For centuries we have tried to unravel the mysteries of the universe and images have been vital to that unravelling. At different points in history the moon has been held responsible for insanity, fertility, and even home to alien life. But mostly, these celestial bodies have remained a mere twinkling in the sky, forever beyond our reach. However, that all changed in 1969 when millions of people on Earth tuned in to hear the crackling sound of Neil Armstrong’s voice traveling 240,000 miles across space and into living rooms. People listened as he proclaimed his moonwalk “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” His footprints left a permanent impression, much like the fossilized footprints of dinosaurs on our own planet. We had made history and we had become history. Yet, while Armstrong’s footprints were more broadly symbolic of mankind, the mounting of the US flag on lunar soil was a powerful proclamation of a mankind under American values. It was the triumph of stars and stripes over a hammer and sickle. Now, less than fifty years later, outer space has become the domain of private enterprises drawn by the tantalizing possibility of endless resources and of course, profit. So, we must ask the question: what does the US flag in outer space stand for now and who is it in competition with?
Clues to these questions can be found in the recent images evoked by James Lewis the Senior Vice President of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and billionaire entrepreneur, Naveen Jain. Both men present an image of humanity’s future in space that is informed by a political myth — the clash of civilizations. In what follows, I will briefly outline how images and political myths function before exploring their discourse.
Image and Myth
Images are used in politics to construct a future, and as societies we latch on to these images to chart our path from the present to some imagined, and hopefully better, future. From politicians to journalists, language is used to construct pictorial (re)presentations of these futures and while these images may not be currently present they are visualizable in the minds of the listeners (Bottici 2014).
We need these images of the future because, as Hobbes argued, we are forward looking animals, always seeking out our next desire. Our fear of the unknown drives us to investigate the causes of things as only through understanding them can we control their effects. In the past, we often resorted to religion to explain the seemingly inexplicable, as Hobbes observed we are the only animal with religion (Hobbes 1651). The same is true of myths. We are inherently myth believing animals. Yet myths are less rigid, their truths less absolute. Myths provide a framework through which we can ground our experiences, telling stories about the origins of things and helping us make predictions about where we are going. Mythical images simplify the complexity of reality, offering us a cognitive schema so that we can more efficiently process phenomena and act. Even if they are not necessarily true, we can make them true through our actions, and unlike narratives which are closed sequences of events, myths remain open, responding to our changing need for significance. Specifically, in politics, political myths respond to the needs of a given group in their desire for significance given the political and social context of the time (Bottici 2014).
One recurrent political myth is the clash between civilizations (Bottici 2014). This myth is encapsulated by the line “OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” (Kipling 1889). The sentence points to the sharp divide between the civilization of the east and of the west. The image works to create a false binary, melding vastly different groups of people into two opposing camps, whose differing cultures and values cannot coexist, as was famously argued by Edward Said. Simultaneously, this labelling remains ambiguous, ensuring that groups may enter or exit this categorization at different points in history. However, one element within the myth remains constant – one group must triumph as if not it will perish. This narrative has been used to explain various historical events and to make predictions about the future, and it has consistently framed narratives around space exploration. In what follows, I will analyze various discourses surrounding space exploration to show what the myth means now.
Same War – New Enemy
James Lewis, the senior vice president of CSIS gave a statement before the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Space, he argued that:
“The U.S.-Soviet space race was a competition between two very different systems — communism and democracy. Human spaceflight was an important part of the Cold War contest, proving that market democracies could surpass scientific socialism. The assumption was that the system that won the space race would have showed its superiority. The competition between the U.S. and Chinese systems is in no way as clear cut, but the rest of the world thinks we are in competition.” (Lewis, p.4, 2016)
In evoking images of the cold war and a bipolar past, Lewis sets up space as a battleground of ideas. During the first space race of the 1960s, that clash was between the US and the Soviet Union. The west stood for democracy and the east for communism and despite the endlessness of space there was simply no room for two sets of values, beliefs, and economic systems. Whoever had dominion over space had dominion over earth, and by landing a man on the moon the US, democracy and the west triumphed.
In referencing the Soviet Union in a speech in 2016, he is conjuring up an antagonist, a competitor, and an enemy and he is placing China in that space. He is implying that what held true then holds true now — space is a battlefield of ideas in which there can only be one winner. However, China is not simply replacing the Soviet Union as the new east in this clash, it is also changing the nature of the fight. As Lewis points out “[the] competition between the U.S. and Chinese systems is in no way as clear cut”. So, while the Soviet Union stood for “scientific socialism” and the US stood for “market democracies” we must ask: what does the east and west stand for almost 50 years on?
The West is Capitalism
To answer this question, I refer to comments made by Naveen Jain, an American billionaire and founder and chairmen of Moon Express, a company that aims to harvest the resources of the moon. Jain equally refers to this political myth in an interview (Wall Street Journal 2016), albeit more concretely. He boldly states that if China does not respect Moon Express´ property rights, his company will have “the might of the US” to defend them. Interestingly, before he has even landed a probe on the moon, he is already picturing a dramatic showdown between China, the Goliath, the usurper of property rights, and America, his David, and the champion of free enterprise.
For Jain, the USA functions to protect and serve the needs of big business by ensuring that the right conditions are maintained for free enterprise to thrive. For him, outer space represents the unbridled domain of private companies, free from the bureaucracy and the red tape of Earth. It is a libertarian paradise. In outer space, the USA is reduced to the role of watchman and guarantor, ensuring that a “small company has to be treated like a state.” Consequently, there is a convergence in images, a likeness between states and companies. After all, Jain makes the bold claim that once Moon Express lands on the moon, they will have become the “fourth superpower”. So notably while in 1969 landing on the moon symbolized the triumph of democracy, in 2016 Jain states that “landing on the moon is symbolic of what a small group of entrepreneurs are capable of doing.” As he notes “it won’t be [the] UK, it won’t be Germany, it won’t be France, it will be a group of entrepreneurs” that do it. Consequently, the west is emptied of European states and businessmen take their place. In contrast, when he conjures up future threats to his lunar enterprise it is not in the form of Chinese business but in the form of the Chinese state. Space is now the battlefield of the Chinese state capitalism versus American neoliberal capitalism.
Furthermore, the west no longer represents democracy in the clash of civilizations, it only represents neoliberal capitalism. This is evident from the convergence of images between “Moon Express” and “forth superpower” as while the USA has a duty to protect its citizens and is answerable to them, Moon Express, a non-democratically elected agent, is motivated by profit and is only answerable to its shareholders. Therefore, to represent Moon Express as a superpower points to a future in which private companies are equal to nation-states.
So, when Armstrong hoisted the American flag on the moon, not only was it a small step forward for the US, it was also a giant leap forwards for their vision of humanity, one in which their economic order is not only the hegemonic order on earth but also hegemonic in space. A system in which the stars have a price tag and even our moon can be bought.
Sarah Murphy did her M.A in Political Philosophy at the University of Pompeu Fabra. She works as a researcher for Uni of Sheffield, and is particularly interested in AI, big data & property rights in Space, along with questions regarding liberty and security.