“If we can do this, imagine what else we can do.” Such was the cheery message of hope and optimism delivered by mega-billionaire Richard Branson during his recent sojourn into not-quite space aboard the suborbital VSS Unity. For reasons other than those he intended, both the tagline of Branson’s stunt and the wider circumstances surrounding it are actually a perfect encapsulation of the mission’s real meaning and its true purpose.
As people have been quick to point out, there is very little by way of technological, scientific, or even individual novelty at play in the current three-way pissing match between Virgin Galactic’s Branson, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (who will undertake his own flight in a few days’ time). Some twenty years ago, multimillionaire Dennis Tito shelled out $20 million to travel to the International Space Station, making him the first official space tourist. At only a few minutes in length, Branson’s suborbital flight was far shorter than the nearly two hours cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin spent circling the Earth all the way back in 1961. In most senses that matter, then, the so-called billionaire space race is one untethered from actual innovation or precedent-setting.
What is novel is the transformation of space into a new frontier for the world’s lumpen–haute bourgeoisie: a class of people whose fortunes have grown so incomprehensibly large they must now be spent on yachts that contain other yachts and vanity expeditions into the thermosphere because the traditional symbols of billionaire opulence no longer suffice. Contra the effusively futurist spin of their various PR wings, the new frontier in question is thus about as mundane and earthbound as they come — concerned not with the democratization of space nor the transcendence of our worldly existence but rather a scaled-up, fantasy version of generic intra-capitalist competition.
Whatever their branding, as Motherboard’s Edward Ongweso Jr writes, ventures like Branson’s are mainly a show put on to dazzle investors. To a certain extent, they are also about jockeying for lucrative government contracts — one of the great ironies of the private space industry being that it quite literally depends on billions in public money. The single greatest impetus for the billionaire space race, however, is arguably one even more familiar to students of historical inequality. Like Musk, Branson, and Bezos, the monopolists of America’s Gilded Age made their fortunes primarily as rentiers rather than innovators, becoming neo-feudal barons of the nation’s expanding industrial infrastructure and reaping the financial rewards. By its very nature, such an enterprise must always be sold as one concerned with the common good — the growing market for global telecommunications and terrifying military gizmos today occupying the place once held by steamships, railways, and telegraph networks.
More straightforwardly, extreme wealth in the capitalist age is by definition engaged in a constant and desperate scramble for new sources of ethical legitimacy. Billionaires need a public-facing reason to exist and, for the time being at least, owning the right bits of paper and expropriating surplus value still doesn’t quite cut the mustard. If, on the other hand, plutocratic pursuits — and the impossibly decadent lifestyles surrounding them — can be packaged as extensions of a progressive human project, so much the better: the likes of private islands, luxury estates, and Silicon Valley sweatshops now justifying themselves with all the pomp and somber purpose of Neil Armstrong taking his first step onto the surface of the moon.
As temperatures scorch and billions remain unvaccinated more than a year into a global pandemic, Branson’s soaring declaration of radical possibility was thus the ultimate symbol of capitalist decadence in the neoliberal era — a phony futurist advertorial with all the trappings of a springtime orgy at the Palace of Versailles in 1789. Whatever their ostensibly democratic branding, efforts like Branson’s are unlikely to portend any kind of real future for humanity in space (and supposing they somehow did, it would probably resemble Elysium far more than Star Trek).
What they do portend is a future of ever-deepening inequality: one in which the barons of twenty-first-century capital attempt to cajole us in the delusion that their commercial interests and personal ventures are an extension of common social purpose rather than ill-gotten wealth and unearned power. In this respect, Branson’s words — delivered with such sparkling ebullience from eighty-six kilometers up (“If we can do this, imagine what else we can do”) — can also be read as a straightforward statement of fact about the privileges now wielded by him and his class.
Soon enough, the rest of us may no longer have to imagine.