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Jacobin - July 14, 2021

As temperatures scorch and billions remain unvaccinated more than a year into a global pandemic, Branson’s soaring declaration of radical possibility was thus the ultimate symbol of capitalist decadence in the neoliberal era — a phony futurist advertorial with all the trappings of a springtime orgy at the Palace of Versailles in 1789. Whatever their ostensibly democratic branding, efforts like Branson’s are unlikely to portend any kind of real future for humanity in space (and supposing they somehow did, it would probably resemble Elysium far more than Star Trek).

... As people have been quick to point out, there is very little by way of technological, scientific, or even individual novelty at play in the current three-way pissing match between Virgin Galactic’s Branson, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (who will undertake his own flight in a few days’ time). Some twenty years ago, multimillionaire Dennis Tito shelled out $20 million to travel to the International Space Station, making him the first official space tourist. At only a few minutes in length, Branson’s suborbital flight was far shorter than the nearly two hours cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin spent circling the Earth all the way back in 1961. In most senses that matter, then, the so-called billionaire space race is one untethered from actual innovation or precedent-setting.

What is novel is the transformation of space into a new frontier for the world’s lumpen–haute bourgeoisie: a class of people whose fortunes have grown so incomprehensibly large they must now be spent on yachts that contain other yachts and vanity expeditions into the thermosphere because the traditional symbols of billionaire opulence no longer suffice. Contra the effusively futurist spin of their various PR wings, the new frontier in question is thus about as mundane and earthbound as they come — concerned not with the democratization of space nor the transcendence of our worldly existence but rather a scaled-up, fantasy version of generic intra-capitalist competition. ...
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