I tend to write libertarian-themed Space Opera, which means that when I read this recent blog post by Charlie Stross, I had a bit of a reaction. Here’s the money quote:
“In other words: space colonization is implicitly incompatible with both libertarian ideology and the myth of the American frontier.”
Okay then. I guess it should come as no surprise that I think he’s wrong. Or, should I say, half wrong.
I think I’ll first address the point wherein I think he’s got it right. He points out, correctly, that space colonization is horrendously expensive in time and resources, the infrastructure needed to independently maintain a technological civilization is pretty damn huge, and the nature of a space borne environment means that voting with one’s feet is pretty much off the table. Thus he’s quite correct that any analogies to the American frontier are waaaaaay off the mark. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a strawman there because this also means the same thing about analogies with the Australian frontier, or the Age of Exploration, or any other historical migration/invasion/colonization you might want to name ever since our Australopithecus ancestors walked out of Africa. This is for two reasons, one he mentions and one he doesn’t. Every other historical migration of humans from point A to point B involved a point B that was largely habitable and could support a population on its own. The point he doesn’t mention is that every human migration also had a motive of somehow exploiting point B for the profit of those migrating: be it better farmland, more slaves, gold, oil, or just some real estate to put between them and the folks who wanted to steal their stuff.
Where he gets it wrong is the following:
I postulate that the organization required for such exploration is utterly anathema to the ideology of the space cadets, because the political roots of the space colonization movement in the United States rise from taproots of nostalgia for the open frontier that give rise to a false consciousness of the problem of space colonization. In particular, the fetishization of autonomy, self-reliance, and progress through mechanical engineering — echoing the desire to escape the suffocating social conditions back east by simply running away — utterly undermine the program itself and are incompatible with life in a space colony (which is likely to be at a minimum somewhat more constrained than life in one of the more bureaucratically obsessive-compulsive European social democracies, and at worst will tend towards the state of North Korea in Space).
This is where he makes a mistake that I fear is endemic in popular political thought on the left; the idea that since libertarianism cannot abide collectivism and believes in a minimal State, it must therefore be a philosophy of social nihilism that opposes any and all collective action, organization, or rules. (How often I hear, “But don’t you approve of traffic laws?” in a self-congratulatory tone.) This, to put it mildly, is bullshit. The libertarian ideology is NOT incompatible with life in a space colony, however draconian the rules of survival need be, as long as the colony is a privately run enterprise and the inhabitants were all there by their own choice, and aren’t living off the threat of force to appropriate the resources needed for their survival. But that scenario runs counter to the unstated assumption that it is impossible to have a massive organized effort of people and resources of the kind required to build a space colony without a State-run effort appropriating, by force, the resources and manpower to do it. That is also bullshit. If there is a significant enough return to be had on the investment, a private entity can act with the resources and organization of a State. (Though, given the corporatist post-fascist globalized world we all live in, the most likely scenario is the corporate hijacking of the State’s monopoly on force to have the State appropriate the resources to invest in space exploration adventures on their behalf, therefore minimizing their own risks by spreading it among the entire taxpaying population, sort of like the banking industry— of course someone will use that as a critique of capitalism and call for more State control of the effort, giving yet more power to the symbiotic State-corporate entity, which is so completely missing the fucking point my head wants to explode…)
The primary reason that neither State nor corporation has built anything remotely like the space colonies envisioned in SF is because there’s absolutely no compelling reason for them to do so. So far the only profitable uses we’ve found for space is communicating long distances and spying on the enemy. Neither of which requires a manned presence. As I said above, every human migration from point A to point B also had a motive of somehow exploiting point B for the profit of those migrating. So one might as well just say that such colonization— at least until there is some substantial profit in the enterprise— is anathema to human nature.