’s never-ending self-preservation.
And so we end up back where we started in post-wall England, where the problems of a crowded capitalist ecology are solved by an act of imagination. Imagined “empty” spaces – whether the American interior in the 17th century or Mars in the 21st century – may promise that a new world can be created, free from the ills of the old, but those who imagine still replicate the real ills of the Old World: greed, privatization, rigid hierarchies, exploitation of the commons and exploitation of other people.
Colonization remains a safety valve for a society beset by supposedly dangerous forces that threaten the system of property. The history of private property is a circle.