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For the past few years, some of our most famous billionaires have toyed with the idea of off-planet exploration.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been promising commercial spaceflights since 2007, while Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin has staged a number of highly publicized spaceflights and has been clamoring for federal contracts from NASA. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

But the most elaborate, if still fully hypothetical, idea belongs to SpaceX’s Elon Musk, who wants to launch an expedition to colonize and privatize Mars.

Of the various space billionaires, Musk’s Red Planet fantasies are most directly connected to underlying societal anxieties. Given the costs Musk has tossed around, his goal of privatizing space seems like a way to leave the unwashed masses behind. Mars may one day become the ultimate gated community.

Indeed, the fantasies in which Musk and others engage occur within the longer history of private property. In particular, their dreams of colonizing space for themselves seem to echo earlier efforts to consolidate private ownership over newly discovered lands.

Today’s legal and cultural perceptions of private property have roots in the “enclosures” of late medieval and early modern England. Much of the agricultural land of England had previously been “commonage,” land that was owned by nobody but available for the common use of all local residents. (A North American example of this is the Boston Common, which was established as public land by Puritans in 1634 and has its origins in this practice of commonage.)

But then England began privatizing land that had been commonage. From 1545 until well into the 18th century, the British Parliament passed more than 5,000 acts privatizing close to a quarter of the agricultural land of Britain — approximately 6 million acres — through these enclosures. Much of the now-privatized land was dedicated to small-scale farming or turned over to large-scale sheep farming.

For England’s emerging capitalists, this was obviously a boon, as they could now acquire land cheaply. But for those lower down the social scale, the enclosures were a disaster; the commonage land from which they had previously made a livelihood was no longer available to them. Resistance to enclosures was practically instantaneous, from Kett’s Rebellion in 1549 up through the agrarian violence that accompanied the English civil wars of the 1640s.

The new English elite that emerged from the enclosures were always plagued by fears of social unrest. They worried that a new dangerous class of “masterless men” was being created. Men who had previously made their livelihood by farming on common land were now seen as dangerous vagrants, supposedly unemployed and wandering from town to town spreading popular discontent. Whether such radical vagrants ever existed is debatable, but the fears of them were certainly real.

These fears, in turn, shaped the contemporaneous English plantations of Ireland and of the New World. For elites, colonialism was seen as a safety valve. Not only could owners claim new private property in Ireland or in colonies in North America, but England could send settlers abroad, to alleviate the “mobbish threat” to private property in England.

The safety valve of colonialism strengthened private property even further. The poet and clergyman John Donne called the Virginia territory the “spleen” and “liver” of England, the place where toxic elements of the body politic could be drained. America was seen as a dumping ground for the people who might form dangerous mobs at home. But then, as historian Nancy Isenberg has shown, these dangerous individuals could be converted into responsible property owners themselves and adherents to the new status quo.

Of course, this entailed violent dispossession of Native Americans from their lands. Racist assumptions that non-Europeans had lesser claims to lands helped justify their dispossession and continued to drive colonialism.

Colonization continued to blend these elements of dispossession of Indigenous people and settlement of surplus populations. The British use of Australia as a penal colony in the 19th century is well known. Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 was accompanied by claims that Italy was overcrowded and needed a space for its excess people. More subtly, all European colonial powers — the British in India, the Belgians in the Congo, the French in Algeria — saw their overseas territories as places to invest excess capital or as new frontiers where working-class and lower-middle-class Europeans could achieve a social mobility denied to them at home. The formal decolonization that began after World War II cut across this use of extra-European spaces as a social safety valve. Capitalism seemed to have run out of new spaces to take over.

In an era of decolonization across the planet, the United Nations weighed in on another frontier. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty defined all extraterrestrial space as unavailable to any kind of private ownership, a concept reinforced by the 1979 Moon Treaty. In legal terms, space was understood as a “res communis,” common space available to all but ownable by none. Space has often been spoken of using a colonial vocabulary; as early as 1962, for example, John F. Kennedy was comparing a future moon landing to the work of William Bradford, the mid-17th-century governor of the Plymouth Bay Co. and the architect of anti-Indian massacres. But actual colonization of space seemed to be cut off.

By the start of the 21st century, the only “outside” space that contemporary capitalism seemed able to imagine was via “seasteading,” the concept that new communities could be created on artificial floating islands. Seasteading was a favored fantasy for libertarians in Silicon Valley because of the assumption that such islands would exist outside of state control and would avoid all tax obligations.

But more recently these libertarian strands have slowly seeped into the dominant thinking about space. Michael Griffin wanted to jump-start a private spacecraft sector when he was the head of NASA from 2005 to 2009. As early as 2011, Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, invested $100,000 in an asteroid-mining start-up. After 2014, the Asteroids (American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities In Deep Space) Act allowed for privately owned mining rights on asteroids, violating the United States’ agreement to the 1967 and 1979 U.N. treaties on space.

Space is now increasingly claimed as empty space awaiting privatization. For example, Google co-founder Larry Page and former CEO Eric Schmidt have also invested in asteroid mining, via the company Planetary Resources, and Goldman Sachs has similarly given attention to extraterrestrial mining.

When Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, his stated goal was to privatize space, and since the mid-2010s he has been planning a colony on Mars that would support 1 million people within 40 to 100 years — while also confessing in 2016 that he’s “not the best” at meeting timelines. He also tends to downplay the sheer impossibility of this entire endeavor.

These efforts are about more than just resource extraction. Where colonization in Ireland and England’s North American colonies were an effort to export away vagrants and threats to private property, today’s libertarian fantasies of Martian colonization or artificial islands are focused on creating societies where the dangerous classes can’t even get in. Musk has acknowledged that travel costs for his future colony could be in the range of $10 billion per passenger but has said that could eventually be brought down to “only” $100,000. His proposed Martian colony would literally have no poor people.

Musk’s vision of the future is of a damaged Earth, where all resources have been consumed and where a relocation to Mars is the only means to escape human extinction.

Musk’s sci-fi fantasies read like a despondent attempt to retain a vision of a better future. But in his depictions of space exploration, the final frontier reveals itself not as a place where we can imagine a better world but as a frontier that is already assumed to be internal to capitalism’s web of life. It is just another space to be privatized in capitalism’s never-ending self-perpetuation.

And so we end up back where we began in post-enclosures England, with the problems of a crowded capitalist ecology being solved by an act of imagination. Imagined “empty” spaces — whether the American interior in the 17th century or Mars in the 21st — may promise that a new world can be created freed from the evils of the old, but those doing the imagining are still replicating the real evils of the old world: greed, privatization, rigid hierarchies, exploitation of the commons and exploitation of other human beings.

Colonization remains a safety valve for a society beset by supposedly dangerous forces that threaten the property order. The history of private property is a circle.



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