Tuesday 10 August 2010

Socialism and Space

Stephen Hawking's argument that humans have to colonise space or be doomed to extinction provided a bit of filler for the papers today. He is right of course. The Earth could get blasted by an asteroid, comet or gamma ray burst any second and it will be lights out for everything but a few inconsequential microbes scrubbing an existence out of the sea bed. I don't know about you, but I for one would like to see our species carry on and not perish in some horrific global catastrophe. So building a rocket, travelling to another planet and colonising it seems a neat (if technologically challenging) way of ensuring humanity's long-term survival. But present day space programmes not only fall well short of science fiction's promise, they, like any other technology, offer repressive and progressive potentials.

The argument is often made - as it was during the Apollo Moon landings - that it's criminal to sink resources in technologically sophisticated circuses while so many are for want of bread. That's an argument that can't really be contested: there
is something morally abhorrent about packing people off to space when society cannot meet the basic needs of those at the bottom of the pile. But then, this could imply that if capitalism dumped its space programme it would suddenly convert itself into an altruistic social system. For instance, since that nice Mr Obama dumped Bush Jr's ambitious Moon and Mars landing programme we have not seen the US evolve toward a gentle, Scandinavian-style social democracy. Under the new management American capitalism remains as rapacious as it ever was.

As far as socialists are concerned, it's infinitely desirable monies be directed toward stuff like space probes and rockets than lining the pockets of the rich in tax cuts or, worse, feeding military budgets. Like any other form of state-directed economic activity, space programmes have their multiplier effects. They provide skilled jobs and drive high-tech innovation. Of course, you could say military projects do the same thing. But then again, space technologies provide the sort of use values that could be genuinely useful later on. Whatever spin you like to put on it, military is only good for war, and we know what that's good for. But we shouldn't forget there is overlap between the two sectors. Our friends the Neocons would love to see the planet ringed with orbiting missile platforms to maintain American supremacy and, since becoming a viable option, no US administration has ruled out weaponising space. So while its okay to cheerlead NASA's efforts in mapping Mercury and pinpointing ice deposits on the Moon, such dazzling technological achievements should never blind us to the militaristic uses space programmes can be put.

Then there is space exploration as ideology. Generally, non-dystopian science fiction hasn't moved on from Jules Verne's day. This is best exemplified by
Star Trek. Set in a socialist society that dare not speak its name, we are presented with a technotopian realisation of progress and Enlightenment values. Kirk, Picard, Cisko, Janeway and Archer used a combination of wits, diplomacy and gadgetry to overcome problems, resorting only to force in the final instance. The idea of hope through technology is rammed home in the cringeworthy opening credits to Star Trek: Enterprise. NASA doesn't mind this romanticisation, and the US networks and Hollywood are only too happy to oblige. Whether exploring the solar system, destroying threatening space rocks or whatever, space ideology promises a better tomorrow today.

What is interesting is how space demarcates the (very blurred) political boundaries between the Republicans and Democrats. It was a Democrat who committed the US to the Moon, and a Republican who cancelled the programme. Since the 80s the positions have reversed. Reagan and Dubya were mad keen about all things space related. Clinton and Obama much less so. One doesn't want to read too much into what the former represented, but there is something about the final frontier that appeals to bootstraps/self-reliance conservatism that doesn't connect with the managerial liberalism of mainstream Democrats. Absurdly the party of intelligent design and climate change denialism is also the party of space colonies and interplanetary flight.

Returning to Stephen Hawking's interview, the chance of a meteor smacking into the Earth and causing mass casualties is ridiculously low. But the ecological damage capitalism is wreaking unfortunately isn't. Climate change may not spell the end of our species, but in what sense can we speak of human civilisation if capitalism condemns billions to a brute existence of starvation, water shortages and turf wars over scarce resources? As far as I'm concerned, the starting point for securing our future involves moving beyond this antiquated and irrationally destructive system, and unless we get rid of capitalism we run the risk of taking the same old crap to the stars.


faith of the heart said...

Wouldn't the Republican support for the space program have more to do with supporting military/aerospace companies like Boeing? I wouldn't be surprised if there were slick Republican congressmen from Alabama and Florida and wherever else they have their NASA bases that lobby pretty effectively, too.

If they launched shuttles from San Francisco and not Huntsville, I think the Democrats might change their minds.

Surely the question the left needs to ask is a properly secular materialist rephrasing of Comrade Kirk's question from Star Trek 5: "What does God need with a starship?"

Adam Marks said...

I couldn't have put it better myself, especially the last line.

Phil said...

Sound points, Faith. There is always a material reason for these things - but having points of congruence between space exploration and the conservative celebration of the frontier certainly helps.

Roobin, one thing I wanted to address in the article but didn't was something Stephen Hawking said earlier in the year. He argued that if there are other civilisations about in the galaxy we might not want to advertise our presence to them, in case they want to assimilate us or strip mine the Earth or something. I think the danger exists the other way. If capitalism spreads throughout the cosmos it will be on the point of particle beam weapons and anti-matter bombs. Capitalism just isn't a danger to ourselves - its hazardous to any other species we encounter.

Boffy said...

I think that the idea of Space travel to other worlds is merely the basis on which such huge costs are sold to taxpayers. The real basis is to colonise Earth Orbit, and to use it to extract Surplus Value. Military use is merely a part of that. But look at the billions made from Sattellite Technology.

The idea of travelling to oterhw ords is quite honestly fanciful. I wouldn't want to commit myself completely, but I doubt that the US actually did land men on the Moon. Remote vehicles,yes, the USSR had already done that years before, and returned vehicles from it, but all of the faked pictures and video at least leave it open to question as to why NASA would have done that, if it was not part of a complex fake - their argument that the actual film was not good quality is ridiculous.

But, we know that our existence on Earth is very fragile for reasons even far removed from the damage we might be doing to it. We depend on the Earth's magnetic core, which most planet's as far as we know do not have. One latest estimate is that in as little as 1200 years, the Earth's magnetism will cease to operate, and that will mean that Earth will be scorched with cosmic rays in the same way that Mars was, which burned off the atmosphere - the cosmic rays is one simple reason why straying outside the Earth's magnetic shield is not viable. We also know that without the Moon to stabilise the Earth's wobble and rotation, our weather would be too extreme for intelligent life to have got started. There are many more such limitations, that mean finding a suitable similar planet becomes less and less likely - one reason scientists are now scaling back their calculation of the likelihood of otehr intelligent life in the Galaxy if not the Universe.

FlipC said...

@Boffy - Oh dear. All the 'evidence' that we didn't land on the Moon has been debunked multiple times. Occam's Razor leads us to "We were there".

Although we know the magnetic poles shift and have in the past reversed, there is no reason for it to cease with more reason to consider it stable.

The Moon did indeed aid in the stabilisation of the Earth and did allow intelligent life of the type found of Earth to develop, to conclude that intelligent life can only develop under those situations is parochial at best. Besides that entire argument is pointless as we wouldn't be attempting to develop life from scratch we'd be transplanting it and we already know how adaptable our lifeforms are.

In fact the only valid point you make is with regard to the protection that the Earth provides for us from radiation, however that is only a major problem regarding travel not colonisation where structures can be built beneath the surface.

So back to reality. I see no contradiction between capitalism and space colonisation. We've already seen the first attempts with something like Virgin Galactic. But imagine if travel became that easy. Imagine a dedicated farming programme on the Moon. Pack grain into containers fitted with simple landing jets, shoot it from the Moon with little cost and drop it where it needs to go back on Earth.

But of course capitalism won't be interested if it's presented as some grand socialist affair, where do they fit in to that?

Boffy said...

"All" the evidence? I don't think so. As I said, I'm not committed one way or the other, but what about the pictures that NASA itself has had to admit were faked? Two different landings in parts of the Moon thousands of miles apart that just happened to have EXACTLY the same background on the video? Photographs that had the camera cross hairs obscured by the picture, showing it had been superimposed?

Scientists beleive that the magnetism is due to the fact that the iron Core of the Planet is rotating rapidly. The measurements made suggest that rotation may stop in as little as 1200 years, and with it the magnetism. for Example.

The point about lunar stabilisation is relevant as regards a Planet's weather, which is rather important if you want to be able to grow things, in order to survive for any length of time. Moreover, you recognise the problem of travel, but say it doesn't matter because of colonisation. I fail to see how you can colonise something if you don't travel to it!

milgram said...

Did you get the idea for this from the Charlie Stross article (http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/08/space-cadets.html)

...or were the stars just in alignment?

Phil said...

Never heard of them.

There's nothing new about linking the final frontier to the frontier in American conservatism. It's been written about in litcrit of American science fiction for as long as such a beast has existed.

Boffy, the Moon landings happened. To put it in context, the amount of proof conspiranoids have to back their case is at the level of those who think aliens crash landed at Roswell, or that Elvis is still among us. See here.

Boffy said...


Good Link. I watched the Mythbusters edition too. The problem is that most of us are reliant on scientific arguments presented by both sides in many cases that we are not qualified to judge. A lot of "disproof" is given in terms of this COULD be the reason, and also statements that scientific evidence presented by the other side is "faulty".

I did notice that the issue I'd referred to about two different Moon Landings in two totally different parts of the Moon had exactly the same background landscape in video was not covered on this site either. My understanding was that some time ago the NASA explanation for some of the issues raised over picture quality was not the explanations given here, but that the original picture quality had been too poor for release so they had had to recompose it.

Whatever, the point is that I remember as a kid just after the Moon landings, the talk was about a Mission to Mars by the 1980's, and so on. In fact, everything has been focussed in the last 40 years on near Earth orbit. Given all of the technical developments of the last 40 years, I find it odd that if Manned landing on the Moon was possible back then, that given the potential profits that could be made out of Moon colonisation and exploitation, more investment was not put into it. It didn't take long after the first rickety wooden ships landed in North America for Capitalist adventurers to follow quickly behind. But, my point remains even if the Moon landings happened, the technical problems of going even to Mars, which is in any case a dead planet, where even if people could live there would be only possible in very restricted bubbles, let alone anywhere further afield are not credible given even the technology we think we might have in the foreseeable future. Capital only needs that vision to justify the huge amounts spent in order to make profits.