The Cooking the Books Column from the January 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Dutch Marxist, Anton Pannekoek, once wrote that because the Earth’s size was limited so would capitalism be, implying that when capitalism had extended to the whole of the globe it would come to an end. This conclusion might have been reassuring, but it was never a rigorous argument. The Earth’s size has nothing to do with the lifespan of capitalism. But, if it had, Pannekoek had overlooked the possibility of capitalism extending itself beyond the Earth; surprising since he was a professor of astronomy, but he was writing in 1942.
Fast forward to today and an online article on 25 November (tinyurl.com/nq9csxn) suggests that we too might be behind the times when we talk of ‘world’ socialism:
‘President Barrack Obama today put his signature on a law supporting the rights of space miners to extract, use and sell resources from asteroids, the moon, Mars and other celestial bodies.’
The US law exploits a loophole in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which banned weapons of mass destruction (but not other weapons) in space but which also laid down that ‘outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.’ This meant only that no state could claim territorial rights over parts of space but did not rule out corporations or individuals exercising private property rights over them.
The 1979 Moon Treaty did attempt to prevent this, declaring (Article 11) that ‘the Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind’ and banning any state, corporate or private individual ownership of them. Since this treaty was not signed by the US or by any other country likely to send a mission to the Moon this clause was without effect. Now the US has enacted a law permitting the exercise of private property rights there and beyond.
It was passed as a result of lobbying by capitalist corporations that are already investing in the possibility of exploiting the natural resources of the Moon and near-Earth asteroids.
They were over the moon about it. ‘This is the single greatest recognition of property rights in history,’ exaggerated Eric Anderson of Planetary Resources. ‘In the long view of history,’ enthused Rick Tumlinson of Deep Space Industries, ‘it is the sort of positive action that changes civilization’. It, added Hannah Kerner of the Space Frontier Foundation, ‘extends our free market values into space.’
Actually, in the long view of history, it is more likely to be seen as a disaster and a disgrace as extending into space private property rights and the production for profit that caused such havoc on Earth. There is nothing wrong with making use of the natural resources of the Moon, Mars and asteroids. It’s an exciting prospect and will be an advance in human civilisation, but it will only be done rationally and in the interest of humanity if carried out under conditions where these resources, together with those of the Earth, really are ‘the common heritage of mankind’.
These are conditions which Article 11 of the Moon Treaty could be adapted to describe:
‘Neither the surface nor the subsurface of the Earth, the Moon or other celestial bodies, nor any part thereof, shall be the property of any state, international intergovernmental or non-governmental organization, national organization or non-governmental entity or of any natural person.’
Fortunately, Pannekoek was wrong about capitalism having physical limits since space is so vast that, if he’d been right, capitalism would potentially be able to last forever.