The Guardian • Issue #1972

Profit in the stars: billionaires leaving earth behind

For the super-rich, it is in vogue to own a company dedicated to space “exploration.” As a result, two of the world’s most wealthy people have now made suborbital flights.

The three most space-focused billionaires share a goal in creating space tourism. However, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson’s machinations are piggybacking off workers and are fraught with exploitation.

Bezos, who founded Amazon, thanked workers employed by the mega-corporation for putting him in space.

“I also want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this,” Bezos said in his post-flight press conference. “So seriously, for every Amazon customer out there and every Amazon employee, thank you from the bottom of my heart very much. It’s very appreciated.”

Bezos got to take the trip as a direct result of selling off shares from Amazon. The workers he thanked have faced exploitation in numerous forms: union-busting, insufficient wages, poor working conditions and even delivery drivers not being covered for health insurance amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bezos’ thank-you is completely disingenuous. For example, in his most recent letter to shareholders, he discusses a union push in an Amazon warehouse.

“Does your Chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer?” Jeff Bezos said in his letter. “No, he doesn’t. I think we need to do a better job for our employees. While the voting results were lopsided and our direct relationship with employees is strong, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees – a vision for their success.”

The company quashed the vote with an aggressive campaign against the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, dimming hopes for broader Amazon unionisation across the USA.

Similarly, Elon Musk and Richard Branson have revealed their own anti-worker stances.

Musk, who founded Tesla, illegally fired worker Richard Ortiz, who had been distributing union fliers in a Tesla plant’s carpark. However, a judge ruled that Ortiz’ be reinstated and that he be compensated for lost earnings and benefits. The judge recognised that the reason given for the firing was a cover for the company retaliating against the worker.

The Tesla boss also got in hot water for an anti-union tweet that he made back in 2018.

“Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so [tomorrow] if they wanted,” Musk tweeted. “But why pay union dues [and] give up stock options for nothing? Our safety record is two [times] better than when plant was UAW [and] everybody already gets healthcare.”

The USA’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered that Musk delete the tweet. The regulatory body ruled that the social media post threatened to take away workers’ benefits. However, the NLRB’s decision proved to be a slap on the wrist for the CEO and company.

As for Richard Branson, he too has proved himself to be negligent on workers’ rights. At the start of the pandemic, Branson’s company Virgin Atlantic suggested that the airline crew take eight weeks of unpaid leave. Even conservative MP Richard Fuller slammed Branson, stating that to pay for those eight weeks the billionaire could take it out of interest on his $3.8bil net worth accrued during the same amount of time. In fact, he would still have some interest left over.

There’s an element of ideological tension with other nations over this space race. However, it’s not as prominent as with the tension between the (former) USSR and the United States. China, who has stated their exploration is peaceful and for science, wants to avoid another arms race, as reported by China Daily. This is largely because there’s no sense in creating another “Star Wars,” with the first one impacting the Soviet Union’s economy.

Idealism should not be considered in relation to billionaires. What they espouse and what their followers believe is not idealism. Idealism would suggest some sort of naivety. This is something no one in their wealth bracket can claim.

Billionaire space exploration is not for the benefit of humanity. The knowledge and resources that something like colonising Mars would yield, would be wrapped up in patents, privatisation and contribute to further wealth-hoarding.

Elon Musk has self-mythologised his way to being perceived as a brilliant genius and inventor. It doesn’t take much to pull back the curtain and see that his “achievements” fall short of this self-aggrandising.

Musk and other powerful people, billionaires or not, require these window dressings to perpetuate themselves as “great men of history,” deeming themselves necessary to create value and drive forward humanity’s achievements. This idea and its contradictory aspects fall in opposition to collective achievement and a materialist view of history and humanity, erasing the fact that workers are the ones who create the value.

Once individualism on such a scale reveals itself, it’s easy to put two and two together: no one person should oversee “colonising” another planet. Even the concept of “colonising” carries with it unsettling connotations. While no humans live on Mars, to be colonised, doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be much different to colonialism on Earth. Elon Musk has stated that those wishing to go to Mars but couldn’t afford it would be required to pay off these loans through work. This is indentured servitude, which would see exploitation and human rights violation.

Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson look to the stars, all the while people are struggling to keep up with basic human needs and human rights. The wealth gap will continue to grow during and after the pandemic, with this inequality driven by neo-liberal privatisation and policies that made these billionaires rich in the first place.

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