Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar exposes the lust for progress underlying popular fascination with outer space. Trapped in a failed society on a failed planet, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) scolds humanity for giving up on the future. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars,” he laments. “Now we just look down, and worry about our place in the dirt.”
Nolan’s characters dive through wormholes and toil on harsh alien worlds as a means of exemplifying intrepid human advancement. Specifically, Interstellar betrays a view of human progress coextensive with swashbuckling scientific endeavor. Like so much science fiction, it aestheticizes the techno-adventurism at the heart of contemporary capitalist ideology.
Noticeably absent from Interstellar’s worldview is any sense of ethical responsibility. Cooper admits we’ve wrecked the planet, but treats ecological devastation as spilled milk. “This world is a treasure,” he says. “But it’s been telling us to leave for a while now.” Rather than paying back our environmental debts, Cooper thinks terrestrial civilization should declare bankruptcy. The solution is not clean energy and sustainable consumption; rather, the fantasy is to junk this planet and move onto the next one.
Today, our desire for interplanetary colonization is alive and well, and it’s a go-to dream of arch-capitalists like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk. More and more, they dangle the Mars fantasy before our eyes, as though it were the bourgeoisie’s treat for behaving itself.
At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Thiel cited Mars as an example of our misguided priorities. “Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East,” he said. For Thiel, Mars is Galt’s Gulch in waiting. Meanwhile, Musk unveiled SpaceX’s plan to colonize and commodify Mars last fall. “I really think there are two fundamental paths,” Musk said. “One path is we stay on Earth forever, and some eventual extinction event wipes us out . . . The alternative is [to] become a spacefaring and multi-planetary species.” Musk’s project is about profit, but he couches SpaceX in the language of human destiny.
Like all shrewd capitalists, Thiel and Musk purport to serve the human interest. But in capitalism, personal profit and public progress aren’t merely commingled; they’re conflated beyond recognition. The former masquerades as evidence of the latter, but profit is not the same thing as progress. Profit has no inherent ethics; it is valueless value. With nothing in mind but profit, Thiel and Musk are as inattentive to the ethical issues of interplanetary colonization as the characters of Interstellar.
Some observers are asking the right questions. Recently, Jacobin ran an article on this topic. In “Keep the Red Planet Red,” the author raises valid concerns about the ongoing privatization of space travel. He appropriately critiques for-profit Mars colonization as socially and morally undesirable, and argues that space exploration needs to be democratically administered and publicly funded. As the author suggests, the incipient issues of Martian politics are just as important as the technological ones:
“Colonization of Mars should be seen as a complex social and political policy, with so much potential to create inequality and oppression that it cannot rationally be undertaken without political consensus and a stratagem for maintaining democracy and egalitarianism.”
This is a correct view. But even this author has gotten ahead of himself. Before we debate how Mars colonization could and should look, we need to consider a preliminary question: Does the human race have an ethical basis for interplanetary colonization?
The question sounds complex, but it’s not. Consider the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. En route to enter a new extreme of “the great, unexplored mass of the galaxy,” Captain Jean-Luc Picard is accosted by an omnipotent cosmic entity named Q. The Q entity demands Picard and his ship turn around, claiming that human beings are too savage and too selfish to proceed any further into the universe.
Star Trek is never squeamish about literalist storytelling devices, and the episode features an actual trial on the question of whether human beings have earned the right to explore deep space. Picard is called to “answer to the charge of being a grievously savage race.” Initially, Picard rejects the charges, insisting that human civilization is noble and good. But when Q presses him with historical evidence—”you slaughtered millions in silly arguments about how to divide the resources of your little world”—Picard is forced to admit that Q has a point.
Picard responds with a valid counterargument. The answer is simple: we’ve changed. Sure, the human race has been warlike, genocidal, sexist, speciesist, wasteful, cruel, and irrational, but all that has gone away by the twenty-fourth century. Hunger has been abolished, inequality has been solved, and the human race has come together to achieve a basic level of social justice.
Star Trek is a fantasy of post-history. We’re not there yet. If we’ve changed at all, we haven’t changed enough. The accusations Q levels against human society are still urgently real. Whole populations are treated like they’re nothing. The climate is in crisis. Hatred reigns. Capitalism continues to fail us. To put it bluntly, it is hard to justify a Mars colony when we still do not give poor people medicine.
It’s no coincidence that Peter Thiel hates Star Trek. The show is often accused of being boring or obtuse, and that’s accurate insofar as the characters always discuss the ethical implications of their actions before doing them. For Picard and his crew, ethics are the precondition of action, not profit and power—and that is Thiel’s objection.
“I like Star Wars way better. I’m a capitalist. Star Wars is the capitalist show. Star Trek is the communist one. There is no money in Star Trek because you just have the transporter machine that can make anything you need. The whole plot of Star Wars starts with Han Solo having this debt that he owes and so the plot in Star Wars is driven by money.”
Thiel’s critique raises the question: should the future be driven by money, or by something else? In the 1940s, cultural Marxism rethought the idea of progress. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno argued that the things we are trained to call progress are often the opposite. “Adaptation to the power of progress furthers the progress of power, constantly renewing the degenerations which provide successful progress, not failed progress, to be its own antithesis. The curse of irresistible progress is irresistible regression.” This is how capitalist ideology replicates itself. Capitalism poses as the solution to a problem—inequality, climate change, war, etc.—when really it’s the cause. Capitalism is digging a hole and calling the depth progress, and that is why capitalism feels so despairingly inescapable.
At this juncture in political history—specifically, with the apparent collapse of progressive neoliberalism —it’s become crucial that we decide what kind of progress we believe in.
There’s the socialist progress of Picard, who founds human industry on a humanist ethics. Picard would reject a journey to Mars if it meant leaving anyone behind. He would urge that we explore more of our souls before we conquer the cosmos. We’ll deserve to go to Mars when we’ve done right by Earth.
And then there’s the capitalist progress of Thiel, Musk, and Nolan, a cartel of intrepid space travelers and would-be John Galts. Today, capitalist progress is blindly animated by a cultish belief in snowballing technology as synonymous with human destiny, as though all the blood and waste will be justified once we reach transcendent techno-nirvana.
Capitalist progress wants so much for the human race. It wants to Make America Great Again by channeling the dynamic human spirit into dazzling technological epiphany; but it doesn’t want to focus that energy on abolishing hunger. And that’s why we still don’t deserve to boldly go where no man has gone before. True progress is an ethical privilege that needs to be earned. I’d like to see us start earning it.
Tom Syverson is a writer living in Brooklyn. He can be contacted and harassed on Twitter: @syvology