All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2017:
Elon Musk’s “Great Martian” (Oct.)
What is a Supercivilisation? (Aug.)
Back to 2016:
New in 2015:
Short story The Marchioness
2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…
2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…
2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…
2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…
2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…
2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…
2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…
Index to essays – including:
The Great Sociology Debate (2011)
Building Selenopolis (2008)
Towards the Sociology of the Universe, part 1
* * *
1. A Review of Dickens and Ormrod, Cosmic Society
Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK
18 December 2010
On 8 September 2010 the British Interplanetary Society hosted an evening lecture, mischievously entitled “How should we humanise outer space?”, arguing that human civilisation in anything like its current form should not humanise outer space.
The presenters of that lecture, Peter Dickens and James S. Ormrod, are lecturers in sociology in the universities of Cambridge and Essex (Dickens) and Brighton (Ormrod). Their views on the undesirability of our current expansion into space are expounded in detail in their recent book Cosmic Society: Towards a Sociology of the Universe (Routledge, 2007). Further discussion is found on their website, The Sociology of the Universe [currently offline at March 2011].
If an unwary reader of their book is naively expecting an accurately objective account of human society’s growing relationship with the extraterrestrial cosmos, such a reader will be perplexed by its contents.
Despite the appearance of intellectual respectability implicit in a book of university-level sociology, this is not a balanced discussion, but rather a polemical work designed to persuade the reader to support a particular political programme. Judging from the book’s approving references to Marx, Engels and Lenin (e.g. p.10, 50-51, 63, 64) and to socialism (p.12, 190), and its use of Marxist terminology such as “dialectics” (p.2-4), “historical materialism” (p.50), “crises of capitalism” and “contradictions of imperialism” (p.63, 67, 77, 179), the intended beneficiary is apparently the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
There is an instructive contrast with polemical books which make the case for space. A volume such as Zubrin’s The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must leaves not the slightest doubt from the first glance at the cover that the author has an axe to grind and will not rest until he has convinced the reader to support his cause. But Cosmic Society, with its bland title and ostensibly academic style, masks its polemical intent behind a veil of scholarly appearance.
Yet in the end it acknowledges that it too is campaigning for a cause:
“Sociologists should not construct themselves as detached intellectuals, but should make their political commitments clear. Their concerns should be with revealing the suffering that results from social pressures that serve the interests of those in power.” (p.188)
If our authors had followed their own advice, they might rather have entitled their book: Terrestrial Society: The Damaging Results of Humanising Space and Why We Must Not Go There.
Not yet, anyway. Dickens and Ormrod are not opposed in principle to all space exploration and development. Their concluding section suggests a lukewarm endorsement of space humanisation (the use of satellites for human purposes) provided that it “could emphasise collective responsibilities on Earth and try to ensure that any gains made through space exploration were spread throughout to improve the lot of the dispossessed on Earth” (p.190). They then toy, though inconclusively, with the idea of “spreading a socialist or communist society throughout the whole of nearby outer space”.
But for them any kind of space development is in no sense a priority. On the contrary, their emphasis throughout this book is on analysing and criticising the present-day liberal democratic market capitalist social and economic system (“capitalism”) which, originating in Europe some half a millennium ago, has now spread worldwide via colonisation and via links of global warfare, trade, communications, politics and tourism.
Here another asymmetry with the pro-space movement is apparent. When Zubrin wants to go to Mars, he describes in detail how he proposes to achieve this. The same is true of O’Neill in regard to space colonies, Schrunk et al. in regard to the Moon, Ashford in regard to space tourism, Bond, Martin et al. in regard to Barnard’s Star, and so on. One may disagree with the goals or the means, but one is left in no doubt as to what they actually are.
Cosmic Society, by contrast, is based on “critical realism” (p.41-42), which in practice means it focuses overwhelmingly on destructive criticism, not on constructive proposals. The political project which Dickens and Ormrod promote in this book is merely to prevent capitalist expansion into space, while the means of achieving this negative goal are only hinted at in vague terms.
In chapter 1, abstract cosmologies which only privileged elites can understand are judged to be “a bad thing” and “undesirable” (p.45, 48). But a theory of the universe which everyone in the lay public can feel at home with and yet which is also true to the mathematical complexities of cosmological reality is not offered, and neither do our authors even express a view as to whether such a theory is possible.
In chapter 2 the mechanisms of “the contemporary global capitalist society” are described; our authors clearly disapprove of the existing social and economic arrangements but have nothing to offer in their place beyond vague hints of “alternative forms of consciousness” (p.77). They conclude:
“the humanization of outer space is a product of economic and social crisis and [...] a means of reasserting hegemonic authority” (p.77). “Space technology itself plays a central role in disseminating a hegemonic Western culture [...]. There is, however, always hope for resistance, and for the moment it is to organic intellectuals within the Global Network and similar organizations that we must look for critical new visions of our relationship with the universe.” (p.78)
In other words, they feel free to condemn Western democratic capitalism for its supposed failings and express hope, not for its correction or improvement through the institutions which exist for that purpose, but rather for “resistance” as if it were some inflexible tyranny like that of Nazi Germany, even though they have only the haziest ideas whether a better alternative might exist or what it might look like.
To that end, the repeated use of terms like “crisis” and “class hegemony” set up an implication that all this capitalist imperialism must be completely swept away and replaced with a socialist utopia. This is finally made explicit, towards the end of the book, when reporting with approval the views of authors who believe that “a great mass of people subordinated to global capital and global power” constitute “a powerful counter-force resisting and eventually overcoming capitalist imperialism” (p.181-182).
This is a bold step to take, because the historically aware reader (or even a sociologist in the dictionary sense of the term) will immediately object, firstly, that capitalism has proved itself by far the most efficient economic system yet seen, having liberated the populations of the developed world from hunger, disease and ignorance, and secondly, that violent revolutions have in the past installed totalitarian dictatorships. Mention of Marx, Lenin and Luxemburg as examples to follow (p.182) hardly instils confidence. These obvious objections are not addressed in the book.
Chapter 3 discusses military involvement in space. It concludes:
“War is no longer an occasional disturbance to an otherwise peaceful society. Rather, it has been made a permanent feature of the social order.” (p.100)
This is an astonishing conclusion. Wars have continued throughout history. One of the most remarkable features about global society since 1945 is that direct military conflicts between great powers have stopped. This is due, not to any outbreak of sanity, but to several material factors acting in concert: the increasing destructiveness of modern weapons, particularly nuclear weapons, the increasing vulnerability of society to disruption, increasing global trade links, the rise of the mass media and public opinion, and increasing risk-aversion, which combine to reduce the attractiveness of war as a means of achieving policy goals.
Obviously wars have continued, but since 1945 they have been marginalised in the poorer regions of the world. These regions are progressively shrinking as previously poor countries industrialise and integrate into the global economy.
This remarkable situation is not mentioned. Apparently, the link between capitalist development and increasing public security is not in line with the polemical purpose of this book, and therefore cannot be discussed. Like much present-day climate science, the facts are being spun to suit the desired policy outcome.
Dickens and Ormrod have such a strong focus on selecting only those arguments which fit the Marxist-Leninist worldview that they have completely failed to notice the power struggle over the future of manned spaceflight which is so prominent at present. While big aerospace companies lobby for ambitious government exploration programmes which provide jobs at public expense but generate no profits, it is maverick entrepreneurs, some extremely rich but most not wealthy at all, who are pushing for the development of marketable services such as space tourism, and eventually space settlement.
One would have expected this conflict to have attracted the attention of commentators who have “a concern throughout with social power” (p.1). But with the vested interests pushing for socialist-style programmes while the capitalists set up small companies to challenge the status quo, often unsuccessfully, the reality is too complex to illustrate the simplistic ideology of class struggle, and must therefore be ignored.
Offering blatantly false assertions in order to reinforce the ideological message is not beyond these authors, when they approvingly report Amitai Etzioni’s criticism of the space race published in 1964. One of the claims made for the Apollo programme and for planetary exploration, according to Etzioni, “was that the structure of the universe itself would be better understood by space travel, but this too turned out to be a chimera, a money-making device” (p.188-189). In reality, while not making conspicuous amounts of money, lunar and planetary research via the Apollo landings and unmanned probes has led to a revolution in understanding of the Solar System, including a resolution of the long-standing mystery of the origin of the Moon.
Etzioni, too, so far as can be judged from the report in Cosmic Society, is strong on the assertion that there are better alternatives to the conventional wisdom, but painfully shy about revealing what those alternatives might actually be.
In chapter 4 the global information and surveillance industries mediated by satellites are linked to patterns of power in which order is imposed and maintained. The world’s populations are likened to prisoners under permanent observation, while big companies and governments consolidate and extend their power over them. Mention is made of resistance to that power, for example by anti-globalisation protesters and the Al Jazeera TV station (p.121).
But the fact that democratic capitalism is more tolerant of dissent than any other social system yet devised is not discussed. Carl Sagan’s “error-correcting machinery in politics” is not referenced (The Demon-Haunted World, Headline, 1996, ch.25, “Real Patriots Ask Questions”). In fact, Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World is not mentioned in the text or listed in the bibliography despite being one of the most prominent texts about society written by an active participant in and publiciser of space exploration and development.
Chapter 5 is concerned with space tourism, which it presents narrowly in terms of consumer psychology and relative social status: “Daydreaming about space, and indeed actually achieving those dreams in reality, can be seen as just another feature of consumerism infecting the whole of our lives” (p.141). Critical realists, apparently, do not need to consume. The desire to travel is roughly debunked with the pervasive implication that it is not worthwhile: “Capitalism, while generating alienation and disenchantment, is capable of providing apparent cures to these same problems” (p.133).
What the real cure might be, or even whether any cure at all from these alleged problems is possible, is not stated. Did feudal or aboriginal (p.155) or socialist or communist (p.190) societies really generate more engagement and enchantment? Or have Dickens and Ormrod indulged in a little daydreaming themselves?
Likewise, the economic implications of space tourism acting as a catalyst to transform society from a one-planet to an interplanetary civilisation – a function of major sociological interest, one would have thought – are ignored.
In chapter 6, space and planetary colonisation is presented as irresponsible and dangerous. On terraforming: “The scale of possible consequences at the level of the solar system is quite frightening” (p.149), though what those consequences might be is left to the reader’s imagination. The ethical debate on colonisation and terraforming is touched upon, and here at least Dickens and Ormrod make a statement with which this reviewer is able to fully agree:
“Ultimately [...] we cannot identify cosmic need in a disinterested, asocial way. The universe has no ‘value’ except that ascribed to it by society, for values are social constructs.” (p.158)
Another interesting point in chapter 6 comes when space activists are criticised for using space to inspire young people and give meaning to people’s lives (p.168-169). But youth alienation and depression is not due to lack of a vision of space, we are told, but to socio-economic problems: specifically, their prospects of unemployment (p.169). No doubt this is perfectly correct. But the question is whether meaningful jobs are more likely to be created by investment in space tourism and development, or by the alternative forms of consciousness proposed on page 77, and on this question our authors have, needless to say, no analysis to offer.
The concluding chapter sets “cosmic imperialism” against “social resistance”. Somehow the use of these heavily loaded terms escapes the authors’ critical analysis and sets up a vision of evil versus good. But while the intentions of the implicitly evil imperialists are clear, good is still bogged down with a problem defining its mission:
“The science of outer space is now being deployed to humanize the cosmos in ways that not only reproduce the social order, but extend this order indefinitely into the cosmos. But an explanatory critique hopefully also shows that there is nothing inevitable about this process. Social and political alliances can be, and are being, forged against this particular form of humanization. New types of common sense can be constructed. Contemporary forms of subjectivity which are alienated from the cosmos and dreaming about being part of it are not inevitable. They are the product of recent times and can certainly undergo change in a more socially progressive direction.” (p.189)
But what “new types of common sense”? What more socially progressive “forms of subjectivity”? The reader is not told. Perhaps because they do not exist?
In general it is therefore clear what Dickens and Ormrod wish to do away with, but impossible to say, beyond vague hints and allusions, what they want to see appear in their place. A socialist society? A police state? A Marxist-Leninist dictatorship? Note their chilling comment on modern society “in which there is simply not enough repression” (p.74) – whether or not the authors intended it as such, to the reader this suggests a clear enough invitation for the secret police to move in and start arresting those guilty of thought crimes!
Any validity their criticisms of present-day society may possess is completely lost as a result of this structural weakness.
“The United States government is by far the dominant military force in outer space. And its aim in militarizing outer space is to achieve what the US Joint Chiefs of Staff call ‘full-spectrum domination’, one in which the US government actively enforces a monopoly over outer space as well as air, land and sea.” (p.94)
Fine. A clear enough statement of fact. So why the disapproving tone, why the constant insinuation that this is some terrible tyranny consolidating its power over the world? How else would you enforce world security?
And supposing that it does represent an intolerable tyranny: what are you proposing to do about it? What alternative might be possible, what is the roadmap towards realising that alternative (space people love roadmaps) – and how might it be policed? Would it promote social peace and prosperity if the military domination of one country were replaced by the military domination of an international bureaucracy such as the United Nations, or by a balance between a number of competing superpowers, as in the 1960s? Would its achievement starting from our present position be remotely practical? Is a peaceful world with no military domination at all conceivable? These questions are not addressed.
Instead, we get brief mentions of “resistance”, one form of which is “localised social movements now being made international in scope” such as the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space (p.72, 100). The Joint Chiefs of Staff must be quaking in their boots.
Could socialism – the traditional antithesis to capitalism – possibly be the answer? Though neither it nor communism (nor indeed alternative consciousness) were deemed important enough to make it into the index (while capitalism and its “see also” entries account for 24 lines of page references), there is a mention on page 6 of “socialist space programmes” which, we are told, the authors do not wish to ignore.
Despite that reassurance, little more is heard about them, and the authors’ views on the Soviet space programme remain tantalisingly hidden – apart from the fact that it “emerged from a history of Russian cosmism, which saw space exploration as central to the progressive future of the Soviet people” (p.79-80). But the preoccupation here, the reader is told, is with “capitalist space development”, exploring “the relationship between the humanization of outer space and the central dynamics of capitalism rooted in inequality and alienation” (p.6).
Crucially, whether any other social dynamics are possible is another question that is not addressed, leaving a vague implication that of course there must be a better alternative, but it is either so obvious as not to require any specific mention, or so obscure that nobody has the slightest idea what it might be.
This technique of argument by loaded implication is a general stylistic feature of Cosmic Society.
For example, the authors are happy to talk about the crises and contradictions which sadly afflict capitalism and imperialism (e.g. p.63, 67, 77, 179), but are silent on the crises and contradictions of, say, socialism (which on p.6 was implicitly linked with the Soviet Union). Since what they call capitalism is alive and well (and in fact so dynamic that it has created all the problems lamented in this book), while countries founded on socialist principles have either collapsed (the Soviet Union) or abandoned them for capitalist ones (China, Eastern Europe), perhaps they thought the crises of capitalism were so little-known that they would be of more interest?
Meanwhile, the question whether a social system can exist which is not subject to what “critical realists” call crises and contradictions is again left unspoken (argument by implication). The reader is clearly being invited to believe that there is, even though our authors cannot tell them anything more about it, for it is purely hypothetical.
One tantalising hint appears during a discussion of science fiction, in which sometimes “Travel into outer space therefore represents an opportunity to start a socially just, perhaps even socialist, society” (p.159). Would such a utopian state emulate socialist societies on Earth – with a secret police, forced labour camps for dissidents, shortages of consumer products, and compulsory political meetings? Dickens and Ormrod’s otherwise incisive analysis fails to address this highly relevant question.
A variation of this stylistic technique is a deliberately misleading choice of words. Continuing with the example just given, if capitalism suffers repeated crises, or if it contains internal contradictions, how can it have survived to the present day in such rude health?
The answer seems to be that when Dickens and Ormrod (basing their discussion on Marx and Engels, p.50) use the word “crisis”, they actually mean no more than change, and when they speak of capitalism having “contradictions”, they mean no more than that our economic system is subject to the sorts of pressures which drive change. Thus: “The global market is proving increasingly unable to contain the many contradictions of capitalism” (p.179) actually means: the global market is developing in response to pressures for change. While the use of words such as “crisis” and “contradiction” may not help in elucidating economics, it does surround the economic system with a superficial aura of unsustainability and illegitimacy, which perfectly suits the authors’ polemical purpose.
Thus an adaptable system which is responsive to changing circumstances is made to sound as if it were on the brink of collapse, without the inconvenience of actually having to produce arguments in support of such a dubious hypothesis.
Similarly, slipping in the term “late capitalism” (meaning modern democratic capitalism, p.127) supplies the implication that the authors know how soon capitalism will be superseded by a different economic system, when in reality clearly they do not.
The constant use of the word “capitalism” itself, unqualified by any adjective such as “democratic” or “liberal”, misleads readers by inciting them to fall into line with the authors’ assumption that the system is completely unregulated by governments answerable to a popular electorate. The authors can then offer “popular control” as a better alternative (p.123) without having to address difficult questions about the degree of popular control already in place, the practical limits of such control, or about where the optimum social balance between legislation and a free-market capitalist economy might lie. Obviously, in reality the capitalist system is highly regulated by governments.
Constant references to “accumulation [of capital] by dispossession” and a total lack of references to accumulation by the creation of new wealth sneak in the misinformation that we live in a zero-sum society in which capitalism can only function by dispossessing vulnerable people of what is rightfully theirs. Certainly, there are new resources in space, but they can only ever be claimed by the already powerful (p.59-61). The broad mass of people benefit only to the extent that they are even further oppressed under the intensified sway of the ruling class, with ultimately their “every move being watched and targeted” from space (p.100).
And the desired implication is unashamedly blatant when the plans of space advocates – often accompanied by detailed calculations and designs, and well supported by the historical precedent of globalisation – are dismissed as “daydreaming” and “fantasies” (p.141; 74, 190), while the authors’ own preferred future – which they are only able to allude to in the vaguest possible terms and which has highly discouraging historical precedents – is a “hope” and an “aim” (p.78; 190) towards which “alliances” are “forged” (p.189, 190). Thus the relative plausibility of these two future scenarios is reversed, not by reasoned argument, but by the choice of loaded words to describe them.
Similarly, the charge that space advocates are indulging in “escapism” is rich indeed, coming from authors who insinuate on every page that all the desperately difficult problems of world development, wealth distribution and security will magically disappear after the installation of “alternative forms of consciousness” and “popular control”. In reality, dreams of escaping into a socially just society which does not suffer from these problems are far more fantastic than the plans of would-be space colonists, which deal with the world as it is, not as an unattainable utopia.
The word “fix” is another favourite in Cosmic Society. A “fix” is a botch-up job: a mere “sticking-plaster”, a temporary, unstable solution to some social or economic problem (p.49-78, 113). The impression created is that such a solution is of no value because it merely creates new problems which then have to be solved in their turn – an example given is that the use of satellites has given rise to dangerous space junk (p.66-67, 153-154).
Here again, the use of a misleading word is being offered as a substitute for argument, because the argument by itself would be too weak for the authors’ polemical purpose, and would attract tiresome counter-arguments. Obviously, one would not necessarily expect technological solutions to social or economic problems to be permanent, if they were introduced during a period of rapid technological change such as the one we are living in now.
A long-established spacefaring civilisation would clearly routinely clear up its space junk or avoid creating any in the first place, but in order for us to progress to that stage we first have to see the problem and experience sufficient motivation to work out a solution appropriate to our current institutional and technological level. Later on we may find that our solution, that “temporary fix”, breaks down, and will feel the need to move on to the next higher level of solution. But because our authors have no interest in the likely end-point of this iteration, they therefore have no patience with the painstaking, step by step, evolutionary means which are the only ones through which it can be approached, and so those means must be denigrated as a “fix”.
Beck’s notion of a “risk society”, which our authors draw upon (p.151-154), suffers from the same lack of a long-term overview. He, too, is trying to build the Palace of the Soviets without the use of any scaffolding.
A major bone of contention for Dickens and Ormrod is consumerism:
“Consuming goods can provide the illusory sense of omnipotence and self that the narcissist [of whom more in a moment] craves. They fantasize about their access to the world and its goods, failing to recognize the reality that they are still dependent individuals. If they make sufficient demands (particularly with the aid of money) they appear omnipotent and capable of acquiring and achieving almost anything. The reality principle has not struck home.” (p.74)
But our authors are silent about the fact that the goods and technologies made widely available by capitalist development have vastly improved people’s lives in the developed world. We have been liberated from hunger, pestilence and the more arduous forms of manual labour, and have access to antibiotics, education, electrical appliances, domestic plumbing and travel opportunities which were unimaginable or the preserve of a tiny elite only a few generations ago. Perhaps Dickens and Ormrod are not as conversant with the “reality principle” as they claim to be?
Note also the bogus psychological analysis: money gives people the “illusory sense of omnipotence”. This claim is so weird, so disconnected from the real experience of anyone of this reviewer’s acquaintance, as to defy comprehension. Could it perhaps apply to extremely rich people? But the discussion here is about mass consumers, for whom such a claim is simply absurd.
The mass of people in Dickens and Ormrod’s world are doubly oppressed: by the social power structures of imperialist capitalism, and by the goods provided by consumerism – “a life of mindless consumption” (p.113). Apparently, so we are led to believe, they would be far better off being oppressed by the social power structures of socialism, and by a life of mindful poverty and hunger. Most readers will not call this “critical realism”, but something very different.
Meanwhile any writer sympathetic to the plight of people in the less-developed regions of the world and with a grasp on reality needs to be concerned with spreading our privileges to the worse-off, not damning us for our wealth or our economic system for having created it.
Another example of the tendentious style of reasoning employed by Dickens and Ormrod is found in their repeated claim that outer space is “being made an object rather than a subject by some classes of people” (p.142).
By the cosmos as “subject” they mean “a force dominating and controlling affairs on Earth”, through religious dogma or astrological superstition. But since the Enlightenment it has been increasingly envisaged as an “object, something to be constrained, managed and used towards human ends”. To the dominant modern social orders the heavens now “exist to be used, to be lived in, to be worked on and to be domesticated and dominated by society” (p.143); the universe is “something to be conquered, controlled and consumed as a reflection of the powers of the self” (p.76).
Apparently this is supposed to be a bad thing. This psychological just-so story is presented as a damning argument against the modern world-view: the condemnatory tone of voice is unmistakable. But the argument, such as it is – based on the authors’ weak plea that the modern view is “intrinsically unsatisfying” (p.76) – is quite irrelevant; what matters for the study of society is how different cultural attitudes affect the survival and growth prospects of a civilisation in its interplanetary environment.
Our authors seem incapable of neutrally describing the possibility of humanity spreading into space, but must spin it into a morality play in which the universe is reduced to “an inferior object to be colonized and subjugated” (p.143), an innocent victim in their fable of cosmic imperialism.
If taken seriously, this piece of nonsense would also rule out any use of materials, not to mention animals and plants, for human ends on Earth. While how space can be settled by a “socialist or communist society” (p.190) without colonising or subjugating it is, needless to say, not explained.
But the most egregious example of mendacious argument in Cosmic Society concerns the allegation of “cosmic narcissism”, which pro-space advocates, we are told, demonstrate in an extreme form:
“These activists are pursuing fantasies about exploring and developing space which manifest themes from the infant’s experience of self during the stage of primary narcissism” (p.74). This is a “kind of personality disorder” first outlined by Freud (p.73). “The promise of power over the whole universe [sic] is therefore the latest stage in the escalation of the narcissistic personality. [...] Space travel and possible occupation of other planets further inflate people’s sense of omnipotence” (p.75). And an earlier author “examines how in Western societies people experience the world (or indeed the universe) through the ‘having’ mode, whereby individuals cannot simply appreciate the things around them, but must own and consume them” (p.75). But “narcissistic relationships with external nature are intrinsically unsatisfying. Objectifying nature and the cosmos does not actually empower the self, but rather enslaves it.” (p.76)
What we have here, issued in measured academic cadences, is nothing short of outrageous. That university academics could sink so low is a scandal.
Dickens and Ormrod (and their numerous sociological predecessors listed on p.73) are saying in effect: you disagree with us, therefore you must be suffering from a “personality disorder”! This charge inevitably links them with the abuses of the Soviet system (see for example Sidney Bloch and Peter Reddaway, Psychiatric Terror: How Soviet Psychiatry Is Used to Suppress Dissent, Basic Books, 1977).
Consider, firstly, the lop-sidedness of the argument. Space advocates are suffering from infantile fantasies, a disorder characterised by Freud as “adult narcissism”? Well and good: then what about people who suffer infantile fantasies of developing “alternative forms of consciousness” (p.77)? What about people who talk earnestly about the “crises of capitalism”, with approving references to Marx, Engels and Lenin, and to authors who talk glibly of “overthrowing the social order” (p.182), more than a decade after the final collapse of the Soviet bloc? Who are so intolerant of dissent and so desperate to be right that their opponents have to be denigrated as psychiatric nutcases? How exactly did Freud characterise their psychological syndrome? “Adult Marxissism”?
The implication is silently insinuated that by producing such armchair psychoanalysis our sociologists – themselves claiming to be oracles of pure adult reason untainted by infantile fantasies – have wisely trumped anything a space activist could possibly say on the matter. After all, the sociologists clearly know what will make other people happy – what will “empower” and what “enslaves” the self (p.76) – better than those people know themselves! But these totalitarian implications cannot be stated, for to do so would at once expose them as evident nonsense.
In reality, any space activist wishing to be equally offensive could easily conjure up ways in which the revolutionary desire to overthrow the existing social order and institute a utopian state of social justice can be traced back to an angry sense of injustice nurtured from infancy. But such a Freudian fable would be just as equally irrelevant.
For consider again the “reality principle” which is supposedly dear to our authors’ hearts (p.74, 139, 168). Their speculations about the psychiatric causes of the “narcissistic personality” who dreams of spaceflight are completely lacking in any discussion of the objective reality of the situation of human society in astronomical space.
Maybe there are in fact useful natural resources in space, mind-expanding vistas, opportunities for future human discovery and growth? Maybe capital growth is the only social mechanism capable of driving society forward across difficult technological barriers to access these new opportunities? Maybe society must continue to grow at the present time, if it is not to risk falling into decline? But Dickens and Ormrod do not want to discuss these aspects of reality.
Understandably so, for it might suggest that capitalism was leading us towards a worthwhile destination, and that would contradict their ideological purpose.
Speaking personally, I have no difficulty at all with people who have no interest in spaceflight, and I am sure many pro-space advocates would agree with me. There are many worthwhile causes and interests in the world, far too many to engage with in a single lifetime, and I do understand that other people have different priorities. I do not feel the need to ascribe to them a “kind of personality disorder”. But then I am heir to the 18th-century Enlightenment, which promoted tolerance and pluralism as well as exploration, technology, human progress and, yes, capitalism. Dickens and Ormrod seem to belong to a very different intellectual tradition.
Yet their motivations are surely charitable ones? They have the relief of poverty and suffering at heart. They call for the humanisation of space, if it happens at all, to “emphasize collective responsibilities on Earth” and “to improve the lot of the dispossessed” as an alternative to “being founded on the interests of capital, and individualist fantasies” (p.190). Are these not worthy sentiments?
But such a change of tack is moot until somebody can demonstrate a way of organising the economy which is both more generous to those at the bottom of the social scale, and capable of replacing our modern liberal democratic market capitalist society without losing its immense productiveness – as well as pensioning off the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And, as we have seen, Dickens and Ormrod have no such alternative to offer.
While they like to suggest that they do have an alternative, the implied vision of violent overthrow of the existing social order (p.181-182) and imposition of a repressive Leninist state (complete with psychiatric prisons for political dissidents) would clearly fail disastrously on all three counts.
To that end, I have a suggestion. According to historical materialists such as Marx and Engels, “social change is driven not by ideas but by the material, productive forces that characterize a society” (p.50). A good example of this happening in practice is the marginalisation of war since 1945, as noted above (though ignored by the authors of Cosmic Society).
Speaking then as a historical materialist (and growing a bushy beard to suit), I propose (not altogether flippantly) that a fairer society will emerge when changes in the material forces of production demand it. Vague appeals to “resistance” and to “alternative forms of consciousness” are irrelevant, according to Marx and Engels; what counts here is a change in the technologies and organisation of production.
Clearly, that cannot be planned in advance. But one certainty is that production in space, using the natural raw materials and energy of space and of other worlds, will be significantly different from production on Earth, and therefore, according to Marx and Engels, will trigger changes in social relations.
Not, however, according to Dickens and Ormrod, who write that extending terrestrial society into space seems likely “Tragically [...] to make outer space in the image of the Earth itself, with all its power relations and consequent social injustices” (p.176). But would they also argue that the power relations and social injustices of today’s internet world are the same as in the Victorian England of child labour and women’s subordination? Then why imagine that space development will not also change society?
Dickens and Ormrod’s fundamental thesis might be stated in a nutshell as: first solve all social problems on Earth, only then, after justice and equality have been achieved for all, turn to the exploration and development of outer space. But they have no idea of when or even whether their social objectives can be achieved. While even if they are achieved, our authors have no guarantee that the resulting society, without the impetus to growth generated by capitalism, will still be capable of expansion into space. Their equation of change with “crisis” strongly suggests that it will not.
In the light of historical materialism, which after all “provides a solid foundation for thinking about the cosmos and how and why it is being humanized” (p.50), that programme must be inverted: first go into space and set up space production. The consequences of such an industrial revolution may then play out into a fairer society for all – just as, on Earth, the revolutionary ideals and technologies of the Enlightenment lagged behind the start of colonisation of the Americas by a century or more.
But such an inference would run counter to our authors’ polemical purpose, which is not to produce a balanced reckoning of the effects that different social systems have on their members, but to promote “an alternative hegemonic project” (p.176) – of which the claim that it will “genuinely benefit the dispossessed” should be taken with a strong dose of critical realism.
In conclusion, I have to say that Cosmic Society fails on its own terms.
Thanks to its biased arguments, its heavy reliance on unspoken implications and utopian value judgements, its penchant for woolly psychologising and its deliberately misleading choices of words, it is neither a work of impartial research suitable for university studies, nor a convincing piece of political propaganda.
Its uncritical use of clichéd terminology from Far Left politics, its simplistic reduction of modern society to a struggle of imperialism versus resistance and its selective blindness to both the merits of capitalism and the demerits of alternative economic systems mark it out as of interest to only a fringe audience.
Despite being at heart a polemical work, it is unable to identify any positive goal capable of enlisting a reader’s support beyond vague platitudes about improving the lot of the dispossessed, which clash horribly against its use of authors and terminology associated with the nightmare socialist experiments of the 20th century.
It implies a fantasy world of triumphant proletarian revolution whose connection with reality is far more questionable than the space colonisation plans which it criticises, and which furthermore contradicts the theory of historical materialism on which it is supposedly based.
Its most striking charge against advocates of space exploration and colonisation is no more than infantile name-calling under a thin veil of psychoanalytic fable-telling.
The sociology of a civilisation which engages realistically with the wider universe may one day be written, but Cosmic Society: Towards a Sociology of the Universe is not it.
Meanwhile, in the spirit of following one’s own advice, this essay needs to move from a critical stance to a constructive one.
What might be the foundations of the “sociology of the universe”? – a prospect offered in the subtitle of Cosmic Society, but not delivered there.