What Would the Political System of a Mars, Moon or Venus Society Be?
Or why it is NOT going to be a military dictatorship or a libertarian heaven
Whenever I read discussions of what a space colony on say Mars will be like, I’ve noticed that people tend to form two different camps:
- Those who see Mars colonization as a repeat of the colonization of the “New World,” and thus imagine a colony of rugged individuals. A sort of libertarian Utopia far away from the rules and regulations of earth.
- A Military Dictatorship as a consequence of the dire consequences of the delicate balance any space colony will exist in. A single individual can very easily kill everybody in a space colony through reckless behavior.
I am currently reading Artemis by Andy Weir, who wrote the popular book the Martian. His version of a lunar space colony, seems like a bit of a combination of both. The political structure is not exactly like a democracy: no election system and a very libertarian style economy. It is a dog-eat-dog world of rugged individualism. Nobody is taken care of or assigned to any job by any kind of central government. People are left to their own devices.
While this is a possibility I personally don’t think it is realistic. Free wheeling capitalism combined with a dictatorship is not what I imagine a space colony will develop into.
I will actually argue it will be something more egalitarian and democratic, and I am not saying that because I am some flower power hippie, but rather by analyzing the situation by examining societies and conditions which have had similarities to the harshness of a space colony in our own known history.
Why the Colonization of America is a Poor Analogy
A lot of the discussion of this topic online is of course dominated by Americans in large part because they makeup the bulk of the english speaking internet population. It colors the discussion by the uniquely American cultural experience and history.
America was a land of opportunity in all possible ways. Hence there was a very strong economic incentive in its colonization. One could grow cash crops like tobacco or sugar. There was valuable furs to be traded. The land had plenty of fertile soil, which was naturally attractive to colonists looking for a better life.
Individuals could go up rivers and hunt for furs. They could go out on the plains and setup a homestead. In short a lot could be accomplished by individuals. Individuals were not crucially dependent on each other. This meant there was an opportunity for rugged individualism.
A space colony, whether on Mars, Venus or the Moon poorly fits this analogy. At current technological level and scientific knowledge there is no economic incentive for space colonies. None will feed earth with any resources or products the Earth can’t do more cheaply itself.
The second flaw with the analogy is that no colony will offer an environment where an individual can venture out on their own. You can’t exactly strap on your space suit and live off the land. Life will always be restricted to a space base. Individuals in such a base can not freely do whatever they want. There will be precious shared resources such as oxygen and water. Crucial infrastructure to maintain like airlocks and pressurized habitats.
Golden Age Netherlands as an Analogy for a Space Colony
A space base will likely be made up of several pressurized domes or habitats where people live. Should the wall breach or puncture at any point on such a dome it will yield disaster for anybody inside.
Do we have analogies on earth to people living under such conditions? In fact we do! Rather than being split into multiple pressurized domes, the Netherlands is split into multiple polders.
Polders and Pressurized Habitats
Let me explain what a polder is and how we can relate it to a pressurized space habitat.
A large part of the Netherlands is below sea level. The dutch built the Netherlands by claiming land from the sea. They did this one chunk at a time. They would build dikes around an area of water. Then they would drain the water out of this area using pumps. In the Golden Age, these pumps were powered by windmills.
The area enclosed by dikes below sea level is called a polder. It is quite a complicated thing as pressure outside the polder will cause water to seep in from the ground. Once built a polder is thus in fact not a permanent structure. Water has to be continuously pumped out of it, to maintain it. Dikes has to be continuously maintained and fixed. Certain animals could dig into it. Storms could overflow them etc.
In this illustration you can see how water inside a polder is collected by drainage ditches called sloot’s in dutch. This water is then channeled to a pumping station which pumps the water out of the polder.
For safety reasons, we can imagine that a space habitat will be made up of several sections which can be sealed off, so in case of a pressure drop, in habitants can escape to a different section and seal it.
Thus we can end up with quite a lot of complexity in designing sections connected through airlocks. Interestingly we find similar kind of complexity in how polders are made and water is managed.
Land can exist at different elevation, and so there can be multiple levels of dikes where pumping stations pump water up to ever higher levels.
And there will often be several layers of protection so that if one dike overflows, there is a second one.
In the part of the Netherlands called Friesland e.g. the summer dikes get flooded in winter. Houses are built elevated so they end up as little islands in the winter time.
This reminds Andy Weir’s description of the fictional Artemis moon base, where houses, factories etc have shelters inside in case of fire. A fire will cause the section to be sealed off from the rest of the space base which means people can get out but will have to take refuge in a sealed shelter.
Political Developments Caused By Polders
People have claimed that the precarious situation of life in a pressured habitat on the Moon or Mars would lead to a dictatorship. That suggest that inside dutch polders we should have seen the development of dictatorships. After all if somebody failed to maintain their part the dike everybody would drown. Yet the exact opposite happened.
Instead each dutch polder developed a unique political institution called the Water Board, which still exist today and are the oldest democratic institutions in the Netherlands.
A Water Board is a bit like a municipality in that it collects taxes and has elected representatives. The difference is that a Water Board is only concerned with water systems. The Water Board is in charge of maintaining dikes, pumping stations, canals and sewers. Historically Water Boards even passed laws regarding water systems and handed out punishment for failing to follow the rules. E.g. polluting a canal could result in fines since it would affect everybody else further down the canal. Gross negligence of a dike could in the worst cases lead to a death sentence.
Water Boards would send around inspectors to make sure farmers properly maintained their part of a dike.
An interesting historical case is that towns in a polder did no necessarily need to be politically united even though they all shared a Water Board. Dutch towns within a polder could be at war with each other, but still cooperate on water management.
The experience of the Water Boards as democratic institutions was a crucial experience when the Netherlands declared independence from Spain in 1581. The Netherlands was a union of independent provinces. So quite the contrary to what some think, the difficult physical conditions citizens of the Netherlands lived under did not develop into a top down absolute monarchy in Europe but rather one of the few democratic oriented republics in Europe.
But further develop the idea of what sort of governance a space colony would have I would like to look at another historical case.
Power Structures: Viking Age Norway vs Space Colonies
An important question to ask in any society, is who is enforcing the laws? If one is imagining a Space Colony dictatorship, one has to be able to ask how this rule is maintained.
In societies with powerful centralized power, one has a number of options. Today we have police and military. In medieval Britain there would be sheriffs, aristocrats and soldiers.
Viking Age Norway and Iceland in contrast was nothing like that. Sparse populations combined with difficult terrain made up of thick forests, mountains and fjords made it very hard for any central power to exercise their influence over the inhabitants.
It is easy to think that less civilized countries like Viking age Norway meant some sort of despotic rule by the strongest. Quite the contrary the more civilized nations such as ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia etc were among the more despotic ones. Viking society in contrast was quite democratic and egalitarian by the standards of the day.
Viking culture derives from the same Germanic tribes as the Romans fought. Tactitus (ca 100 e. Kr.) says this in his volum “Germania”:
They choose their kings by birth, their generals for merit. These kings have not unlimited or arbitrary power, and the generals do more by example than by authority. If they are energetic, if they are conspicuous, if they fight in the front, they lead because they are admired. (…) In these same councils they also elect the chief magistrates, who administer law in the cantons and the towns.
While Norse societies had power structures which might superficially look similar to feudal Europe, it was quite different. Any son or a king could in principle become the next king. There was no clear rigid rules about kings in Scandinavia as in feudal Europe.
A king was both an elected and inherited position. You could not become king without being confirmed by an election at the Thing:
According to Norse tradition also the kings had to be elected by the Thing. The sagas have many accounts of pretenders to the throne travelling around from Thing to Thing in order to be “chosen as king”.
A central part of the Norse power structure, was the Thing:
The legislation was enforced at the Thing (ON þing), which was the legislative and judical assembly. Compared with contemporary systems, the Norse Thing was a quite democratic institution. The Thing could take political decisions, make new laws and solve disputes. The Thing also functioned as a social meeting place and as an arena to discuss matters of general interest.
What is interesting about the Thing, is that it had no sort of executive power or police, which could carry out its rulings. Viking society had no police or sheriffs which could arrest you and punish you for misdeeds, as would be the case in feudal Europe.
A thing was thus not like a court handing out punishment. It was much more of a dispute settlement system. That is reflected in how mild the punishments usually were. Even murder was usually punished with fines. It shatters a common perception that Vikings were these brutal, savages where problems were solved with violence.
Quite the contrary it was “civilized” places such as Mesopotamia, where one had the Code of Hammurabi, which demanded an eye for an eye.
The most serious punishment a Thing could hand out was to make someone an outlaw. That meant you were no longer protected by the law. Your deeds had been so bad, that you were no longer part of society and hence no longer protected by it. It meant anybody could hurt you or kill you without any kind of legal repercussions.
The idea that a Space Colony with limited access to enforcement of power should function as some sort of repressive dictatorship doesn’t seem logical. If you have no major army or gang of armed soldiers, it is no more likely that a Mars society should function as a dictatorship than Norse society.
Nor does it make sense to assume it will be a strictly hierarchical society. That was more of a product of strong states and civilized countries. Norse society was quite egalitarian:
A Norwegian Viking fleet led by Rollo (Gange Rolf) stood by the river Eure. The French king sent an army against them to negotiate. When the French approached the Vikings, one of them asked:
What, ho! brave warriors, what is the name of your lord?” “We have no lord,” replied the Normans, “we are all equal.” (Kilde: Dudo de Sancto Quintino, apud Script. rer. Normani, p. 76., late 1000’s)
Of course Vikings had leaders but that is not the same as Lords. I actually think the HBO television series Game of Thrones as depicted this quite well in wildling society. The southern people think of Mance Rayder, “the king beyond the wall,” as similar to a southern lord. Yet it is evident, Mance Rayder is not some kind of absolute ruler the free folk must swear allegiance too. Rather he is a leader they chose to follow. Viking society was much the same.
This is what I think a Mars society will have as well. It will not be run by a despotic ruler, but have a leader, which will remain a leader as long as he has the confidence of the colonists.
How Representative is Viking Society of societies with weak Central Power
A counter point to my analysis might be that Viking society was a historical anomaly. However if we look at other “uncivilized” societies they all tended to be quite egalitarian and not function like brutal dictatorships. We can see this with Inuits in arctic regions, native Americans, Mongols, Goths, Huns and many other people. They all seemed to have arrangements with a lot of similarities to the Thing.
Why a Space Colony Economy will Not be Libertarian
In Andy Weir’s Artemis, we encounter a moon base which function in a lot of ways as a libertarian tourist island. The main character Jazz, is essentially sleeping on the street when she gets kicked out by her father. There does not seem to be any sort of public service taking care of people or helping them.
I don’t think this is perspective is unique rather you see this idea of free wheeling capitalism of space colonies pop up frequently. I think the mindset behind this is that being away from earth government people are free from their rules and regulations. Alternatively one watches this through the prism of the wild west, which seemed hyper capitalist.
But as I’ve elaborated I don’t think the American west is a good analogy for a space colony.
As we’ve established with the dutch polders, a space colony will be a place where people will have a very high dependency on each other. Such a society could not survive if it had a hands off approach to the difficulties of any of its colonists.
A human would be far too valuable to let them go around begging for scraps. Every person who could work would have to be put to work. In addition each of these colonies would be so small that it is hard to ignore anyone, because almost everybody would know everybody else.
The economy of a space colony would be too small to really facilitate a functioning market. Lets just take some exaggerated examples. The producers of oxygen could easily shut down production to jack up the prices. Same with water producers. The market power would be enormous and people could easily be squeezed. Building up an alternative production of oxygen could not be done in reasonable time.
Simply put far too much of the economic activity in a space colony would involve production of things vital to the survival of the whole colony. Those in political charge of such a colony would never allow anyone in such a setting to operate freely in a capitalist market.
Capitalist markets only exist in very large societies. People on a ship e.g. don’t sell each other services and products in a market setting. If a group of people were trying to survive on a deserted island, they would not be selling each other essentials on a supply and demand based market.
One way to tackle this problem is to answer the question of why do companies exist at all? Why do we have massive organizations were people are simply assigned tasks and given resources as needed? Why are not people within companies selling their services on a market and demanding services?
Because of transaction costs. It would be too expensive, time consuming and difficult to have every exchange of goods and services happen through a market. Hence each company is essentially a small encapsulated communist command economy. Each company sets production targets assign budgets and tasks. Individual departments don’t sell or market to each other. Rather they are simply required to deliver goods and services to other departments. That is not very different from how companies in the Soviet Union were required to deliver goods and services to each other.
Making a market inside a space colony of less than a few thousand people would likely be impractical. Rather I think the colony leadership, which I think would be elected in some sort of democratic fashion will make plans for what is needed and set production goals. From this they will decide how many people will be needed for different tasks and people will get assigned.
Of course nobody likes getting assigned to doing shitty tasks they don’t like. So I am sure there will be a political pressure to make this arrangement work in a manner where people have some say or influence in what tasks they must do.
How a Capitalist Economy Could Emerge on Mars
I think both libertarians and socialist often have a bit unrealistic ideas of what society can and will turn into. Not everything can be capitalist in nature. On a smaller level, within a family or tribe and even to some extent within a company things operate closer to communism or socialism than capitalism. The problem with communism as a political ideology, was to believe what functioned at a small scale to scale up to a society with millions of people. A communal approach to society collapse when people no longer know each other well and care directly for each other.
If we look at tribal societies, people cared about each other within tribes and exchanged goods freely largely based on needs. However between tribes there was a lot more hostility and exchanges of goods happened in a much more capitalistic fashion. Although there is no close analogy to capitalism. Tribes also had celebrations and feasts together. That is how wives and husbands could be exchanged between tribes.
I think we would see similar patterns between different Mars colonies. Many will likely be run under different authorities and principles. People in different colonies are less likely to know each other intimately and will hence not freely hand over stuff to each other based on need.
So I between colonies one will see trade which looks more free market oriented. Although I don’t think we will see the kind of high level specialization we see in earth based societies today, because each Mars society will want to make sure they produce all absolute necessities such as water, oxygen and food themselves.
Trade will likely focus on things which are not absolute necessities or in surplus. That could be building materials to expand the base, furniture, indoor clothing etc. One might also import surplus food from other colonies. But I don’t think anybody would close down completely their own food, oxygen or water production and rely exclusively on other bases. Nor would they give up the ability to produce things like building materials themselves.
Hence it can’t be a completely fee economy where companies in each base can outcompete each other and take over a market completely.
My proposition is that Space Colonies are unlikely to develop into something looking like military dictatorship because looking at historical examples of societies living under extreme conditions such as the Dutch inside polders produced highly democratic societies.
Looking at Viking societies tells us that societies without access to professional armies or police can’t enforce a despotic rule. A Mars colony will not be able to host a continent of soldiers and police who can enforce draconian rules.
Rules can only be enforced through mechanisms similar to the Viking Thing, where it is a community together through a democratic process who decide and the rules and punish those who break them. Punishment can’t be so severe that groups subject to them strongly object, because a Mars society will have limited access to the use of physical violence and threat to impose rules.
The assumption here is that anyone accused of wrong doing will have friend and family to support them. Leveling an utterly unfair sentence on them would not be tolerated by their allies and could hence lead to conflict. This is one of the reasons why Viking punishments at the Thing was often extremely progressive by the standards of the day.
My last part was about the economics of a space colony. I base my view here on the observation that small human societies never seem to function as market economies. In societies where people know each other well and depend on each other, things will tend to operate in what you might more accurately label communism.
Only when you get multiple colonies interacting with each other will we see a sort of proto-market economy develop.
Next, Settlement Patterns of Space Colonies
This story does touch upon another interesting topic I plan to address later. How exactly will another planet get colonized? Will there be just one large colony that just expands and expands with more settlers? Or will there be multiple separate colonies run independently?
Who will found these colonies and why? Why would people chose to go to these colonies? What will their relationship to earth be?