In May of 2021, Elon Musk hosted Saturday Night Live. The Silicon Valley entrepreneur rose to fame and fortune as part of the ‘Paypal Mafia’, and is now the CEO of several companies, including Twitter, Tesla and SpaceX. Musk has publicly articulated his desire to establish settler colonies in outer space for years. According to Christian Davenport, Musk decided to get into private space manufacturing when he realised that NASA—and, therefore, the U.S. government—had no schedule and no plans to get to Mars. Devastated that his childhood obsession with science fiction literature might never become reality, Musk established SpaceX in order to (in his own words) “extend the light of consciousness to the stars.”

Saturday Night Live gave Musk his first opportunity to act out for a huge audience what the establishment of a human colony on Mars might look like. Set in “the near future,” the skit is a dramatic enactment of how the Martian colony might cope with a failure of life support infrastructures on the Red Planet. (As space writer Shannon Stirione has pointed out, Mars is a hellhole.) From a control room on Earth, Musk ultimately manages to save the colony from destruction at the sacrifice of one of the space settlers, Chad. But what is particularly striking is that Musk is not barking orders from NASA headquarters, nor from any other U.S. government building. Instead, the Mars colony’s command centre is the headquarters of his private company, SpaceX. It is SpaceX, not the U.S. state, which is in charge of Mars.

Many critiques of space expansionism, especially in the context of the Cold War, have denounced the dangerous geopolitical and military implications of states settling outer space. In this iteration of the ‘Commercial Space Race’, however, it is not states, but corporations which are attempting to colonise the stars.

Would-be space colonists like Musk or Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos imply that colonising space will be a ‘victimless’ colonisation project. Because no one ‘lives’ in space, the atrocities of indigenous dispossession and genocide which occurred during terrestrial colonisation cannot be repeated. However, as I and others have previously written, this argument precludes both non-Western legal-property and non-Christian spiritual relationships between humans and nature, as well as ignores the community displacement, environmental destruction and labour exploitation that are already happening on Earth in the pursuit to settle space. More importantly, would-be space colonists argue that because it is companies, rather than states, which undertake these colonising efforts, they will simply be peaceful economic enterprises.

This interpretation is congruent with the broader framework of the ‘Californian Ideology,’ which sees Silicon Valley elites and their companies’ relationships with the state through a libertarian lens. The small-state libertarianism of tech elites like Musk and Bezos justifies their use of private space companies to ‘escape’ or ‘exit’ state power in outer space. Yet, as Mariana Mazzucato demonstrates in The Entrepreneurial State, these billionaires are using public money through government contracts to do so. SpaceX, for example, has already received around $5.4 billion from NASA.

Less attention has been paid, however, to how the tech capitalists imagine their corporations’ political rule in space. Analysing the role that private individuals and corporations have always played in the history of terrestrial colonisation provides insights into the ways the rule of Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’s Blue Origin might unfold.

Colonising Companies

Although we retrospectively think of states as the main actors involved in colonisation, private individuals as well as corporations are deeply embedded in the history of both settler-colonies and imperial expansion. For instance, Philip Stern’s path-breaking work on the British East-India Company (a  “company-state”) showed how these corporations embedded themselves within diffuse transnational systems by modulating “between claims to be a ‘mere merchant’ and an independent ‘sovereign’” affecting both the political entities they interacted with abroad and their ’home’ states. In colonial America, other corporations effectively turned into states. The Virginia and Massachusetts Bay Companies were both corporations which became colonies, ultimately breaking away from their ‘home’ state to establish their own. As Micklethwait and Wooldridge note, in 1630, “the General Court of the Massachusetts Company transformed itself into a commonwealth, redefining ‘freemen’ from stockholders in a commercial venture to citizens of a state.” Similarly, King Leopold II of Belgium obtained personal ownership of the Independent State of the Congo through his private association, the International Association of the Congo, ushering in a horrific rule of violence, exploitation and resource extraction.

What political power may corporations like SpaceX and Blue Origin obtain from their attempts to colonise space? Will settlers on the Moon break away from Earth to found their own independent state? Will the United States take control of these celestial colonies from private companies, becoming an intergalactic empire? Or will Musk and Bezos retain personal control on outer space colonies through their ownership of Blue Origin and SpaceX? These questions have generally not been articulated in this way in part because of the prevailing focus on states, rather than corporations, as the sole legitimate sovereign actors. However, as Harold Laski noted, “corporations have a curious habit of attempting perpetually to escape from the rigid bonds in which they have been encased . . . like some Frankenstein, they show ingratitude to their creators.”

In his SNL skit, Musk is clear about who he imagines will rule his Martian colony: his private company. For him, this is not simply a fantasy. The terms of use of Musk’s satellite service, Starlink, state that users must “recognize Mars a free-planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities.” (Although it is unlikely that this declaration has any real legal validity.) While Musk repeats that he believes his Martian colony should be run as a direct democracy, one of his proposals—to allow individuals to purchase one-way tickets to Mars which can be paid off once arrived by working for the new colony—has been likened to a form of indentured servitude, drawing questions as to whether these Martian “citizens” will be truly free from the corporation they are indebted to for money and air.

Jeff Bezos has a different vision for space. Unlike Musk, Bezos does not imagine space colonisation as isolated settler colonies, but the construction of an imperialist infrastructure. He argues that Blue Origin will “build a road to space” that will unleash a “whole new space industry.” Drawing on his own experience with Amazon, Bezos explained that “Amazon built on top of [USPS, FedEX], telecom and credit card companies” which ensured its economic success. By building similar infrastructures in space, Blue Origin will allow “space entrepreneurs to start a company in their dorm room.” Although Bezos is not as explicit about political jurisdiction in space as Musk is, it is clear he imagines space as a place that will be developed by private companies for private companies. Additionally, as Ben Little and Alison Winch have pointed out in this series, Bezos has drawn many of his ideas about space colonisation from the Princeton professor Gerard O’Neill. In The High Frontier, a fictionalised telling of space colonisation, O’Neill describes space communities as operating “under the jurisdiction of the Energy Satellites Corporation (ENSAT), which was set up as a multinational profit-making consortium under UN treaties.” Likewise, and although they might not say it explicitly, both Musk and Bezos clearly believe that it will be their companies, and not states, which will rule in space.

Libertarian Exit

Space colonisation is just one iteration of Silicon Valley’s obsession with political exit. For example, Peter Thiel (another member of the Paypal Mafia) has been involved in sea-steading ventures, with the aim of creating floating ocean communities on a “space colonies model.” Thiel and Y Combinator’s Sam Altman have also made the headlines for building elaborate doomsday bunkers in New Zealand; venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has funded attempts to establish “autonomous start-up cities” in Honduras; and Balaji Srinivasan has called for Silicon Valley to secede from the US and establish its own city-state.

The elaborateness of these ‘libertarian’ exit projects is somewhat baffling. As Raymond Craib writes in his excellent new book Adventure Capitalism: The History of Libertarian Exit:

[I]f the idea was to avoid paying taxes or to make more money, most of the individuals involved in such schemes had the necessary resources to employ a team of tax consultants and attorneys and numerous offshore financial centers and tax havens beckoned… circumventing the regulatory state could be achieved without undertaking radical territorializing projects.

Furthermore, as failed libertarian exit projects like Sealand have shown, establishing territorial enclaves do not genuinely allow individuals to escape the state if governments truly wish to invade or tax them. So why do tech elites spend so much money to ‘escape’ the state by engineering new territories?

Craib argues that the true point of libertarian exit projects is not really the protection of individual freedom or the implementation of libertarian policies, but exit itself.

Exit is … not solely a means by which libertarians can implement their ideas; it is a fundamental part of the idea itself… Rather than an end to politics, libertarian exit offers a form of politics in which decision-making (zoning, entry, exit, land use, taxation, and so forth) will not vanish but rather be transferred into the hands of the small population of ultrawealthy property owners… They seek not to escape the state but to recast it in their own image… Freedom, a collective social condition, instead becomes a private place.

In other words, these projects are not about attempting to escape the state, but about re-creating it in new spaces.

Terrestrial colonisation did not create new spaces of anarchical freedom, but recreated territorial states, as a political form, on other continents. Like the techies who dropped out of universities to create companies that look like universities, colonising space will likely turn corporations into something that resembles political states. Who will rule them – Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk?


Alina Utrata is a PhD Candidate and Gates-Cambridge scholar in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University where her research focuses on the political theory of corporations. She is also the host of the podcast “The Anti-Dystopians: The Politics Podcast about Tech”.

This is the ninth contribution of PERC’s series on the Silicon Valley ideologyEach week for the next two months, experts from the fields of political economy, political theory, economic history, cultural studies, computer science and law will share their research perspectives on the recent trends that have animated the Silicon Valley bubble. If you wish to get involved or would like to pitch an idea for a contribution, get in touch with our editor Carla Ibled (c.ibled[at]