The Long View 2004-01-15: Stellar Conservatism

Space, the last refuge of the right

Space, the last refuge of the right

In an interesting libertarian-ish interpretation of James C. Bennett's article in the National Interest, John says this:

Bennett is not wholly averse to technological determinism. He argues that networking technology undermines the sort of states, even the democratic ones, that engage in extensive economic redistribution. This is because the new technologies will make it possible for the revenues from private enterprise to flow through channels the state cannot reach. 

Which I think is pretty much where the libertarian-ish sharing economy typified by Uber and AirBnB has ended up. As Steve Sailer noted:

Frequently, a major competitive advantage of the new High Tech modes is the widespread assumption that laws against overt and disparate impact discrimination don’t apply to them because they are new and high tech and thus can’t be anything like evil old white male ways of making money.

I'm don't think this counts as a prediction, but it does strike me as interesting.

It is also interesting to me that John felt that the drive to space in the twenty-first century was coming from the conservatives in America. JFK famously launched us to the Moon, and LBJ was in charge for most of the Apollo Program, but nearly fifty years later, America has largely lost interest in the idea. Insofar as scientists trend liberal in America, NASA and JPL probably trend left politically, but I would be interested to know where popular support for either manned or unmanned space exploration actually lies in America. I'm not certain that it maps well to the blue state/red state model at all.

Stellar Conservatism

In the current (Winter 2003/04] issue of the The National Interest, there is an article by James C. Bennett that may be the key to understanding President Bush's new Moon-to-Mars space initiative, though it does not mention space policy at all. The piece is entitled Networking Nation-States: The Coming Info-National Order. It begins thus:

The early years 20th century was filled with predictions that the airplane, the automobile or the assembly line had made parliamentary democracy, market economies, jury trials and bills of rights irrelevant, obsolete and harmful. Today's scientific-technological revolutions (epitomized by space shuttles and the Internet) make the technologies of the early 20th century -- its fabric-winged biplanes, Tin Lizzies and "Modern Times" gearwheel factories -- look like quaint relics. Yet all of the "obsolete" institutions derided by the modernists of that day thrive and strengthen. The true surprise of the scientific revolutions ahead is likely to be not the technological wonders and dangers they will bring but the robustness of the civil society institutions that will nurture them."

Bennett is not wholly averse to technological determinism. He argues that networking technology undermines the sort of states, even the democratic ones, that engage in extensive economic redistribution. This is because the new technologies will make it possible for the revenues from private enterprise to flow through channels the state cannot reach. They also make it possible for people to engage in politics far beyond their national borders. The result will be the loosening of the ties that bind the modern nation-state, and the simultaneous cohesion of larger, looser constellations of "civic societies." The constellations will be based on interest and affinity. The most advanced so far is the Anglosphere.

* * *

A curious point: Bennett's Anglosphere Institute seems to have no website, though the notion is webfauna if ever I saw any. However, he does have a book on the subject coming out soon: Anglosphere: The Future of the English-Speaking Nations in the Internet Era. Cecil Rhodes would be so pleased.

* * *

I would state Bennett's observation about the conservative effect of new technology much more strongly. It was, I believe, Marvin Harris who remarked in Cannibals and Kings that the result of his being a full professor at a major university was that he was able to take long vacations at the beach. There he could collect mussels and otherwise do what his hunter-gatherer ancestors had done all their lives. At low levels of technology, civilized people have to live in regimented herds and do uncongenial, repetitive work. They are exposed all the while to uncontrollable epidemic disease. As society becomes more advanced, more and more people can lead a sanitized version of the neolithic life. They enjoy some degree of physical isolation in detached dwellings; they deal regularly with a small "pack" of just 20 family and friends; and they can eat all the meat they want. Yum.

Even the Enchanted World is back, in the form of all these communications devices that chirp and talk and otherwise intrude themselves like vindictive banshees. The wired world is not arbitrary, but recapitulates the participation mystique, in which the borders of consciousness blur between people and things.

* * *

The interesting point about the drive to space is that it is now coming from the conservative part of the spectrum. This was not at all the case when John Kennedy announced the goal of putting men on the moon. In those days, political conservatism still meant a fair degree of skepticism about the possibilities and benefits of technology. It also implied an almost superstitious dread about transgressing traditional limits. Today, at least in America, conservatism increasingly means the determination to continue the modern, liberal democratic project, a key form of which is the ever-expanding physical frontier. It seems to be the libertarians who are keenest to get into space. The Left, in contrast, seems increasingly hostile to the idea that some people, however few, might escape.

* * *

The president's proposals seem little more than an attempt to begin turning the lumbering oil tanker that is NASA in a new direction; colonization has in fact never been high on NASA's list of things to do. I am not altogether reassured by the most important aspect of the proposal, the call for a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). Though that project would have the good effect of scrapping NASA's plans to build the useless Spaceplane, the CEV seems to be nothing more than an updated version of the Apollo series.

If private initiative does not do something to supplement these efforts in the near future, we could see a reenactment of the less desirable of the two major continental railroad-building strategies of the 19th-century. In America, the early continental rail-network was heavily subsidized by the federal government, but the actual work was done by entrepreneurs who were risking their own capital. Private markets soon gave the network a life of its own. In Russia, in contrast, the government built a railroad straight from Europe to the Pacific, for reasons of prestige and military convenience. The transportation system artificially created satellite settlements, but the Russian Far East never really paid its own way, and now the whole region is in danger of abandonment. The same could happen to space.

As for Bennett's post-national future, I think that his faith in the novelty of modernity is misplaced. Government always expands to enclose the economy. That is very close to being a law of history. If the networked world is, in some ways, a return to the fairy-tale world that human beings find so congenial, we should remember that more fairy tales allude to the Holy Roman Empire than to the Hanseatic League. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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