“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
– Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?
To say we live in bizarre times would be an understatement. How else could you explain a billionaire, who pays virtually no taxes, launching himself into space in a rocket, releasing 300 tons of climate warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and then thanking his underpaid, over-worked employees for whom he doesn’t allow bathroom breaks, and the customers he fleeces, for that 10 minute joyride? Or the corporate media literally giving this stunt endless praise and more coverage than the global climate crisis? Or the near emotionless automaton, aka POTUS press secretary Jen Psaki, actually lauding this spectacle as “a moment of American exceptionalism?”
While all of this was unfolding, thousands of people have been displaced, killed or are missing from record breaking floods in Germany, China and Japan. And in Siberia and the west of North America lakes are drying up and forests are being burnt to ash (again). The type of capitalist adventurism Bezos and other billionaires are engaging in isn’t original. Capitalists of all stripes have used their inordinate wealth on extravagant displays like this for years. But on a planet with a rapidly unraveling biosphere, it is a demonstration of how disconnected the powerful are from the existential moment we are standing in.
None of this is to condemn space exploration. In fact, many people (myself included) love learning more about our solar system, our galaxy and our universe. Many of us (myself included) dream about being able to physically go to space and visit other planets. But the recent jaunts and escapades of Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk, are not about that at all. This is space escapism for the ultra-rich at the expense of the biosphere we all share. It is worth remembering that it is the excesses of the capitalist class that have brought us to the brink of ecological disaster. That they would somehow be cast as humanity’s saviors by so many is the very essence of collective lunacy. But what is the alternative?
I have no definitive answers to that question. But I think we could start by looking to visionaries who embody values that are not rooted in an exploitative, capitalist worldview. Kim Stanley Robinson is one such visionary. As a revolutionary science fiction writer, Robinson presents to us a future that is distinctly different than the prevailing theme of dystopia that is in so much of the genre. There are no zombies or gangs of marauding mutants in his works. But there are the real life consequences of climate change, ecological devastation, political discord and economic disparity. Robinson frames all of these complex issues through the lens of radical imagination. He gives us a world that is post-capitalist, post-war, and post-ecological exploitation.
With billionaires competing to privatize the planet as well as space, Robinson offers us a far more appealing alternative. Viewing earth and solar system as a commons to be cared for and protected, even with various countries working on their own projects, sometimes in conflict, his books help us envision the potential of our species beyond this present moment. Without resorting to tired tropes or frequently used literary devices, Robinson pulls us in to our own collective human experience.
The expensive experiments of the uber-billionaires are not only costly to the working class, they are costly to the planet’s ecosystems and human civilization itself. But the left, and I include myself in this, has all too often relegated itself to the margins of this discourse by being excessively cynical. Doomerism has become a sort of cultish enclave for many leftists to hide in and await the apocalypse. It sees the violent ruthlessness of capitalism. It understands that this global arrangement of power and wealth has the potential to destroy everything, including our future. But it frequently fails to possess the courage and radical imagination necessary to engage with the public and entertain ideas and the steps for radical transformation. So, it should come as little surprise that people like Bezos or Musk or Branson would fill the void.
Capitalism is in its end game. And that game involves ruthlessly oppressing the working poor and the global south, as well as destroying our fragile biosphere. And it is in a race to carve up what is left of the planet and venture into space to do the same. But, as the late Ursula Le Guin once said:
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”
Perhaps it is time we took back the vision stolen from us. To imagine what the world will look like with capitalism gone. And perhaps it is time to be radical about that vision, more radical than an 10 minute joyride in space by a self-absorbed, parasitic billionaire.