Spaceport America, or How to Fly Away From the Contradictions of Capitalism

Commentary by SAM MARKWELL

When Hannah Arendt penned the prologue to “The Human Condition” in 1958 she oriented her remarks around the cultural fascination with space travel that had gripped the citizens of the modern world. She noted that moderns thought of these changes in terms of man becoming “unbound” from “imprisonment to the earth.” The American Dream of privately accumulated and enjoyed wealth on earth was no longer enough. To truly live humans must escape mundane life on earth. Unbeknownst to Arendt, the young Richard Branson, eight years old when The Human Condition was published, would grow up to be a billionaire who would get New Mexican taxpayers to fund his private enterprise of temporarily emancipating the rich from earth’s oppressive gravity.

Image of Richard Branson being a rich guy.
Image of Richard Branson being a rich guy.

Branson is the poster-child of Spaceport America, and his company Virgin Galactic is the “anchor tenant” of the site. VG is ramping up operations after a half-decade of county tax and bond-sponsored construction has turned a patch of desert land in Sierra County into a gateway to outer space. The public-private partnership that has brought this situation about perfectly exemplifies a broader problem with development in New Mexico. New Mexican taxpayers, in a state in which public infrastructures are fraying and that boasts the highest rate of child hunger (30.6 percent, and second highest in hunger among the general population), are subsidizing the business ventures of multi-billion dollar transnational corporations like Virgin Galactic to the tune of a total construction cost of $212 million. Such activities are supposed to bring about that coveted ideal of “economic development,” by way of the neoliberal notion of money trickling down to New Mexico’s common folk from these lofty centers of capital as the rich are propelled into space.

This is the logic of trickle down economics. Rather than commit the anti-liberal crime of redistributing wealth, financial speculators should increase lending to the poor and the public should foot the bill for commercial infrastructure costs in order to attract investments and jobs. Of course, when this lands people with unending and crippling debts and leaves employment levels low, one can just blame the poor for not properly inhabiting the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s their own damn fault. Successful capitalists are just better than the poor at everything, especially dictating how wealth ought to be distributed.

In a recent interview about Virgin Galactic with The Economist, Branson stated: “If you’re not making a positive difference in other people’s lives you shouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. So you know, being a businessman is being creative. And if you’re not being creative or making a positive difference don’t bother.” This was his preface to discussing the ventures of VG in Southern California and New Mexico as a socially beneficent and environmentally sound endeavor. For instance, VG’s work was not merely producing profit, it was creating communication systems for phone and internet service that would be “much cheaper” for the world’s people. In addition, the projects would bring “hotels in space” and eventually “deep space exploration,” which are presumably the highest of public goods.

Aside from the questionable public benefits of such private enterprises, greens have pointed out that burning of massive amounts of jet fuel will create a new source of carbon output that will contribute to climate change. But Branson is proud of his green business resume. He rarely hesitates to point out that he is deeply concerned with environmentally sustainable entrepreneurship. He can point to his working friendship with the likes of Al Gore and other mainstream critics of fossil fuel-based energy, and his membership in groups like Carbon War Room that promote capitalism-based solutions to climate change. As Branson puts it, “Climate change is one of the greatest wealth-generating opportunities of our generation.”

A publicity shot promoting Branson's Virgin Galactic enterprise.
A publicity shot promoting Branson’s Virgin Galactic enterprise.

There is a heavy dose of sexualized colonial symbolism present in discussions of the virtues of the Spaceport, characterized variously as the “pioneer of a new space age” opening up “Virgin territory,” the vehicle that carries “the seed of the future,” and the place “where the magic happens.” While this colonial imagery is deployed to attract investment and customers, the ground the spaceport stands on, which New Mexico essentially gave to Branson, is carved out of Apache territory. U.S settlers occupied these lands only after a protracted and brutal military campaign against the Apache that spanned the latter half of the nineteenth century (1849-1906). Settlement fluctuated as the agricultural and mining industries waxed and waned during the 20th century. The area has been most important to the U.S. as the White Sands National Missile Range, an Army weapons-testing area and home to the Trinity atomic test site (located in southern Socorro County). Apart from the defense jobs and the tourism industry centered in Truth or Consequences, there is little in the way of decent employment in Sierra County, and 25.3 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level.

Branson believes in the market-based entrepreneurial ethos so deeply and so charismatically that we common folk are supposed to be inspired by his zeal. As a personification of capital, (not unlike Marx’s “Mr. Moneybags” from Vol. I), Branson performs a key role in addressing what cultural critic Slavoj Zizek calls capitalism’s “true problem,” which is “how to keep people’s faith in capitalism alive when the inexorable reality of a crisis has brutally crushed such dreams?” But in places like Sierra County economic depression is more endemic than the boom and bust of financial centers. This is, after all, the home of Truth or Consequences, the town formerly called Hot Springs but renamed in 1950 to attract the eponymous radio game show. Branson and his cadre of space pioneering, climate entrepreneur, capitalists-of-the-common-man work to capture feelings of deprivation that are present in impoverished places in order to get people to believe that the rich hold the solutions to the world’s problems.

Returning to “The Human Condition”, Arendt wrote that due to the ways we have used our scientific and technical knowledge we have “no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth.” She was speaking of nuclear war, but in our moment we are also exacerbating the dangers to organic life via industrially driven climate change. In regards to the possibility of mass extinction, she advised her readers that “The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in this direction, and this question cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians,” to which we can add the decisions of capitalist philanthropists like Richard Branson.

Frantz Fanon, a contemporary of Arendt’s, wrote in The Wretched of the Earth in 1961, “The Third World today faces Europe like a colossal mass whose project must be to try and resolve the problems this Europe was incapable of finding answers to.”  Over a half-century later, New Mexicans who are being told that Spaceport America is the key to their future well-being would do well to question our state’s love affair with Bransonian capitalism. Instead of saving our pennies for flights to Virgin Galactic’s outer-space hotels, we should invest our thought, time and energies in solving pressing problems of social and environmental justice here on earth. New Mexicans might consider the possibility that a space-travel industry operating on the logic of capitalism, regulated and subsidized by a colonial state, has little of substance to offer them. And it never tires of taking.




    I wonder if B-team/Plan-B should go down as the most troubling self-congratulatory philanthropic organization ever: for both their tactless name (the B team’s plan B is not a contraceptive, or is it?), and their poor use of verbs. Branson (in the linked blog) says, “What can be done to lift the world’s poor, still well over a billion people, to a higher standard of living and a better life?” Lift? REALLY? This reminds me of the fictional character Donald Gennaro’s ironic musing in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), ‘maybe we can have a coupon day or something.’ I paraphrase, but the gist of the statement was Gennaro’s sense of incredulity at creating billion-plus dollar amusement parks–New Mexico’s Spaceport–with any notions of altruistic merit. Obviously he doesn’t want to really lift the poor, because he’s already doing that for the rich. The odd double-talk of his rhetoric inflicts anger, rather than pity, because its malignant stupidity is put to use with, well, malignant greed.

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