Review: “Space is the (non)place”

Stevphen Shukaitis. “Space is the (non)place: Martians, Marxists, and the outer space of the radical imagination” Sociological Review 57 Suppl (2009).

In this article, Shukaitis surveys “the particular role outer space and extraterrestrial voyage play within the radical imagination.” In particular, he sees speculative fiction about life and travel in outer space as a form of symbolic escape from the squalor and injustice of late capitalism, and a way to construct utopian worlds that give meaning to our struggles for justice in this world here and now. In autonomist Marxist terms, it presents fictional scenarios of what autonomists call “recomposition” — rebuilding, under our own hegemony, the social spaces and institutions that have been destroyed and atomized by capitalism — in an outer space setting. It was “a forward projection of an outside to capitalism enabling a space of possibility in the present.”

Leftist social criticism has displayed an ambivalent set of attitudes towards outer space — attitudes that mirror the dichotomy between the techno-utopian and primitivist or technophobic strands of the Left. Although many see outer space (whether in fictional scenarios or real agenda) as an arena for building post-capitalism and lifting the earth itself out of its current state, some quarters see it as a frivolous diversion of resources from fixing poverty and inequality here on earth.

Perhaps an interesting question… is not so much a question of whether there is a presence of outer space imagery and extraterrestrial travel residing within the workings of the social imaginary, but of their function. Their presence is felt both when the poet and songwriter Gil Scott-Heron complains that he can’t pay his doctor bills or rent and wonders what could be done with all the resources that would be available if they weren’t being spent on getting ‘Whitey on the Moon’ (1971), and when Stevie Wonder contrasts the utopian conditions of ‘Saturn’ (1976), which are peaceful and free from capitalist exchange, with conditions and problems of the urban ghettos.

Outer space is a favorite setting for radical treatment, Shukaitis argues, because “the unknown and the mysterious are almost by definition of particular fascination to those crafting mythopoetic narratives and imagery.”

This has long been true of imaginary settings other than outer space, I would note, going back to ancient festivals (recounted by James Scott in Domination and the Arts of Resistance) in which the world was turned upside-down for a day and the social order inverted, medieval peasant utopias like Cockaigne, the 20th century hobo utopia of Big Rock Candy Mountain, and Jimi Hendrix’s vision of an Atlantean escape from the ugliness of war and capitalism in the “1983” suite.

The ruling classes have been aware of the subversive potential of such speculation, Shukaitis writes, as demonstrated by the post-WWII wave of repression against utopian collectivism in fiction and the corresponding popularity of anti-collectivist themes in works like 1984 and Invasion of the Body Snatchers that treat any alternative to “our free enterprise system” and the American model of individualism as a totalitarian dystopia. And as the latter example indicates, themes of alien invasion have been used to play up xenophobia against other nations of our own species.

This does not mean, of course, that technological utopianism as such has not been used in the dominant narrative. As Shukaitis points out, American-style “rugged individualism” and the export of the “pioneer spirit” to the frontiers of space were recurring theme in Golden Age science fiction.

At the same time, libertarian socialist techno-utopian themes were seen as a threat not just to corporate capitalism as a system of power, but to authoritarian state communism. Although “early efforts towards cybernetic communism were initially developed within the Soviet Union,” they were ultimately repressed because the party “feared, rightly, that they could not control it.” (Actually, if I recall correctly, it was the Soviet military leadership that vetoed conversion of the military’s computer network into the backbone of a civilian Internet as was done with Arpanet in the United States.)

Shukaitis can’t let the theme of radically utopian treatments of outer space pass without mentioning one of the most bizarre examples, that of the dissident Trotskyite Juan Posadas, who not only hoped advanced aliens would export communism to the earth, but looked forward to a devastating nuclear war as the trigger for revolution and post-capitalist transformation.

Getting back to our earlier dichotomy between positive and negative views of technology on the Left, anarcho-primitivism “does not find much considered redeemable” in the space travel genre, any more than it does in technology in general. This determinist view of technological development, Shukaitis says, is a form of mystification that reflects their unfamiliarity with it, and ignores the radically divergent alternatives presented by technology depending on the nature of the structural power framework into which it is integrated.

In language that echoes David Graeber, Shukaitis notes that the actual development of technology under late capitalism has been a considerable disappointment, compared to the utopian predictions in popular fiction. Technological development has been disproportionately diverted into servicing institutional needs like the Military-Industrial Complex, waste consumption to overcome the crisis of overaccumulation and idle production capacity, and the control and distribution infrastructures required by corporate globalization, and not to reducing hours of labor or making daily life more fulfilling.

This leaves us with the necessity of contesting state and capitalist control of the process of technological development, and harnessing it to our own liberatory ends. And speculative fiction, Shukaitis argues, functions as a sort of cognitive map for this purpose: “an imaginal landscape is a precondition for actually finding a northwest passage in the physical world.” In this regard, the fictional setting of outer space is more symbolic than literal, implying not so much “a conception of exodus in physical terms” as “one in terms of intensive coordinates.”

In other words a shift towards an exodus that does not leave while attempting to subtract itself from forms of state domination and capitalist valorization.

Shukaitis mentions hippie dropout communities and Italian autonomist social centers as examples of such exodus within the physical surroundings of capitalist society.

Similar themes of exodus were developed in Afrofuturist science fiction, “which as a literary and cultural movement is based on exploring the black experience through the relation between technology, science fiction and racialization.” In particular he mentions the fascinating decades-long trajectory of the Sun Ra Arkestra (including the 1974 film Space is the Place), which fused themes of libertarian alien societies, Afrocentric history and advanced technology, and related them to issues of racial oppression in the United States.

In recent decades space has become a setting for explicit Leftist development of radically utopian and anti-capitalist visions. Shukaitis quotes Eduardo Rothe, who put it as plainly (and messianically) as anyone could want in a Situationist journal in 1969. Rothe directly addresses the seizure of science from capitalism and the state by the people, and its recuperation for their own utopian goals.

Humanity will enter into space to make the universe the playground of the last revolt: that which will go against the limitations imposed by nature. Once the walls have been smashed that now separate people from science, the conquest of space will no longer be an economic or military ‘promotional’ gimmick, but the blossoming of human freedoms and fulfillments, attained by a race of gods. We will not enter into space as employees of an astronautic administration or as ‘volunteers’ of a state project, but as masters without slaves reviewing their domains: the entire universe pillaged for the workers’ councils.

(Leaving aside, obviously, the question of whether there are other people on the worlds out there who aren’t quite ready to be “pillaged.”)

As the example of Rothe suggests, the use of outer space by radical Leftists is not always utopian or fictional. There are efforts here and now to take back space exploration from government agencies and capitalist corporations, and bring it within the domain of free, cooperative, and self-organized human endeavor. Shukaitis mentions the formation of the Association of Autonomist Astronauts in 1995, in protest against the Pentagon’s militarization of space. Although they initially emerged from the radical artistic scene, they formulated (admittedly for the most part as a spur to the imagination) a five-year plan to “establish a planetary network to end the monopoly of corporations, governments and the military over travel in space.”

A more pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts vision along similar lines was presented in the fictional short story “Open Shot” in Analog science fiction magazine, about the Stallman, an open-source hardware group’s victorious entry in a private moonshot competition in a field otherwise dominated by capitalist corporations.

Although Shukaitis’s 2009 article predates most of these developments, the continuing development of cheap micro-manufacturing tools and open hardware communities since then has led to a proliferation of real-world open hardware space projects. Elon Musk’s space ventures have, at the same time, been the source of misguided but understandable hopes along the same lines. In an earlier commentary (“One Cheer for SpaceX”), I surveyed some of the current FOSS space projects and noted that even though Musk’s own corporate vision is toxic, he is nevertheless pushing space technology in cheaper, more modular, and ephemeral directions that can be pirated and otherwise recuperated by commons-based peer production for the eventual post-capitalist expansion into space.

I’m disappointed that Shukaitis didn’t give Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy the attention it deserved, as a fictional scenario of a viable libertarian socialist society being developed on another planet, and providing a demonstration effect for the oppressed peoples of earth that was a real and present danger to the power structure.

In contrast to Robinson’s relatively optimistic visions in the Mars Trilogy and 2312, the television series The Expanse presents a dystopian vision of a solar system under the hegemony of exploitative capitalist corporations.

My own guess is that the truth is a lot closer to Robinson’s vision than to that of the TV show, and capitalist and state technologies of control are simply not equal to the requirements of maintaining hegemony over people living and working off-planet. Once the first mining colonies and space habitats are set up in the asteroid belt, or the first colonies on the moon and Mars, I suspect earth’s government agencies and corporations will quickly discover that whatever contractual arrangements they’ve made with the inhabitants of space — and whatever absentee titles they have to the land and resources those people are working — aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. In that case the future of space will be post-capitalist regardless of what happens here on earth, and may well provide leverage for the transition here at home.

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