Capitalist Feeding Frenzy

The extremely free market economy in Pohl and Kornbluth’s classic satire. This edition published by Penguin Books 1965 and reissued 1973. Cover design by David Pelham.

We in the West, whether we like it or not, live in a capitalist society.  And although there are many, both in the West and elsewhere, who might wish it otherwise, one could be forgiven for thinking that the whole world is gradually coming around to the same approach.  Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, is often regarded as the most important manifesto for capitalism, and is still regularly quoted today.  It proposes that the wealth from trade should be invested back into businesses to further increase production and profits.  It was quite revolutionary at a time when, in previous history, production had been fairly constant.  Nowadays, though, it is seen as the norm.

But there is one significant factor – economic growth depends on industry continuing to develop and markets continuing to expand.  Yet we live on one planet, and the scope for growth must eventually be limited, even if it is not already showing signs of slowing down.  And, where the potential for on-going expansion is inevitably restricted, economic crisis, and even collapse, is likely to follow.

There are arguments – as I mentioned in a previous webpost, Greed is Good? – that simple capitalist greed could be the only likely successful driving force behind space exploration.  Not necessarily a pleasant thought, but possibly true.  And science fiction gives many examples where interplanetary, even interstellar, trade is the engine for continuing economic growth beyond the Earth.

An early example was Robert Heinlein’s 1951 novella The Man Who Sold the Moon, which focused on the schemes of businessmen to control the Moon.  His later 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress attempts to demonstrate the advantages of a free market economy in a lunar colony when opposed to a totalitarian dictatorship back on Earth.  Similarly, Ayn Rand’s modern classic Atlas Shrugged, although not usually considered a work of science fiction, depicts a future dystopian USA where the benefits of capitalism are broken by authoritarian state control.

However, Frederik Pohl and Cyril M Kornbluth’s 1953 satirical, but still highly topical, novel The Space Merchants remains one of the prime examples of the extremes to which the concept of the free market might be taken.  It shows nation states as little more than vehicles to ensure the prosperity of vast corporations.  The problems of unlimited population growth accompanied by increasing scarcity of resources can apparently only be solved through exploiting what other planets have to offer, no matter how inhospitable those locations might be.

In the meantime, the advertising agencies that feature strongly in the novel do a grand job in persuading the populace that the quality of life is endlessly improving through purchasing the ever-expanding range of products available in the market.  Perhaps that’s just a little too close to reality for comfort these days.  And the future on other planets was made enticing: “Our job wasn’t to make the transportation to Venus possible but to make it palatable.”  Which it certainly wasn’t.

But the underlying message of such a far-sighted novel remains in our minds.  Our civilization simply cannot continue to expand as it is, consuming yet more and more, without hitting the buffers somewhere along the line.  In his 1970 collection of essays The Invisible Pyramid, the anthropologist Loren Eiseley argued that humanity has evolved so as to consume and deplete the Earth’s resources, and the imperative to go out into space is essential for its long-term survival.  There is no alternative.

The sad truth may be that, in the absence of the exploration, colonization and exploitation of space, the human race may indeed face economic collapse.  It isn’t so much that space exploration needs capitalism in order to succeed, more that capitalism needs space exploration in order to survive.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)


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