Space Distributism: An Alternative to Space Capitalism?

The era of space capitalism has arrived. Companies, such as TransAstra, have plans to mine the moon and asteroids. Many people are talking about methods for mining lunar ice to make fuel. Furthermore, companies like Virgin Galactic are charging customers to go on suborbital flights as space tourists. Space is still very expensive, but there are many people who appear to be interested in making money in space.

On the one hand, Any sustainable human expansion into space is going to require a reduction in the overall cost of spaceflight and one way to do this is for companies to develop cheaper launch vehicles and methods of in-situ resource utilization in order reduce that cost. One of the main reasons that space travel is so expensive is getting out of Earth’s gravity well. In-situ space resource utilization would mean that less material would need to be lifted out of Earth’s gravity well, reducing the cost of fuel needed to lift materials to low Earth orbit and beyond. With so many companies and entrepreneurs interested in making space cheaper, it is likely that this will lead to technological innovation to create the technologies needed for a viable space economy. If humans are going to live in space, we are going to need to make a living in space somehow.

On the other hand, space capitalism also has its downsides. The downsides of space capitalism are essentially the same as the downsides of capitalism on Earth’s surface.

One feared downside of space capitalism is how it will impact the space environment. Many critics of space capitalism are worried that mining other planetary bodies for the sake of profit could lead to the destruction of pristine scientifically and culturally important landscapes. Examples include the features forming the man on the moon, or chemistries within asteroids which could reveal important information about how the solar system formed. There is also the issue of planetary protection. If companies begin to industrialize Mars, for example, how do we prevent contamination by Earth microbes? Such contamination could create a false positive in the search for life beyond Earth or endanger an indigenous exo-biosphere. Since planetary protection could be expensive, would companies primarily driven by profit motive consider it worth the cost to preserve environments of scientific or aesthetic value even if doing so would not increase their profits? Another contentious environmental issue that more economic activities in space could make worse is the problem of orbital space debris.

The other downside of space capitalism is that it may create a situation where access to space is unequal or where access can be restricted. Article I of the Outer Space Treaty says that space is the “province of all mankind,” essentially meaning that no nation can be denied access to the benefits of space. Article II of the same treaty forbids national sovereignty and is interpreted to make space a global commons area. Capitalism by its very nature creates inequality. One reason for this is that it encourages investors to try to maximize profit in competition with other investors that are also trying to maximize profit. This maximization of profit could drive companies to race to exploit resources before others get to those resources. Critics of space capitalism fear that this pursuit of profit will lead to a situation where most of the resources of space are in the control of a few large corporations owned by the most successful capitalists, the capitalist elite. Since these corporations are likely to be tied to particular countries it also means that certain countries could have greater access to space because of their greater wealth and more advanced technology. Since the division between wealthy and poor countries today is largely an artifact of European colonialism, space capitalism could extend the legacy of European colonialism into space.

Space capitalism has the promise of being an economic means to creating a truly multi-planet species with a robust space economy. On the other hand, space capitalism also holds the peril of wreaking destruction on the space environment and perpetuating economic inequality, injustice and the legacy of colonialism into space. Is there an alternative political economy for space? Some might say that the alternative is space socialism. The problem is that the only model of socialism which succeeded in creating a large, technologically advanced economy capable of space travel is Marxism-Leninism, which has its own problems with creating an inhumane political economy and causing destruction to the environment. Defenders of space socialism could bring up the very successful Chinese space program, and it is true that the Chinese political economy is not based on original Marxism-Leninism. On the other hand, it is debatable whether the Chinese model is even a socialist model in the first place rather than a complex form of state capitalism. Although there never was a true space socialism in the same way that there now is a space capitalism, the closest thing to it was probably the Soviet space program which operated under a Marxist-Leninist command economy from the 1950s to collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

There is, however, one alternative which has not been considered. This is an economic philosophy with a rather confusing and ugly name: distributism.

During the years between the world wars (1920s-1940s), when the ideological battle between capitalists and socialists was already in full swing, another economic philosophy began to take root among some Catholic thinkers who wanted to create an economic and political system in line with Catholic social teaching. These included Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton. They essentially believed that both capitalism and socialism were a problem because both of them resulted in average people and communities being stripped of their land and capital. In the capitalist case, all of the land and capital would end up in the hands of a few super-rich capitalists with most of the rest of the population dependent on wages. In the socialist case, all of the land and capital would end up under the power of the state and individuals and communities would end up being dependent on the state. Their solution was to make as many people owners of their own land or capital as possible. What they envisioned was a return to cottage industry and smallholder farms where most of land would be in the hands of families and individuals and most businesses would be small businesses. They believed that this would allow the majority of people to have ownership of their own capital and control over their own labor power. This, Belloc, Chesterton and other distributist thinkers believed, would make people and their communities self-sufficient and independent of both big business and the regulatory state. The one to blame for the ugly name is G.K. Chesterton who called it distributism because he believed that ownership should be distributed as widely as possible. It also is probably derived from the term distributive justice.

Distributism, at least for those familiar with this admittedly arcane philosophy, conjures up images of a small town where the main restaurant is a local diner and where there is a local butcher, baker, and candlestick maker. It may at first seem strange to apply this to outer space which by its very nature seems to require a large scale, technologically advanced economy. Distributism, however, is not really about bringing back a small town or agrarian existence. It is also not simply capitalism since the focus of distributism is not the pursuit of profit. That is a means to an end in distributism. It is also not just another form of socialism because it does not require collective ownership of the means of production. Distributism, it could be argued, is about three things, subsidiarity, decentralization, and community.

Subsidiarity is essentially the idea that any service or activity should be managed on the smallest scale possible. If an industry can be done by a small-scale local company or even a local government rather than a large multi-national corporation or a federal government agency, it is considered preferable for it to be done at the lower, more local level. This allows for decentralization, so that communities will not be dependent on a centralized corporation or bureaucracy. This decentralization allows for communities to be self-sufficient and not be dependent on either a powerful state or large corporations for most of their needs. Distributism grew out of Catholic social teaching which states that the goal of the economy should be to promote the common good and not primarily to maximize profit or accumulate increasingly more capital. The common good is simply what will allow human beings to survive and thrive in community in the way that they were intended to by their creator. Although this definition grows out of a Catholic movement, one certainly does not need to be Catholic to find this approach to the economy compelling.

If we define distributism as being an economic system that argues for broadly distributed ownership to promote subsidiarity, decentralization, and community self-sufficiency for the sake of the common good, there is no reason it cannot be applied to the space industry. The question is what form space distributism would take. How would it be different from space capitalism and how could it be better?

A distributist space industry might have the following characteristics. The aerospace firms would be set up as worker-cooperatives, where employees have a share in the company, allowing as many of them to be owners as possible. Another differences is that each of the companies would not primarily exist to produce profit for its shareholders, the primary purpose for companies in a typical capitalist system. The mission of a distributist corporation would be primarily to provide a service to a particular community and contribute to a larger social good, for example, making humanity a multi-planet species to minimize the chance of extinction or defending Earth from potentially hazardous asteroids. Instead of seeking to accumulate as much capital as possible through maximizing profit, a distributist enterprise would only produce as much capital was needed to maintain business operations and pay all the employees. Another characteristic is that rather than competing, the different aerospace companies in a distributist economy could cooperate in producing the best technologies and the best systems for space operations. This is because the goal would be primarily to deliver their service with excellence rather than making a profit.

Another key difference is that the the size of companies would be self-limiting based on their industries. Deep space operations, such as asteroid mining would likely be handled by larger companies because of the cost and scale required. Launch vehicles and launch services, on other other hand, could be handled by smaller companies. There could even be a different launch provider for each country or regions within a country. In capitalism, a business gets as large as it can be while in distributism it gets only as large as it needs to be to perform its function in society. There is also the role of government. In distributism, the government’s role is limited but the government still has its place since there are certain things which the government is able to do more effectively for reason of scale and resources. Because of the cost and nature of deep space exploration, it could be argued that it makes sense for civil space agencies, such as NASA, to take the lead while still allowing for the private sector to play a role through public-private partnerships. Cis-lunar space operations (space operations within the Moon’s orbit including all operations in low Earth orbit), on the other hand, could be taken over by smaller private entities over time.

Although most space companies still would need to be large scale because of the cost of spaceflight, there are examples of smaller companies or even grassroots movements of citizen-scientists launching satellites and other space missions. The planetary society launch of LightSail is a recent example of a non-profit organization being able to launch and operate a space mission entirely from the support of their members. LightSail also lasted for three years. There are also examples of students being able to launch satellites, such as Australis Oscar-5, with some help from the aerospace community. Thus, there are examples of situations where smaller organizations run by ordinary people have been able to play a role in space. A goal of space distributism would be to make this more common place so that even average people can send objects into space or even go into space themselves without needing to rely on trillionaire-owned companies or large government agencies.

What are the advantages of space distributism over space capitalism? Does distributism address the two major drawbacks of capitalism in the space sector? I would say that it does. Regarding the effects on the space environment, a distributist company exists to provide a service for a particular community rather than primarily to make a profit. In the broadest sense, a distributist space company would be serving the interests of the space community. The space community is everyone who takes a direct interest in space operations, including space professionals and space enthusiasts. It would not be in the best interests of that community to in some way harm the space environment or its scientific or aesthetic value. A distributist company would be guided primarily by the interests of the community it is servicing rather than profit meaning that it would be more likely to want to preserve the space environment even in the absence of regulations. A capitalist company, focused primarily on maximizing profit may need more incentive, i.e., government enforced regulations, to pay the cost of preserving the space environment.

Furthermore, since distributist companies are self-limiting, their goal is not to expand their operations or capital without limit. This means that there is less of a possibility that space resources would end up being controlled by a few large corporations or countries. Space distributism would allow for more equal access to space by smaller less wealthy countries as well as more diversity since more companies could have space operations in a political economy that does not encourage agglomeration of capital into a few large corporations. Space distributism would also be less likely to encourage resource extraction in parts of space that may harm scientifically or culturally significant landscapes in the name of profit.

The Outer Space Treaty requires nations party to it to not restrict access of other nations to the benefits of space (Art. I) and to avoid harmful contamination of celestial bodies (Art. IX). Space distributism would encourage following Art. I by not creating monopolies where most space resources end up being the property of a few large corporations. It would also fit with Art. IX since space distributism would be less likely to encourage economic operations that are destructive to a scientifically or culturally significant part of the space environment simply to maximize profit. All this suggests that space distributism might be a more effective way to ensure that the Outer Space Treaty is honored as human civilization expands into space than space capitalism.

In my experience, most space startups got into the space industry not in order to get rich but because they dreamed of a future for humans in space and wanted to make that a reality. Furthermore, employee-owned companies and companies committed primarily to social goals rather than profit already exist. I think that many space entrepreneurs would find the approach of space distributism to be appealing, at least those not angling at becoming the next god-emperor of Mars. The seeds of space distributism already exist. The next step would simply be to bring all those elements together, worker-cooperatives, socially oriented companies, etc., into the space sector.


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