04.15.2015

Fear of a Capitalist Planet

  • Keith A. Spencer

Astronomers look to the stars, and only see themselves.

Astronomer Asaph Hall Jr at the US Naval Observatory in 1924. Library of Congress

Have you ever seen an alien? Scientists haven’t, but that hasn’t stopped them from speculating that imperialist extraterrestrials could be on the way.

With the exception of one inconclusive blip in 1977, we haven’t detected signs of alien intelligence. Having scoured our solar system with probes and turned up empty, extraterrestrial (ET) signal searchers now survey the galaxy on the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, where photons can traverse interstellar distances and arrive on Earth unscathed.

The most prominent and well-funded organized effort to search radio bands is led by the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, a private nonprofit foundation that borrows time on radio telescopes or scans the skies using their own arrays.

While the SETI Institute has been actively searching for forty years, there have been few attempts to send out focused radio signals of our own towards presumptive inhabited worlds. This poses a conundrum: why should humans expect aliens to send out focused “hello” signals of their own, if we do not do it ourselves? This idea, that we should send out messages in addition to listen for them, is known as “Active SETI.”

As the SETI Institute’s Douglas Vakoch explained to Slate last month:

In the past we’ve always assumed that any extraterrestrial civilization with the capacity to detect us will automatically take the initiative to make contact, sending us a powerful signal to let us know they exist. . . . But there may be civilizations out there that refuse to reveal their existence unless we make it clear that we want to make contact.

This February, at a symposium at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Convention in San Jose, Vakoch proposed that we stop only listening and start talking too. Vakoch’s words touched off a dispute that culminated in an open letter warning of Active SETI’s risks, signed mostly by scientists but also by Tesla/SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, science writer George Dyson, and science fiction author Paul Davies.

This isn’t the first time scientists have sounded the alarms about Active SETI. Physicist Stephen Hawking argued against contacting ET, in a prophecy seemingly cribbed from the Independence Day screenplay:

We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.

Back in 2006, an editorial appeared in the pages of Nature arguing that, while the chances are “remote,” actively messaging aliens poses “small but real dangers,” including the possibility of “alien ‘black-ops’ specialists working out ways to exploit” human psychology based on intel from our radio messages.

Let’s take a step back and consider these warnings, made in earnest by this group of scientists, engineers and businessmen. Are their assumptions and predictions about alien life grounded in science and logic?

If we look to the way that neoliberalism has shaped our thought and culture, fears about ET map perfectly. Aliens could be potential competitors for resources, they claim — presumably, having left their home planet to exploit, extract, and enslave, following a pattern not dissimilar to what unfolded over four hundred years of global capitalism.

Aliens could be imperialists, leaving their home planet to colonize and mold humanity to their own social and political logic — like the American colonial projects in Iraq, Afghanistan, and any of dozens of other countries over the past century.

Tellingly, aliens are projected to possess the same technological triumphalism as Silicon Valley, equating “technological advancement” with “progress,” even when the two have little to do with each other. In their theoretical hostility, the aliens could have a certain machismo we lack: the consummate corporate competitors, with more so-called technology, more violence, and more willingness to use force.

This is not science. This is hegemony at its most powerful and invisible, posing as logic. In these fears, we see a soup of recent historically specific troubles, blended and projected. Anti–Active SETI co-signers see imperialism as universal, quite literally — that is, extending across the universe.

That aliens would have imperial ambitions is taken as natural. Far from being the historical outcome of a specific organization of capital in the latter half of the second millennium, these signatories assume that the ideology of capitalist imperialism is inevitable across the galaxy.


It hasn’t always been this way. In 1877, astronomer Percival Lowell looked up at Mars and thought he saw canals. “Girdling their globe and stretching from pole, to pole, the Martian canal system not only embraces their whole world, but is an organized entity,” he wrote of the features on Mars, which we now know to be an optical illusion. His claim was preceded by the astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, a confidant of Lowell’s who had first “discovered” the canals, looking through his telescope in Italy.

Lowell’s projections did not stop there, though. Lowell, a wealthy, Harvard-educated Boston aristocrat and heir to a cotton fortune, went as far as to extrapolate the nature of Martian society, culture, and government, starting from his blurry observations of their so-called canal system. Correctly observing Mars’s white polar regions, he proposed that the canals delivered water from the icy poles to the equator, perhaps for agricultural purposes.

Lowell also enlisted the help of sociologist Lester Frank Ward to speculate on the nature of the Martian culture, along with zoologist and American Academy of Sciences–inductee Edward Morse to give credence to his speculation.

The era in which Lowell and Schiaparelli hypothesized the Martian canals was a time of great social upheaval, in which the abilities and might of humankind were expanding in unimaginable ways. Electrification and combustion engines had changed the human relationship to machines and enabled unprecedented prosperity, and imperial western powers had begun geological engineering on an unprecedented scale — the Suez canal and the abortive French attempt at the Panama Canal being but two examples.

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution had driven rural peasants into urban factory jobs, spurring revolt and discontent across Europe. Schiaparelli, who had moved from Italy to Berlin during the 1850s to study astronomy, lived in Europe in a time when the lower classes were repeatedly discovering radical politics and the upper classes repeatedly trying to quell their uprisings.

Both Schiaparelli and Lowell projected their own class biases, assumptions, and historical circumstances on Martian society. The wealthy scion Lowell postulated that the Martians lived in an oligarchic, elitist society, where only the fittest, most evolved and technologically savvy aliens survived the harsh Martian climate. Lowell invoked the philosophy of Herbert Spencer, the conservative philosopher and sociologist he admired and whose worldview fit with his bourgeois, elitist politics.

Schiaparelli disagreed with Lowell in regards to the nature of the Martian society. After performing detailed calculations into the nature of the Martian irrigation systems, Schiaparelli decided that a Martian society with the organizational capacity to construct planet-wide canals — a “plumber’s paradise” (paradiso degli idraulici), as he called it — could be a “paradise for socialism” (il paradiso dei socialisti). Red planet, indeed.


Science is assumed to be universal and empirical, and scientists — who, like all of us, sometimes stray out of their realm of expertise — carry this stamp of power with them into other spheres.

Hence, in 2015, a group of scientists and CEOs, with no empirical evidence about any alien culture, can make brazen, culturally biased assumptions about aliens, and be taken seriously — when really they see themselves in the aliens. In fact, their beliefs have little to do with science and everything to do with the society in which they were raised, and their elevated place in it.

Fear of ET as invasive colonists presupposes that the aliens have no culture or history of their own — that they are merely an anonymous, imperial horde. Andrea Smith has written of “the racial logic of Orientalism” as marking “certain peoples or nations as inferior and as posing a constant threat to the well-being of empire.” Certain racial and ethnic groups, she writes, will be seen as “civilized,” even as they’re “imagined as permanent foreign threats to empire.” Replace “people” with “aliens” and you start to see Orientalist parallels in the way aliens are conceived.

To many scientists, the idea that an alien civilization would be an imperial capitalist species speaks to the power of capitalism as a social formation. Posing as universal, it imparts certain beliefs about humans (and now aliens): that they are competitive, violent, fundamentally self-interested, aspiring to power at the expense of others — when in fact, these are not even human traits. These are traits assumed by our economic system and the peculiar way it seeks to control people, in order to mold them into compliant laborers and consumers.

The idea that humans possess inherent traits is known as “biological determinism” — the notion that traits we observe in ourselves are natural, products of our biology, not of the cultural and historical situation we live in. For instance, one may see a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk and assume he is a failure at life because of his genes, or say that women are incapable of being serious scientists because of their sex, or that all men must harbor aggression because of their biology.

Racism and sexism flow freely if you take biological determinism for granted, and conservatives often use biological determinism as a fallback for their arguments — despite the fact that anthropologists are near-ubiquitous in their assertion that that biological determinism is flagrantly false. “All cultures have sex, aggression, etc., but whether and how it is expressed is subordinate to the cultural order,” anthropologist Marshall Sahlins writes. In the anti–Active SETI troupe, we see a mutated form of this: astrobiological determinism.

If you think that the scientists’ concerns are anthropocentric, deterministic, and absurd, you’re right. It is fruitless to argue over the cultural and imperial ambitions of uncontacted aliens. Knowing nothing about them, it is not possible to project scientifically about their culture — in the event that we do, we are not doing science. We are anthropomorphizing.

If we are to project into the future, it’s worth asking of our own culture — the only culture of any intelligent life form we know of — what kind of human civilization would last millions of years, long enough to contact or be contacted by other intelligent life? Probably not a capitalist one. Energy-hungry, competitive, xenophobic, oppressing people and ravaging the planet in search of resources and wealth for a tiny few — this is not a long-term model. We will extinguish ourselves in the next century or two if we continue on this path.

If we want to hold onto the hope of meeting other alien civilizations, it is in our interest to survive long enough to make the discovery. The Milky Way is 150,000 light years across; it could take hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of years to have a two-way conversation. A civilization capable of this feat is a stable, peaceful one, that avoids war and famine by means of cooperation, providing for its citizens, while maintaining a scientific curiosity about the universe — and investing in curiosity for curiosity’s sake.

Right now, this isn’t what we are. Our social and economic system devastates the planet and siphons money away from science that is not in the direct interest of capital, and discourages even thoughts of an alternative economic or social system. It is our duty to imagine this — to become the red planet — before we begin to imagine aliens.