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Space tourism: the alienation of the elite

Paolo Bassi

January 14, 2015

Since 2009 the number of billionaires has doubled to over 1600. This tiny international ruling caste hold about half the world’s wealth, as they sit atop a pile of global misery they have helped create. Collecting yachts, islands, mansions in major capitals and hoarding art is expected from the super-rich, but can become common-place for the 1%. What about a two hour flight just to peek at the planet they rule from sub-orbital space?
This is the latest contribution to human civilization from Virgin Galactic—a company under the ever-hip Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. For $250,000 per seat, Sir Dick proposes to fly some of his richest, most beautiful friends in a space-plane about 60 miles above the Earth and notch yet another experience that—other than a handful of astronauts—no-one else may claim (buy).  
Should Virgin's project come to fruition, each of the 700 would-be space tourists, who have signed up for their short flying experience in the dark, will spend about 300 years wages for one of the three billion people existing on $2 a day. Having this kind of money to burn—literally and figuratively—is a symptom of the late capitalist age. Branson is simply offering the wealthy a new, very expensive experience to consume—a ride on a gas guzzling space toy—as pointless and vacuous as its destination it may be. 
Branson’s customers will have to wait though. The latest fatal test flight on October 31, 2014, raised serious questions over Virgin Galactic’s touted technology, leaving Branson red-faced and fuming. Technology aside, the real question is why 700 people, even with truckloads of cash to burn, feel compelled to buy into this fantasy experience?
Under capitalism, the 1% own and control all the wealth working people create with nature. As a result, not only does capitalism produce economic inequality but it also creates a psychological and spiritual separation—making the products of our own labour, including our interactions with the natural world, appear as alien objects. As Marx described, “It is true that labor produces for the rich wonderful things – but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels...The relation of the worker to the product of labor as an alien object exercising power over them. This relation is at the same time the relation to the sensuous external world, to the objects of nature, as an alien world inimically opposed to them.”
The anxiety over inequality, war, disease, and climate change—all related to the economy we produce but over which we have no control—has taken a massive toll on our individual and collective psyches. Capitalism reduces everything we share with nature to mere commodities to be bought and sold, creating artificial desires claiming to allow us to escape our condition. 
Under capitalism everyone is alienated, but this is experienced differently between the 99% and the 1%. As Marx described, “The possessing class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-alienation. But the former class feels at home in this self-alienation, it finds confirmation of itself and recognises in alienation its own power; it has in it a semblance of human existence, while the class of the proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation; it sees therein its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence.”
The world’s wealthy elite are separated—physically, culturally, spiritually and psychologically—from the great mass of humanity, more than at any time in human history. They live in a world of self-delusion and intellectual dishonesty—unable to come to terms with their exploitative nature and the brutality of the economic and political systems their wealth is derived from. The contradictions of capitalism can be rationalized through the self-serving belief that inequality results from pre-determined human nature and self-worth. The alienation thus is accepted by the rich—nestled by the belief they live authentic lives based on unchangeable realities not of their making. Only such people could choose to burn $250,000 on a two hour ride with the rich and famous, to watch a planet their oil economy is burning to the ground.  
But toys and experiences will have ever decreasing yields of fulfillment. Having gone to space, what is next? More expensive things and experiences will lead to further alienation and constant yearning and boredom. Should Virgin ever get their space plane to work, a $250,000 per head ride into empty space would be a perfect metaphor for the elite’s separateness from the other 99.9% back on earth.

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