Earthbound Capitalism and the Frontiers of Space

I was debating with a guy from more on the right end of the spectrum.

I personally know him and so it is a different kind of debate than I typically engage in while online. Knowing a person allows for a more civil interaction. It also helps that we can agree on many things. We are both principled defenders of our preferred political visions, and surprisingly those visions come close together. Beginning from two different points, we both wouldn’t mind our society ending up in the same place, the world of Star Trek: Next Generation.

As often is the case, we were debating the problems of society and how we move toward a better society. It actually began with the issue of campaign finance reform, but expanded more generally to big money in politics and the related issues of plutocracy.

He is more of a libertarian type. In line with that worldview, he has more hope for a technological salvation to be found in the future and in outer space. He sees the main obstacle of the Star Trek society is our presently being stuck on earth. To be free of earth, means to him to be free of all the problems of earth. In the freedom of space, there will be freedom to explore and innovate, freedom from prying big government and social oppression. A near endless supply of planets to be terraformed and settled by every social visionary or economic entrepreneur.

I’m a fan of technology in general. For example, I’m a big fan of written text, bound books, and the printing press. Such technologies have transformed civilization, in many ways for the good. I wouldn’t want to live in an alternative reality where these technologies had been successfully suppressed and the society itself accordingly oppressed. Even so, I can’t quite get on board with what what seems to me to be a near blind faith in technological salvation. Technology is just as likely to lead to more oppression than less, as technology simply opens up new possibilities, but doesn’t morally limit any possibility of its use and implementation.

As I said to this other guy,

Even with your vision of an ideal society beyond Earth, how do we get there? And how do we prevent re-creating in space yet more oppression and victimization, yet more plutocracy and corporatocracy? If we don’t solve our problems on Earth, what will stop us from spreading our problems like a disease throughout the galaxy?

If we don’t solve our problems on earth, I don’t see why we will do so in space or on some other planet. Maybe we should first prove that we aren’t complete self-destructive fuck-ups before we go venturing off into the great unknown. Just my opinion.

He spoke of space as a frontier where people could escape oppression and could opt-out from the dominant social order. And let a million flowers bloom. He used the example of Jefferson’s vision of the early American frontier, to help explain the vision of what we could hope for on the frontier of space.

I responded that, 

I do like the idea of a frontier where opting out is possible. But frontiers don’t tend to last long or always work out well for all involved.

North America was once a frontier that was created through genocide. And after genocide, it was long before Americans set about creating a new empire. I fear like the American founders, good intentions aren’t always good enough. Jefferson is a great example, as he helped set the foundations for American empire in many ways more than maybe any of the other founders.

A million new experiments in the vastness of space would be an interesting opportunity for humanity. But if those experiments simply are variations of what we’ve already been doing, we will simply create ever new forms of oppression, dysfunction, etc. A wealthy individual who terraforms their own planet will likely just become another tyrant of that planet and any other planets he gains control of. Many a tyrant began their career as private citizens.

Space could just end up another Wild West with the equivalent gunfighters, robbers, cattle rustlers, railroad tycoons, oil barons, and privatized goons like the Pinkertons. What ended the violence and social disorder on the frontier in the US was centralized government, after killing off and rounding up all the free-spirited types and other troublemakers. These frontier people who didn’t fit the government’s plan were put in nooses, in prisons, and on reservations.

What is important to keep in mind is those who wanted big government most were the big business types. The wealthy elite wanted law and order, wanted the Native American’s land, wanted to get rid of the land squatters who settled the frontier.

Before Lincoln was a politician, he was a lawyer who worked for the railroads, which were as big business as they came back then. Lincoln’s job was to find legal ways to kick people off their lands so that the railroads could be built. Many people living on the frontier didn’t have legal rights to their lands or their legal rights weren’t clear, as paper work wasn’t always kept well and property lines were at times vague. Before big gov, the Great Emancipator began his vision of progress by working for big biz.

A large part of the Civil War was a fight about the Northern vision of an industrial economy ruled by big biz, big factories, and big railroads. Many Southerners were wary of this capitalist vision and for good reason. Much of the Southern rhetoric was a criticism of wage labor just being another form of slave labor, but for white men. And they were right to make these criticisms, as the hardworking farmer who could support his own family would be destroyed by big biz agriculture. The American Dream of being able to own and to make a living on one’s own land would become a thing of the past.

The events of the frontier and the events of the Civil War were intertwined. Many of the Confederate veterans headed West to escape this vision of collusion between big gov and big biz. The famous gunfighters and train robbers were often Confederate veterans and Southerners in general. They lost the war, but they went on fighting for their vision of independence. The frontier ultimately isn’t an escape from empire, but simply the outer edge of empire. Frontiers as we’ve known them in this society have been products of empire, locations of the clashes and violence of empires.

The same old frontier drama is likely to play out all over again on the frontiers of space. It is a very old story that seems to never end. I just wonder sometime if an alternative is possible. Might it be possible for us to escape this repeating pattern and create an entirely new society? That is the vision of Star Trek: Next Generation. It offers the hope that we might one day end this millennia-long tragedy.

In a joking way, he offered this quote: 

“What makes wage slaves? Wages!”–Groucho Marx

I responded more seriously:

Actually, what makes both chattel slavery and wage slavery is the slavery part. I have no particular principled argument against either chattel or wages. Nor against wealth as property and capital.

For example, capital is basically just fungible wealth, which means it can be easily moved, transferred, and reinvested. Every society, even communist societies, include capital as part of their daily functioning.

Capitalism isn’t simply capital, but a particular kind of capital, a particular social order and class system revolving around capital, a particular emphasize and prioritizing of capital, and hence an economy and society centered around those who own, control, and influence the movements of capital (i.e., the capitalists).

In a capitalist society, everything is centered on and organized according to capital. The capitalists are those who run society. This is obvious to see with our society in how most politicians are people who have worked in or for big biz, big banks, investment firms, etc. It is easy for a lawyer to go from working for a corporation to working as a politician. American politics has become famous for its revolving door between big biz and big gov, and regulatory capture has become commonplace.

Those with the capital in the US aren’t just those with the wealth, but those with the power. It is a capitalist class of businessmen, CEOs, lobbyists, investors, government contractors, advisers, and the many people who move back and forth between the public and private spheres.

Capitalism isn’t the same thing as a free market. A society could have a free market capitalism, not that such a thing has yet existed in the world to any great extent, but it could in theory. However, capitalism as we’ve known it has never been all that close to an actual functioning free market. On the other hand, an actual functioning free market could be and maybe would more likely be centered on something other than capital.

There are many aspects of an economy that are necessary for it functioning well, specifically in terms of a free market. There is social ‘capital’, there are communities, there is land, there is labor, etc. Many people who have criticized capitalism do so not because it is a free market, but because as we’ve seen so far it isn’t a free market or not as free as its rhetoric claims. Yes, capitalism is relatively more free than oppressive economic systems of the past, but that is a very low bar to reach.

You asked me what my hang up is with wealth. I have no such hang up. My issue is with a limited understanding of wealth. There is a lot more to wealth than just capital. In fact, capital is the smallest part of wealth. The most tangible and fundamental forms of wealth are those that can’t be defined as capital, as fungible wealth.

I then added a thought about how capitalism relates to Star Trek:

Star Trek is a good alternative to capitalism. There are some capitalist markets for mostly non-essential goods. If you want some rare object or an original art piece, there are unofficial markets for such goods. But most of the economy has evolved past the need of capital as an intervening form of wealth.

Technology has become so abundant that the scarcity principle behind capitalism is nearly obsolete. No one is ever in need of any basic need, even if they do no work at all, for so much of traditional labor is also nearly obsolete.

Since capital is almost meaningless in such an economic system, the guiding principle of the economy has more to do with human capital and social capital, not capital as fungible wealth, not as we recognize it anyway. It is communities of people and social/political organizations that have primary values. It is knowledge and experience, not capital, that is the greatest personal wealth an individual can gain.

People work not out of need, but out of curiosity and aspiration, simply to live up to their potential and seeking the betterment of society. It is a much more optimistic vision of humanity than is found in contemporary capitalism that sees monetary reward as the only incentive to make people not be lazy.

As I always find interesting, he fundamentally agrees with me, even though technically we are coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum. I think it is the fact that at a more fundamental level we are both classical liberals.

However, our differences did show up in the worry he noted, which was that class warfare would derail and postpone the progress toward a better future. From his point of view, we have to be more tolerant of the failings of capitalism because capitalism is the only pathway to what is beyond capitalism. If we short-circuit capitalism in trying to fix the problems of capitalism, we will create even bigger problems.

From my perspective, I can’t help but repeating what many on the left have said. Many have argued that the capitalist class started the class warfare and they are winning it. The question we on the left always worry about is how do we stop the abuse of this class war of the plutocrats against the rest of us. Only those winning the class war care about continuing it, and most people in the world today, including those on the left, are on the losing end. If those on the right wish for the class war to end, they’d need to speak to the ruling elites in charge of the charade. Or else they can join us on the left and make sure it ends.

The problem is that our society was built on class war. There hasn’t been a moment in the history of the United States when a class war wasn’t a dominant force. It isn’t yet clear that we are even capable of envisioning a realistic and compelling alternative or have the capacity of making the needed changes. But to envision an alternative, we have to first acknowledge and understand the present reality.

7 thoughts on “Earthbound Capitalism and the Frontiers of Space

  1. “From his point of view, we have to be more tolerant of the failings of capitalism because capitalism is the only pathway to what is beyond capitalism.”

    How does he intend to reconcile the idea of the failings of capitalism with what is beyond? Because logically, being tolerant means preserving the status quo (capitalism) in the face of advancing technology, versus seeking out alternatives (such as a social democracy).

    • I’m not entirely sure. He is an optimist when it comes to technology. As I understand, he believes technological innovation will force change, whether we want it or not. The status quo can’t be maintained because advancing technology can’t be stopped. Or something like that.

  2. What I have always found interesting about people who claim technology as their savior is the opposition to the forces that might advance it.

    For example, this libertarian person would probably object to his taxes being raised to fund universities and various research projects, preferring that such things be left to the market. Only they cannot be, because in general private sectors do not operate on such long scales.

    There are some exceptions. During the Cold War, Bell Labs made some noteworthy advancements. Google appears to be investing some money into Blue Skies research as does Microsoft. But these are largely monopolies that can afford to do so and the social benefits of a monopoly must be called into question.

    There is also the short-term mentality of Western society at work here. The rapid advancement of the East Asians is an example of great success in long term. It took Samsung I recall, approximately 15 years of losing money to get AMOLED screens (now widely used on smartphones) into something useful. That does not happen as much in the West.

    The point is that government intervention is needed and that such people who think technology is their savior have a paradox that they cannot really answer. Private sectors cannot effectively address the long term projects in most circumstances.

    • This guy, as I understand it, was raised in more fundamentalist religion. I’ve found many libertarian fundamentalists were once religious fundamentalists. They look to technology as their salvation and they look to space as their heaven.

      “The point is that government intervention is needed and that such people who think technology is their savior have a paradox that they cannot really answer. Private sectors cannot effectively address the long term projects in most circumstances.”

      I agree with you. However, he would disagree with you.

      I know that he thinks capitalism could do it better, if government just got out of the way. The guy is fairly openminded, but he is a true believer in capitalism as the pathway to technological salvation. Capitalism may not be the endpoint he seeks, and yet he sees no other path. As far as he is concerned, the government never accomplished anything useful ever.

      • “This guy, as I understand it, was raised in more fundamentalist religion. I’ve found many libertarian fundamentalists were once religious fundamentalists. They look to technology as their salvation and they look to space as their heaven.”

        You know, in Germany, the Nazi party once recruited former Communists in the 1930s to their ranks. They did not however recruit those who were more moderate. See any parallels?

        “I know that he thinks capitalism could do it better, if government just got out of the way. ”

        The thing is, can he see all that the government built around him with the tax dollars of his forefathers (and some of his own)?

        You’ll notice something. Only white, middle to upper middle class people ever become libertarian. Because they have the luxury to do so, combined with either incredible selfishness, and incredible willful ignorance.

        Like everything else though, technology has its limitations. That is something seldom acknowledged.

        • I feel reluctant to speak for this guy. He is intelligent and he is intellectually humble. I respect him, even as I disagree with, and I have strongly voiced my disagreements to him in many discussions.

          I really don’t know his full views on capitalism. I’m sure he would agree with some of the criticisms you and I would make. He is genuine in his libertarianism, and it seems he has some comprehension of the problems of big biz, even if he is more likely to blame big gov.

          His thinking is a lot more nuanced than the typical Tea Party libertarian. He doesn’t come across as a dogmatic ideologue. That is why he can envision a non-capitalist future, which I find amazing considering his being in many ways such a hardcore right-winger.

          It is true that he is white. He grew up in Middle America, specifically majority white Indiana. White privilege no doubt plays into his worldview.

          Also, as far as I know, he has never been poor. I think he probably could be fairly categorized as middle class, although lower middle class. The generations preceding him were mostly factory workers and farmers, but because of lots of opportunities that others didn’t have his family like my family was able to move up in the world. There is a class privilege of social mobility that goes along with white privilege.

          Yes, technology has its limitations. I don’t entirely know what he would have to say about that. He recognizes that technology can be used as for evil as well as for good. He isn’t completely naive, just optimistic. He has great faith in human ingenuity and he has great faith that human ingenuity will lead to more good than not. I’m not a luddite, but I’m more skeptical.

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