Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a billionaire who’s read science fiction your whole life. Your mind, deluded by your immense wealth, thinks that the only way to “deploy this much financial resource” is to invest in space instead of paying taxes so we can collectively solve the problems on Earth. When a fictional television show about space colonization is canceled in its third season, you swoop in to save the day because not only do you fund a space company, but you also own a massive streaming platform — and it needs content. After chatting with some of the cast, you email your team asking to announce the show’s renewal, and — ten minutes after they reply — you take the stage and are lauded by sci-fi fans across the internet for saving the day.
This is exactly what happened when The Expanse was canceled by Syfy and quickly scooped up by Amazon Prime Video for a fourth season after a personal intervention by CEO Jeff Bezos. It’s hard to imagine having so much money that you could both fund a space race and the media that could inspire it all at the same time, but that’s exactly what he’s doing.
Earlier this year, Bezos put forward his vision for space colonization, which involved growing the human population to over a trillion people living in colonies orbiting Earth. Bezos asserted population expansion would allow a flourishing of the arts, with the creation of “a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins,” and would help us avoid “stasis and rationing” on Earth for an economy of “growth and dynamism” in space. But Bezos’s vision completely ignores what the lives of the working class would look like in such a future. And he’s not the only billionaire making that mistake. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also believes humanity must become a “multiplanetary species” by establishing a colony on Mars that will grow into a city of over a million within a few decades. By his telling, it would be governed by a direct democracy with all laws requiring 60 percent support to be enacted, but only 40 percent support to be repealed — a libertarian’s space fantasy.
Bezos’s and Musk’s visions of life in space are afflicted by a misguided belief that humanity will have solved its social conflicts before taking to the stars. It’s a view that may have come from the social relations in Star Trek — another show that Bezos loves — but that franchise’s fictional world is one of postcapitalist abundance, not rampant capitalism.
Even though Bezos claims to be a fan of the The Expanse and is bankrolling its future, it’s a bizarre choice for a billionaire trying to sell space colonization to the masses. Whatever Bezos’s personal fantasies are, The Expanse destroys the notion that space colonization under capitalism will be any kind of utopia. Instead, it suggests a terrible life for the working class and even more power for the capitalist elite.
The Working Class of Space Colonization
In The Expanse, the solar system is effectively divided into three groups: an Earth ravaged by climate change and pollution with a population of 30 billion people governed by the United Nations (UN); a Mars Congressional Republic (MCR) whose 9 billion people live in a heavily militarized society with the hope they’ll one day be able to leave their domes to live on a terraformed planet; and the asteroid belt, known simply as “the Belt,” with 50 to 100 million people who have no autonomy, but whose lives are controlled by the corporations that employ them and the security apparatus of the UN or MCR, depending on which government has jurisdiction over the moon, asteroid, or space station they happen to live on.
Belters, as they’re called, are under the boot of the inner planets. They’re the working class of the system, paid little despite mining the resources and building the ships needed by Earth and Mars. Life for Belters is a constant battle against environments not designed for human life, struggling for enough water and fighting landlords who cheap out on the air filters needed to keep themselves and their children healthy. Their bodies have been deformed by generations in low gravity, making them taller and more slender than the “inners,” as they call those from Earth and Mars, and weakening their bones so they can’t return to Earth. Their distinctive physical features and their unique variation of English make it easy for those from Earth and Mars to single them out and treat them as money-grubbing thieves who are less than the people from the inner worlds. But they’re not resigned to their oppression. Accepting they have no home but the Belt, a section of Belters formed the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), a mix between a labor union and advocacy group to fight for Belter rights and independence from the inners. It’s treated as a terrorist group by the governments of Earth and Mars, just as Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress, and so many other groups that fought against colonialism and apartheid were before they won.
In the fifth episode of The Expanse’s first season, the show cuts away from the main story lines to an asteroid mine under the jurisdiction of the UN. The miners are refusing to work because the poor air quality and low gravity in their outpost is making their children sick. All they want is for that to be addressed, but their employer denies the problem, and the UN Marines blockade the station for four days. The workers try to contact UN command several times to surrender but find their comms have been jammed. As they attempt to send their final message, a UN ship destroys the asteroid, killing everyone on board. It’s a tactic designed to send a message to other mining colonies, and it shows just how little those in power value the lives of the workers who make their colonization efforts possible.
It’s worth wondering what Jeff Bezos thinks about the plight of Belters, but it’s likely he pays them little mind. His vision of space colonization makes no mention of the working class, placing far more emphasis on the lives well-off residents will be able to lead and the small percentage of people who will be lauded as geniuses. That blind spot echoes how Bezos treats the Amazon workers who are responsible for his great wealth, leaving them to toil in warehouses where they’re constantly monitored, afraid to take bathroom breaks, get injured at rates more than twice the industry average, and have to suffer through high temperatures needed so the robots keep working (the robots, the workers are told, do not function well in cooler temperatures).
Bezos may well believe the Belters are in their rightful place and not think much more about it, but that’s not the only way The Expanse demonstrates how regular people could suffer in a capitalist space future.
Sacrificing People for Power
Just as Bezos has little consideration for Amazon warehouse workers, the powerful in The Expanse have a similar disinterest in the plight of common people. That’s demonstrated both by senior members of government and one of the richest men in the solar system, the show’s very own Bezos.
Back on Earth, the UN of The Expanse has failed to maintain an economy, to use Bezos’s words, of “dynamism and growth” despite colonizing the solar system. UN deputy undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala explains that the government is unable to provide enough opportunities for its residents, so while some of them work, many survive on a welfare payment called Basic Assistance. It’s similar to the basic income that Silicon Valley titans have called for in response to the threat of automation, but when the show leaves the UN’s halls of power to give viewers a rare glimpse of the streets of Earth, it’s clear that’s not working out as promised. When one of the main characters escapes the Martian embassy, she meets a group of people who live in shanties near the sewers despite receiving the payment. One of the men explains the difficulty of their lives: being denied medication from clinics, children exposed to radiation from nearby factories, drinking sewer water in the summers, and applying for vocational training at seventeen years old and still waiting at fifty-two because there are so few spots. A small cash payment doesn’t make up for the lack of education and employment, and there’s a later allusion to a class of undocumented people on Earth who aren’t even eligible for Basic.
While the high-ranking figures of the UN are portrayed as being aloof from the suffering of the have-nots, wealthy industrialist Jules-Pierre Mao sees them as having no humanity whatsoever. It’s hard to imagine that Bezos doesn’t feel some connection to a character like Mao, who owns a massive conglomerate that secretly built its own stealth ships and is willing to sacrifice as many lives as it takes to control the “protomolecule” alien life-form. Mao believes the proto-molecule could be used as a weapon but also hopes it could be merged with humans to create a higher form of life. Bezos has no problem squeezing the last bit of labor from Amazon workers, then casting them aside when they’re spent, but Mao’s dehumanization of people below him goes much further. He infects a station of 1.5 million people and uses Belter children as live test subjects, all of whom die as a result of his experiments.
At one point, Mao states, “our actions affect the lives of millions . . . billions . . . entire planets . . . in ways that few people can comprehend,” but he doesn’t feel a responsibility to those billions of people. Rather, he develops a god complex that leads him to feel that he alone can move humanity forward, not so different from the ideologies of billionaires like Bezos and Musk.
Don’t Let Billionaires Chart the Future
While Bezos and Musk might have deluded themselves into believing that space colonization will be our salvation, The Expanse suffers no such delusions. It gives us a much more realistic glimpse of what space colonization driven by capitalism might look like: a terrible deal for anyone who isn’t enormously wealthy or in a high-ranking position in government or the military. Most of us would still be under the boot of those in power, as the Belters find themselves, or cast off to survive on a poverty stipend.
Just as workers in the present have to fight against colonial powers and abusive bosses, so do Belters. The OPA isn’t always populated with the most ethical people, but over the course of the first three seasons, it grows from being a disorganized advocacy group to a quasi-government with a ship fighting alongside the navies of Earth and Mars. It’s the most inspiring development of the series, and the fourth season seems poised to delve further into what it actually means for Belters to have power. Will they live up to the Belter proverb that states, “the more you share, the more your bowl will be plentiful”; will their newfound power corrupt their stated egalitarian values; or will that story line be cast off if the show’s new billionaire benefactor doesn’t care so much about Belters?
While it might bewilder us that Bezos would ever swoop in to save a TV show as honest about class conflict as The Expanse, it could be that we’re just overthinking it. It’s likely he sees it as little more than part of a PR campaign to get people to buy into his ambition to profit from the resource wealth of asteroids and other space rocks. And while the show doesn’t shy away from depicting the viciousness of capitalism in space, for Bezos, it might be much simpler than that — any vision of capitalism dominating us even as we spread out through the galaxy is a vision, as far as he’s concerned, worth promoting.
Billionaires will never promote a future that breaks with capitalism because that would challenge their own positions of power and privilege right here in the present. And while dreams of space can entice the imagination, our future — at least in the near term — doesn’t lie among the asteroids. Our future is here on Earth, building a society where ordinary people are put before the rich and powerful.
If we ever do head into the stars, our journey should follow the example of Star Trek and be motivated by a desire to learn, not to mine asteroids for profit. Because if there’s one thing The Expanse makes abundantly clear, that’s a future only a billionaire could love.