Where is JG Ballard when you need him? In a scene that seems to jump perfectly from one of his novels, just as the political and financial elites polished their best justifications for not paying tax like the rest of us, Richard Branson has unveiled his new Virgin Galactic spaceship Off-shore not exclusive or secure enough? For $250,000 you can now do off-planet.
Of course, Branson - the archetypal everyday bloke who happens to live on a private island - didn't frame it like that. He hailed the development of the 'VSS Unity' as a step on the way to everyone being able to be an astronaut. The democratisation of rocket flight. We're all in this together. 'Space travel,' Branson beams, 'can transform things back here for the better.' When people return from their 6 minutes in the heavens, the world will become a little more heavenly.
In fact, as I outline in my latest book Getting High - A Savage Journey to the Heart of the Dream of Flight, Branson stands in a long line of those who have made this same promise. Before we were able to fly, explorers like Christopher Columbus were explicit about looking for the Garden of Eden. When all horizontals were exhausted, we then looked to the above.
In 1638, John Wilkins - founder of the Royal Society - published his Discourse Concerning the Discovery of a New World in the Moon, where he set out his belief that 'Paradise is in a high and elevated place, which some have conceived could be nowhere but the Moon.' It was, he believed, the only place high enough to have escaped the biblical flood. Because it did not fall, it must be made of un-fallen stuff, and if we could only reach it, we would find ourselves in heaven.
We might forgive him for his antiquity, but jump forward to NASA achieving the unthinkable and actually putting a man on the Moon, and the same beliefs still held sway. Their chief rocket scientist announced in 1970:
Here then is space travel's most meaningful mission: on that future day when our satellite vessels are circling Earth, when men manning an orbital station can view our planet against the star-studded blackness of infinity as but a planet among planets, on that day, I say, fratricidal war will be banished from the star [sic] on which we live.
His name was Wernher Von Braun. In a former life he had invented the V2 missile, and been one of Hitler's most important captains. Some way, one might say, from banishing war.
Branson is no warmonger of course, but is he being naive to expect us to believe that the mission of his spaceship is to increase global unity? Is he not simply trying to find a way to help justify the $500m he has sunk into Virgin Galactic while so many suffer the grim reality of austerity?
Again, he is only part of a long tradition. Ask around the Vatican, or any holy site, and you'll find out: the pursuit of paradise is an expensive business. To pay for it, priests have always offered the same deal: by giving them our tithes and sending them into the above, we are helping prepare the way for us all to be able to ascend after them. And so they disappear behind the plush curtain, and close the heavy gilded doors, and we wait and wait and heaven inches no closer.
Branson has now borrowed the same line, but is this not what the high priests of City finance preach too? Off-shore tax havens actually help us, they say, because the wealth that these elites create then trickles down. It is the tide that lifts all boats, even if such vast reservoirs are currently being held behind hidden dams, while many go thirsty.
Still we wait for the evidence that their astronomical riches help us. They don't. 'Off shore' and 'future astronaut' are really metaphors for the delamination of certain levels of society from the rest, for the disengagement of elites from active participation in community. High rise penthouses, gated compounds, expensive flights out of the atmosphere - all of it is about a removal, a detachment, a decontamination of their existence from the rest of us below.
In 1882, long before Branson took his own balloon flight, Frederick Burnaby flew across the English Channel, and wrote how 'the air was light and charming to breathe, free as it was from the impurities that burden the atmosphere near the globe.' To fly was to flee. To rise above the smoke and chaos of the fallen earth, as if as one of the gods.
Though Branson and Cameron both claim otherwise, their minimisation of tax liability through off-shore schemes is similarly about taking flight from the financial burden that is the moral gravity of any compassionate society. To try to rise above involvement is to lack empathy or sense of shared enterprise. It is to consider oneself above such mortal concerns.
And yet, the claim is still made that they do this to secure our own future ascension. As Branson begins to lift the super-rich into the stratosphere and beyond, I worry that we're seeing the same scenario played out again: a pretense that somehow this burning of resources is for our benefit, when it actually serves to open up the gap between rich and poor even more.
When he and Osborne say 'we're in this together' and that we have one world which we must share, they are right. What is needed is for this to be acted on. Those who sail off-shore need to be returned to port, and those who have so much must accept the gravity of their responsibilities, set their feet on the ground and do the hard work of creating a little heaven on earth - for everyone.Suggest a correction