Conceived in the 1950s by the Harvey comic book empire, Richie Rich was a “poor little rich boy” who carried the burden of fantastic wealth with good cheer and generosity. He could buy anything and go anywhere—even to space. Richie was no money-grubbing Scrooge McDuck; he had a heart of gold (almost literally), aiding his friends, treating the butler well. He was a good old fashioned American philanthropist, though underage, in shorts.
Recently, two adult Richie Richs—Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos—went to space, or at least as close as they could to get bragging rights. British billionaire Branson spoke of fulfilling a dream from childhood: the event was billed as a Boys’ Own triumph of the entrepreneurial will. The mainstream media was generally as giddily credulous of Branson and Bezos as juvenile comic book readers were of Richie Rich (well, the under tens might have had more critical brain cells). Progressive liberals and leftists voiced their environmental dismay, but the uncritical fawning of the media indicated yet again the need for alternative, socialist news outlets. Even the CBC covered Bezos’ landing as if it was some scientific breakthrough, cutting into Justin Trudeau’s Hamilton live “the election is coming, the election is coming” announcement about money for housing. Who needs houses? The well-taken-care-of can champagne and caviar their way to the stars in luxury space liners.
To be sure, at least MSNBC’s Chris Hayes laughed at Bezos’ claim that his trip promoted environmentalism. Bezos told other acquiescent reporters that earthlings could move polluting “heavy industry to space.” A ridiculous claim, but rest assured, Bezos is likely already looking for privatized waste management rights in space. Maybe he could partner with Tony Soprano. Environmentally, these space jaunts were travesties: massive carbon emissions and new forms of pollution are predicted outcomes of tourism space travel, leading The Guardian to declare them “one giant leap for pollution.” All this in the name of exploratory triumph and one-upmanship.
You can convince me that NASA’s space program has some scientific purpose, although historically, it was a Cold War competition with the Soviets. These Richie Rich trips were spectacles of conspicuous consumption. Canada’s singing astronaut, Chris Hadfield, deemed Bezos an honorary astronaut, appearing on Fox Business to justify space tourism. Criticism of Bezos, he declared on CBC, was simply “shallow, carping” complaining: after all, “it’s easy to be jealous of rich people,” and Bezos was aiding the earth economy by “paying the wages” of those in his massive space program. Shame on you Chris. Other American scientists also fell over themselves to justify these Richie Rich trips as furthering space technology.
Much was made by the obsequious media about the good-natured competition between the Men of Space (Branson, Bezos and Elon Musk) for the edge in futures on space tourism, a concept that justifies the grotesque wealth inequality that plagues our societies and our planet. Clean water, not lunar landings are far more pressing for most of humanity. Other Richie Rich celebrities are already buying tickets to space at the same time as ordinary folks witness their homes incinerated due to the climate crisis. Fires are tearing up the American and Canadian West, but the plutocrats and their hangers-on need not fret: they can escape planet earth, fast becoming as much the “red” planet as Mars.
Environmental travesty, scientific nonentity, limitless indulgence: all were on display. So too was class exploitation. Bezos “thanked” his “workers and customers” who made the trip possible. When he was criticized years ago for his lack of philanthropy and bad labor practices, Bezos admitted the only way he could “deploy this much financial resource [from Amazon] is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel.” He was as good as his word. The trip was funded with wealth extracted on the backs of Amazon workers, notoriously underpaid, lacking good benefits, without salaries to purchase good housing. Unionization of Amazon has been met with Bezos resistance. Branson too has a nasty anti-union record.
It is not only the Sasquatch-size environmental footprint of their businesses and space travel that is repugnant, but their use of identity politics and colonial imagery (or in their eyes, “frontier” imagery). Much was made of Bezos’ inclusion of Wally Funk, a woman earlier sidelined as an astronaut due to sexism but now welcomed by the Amazon founder. A giant step for womankind indeed. Both men claimed to be pioneering the scientific and entrepreneurial future. Bezos was filmed with his brother on horseback when announcing his bro would be on board with him. He even appeared for his after-flight media event in his Stetson, making outer space his very own cowboy fantasy. This was swaggering white masculinity colonizing a new “frontier,” just as John Wayne conquered the West (through destruction and domination). Promotion of much space travel nonsense often speaks of colonization, as if lessons about colonization on earth are not clear enough. However, if earthly colonization has been, in essence, about imposing private property on the commons amidst national and state races for control of territory and resources, then perhaps colonization is exactly the right word to use.
Bezos’s trip was also tied up with a claim to “philanthropy”: he used his news conference to announce an award of a hundred million dollars each to chef José Andrés and Democrat Van Jones for their “civility and courage.” Bezos contrasted their civility to “vilifiers,” presumably those who rudely criticize billionaire anti-union bosses. Jones, known for his progressive anti-incarceration work, groveled in thanks, lauding his benefactor for encouraging everyone to “reach for the heavens”—metaphorically at least. He would do the same, using the funds to help “uplift” Americans in need. Jones may be well-meaning, but Victorian philanthropists loved the language of “uplift.” It suggests people can mobilize to help themselves out of poverty and marginality. Structural change—certainly not abolishing capitalism—is not the goal. This is a version of philanthropy popular with the Davos set, who are all about donating to chosen causes, while also avoiding taxes. As Anand Giridharadas argues in Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, plutocrat philanthropy performs a story about bettering society while justifying the system that provides millionaires with obscene wealth. Will Jones give some of his millions to unions organizing Amazon workers? Somehow, I doubt it. Tying philanthropy to securing capitalist hegemony was made clear in a 2012 video of Branson, who announced he was heading to a “charity event” in Los Angeles, then seized the opportunity to warn workers against giving up their independent “spirit” to soulless unions.
In fact, these trips may appear to be about private consumption, but like the billionaire class more generally, they are also about impoverishing the public purse. Avoiding wealth and corporate taxes, the one percent can hoard their ill-gotten gains, relying on the little person taxpayer to fund state infrastructure for daily life. Underpaid workers rely on the state for everything from basic health care to food aid. Don’t forget: Amazon opposed a municipal tax intended to fund affordable housing in Seattle where it has its headquarters. Branson’s “Virgin Care” has benefitted from privatization of health services in the United Kingdom, and when it was denied one NHS contract, Branson pouted with a lawsuit—and got a payout! During the pandemic, he tried to secure £500 million in government bailout funds for his air travel company, claiming he would put up his private island (where he hides out avoiding taxes and entertaining celebrities and politicians) as collateral. At least that incurred some British outrage.
As repugnant as these nouveau-cowboy colonizers are, they are not, as individuals, the problem: they are expressions of a system that is destroying the earth and exploiting working people, cleverly justified with an ideology of do-good philanthropy. They are given too much of a free ride by an uncritical media. The answer to polluting industry on earth is not to send it to the moon but create socialist solutions on earth.
Joan Sangster has written on the history of Canadian labour, the law, and women’s movements. Her most recent book is Demanding Equality: One Hundred Years of Canadian Feminism.