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A Marxist throws down the space-gauntlet

Why outer space really is the final frontier for capitalism

The question is, why haven’t the moon’s resources been thoroughly plundered by now? Why hasn’t it provided us with the energy necessary to colonise the rest of space? I’ll tell you why: it’s because capitalism is weak and timid.

In principle, it shouldn’t be this way. Capitalism, said Rosa Luxemburg, always needs a periphery. There needs to be a non-capitalist outside to appropriate – new land, new resources, to provide profitable investment opportunities. Whether it takes the form of colonisation, privatising public goods, turfing peasants off their lands or creating “intellectual property”, there is a need to accumulate beyond the existing realm of capitalist property relations.

The geographer David Harvey points out that the world capitalist system needs to find $1.5tn profitable investment opportunities today in order to keep growing at its historical average of 3% a year. In 20 years’ time, it will need to find $3tn

Let he who dares accept the challenge in proper fashion. Still, betcha Richard Seymour will be the first to complain when the space barons do start exporting capitalist property relations where no man has gone before.

42 comments to A Marxist throws down the space-gauntlet

  • Paul Marks

    Quite so Natalie – the Marxists (the “Critical Theory” crowd and so on) have it both ways – if people do nothing the Marxists, and if people do claim property rights…. they complain about that also.

    As this person knows – private property in space is attacked by various international treaties (not much point in investing in something when your ownership is doubtful)

    And where is this “capitalism” anyway?

    Every large country I know of (including the United States) has thousands of pages of regulations perverting economic life, crushing taxes and government spending, and a government dominated credit bubble monetary system.

    Does not sound like “capitalism” to me.

    True not everywhere is equally bad – for example South Dakota is less bad than New York or California, and New Zealand is not as bad as Britain.

    But a real LIMITED government – no large country has that any more.

    And, as that “arch reactionary” the Prince of Liechtenstein has pointed out, it is the present big government model (not capitalism) that is unsustainable.

  • Watchman

    As this is a Marxist, do we know whether he is talking of capitalism or just free markets? They tend to confuse two different concepts.

    Either way, I think this is simply a result of costs of technology (which so long as there is no restriction on innovation, will come down).

  • Regional

    In Medieval Times the peasants practiced capitalism in that they traded with each other and the princes taxed them.

  • Dom

    Like most Marxists, he does not know what a resource is.

  • Lee Moore

    This was not just the result of an early dart at the Christmas sherry. I suspect that, in the immortal words of David Burge, “three pounds of Humboldt County Chronic” is indicated.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Once again we see a state-lover who is willfully blind to the barriers governments erect to ordinary people making advances. Barriers to entry is one of those things where there seems to be a genuine inability to recognize them. If you can actually get a statist to understand the concept, its like watching a light come on when they finally grasp the implications.

    These days you require a huge amount of paperwork in order to store amateur rocket motors. It became considerably harder after 9/11. So right there we have a problem with young folk gaining an interest in rocketry. Going beyond the amateur level, to be able to work in private space enterprise requires a huge amount of resources to be able to negotiate the hurdles placed in your way by the government.

    I don’t see SpaceX having even been allowed to operate in the way it has had NASA not gone belly up on the shuttle. I truly question whether a private company would be allowed to construct a rocket capable of reaching the moon.

    Not, at least, without giving the ‘gubment their cut…..

    If you’re going to criticize capitalism, at least make sure the process you attack actually is capitalism.

  • M. Thompson

    I’m all in favor of exploitation, as long as I can do it later on.

  • chuck

    Rosa Luxemburg? Don’t Marxists ever visit the 21′st century? What the heck did Rosa Luxemburg know about, well, anything? She sounds like a G*ddamn answering machine.

  • GoneWithTheWind

    Space exploration is not capitalist it is socialist. It costs so much and returns so little there is no money to be made in doing it. It can only be done by a rich government that chooses to ignore the costs vs benefits.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Still, the point about Capitalism (or at least Business) needing more courage than it presently shows is well earned: a government subsidy on a sure thing often seems to be the sine qua non for modern business ventures (e.g., wind power).

  • Eric

    If it made sense to mine resources on the moon we’d have done so. But it doesn’t. The most inconvenient resources on the earth will still be easier to get at than anything on the moon.

    And that part about capitalism needing a “periphery” is just silly. After the 20th century the last thing anyone should do is give any respect to Marxists and their economic fever dreams.

  • bloke in spain

    @Eric
    He3

  • Mr Ed

    Weren’t Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebkneckt beaten to death with rifle butts and the urine of a bitch on heat splashed around their shrine so that stray dogs congregated there? If so, I have to say that was the tasteless act of a mis-employed marketing genius.

    Why do we give Marxists, deranged fantasists to the last man, the space (!) for their crankish, murderous, crackpot, demonstrably ludicrous theories? To call someone a Marxist should be almost the worst insult one might deploy.

    And are things so bad that we are reduced to dreaming of fleeing statism on rockets, like the Golgafrinchams?

    This quote has been attributed to Luxemburg (translated)

    “We stand today…before the awful proposition: either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or, the victory of socialism.”

    but an ‘and’ & ‘or’ are in the wrong place:

    “We stand today…before the awful proposition: either the triumph of imperialism or the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; and the victory of socialism.”

  • Regional

    What drives capitalism is profit, the elite deplore profit for us peasants but keep the surplus after living frugally in the finest Marxist tradition from their fabulous salaries but if they were true to their ideals they’d hand the surplus to the Gubbmint, yeah right, there’s about as much chance as that happening of the Meeja telling the truth, who’ve never once told the truth in the last 30 years.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Mr Ed
    December 20, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    And are things so bad that we are reduced to dreaming of fleeing statism on rockets, like the Golgafrinchams?

    IIRC, the Golgafrinchams weren’t fleeing statism: they were the planet’s useless eaters, tricked into leaving by a state that had no intention of following.

  • RAB

    why haven’t the moon’s resources been thoroughly plundered by now?

    Like all marxists he has trouble with the meaning of words. Plundered means to rob to steal to deprive another. So who exactly are we depriving of what by mining the Moon? Green Cheese eating Moonies?

  • Schrodinger's Dog

    Before business can boldly go where no man has gone before, aboard the USS Private Enterprise, it has first got to come up with the systems to do so. The state-developed space systems which currently exist are mostly not fit for purpose.

    The Saturn V was undoubtedly a marvel, all the more so given the incredibly short time in which it was developed. But as as a transportation system for sustained exploration and development of the Moon it was a non-starter, not least because most of it was discarded during its journey. How much would a flight to New York cost if, upon its return to London and after everyone aboard had disembarked, the ‘plane were set alight?

    During its development in the 1970s, space enthusiasts were promised the Space Shuttle would be everything the Saturn V hadn’t been. It would offer relatively inexpensive, routine access to space, with a Shuttle launch perhaps as often as once a week. We all know how that turned out, don’t we? During the thirty years it was operational, 130-odd Shuttle missions were flown, or about four per year, while according to Wikipedia, cost per pound to low Earth orbit was about $27,000. What’s going to be profitable at that price? Nor was it safe. Of those 130 missions, two ended in catastrophic failure, a rate of about 1.5%. By contrast, the failure rate for civilian aircraft is about 1 in 2 million.

    The Space Race of the 1960s was an anachronism, a product of state hubris, carried out at astronomical (pun intended) cost and at no small risk to the crews involved. The reason private business has not yet spread out into space is that the true Space Age – based on safety, containing costs and sustainable effort – is only just beginning.

  • Incunabulum

    There needs to be a non-capitalist outside to appropriate – new land, new resources, to provide profitable investment opportunities.

    You know what’s funny? That statement describes communism *faaaaar* more accurately than capitalism.

    The main difference here is that capitalism is far better at finding ‘outsides’ – even ‘outsides’ that are ‘inside’. Its why the US grew into an economic powerhouse and yet the Soviet economy only increased at the rate it could increase its inputs. 70 plus years and effectively zero improvements in efficiency.

  • Incunabulum

    bloke in spain

    December 20, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    @Eric
    He3

    And that just goes right back to Eric’s original point – there’s no current economical use for lunar He3 so no-one is going to go get it.

  • rosenquist

    Whether it takes the form of colonisation, privatising public goods, turfing peasants off their lands or creating “intellectual property”, there is a need to accumulate beyond the existing realm of capitalist property relations.

    well be as that may, the answer to capitalism is not Marxism, but real free markets.

  • Deep Lurker

    Actual capitalism is thin on the ground. We have democratic and undemocratic socialism, democratic and undemocratic fascism, and miscellaneous varieties of corrupt cronyism. But to the extent that capitalism currently exists, it’s not free-market capitalism but chained-market capitalism, weighted down with laws and regulations – and then criticized for its inability to function efficiently.

    Of course, even if capitalism hadn’t been chained down, we still might not see lunar resources being exploited. Not because of “market failure” but because of the market correctly deciding that it would currently cost more than it’s worth. There’s an old quote I wish I could find the source for. It applied to “market failure” regarding insurance for flood or hurricane damage but the same principle might apply here. “That isn’t ‘market failure’ – that’s the market working. That’s the market saying ‘Don’t build there! Are you crazy?’”

  • Regional

    Deep lurker, the black market.

  • Mr Ed

    PfP. Sorry for the ambiguity, I know the Golgafrinchams were fleeing under a ruse, after all I am descended from them. I was referring to the act of fleeing. As for us being useless, no, but certainly not a third! I do recall Brian Micklethwait saying in the early 90s that one hand grenade in his flat during a Friday night seminar would have wiped out the Libertarian movement in the UK. I pointed out that it would however have doubled our effectiveness.

    RAB the Moon woud be little Gaia to Marxists if anyone got near to ‘exploting’ it, even if it is an airless, eternally sterile desert absent human intervention. The urge in these types to stop humanity thriving is what drives them, pretty much as Eric says.

  • Eric

    Bloke in Spain,

    Why would anyone mine helium3? I realize there’s this theory that says we might be able to make a fusion reactor that uses He3 for fuel, but nobody’s actually built one. Nobody knows how to build one.

  • Sorry guys but its one boondongle chasing another here with He3 and it’s theoretical use in preventing the plasma within a torus fusion reactor eating away the reactor walls. This has been the sole justification I’ve seen thus far for collecting He3 from the moon.

    Business, capitalism and markets will only work when the value of recovering x from the moon (or anywhere else outside the earth’s atmosphere for that matter) has value after costs are taken into consideration.

    The old adage is that if gold bars were stacked across the moons surface it wouldn’t be worth collecting them, although I suspect if that were the case someone would have a bloody good try.

    The reason why we see a failure rate of 1.5% on space shuttles and 0.0000001% for commercial aircraft is that we have the safety down to a tee and enforced by efficient markets and the consequences of failure. Watch how airline passenger numbers plummet after a bad air crash, indeed the Lockerbie disaster was the final blow for Pan Am which had been the premier US carrier since the 1930′s.

    When we get 30-different companies launching hundreds of rockets per day, then we will have started the real space age. The bullshit which is going on at the moment is like air transport was back in 1910. This is not achieved by governments pissing away vast billions at state institutions like NASA (that’s 2 A’s) – rather it is entrepreneurs building engine designs which are efficient and reusable so that space can be affordable to anyone who needs to go.

    The amount of money that NASA, ESA and the other government space programmes have pissed away on the International Space Station is estimated at 150 BILLION US Dollars.

    If that had been channelled into private entrepreneurs then I suspect it would have been better, cheaper and quicker. We’d have something like the space station from Kubrick’s 2001 rather than the floating trash collection up their at the moment.

    Where is the Hilton hotel on Space Station 5?

    At The Movies, A String Of Futures Passed

  • RogerC

    Whereas we do know how to build much safer reactors using cheap and abundant thorium fuel, and a test reactor was actually built using thorium in the 1960′s. However, government controls the nuclear industry and doesn’t appear to have any interest in thorium machines.

    As Deep Lurker said, that’s chained-market capitalism, not the free market variety, and it’s no wonder it’s failed. It’s not supposed to succeed, it’s just supposed to take the blame.

  • John B

    A common failure, not unique to Marxists, is to confuse invention with innovation, or simply to overlook the latter: the latter being to find new uses or combinations for existing technologies.

    Perhaps the most important function of capitalism is to fund innovation, which brings us the greatest progress and prosperity.

    The steam engine had been invented over two thousand years before innovation of its uses launched the Industrial Revolution; sending electrical signals down wires, wireless, computers are not new technologies, but innovation has brought us things like shopping on line, streaming of video and music, mobile communication and computing.

    We don’t beed to capitalise the Moon, plenty of innovation to fund here on Earth… but why not do both?

  • Richard

    The Moon’s resources haven’t been ‘plundered’ because extracting them would cost many times more than they are worth. We are approaching break-even point with some hydrocarbons on this planet now, even as we scribble. How do you expect to retrieve stuff in useful quantities from another planetary body by putting blokes in a tin can on top of a big firework? If you think others are “timid” for not trying it, then shut up and get on with it yourself.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    “Plunder” implies the moon is already owned? By whom: the Duke of Westminster or the coal miners’ pension fund? Where is the title deed?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Sorry I meant no question mark at end of first sentence.

  • Mr Ed

    JP

    “Plunder” implies the moon is already owned. By whom:

    The socialists’ short answer is a bullet in the back of the head for impertinence.

    The slightly longer answer is ‘it belongs to all of us’.

    The ramifications of which are the right of the anointed ones to use the Moon in the name of the community, after all, as that nasty old corporal liked to say ‘Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz’ ‘the Common Good before the Individual Good’.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes the Marxists (such as Mr Sombart – an admirer of both Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler) invented the term “capitalism” – but do not agree with them that is something bad.

    The private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange (“capital”) is GOOD – not bad.

    Nor are the problems of the world anything to do with capitalism or with the world being run for benefit of the rich.

    I would have hoped that a Pope from Argentina (where Peronist “down with the rich” policies have failed so dreadfully) would understand that.

    But even if he does not – there is no reason for us to make the mistake.

    “But we are not Marxists Paul” – I never said you were (any more than I say that Francis is a Marxist – he is not), but do not let them define the terms (define thinking) – and influence others into thinking that if only “the owners of capital” were dragged down things would be better.

  • Paul Marks

    By the way Mr Ed.

    Very good comments.

    You are one of the few people who can make me seem gentle by comparison.

    And the enemy deserve no gentleness – none.

  • Dale Amon

    I am surprised that after all the years of my writing about commercial space on Samizdata, hardly anyone seems aware of the changes being wrought by those of us in ‘New Space’. The above discussions seem so…. static. All of you seem to view the world as a place in which little changes, or if it does, it happens in a linear fashion. On the contrary, capitalism is extremely non-linear. The small exponential change in my field has gone from entrepreneurs battling to raise a few thousand dollars, to the situation today where there is probably several billion dollars a year flowing through the various company coffers: SpaceX, XCOR, Bigelow, Sierra Nevada, Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites, The Spaceship Company, Masten Aerospace, Blue Origin and others. There are the beginnings of a second tier network of New Space contractors and suppliers. In the last year alone, SpaceX has demonstrated the commercial capability to put a paid commercial satellite in geosynchronous orbit for a mere $60M, a price that is perhaps a third or a quarter of what the old artillery missile companies can provide.

    Additionally, SpaceX has demonstrated its fly back booster in two of three flight regimes and is working towards solving problems with the middle domain. Should this R&D project succeed, costs to orbit will take yet another and even larger tumble… all other providers around the world will either have to depend on closed markets and government subsidies or close their doors. I doubt any of them are creative enough to catch up with SpaceX… although I do know of one that is at least very quietly trying. The SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy will fly in 2014 and will be able to deliver 100T payloads to orbit for $100M. That is of course without the flyback R&D. They have closed a deal for use of a test facility to test a LOX/Methane engine with over 500K tons of thrust. This is smaller than the Saturn V, but is still enough to allow them to move on to an even heavier lift vehicle that will be the largest and cheapest on Earth. Then there is the Dragon capsule. The next mark will carry people. It’s launch escape system doubles as a landing system, ie on a normal mission it will be able to return and land on a pad at a spaceport and be ready for turnaround for the next mission. It has a heat shield good enough for high speed re-entries from lunar or asteroidal missions. As soon as Dragon flies with SpaceX astronauts at the helm, Bigelow is ready to launch his commercial space station. He has two test articles in orbit and between them over a dozen years of real space flight. He has customers for the BA-330 modules ready to go.

    Then there are Scaled Composites/The SpaceShip Company/Virgin Galactic. Their vehicle taxi’s past my office window every few days. They were going to do their 3rd drop and light test this week but a cloud layer got in the way (unusual for Mojave any time of the year but this) and they had to scrub until after their people get back from the holidays. (They need the ground camera data from the tracking cameras as part of the test flight, among other things) Scaled will likely do the hand off to TSC in a few months and they will proceed to wring it out… and continue building more of them, an action that is in progress. (Disclosure: the head of TSC is someone I have known and worked with in a different organization since about 2004). TSC will in turn do a handoff to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic later in 2014. I expect they will begin commercial tourist flights before the end of that year unless something untoward arises… in which case, the people I work for, XCOR Aerospace, are right on their heals with our Lynx spaceplane.

    Both companies are looking ahead to orbital vehicles later in the decade. I am not free to talk in this area but if anyone is interested they can go a-googling. Then there are the resource extraction companies. They are making their first tentative steps towards lunar and asteroidal resource capture. Once the in space human ops ramp up to a certain point, there is a definite market for resources found in space… as materials for use in space. The economics of Space Based Solar Power is contentious but there are enough niche markets in which the business case can be closed… given the network effects of cheap launch prices and the rising awareness that earth based solar and those damnable ugly windfarms are not solutions to anything.

    So yes, the break out into space is coming soon to a Spaceport near you. You can argue all you want based but I’m not terribly interested in joining into a debate on that breakout because it is already happening and I am a part of it and earn my living from it. The only critique that counts for me is the market. The ability of the people in our companies to continue to raise investment capital and sell to customers is the only thing that I listen to. All else is opinion and I am no longer interested much in talk. The 20th century was the era of talkers in the space movement. The 21st century belongs to the doers and we don’t much care about talk.

  • Dale Amon

    PS: if anyone thinks it worthwhile, I could tidy this ‘article’ up a bit and post it as a regular article. I’ve been rather silent lately due to actually doing this stuff for a living and being somewhat limited in what I am allowed to say.

  • Laird

    I for one would be interested in hearing from Dale more often.

  • Paul Marks

    Good fortune to you Dale.

    Continue to do great things.

  • Thanks Dale for that, very interesting. I wish you all the best and do hope that you pop back here occasionally to update us on what is happening in this space (!).

  • I had a go – probably not that good but the binary world our Marxist describes is so limiting.

    “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.”

    http://theviewfromcullingworth.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/pioneers-wanted-capitalism-marxism-and.html

  • Brad

    If communist collectivization were the answer, then why isn’t North Korea mining the moon as we speak? Surely the Cubans are well on their way?

  • PeterT

    I would be interested in hearing what proportion of the industry is supported by government subsidies AND contracts (i.e. implicit subsidies).

  • Dale Amon

    PeterT… I am not going to go down that rat hole. The difference between new and old aerospace is the business model. New space is aimed at using whatever resources it can find to create a commercial enterprise; the target market is not government per-se. However governments do have money and I am not aware of any companies who refuse to partake of it. Fedex delivers their packages. Staples supplies their staples, Toyota sells them trucks. SpaceX sells them launches and delivers parcels to the Space Station. Ain’t no difference.