Grigor (John) Velkovsky
This piece is written with the understanding that the reader has familiarity with the world of The Expanse. It is written from the perspective of the TV show (or up to the book Babylon's Ashes). Given the limitations of space, certain themes are explored slightly less than others. The Belt is viewed cursorily and mainly through the lenses of the big governments. This essay focuses on the following working questions: Does Earth represent Marxism’s end goal and fundamental tenets? Is Mars an allegory for the American Dream? Is ideology a primary factor in the conflicts within The Expanse? Is history cyclical and technology a tool that improves the human condition?
Ideology is a major driving force throughout The Expanse. There are numerous parallels between Mars and the United States – from its independence and the end of colonialism, its powerful industrial complex and strong military, and the dream for a better life gripping every facet of society. On the other hand, one can argue that Earth represents Marxism’s end goal and fundamental tenets. Basic Assistance exists to satisfy the needs of all, there’s free distribution of goods and provision of services. With the United Nations, states have been abolished in order to transition to a human world community. The Expanse illustrates perfectly the cyclical nature of history and that technology does not necessarily improve upon the human condition. It could be argued that it exacerbates the best and worst traits in humanity, in many ways creating new problems. Progress, but at what cost?
The Expanse provides a richness of ideologies set in the future. A yearning for new horizons and a breath of primal need to explore and discover. A familiar time not dissimilar to contemporary days. Where bleak survival and inequality are ever present, hope is a commodity to be bought and sold.
This piece seeks to explore the cyclical nature of history, its repeating elements despite the advent of technology. One can argue that a fundamental tenet of the show is that technological development does not and cannot better humanity; rather, it’s the human condition that needs to mature. Since our nature has remained the same, our problems are expressed in a similar historic fashion dialectically through the main factions – Earth, Mars, and the Belt.
The United Nations
In The Expanse, the primary governing body of Earth and Luna is the United Nations. It was formed as an answer to the number of global issues humanity faced throughout the 21st century. Rising population, starvation, climate change, and damage to the planet’s ecosystem led to the formation of a global government. This in turn meant that the different nation states and their respective authorities became secondary to the UN and its executive branch. With the improvement of technology and space exploration, all extraterrestrial colonisation was firmly under the UN.
Before one can analyse whether the system is Marxist, one needs to define its fundamental aspects. The United Nations is a federal, parliamentary, representative, democratic republic, with an executive presidency as head of state. It has executive (Secretariat), legislative (General Assembly), judicial (Court of Justice), and military (Navy/Marine Corps) branches. It is responsible for the administration and governance of Earth and its colonies. In the books and TV show, it’s depicted as having a broad scope of policies, initiatives, and a firm grip across the solar system. It is characterised by a centralization of power, with the UN having more control over the member states than the MCR does over its provinces.
The UN has strong military capabilities both offensively and defensively. A defence grid orbits around Earth, consisting of railgun platforms, as well as employing watchtower satellites. The faction has a significant presence across the Solar System, having the largest fleet in the sector and well-equipped personnel. Together with their intelligence agency, this superiority is used to enforce the UN's agenda, maintain order and stability in the system, and to protect Earth and its colonies from any external threats.
An important component to consider are the views of the UN and its overall approach towards the Belt. Belters are culturally, economically, and politically distinct from both Earth and Mars. The UN has a complex relationship with the Belt, which can be primarily categorised as using Belters for cheap labour to obtain resources within the solar system. The UN is focused on suppressing discontent. This is realised through a number of corporations employed by Earth to accomplish different goals and interests across multiple theatres. Ceres station is a clear example of this principle. As one of the first sites of human colonisation, it is the most important port in the Belt. It is initially governed by the United Nations as a protectorate, with a private security firm called Star Helix Security handling any day-to-day issues. Similarly, the CPM Security Corporation, a private security corporation, is primarily responsible for the security on Eros station.
The most critical aspect of the UN for our purposes is its mixed economy. Private enterprise and governmental control are equally visible in the TV show. The government is responsible for regulating the economy and ensuring that it runs smoothly, as well as redistributing wealth via its ’Basic Assistance’ policy.
This policy is a form of welfare available to the citizens of Earth. It has wide coverage in terms of providing accommodation in government housing complexes, food and sustenance, medical care, and clothing. These services are provided free of charge, but citizens on this plan are subject to mandatory contraception, unable to have children legally, in order to control the population. A large portion of the population that utilises this program is uneducated – many of the citizens are forced to rely on themselves or each other to obtain knowledge and skills. There are uplift programs that provide educational or job training opportunities if strict requirements are met. Given the ratio of jobs versus relative population on Earth, a waiting list is established. Unfortunately, this means that for most people it can take years before a spot becomes available, if at all. According to Chrisjen Avasarala, a huge percent of the population on Earth is on Basic, on account of a lack of jobs for people to do.
At first glance, the United Nations seems to have adopted a lot of Marxist concepts. A critical principle in Marxism is internationalism. In order to achieve a true transformation of society, Marx recognised that the workers of the entire world would need to unite, as the change would only be successful if achieved across this level. This would bring about the ultimate goal of abolishing nations and completing the transition into a human world community. The basis of this component is the understanding that common interests affect workers globally. Centralised planning and central authority would be the definitive guide to economic, political, and societal decisions.
Marx was a convinced internationalist. He saw the nation state as a bourgeois creation. No revolution could take place effectively within the confines of one bourgeois system.113
The ultimate goal of communism is a society based on cooperation, free distribution of goods, and provision of services, with widespread access to education, healthcare, and basic necessities. The distribution of these services is a top priority for the state or community in a true communist society. Cooperation and mutual aid would be emphasised, rather than competition.
The crucial question for Marx, as for Sismondi before him, was not how particular imbalances – overproduction in a particular sector, for example – might arise, but how that led to general overproduction, to economic crises. Both Sismondi and Marx recognized that the pricing mechanism tended automatically to restore imbalances through declining prices for overproduced goods, rising prices for underproduced goods, and rising or falling interest rates according to supply and demand in the capital markets. But both also argued that beyond some magnitude of imbalance, this no longer worked – that there were destabilizing responses to extreme conditions, responses that took the economy further away from equilibrium rather than back toward it.114
This so-called cycle of economic rise and collapse brought the working class through a lot of suffering. The UN seems to have resolved this particular issue with Basic Assistance, as the general population is better able to handle such market imbalances.
Another fundamental principle was the recognition of the existence of class struggle. The knowledge of inequalities that divided these classes was a main topic for Marx. He was keenly aware that there was inherent conflict between them due to the stark difference in goals that each espouses. Emancipation of workers was of big importance, which according to Marx was a task they would pursue.
This principle is inherent to real Marxism, which implies democracy and self-emancipation; it also means that democracy is the indispensable foundation for a new society (called socialism or communism).115
One could make the argument that as a democracy, through Basic Assistance, and other uplifting programs, the United Nations has focused on providing emancipation for the general populace.
However, when one looks closer, one can see critical differences in some of the fundamental tenets of Marxism. The government of Earth and its colonies does not seek to overthrow capitalism or establish a socialist society. While the established programs have socialist elements, such as redistribution of wealth, it is not a fully socialist government. An essential distinction is that the UN has a mixed economy, preserving both private and state ownership as the means of production. Practically, Earth employs a number of privately owned corporations to pursue its interests in terms of engineering, construction, security, and policing some of its colonies.
The centralization of power in the hands of the UN can lead to a lack of accountability and transparency, and the emphasis on social welfare can sometimes come at the expense of individual freedom and responsibility. A clear theme within The Expanse is how the UN’s system at times enables the wealthy to pursue their own separate agenda. The private sector is able to apply significant influence in the way the UN operates. This is evidenced by the ability of the Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile to successfully influence governmental agencies and affect the events of the entire solar system.
The Mercantile is one of the largest corporations in the Belt. With Jules-Pierre Mao being one of its owners, the corporation has Protogen as one of its main subsidiaries. Furthermore, he has shares in Star Helix Security, as well as CPM Security Corporation, which is later acquired by Protogen. A rich industrialist, Mao is therefore able to exert influence on Ceres, Eros, and Earth. He is fundamentally able to harness the protomolecule, at least initially, in an attempt to push his own independent agenda. This allows the wealthy corporate owner to reach a level of significant financial power. Working together with Sadavir Errinwright, the former Undersecretary of the United Nations, Mao is able to utilise UN facilities as well. Ordered by Protogen, and assembled on the Earth owned Bush Shipyards, 9 Amun-Ra-class vessels were successfully constructed. These ships are essentially the catalyst for the events that occur and trigger the widespread conflict in the Solar System between Earth, Mars, and the OPA.
Overall, the United Nations in The Expanse, is more socialist in its ideology than the Martian Congressional Republic, but it is not a Marxist government. It has a mix of socialist and capitalist elements in its policies and government. While Basic Assistance and internationalism are critical aspects of the UN, it is precisely the influence of corporations within the government that allow for events within the TV series to transpire as they do. There is no abolition of private property; in particular, the means of production are not owned collectively by the state or by the community. There’s no equal distribution of wealth and resources across the UN’s citizens. Finally, class is still very much an integral issue in society.
The Martian Congressional Republic
To pull oneself up by one's bootstraps is a quintessential American saying. One can argue that no other phrase better symbolises the fundamental tenets of America. The so-called American dream is an integral piece of idea, a significant thought that has shaped the minds of Americans since the inception of the country. Its impact on the development of American society cannot be understated.
There are a number of key principles that made the country what it is today from a geopolitical and social point of view. One of them is the ardent approach towards immigration. Anyone can come to this bastion of freedom to pursue opportunity and the promise of a better life. Similarly, it has encouraged the average American to pursue their own goals and dreams, to start their own businesses and ventures. In essence, this entrepreneurial spirit and idea that one can achieve anything has fueled the growth of the American economy and brought the country significant recognition and prosperity. With such a mindset, innovation has also walked hand-in-hand with progress. Science, technology, and medicine have been unshackled and unleashed, no longer held back by outdated morals or taboos. Finally, regardless of race, origin, or other superficial factors, the American dream has provided a common identity - a sense of unity through hard work and determination. A shared sense of purpose where anyone can achieve anything through hard work.
Like the American Dream broadly construed, this one of the good life exists in a series of variations. The most common form was cast in terms of commercial success. For hundreds of years, American readers and writers have had tireless appetites for tales of poor boys (and, later, girls) who, with nothing but pluck and ingenuity, created financial empires that towered over the national imagination (and in some cases towered over the national landscape as well).116
While this concept has evolved over time, it’s still a powerful symbol of prosperity, freedom, and inspiration. This is even reflected in the Mormon imagery on the "Nauvoo" showcasing American history and its integral influence with the prospect of leaving the Solar system. The scenes are reminiscent of John Gast’s painting American Progress, an allegorical representation of the New West.
Drawing parallels between Mars and America is relatively easy. A colony initally composed of Earth settlers, Mars has a similar journey of independence. While at first dependent on the United Nations for resources, the colonists eventually became self-sufficient. A strong sense for self-determination permeated Martian society, which eventually led to a desire for secession. While war was averted due to the discovery of the Epstein Drive, one could argue that it would have been an inevitable occurrence under different circumstances.
After a period of negotiations and with a bargaining chip to offer, Mars was granted the right to rule itself and to form the Martian Congressional Republic. As a political body, it is a federal parliamentary representative democratic republic. A key long-term goal that has gripped the society since independence is to terraform the planet and make it completely habitable in a similar fashion to Earth. The faction has some planned economy in order to accommodate the incredibly arduous task of changing Mars, something that can take many generations. However, the system still has corporations, private ownership, and small businesses. While the military does have stronger doctrine and governmental reach when compared to the United States, its military and industrial sector is very similar. Both nations have a huge budget when it comes to the creation of combat applications. While this is vital to Mars in order to safe-guard its rights for self-determination, one can confidently argue that diverting so many resources for military applications and technology has slowed down the terraforming process.
When one dives deeper, more similarities can be found between the MRC and the United States. Generally, Mars has elements of ’Manifest Destiny’, principles from Ayn Rand’s objectivism, and the core tenets of the American Dream. The faction espouses the frontier spirit, where people can build a better life for themselves, harness and tame a new planet, in a similar fashion to the American West, and work hard to achieve the dream of terraformation. And more than anything, Martian culture is defined by entrepreneurship and innovation.
This is reflected in the Martian Congressional Republic's focus on technology and its support for scientific research and exploration. The creation of the Epstein Drive changes the fate of humanity and opens a new page in human history. Similarly, while the UN fleet is numerous, the Martians have better technology, stealth ships, and are able to go toe-to-toe with Earth within a swift time-scale after its independence. Like America, Mars has relied on immigration to fuel its research, with a large brain-drain from Earth. With a huge number of citizens having Basic Assistance as the only option, regardless of vocation, skills, or experience due to the lack of jobs relative to the population, many willingly choose to immigrate to the harsher but more meaningful conditions that Mars has to offer.
Both Mars and Earth share a similar disposition toward the Belters. Martians view the Belters generally as a proxy through which they can achieve their fundamental short and long-term goals. The Belt is caught in a game of chess between Mars and Earth.
In conclusion, the Martian Congressional Republic represents a new frontier and a new opportunity for people to build a better life for themselves, just as the American West represented a new frontier for the former European settlers. This so-called gold rush leads to a huge number of people leaving Earth and Luna in search of purpose. It is why the Martian society is cohesive and efficient, at least until the discovery of the rings and the events thereafter. From its independence and end of colonialism, Mars attains a powerful industrial complex and strong military. The dream for a better life grips every facet of society united by a singular vision to manifest destiny and terraform the planet into their so-called garden of Eden.
On ideology, Marxism, history, and technology
There are many reasons for conflict within The Expanse - personal ambition, resources, or power. But one can make a compelling argument that a lot of the war is based on ideology. Even when one looks at Mao, a character primarily driven by ego and personal aggrandisement, he is still interested in transcending the human condition. He is obsessed by the opportunity to push past biological limitations and usher human society into post-scarcity by harnessing the power to overcome vacuum via the Protomolecule. The various factions in the series have different ideologies and their fights are often based on disagreement over the future direction of humanity and the correct steps to bring forth a new future. A clear example of this is the difference between the Martian Congressional Republic and the United Nations – one is driven by self-determination and the pursuit of technological progress, while the other is focused primarily on maintaining the status quo, stability, and order in the solar system. On a micro level, these cultural and ideological differences are personified perfectly in Lt. Lopez during his conversation with Holden in the TV show. With his great-uncle emigrating from Earth, the Martian wonders about the concept of endless blue sky, free air, and open water all the way to the horizon.
In the scene from the episode "CQB" (S1E4) of The Expanse. Lopez asks Holden if he misses Earth. This exchange reveals a lot about the ideological differences between Earth and Mars:
LOPEZ: I could never understand your people. Why, when the universe has bestowed so much upon you, you seem to care so little for it.
HOLDEN: Wrecking things is what Earthers do best. Martians too, by the look of your ship.
LOPEZ: We are nothing like you. The only thing Earthers care about is government handouts. Free food, free water, free drugs so that you can forget the aimless lives you lead. You’re short-sighted, and selfish, and it will destroy you. Earth is over, Mr. Holden. My only hope is that we can bring Mars back to life before you destroy that too (S1E4, "CQB").
These ideological differences almost verge to the point of creating sub-species or different branches of humanity when one considers the Belters. This chasm is brought about due to their inability to survive in Mars or Earth’s gravity for very long. The cultural, biological, and ideological implications of not being able to live on any body in space with a large gravity well cannot be overstated. No scene exemplifies this more than Avarasala using gravity as a form of torture against an OPA member. The OPA member then later uses gravity as a tool to take his own life, preventing any information from being recovered. As Avarasala’s assistant points out: it’s also likely a statement. This opens up a deeper question about who is really in control. The lives and survival of no other factions are more intricately tied to such basic forces of nature.
While none of the factions represent true Marxism, viewing The Expanse through such lenses can allow one to unravel and understand the background of these ideological conflicts. When we talk about political science, what concerns us fundamentally is the nature of society and what a good society represents. In a sense, the apotheosis or the apex question in political science comes down to this: what is the greatest society that we can achieve and how do we get there? What is the case and what ought to be the case? Marxism is a grand narrative that changed the way we think about a multitude of subjects, ranging from the essence and spirit of humanity to history and economy and the roles they play. In order to truly understand Marxism, one must realise that Marx's narrative is much more complex than it seems at first. The reason for that is due to the fact that it is a synthesis of three essential components or concepts - namely German idealist philosophy, British political economy, and French socialism. Thus, one can interpret that in synthesising those three strains of thought or ideology, Marx and Engels changed and improved each one from its original form. In a sense, Marxist critique reshaped all three of these components. Each faction within The Expanse seeks to change the solar system according to their ideal version of humanity.
Another key point is that Marx believed that his project was to explain human history scientifically, that one can explain nature and humanity's natural laws. One of Marx's fundamental critiques about capitalism is that it brings incredible dehumanisation and alienation due to the relations between the capitalist and the proletariat. This can be seen in the relationship of both Mars and Earth with their respective exploitative relations with the Belt.
Marx's grand narrative explains how everything unfolds dialectically through a process of conflict and resolution. Thesis and antithesis, which lead to a synthesis. For Marx, communism is a secular religion – heaven on earth, no class, no wars, no starvation, or social injustice. Marx defines and considers this redemption of the human essence and spirit to happen within one's life. Human emancipation according to his grand narrative is in a way a political emancipation from religion and property. By the end of the TV show, no faction is the same and they’re all changed by the events that unfold. The UN is forced to undergo a massive transformation and restructuring. With the ecological damage on Earth, the government is forced to approach the rest of the solar system on a more equal level. Committed to transparency and reform, it enshrines the principles of democracy and equality. Chrisjen Avasarala, forced to accept the new reality, has no choice but to accede to the new Belter-led Transport Union to regulate ship traffic through the Ring space.
This action leads to a new future for the Belters, turning them from the de-facto underclass of the solar system into a society with prospects for economic security. One can argue that Mars has changed the most, faced by significant challenges as a result of the events in the series. With the rings opened, the faction is forced to completely and utterly change its approach. Easy access to habitable planets means that the dream of terraformation is abandoned, leading to a massive societal shift. Because of these events, Martians are forced to become more cooperative with the Belters. This complete and radical shift later results in the creation of the Laconian Empire (something touched only peripherally in the TV show). Similarly, the OPA (Outer Planetary Alliance) and the Belters are given a new purpose, a new destiny, one determined by their biological difference and altered human condition.
Marx's theory of historical materialism is perfectly encapsulated in The Expanse. While the environment is different and the rules have changed, we see similar conflicts and ideological differences mirroring our present and contemporary world. The material conception of history is a theory that argues that social and economic conditions play a primary role in shaping human history. The essential driver of change is the mode of production and ownership of the means of production. While new technologies and the expansion of human civilizations into the solar system has the potential to liberate humanity, this is evidently not the case. The Expanse provides a clear example of how old concepts continue to play out. Skin colour and other superficial factors have allowed humans to oppress one another. The Belter deviation from the species norm and their physical differences have caused them to be dehumanised and seen as lower in value by both Earth’s and Mars’ citizens. According to Marxist theory, history is cyclical with class struggle being a fundamental tenet. In The Expanse, the Belters personify this better than any other group. Marxism asserts that the class struggle is the engine of history, and that society is in a constant state of transformation as one class overthrows another. The formation of the Transport Union and the Treaty of Ceres are the culmination of this change.
Perhaps the most important element of the show is that human nature remains the same. Despite the technological wonders promising salvation, humanity faces the same issues that plagued mankind in the 20th century. Unless humanity matures and adapts to the new reality, the same problems will express themselves dialectically. The cyclical nature of history is conveyed through the ideological conflict between the UN and Mars. These two states mimic the relationship between America and the colonialist British Empire from one perspective. On the other hand, it’s reminiscent of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, with two ideologically diametrically opposed nations locked in a constant arms and technological race, treating other states as pawns on the chess board. Eastern Europe has been the playground of the so-called Great Powers, with the Balkan Wars interconnected with the two World Wars. Belters similarly have their own chapter and involvement. As Marx predicted, they are alienated from their labour, unable to ever see the potential prosperity their resources can bring as they cannot survive the gravity of the planets. They have no future being trapped in the conflict of two great powers.
Marco Inaros is able to tap into this Belter sentiment perfectly as well as Mars’ disillusionment after the ring system’s discovery. At their core, Belters are still humans, struggling to find meaning in their space prisons. Alienated from everything and everyone, they yearn for a place to call home and a life beyond meagre survival. The desire for a better world and the promise of prosperity is what gave rise to one of the most oppressive systems to ever exist in the Soviet Union. Inaros is a would-be tyrant and an evolutionary dead-end, the product of the inability to cope with a meaningless brutal existence bent on survival. Where mutually-assured destruction is a preferable doctrine, the end justifies the means. His genocidal insanity and utilisation of stealth-coated asteroids to attack Earth is essentially the Cuban Missile Crisis’ worst possible potential outcome. Inaros’ rise to power and his almost-successful attempt at becoming the system’s de facto dictator is the perfect example of history’s cyclical nature. Born out of historical materialism, he is a creature of oppression, a victim and abuser, receiving it and giving it in return out of deep-seated revanchism.
Those who struggle to change the world see themselves as noble, even tragic figures. Yet most of those who work for world betterment are not rebels against the scheme of things. They seek consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear. At bottom, their faith that the world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality.117
Following Marx and Engels’s work, communism branched into many different schools of thoughts. This is mirrored by the Belters having multiple factions, each with its own underlying goal and method for achieving it. The dynamic relations between these groups within the OPA ultimately led to the final fate of the Belter nation.
In conclusion, while technology changes most aspects of our lives, some things stay the same - the human condition. As the British philosopher John Gray said, ‘The events which we’ve been taught are abnormal are in fact normal. Normal collapses, normal breakdowns, normal crises occur within most human lives.’118 One can argue that it’s due to human nature that history is cyclical. Nothing exemplifies that more than the Epstein Drive - a discovery able to transcend humanity into a new chapter of space exploration and colonisation, only for the technology to find itself used for all-too familiar purposes such as warfare. This is exemplified in the scenery during episode ''Paradigm Shift'' (S2E6), while Naomi and
Drummer look at the schematics of the UN missile. A close up shows that it uses an Epstein Drive. A key theme of this episode is how Episten conceived of his engine as part of a human race no longer confined by distance. Ironically, it is then shown how this discovery became a key part of Earth’s military arsenal.
While the environment changes, one constant remains the same: humanity. Marxism taps into the human condition by addressing one of the most fundamental aspects of human life: the struggle for economic and political power. This is not just an abstract concept, but a tangible and ongoing reality for the vast majority of people in capitalist societies. It argues that this struggle is not unique to capitalism, but a feature of all class-based societies throughout history. By analysing the historical development of different modes of production and the relationship between different classes, Marxist theory seeks to understand the underlying causes of the human condition and to identify the means by which it can be transformed.
The theory also addresses the cyclical nature of our history. Understanding Marx and its theory broadens and enriches one’s viewing experience of The Expanse. Its tenets allow one to further appreciate the deeper nuances and ideological differences between the show’s factions. The background of these conflicts mirror the past and current events of our contemporary world.
Finally, Marxism emphasises the importance of working towards a society that is more just and equal, and the role that ordinary people have in achieving this goal. This is reflected in the way that the characters in The Expanse struggle against oppression and exploitation, and seek to create a better world for themselves and future generations. Holden never gives up on this dream, and like Don Quixote pursues this to the very end. He convinces Avasarala to agree with Camina becoming the President of the Transport Union (“Babylon’s Ashes”, S6E6), giving Belters finally a place in a shared future for humanity: ''the only way we all move forward together.''
In order to transcend the cyclical nature of history, the human condition must first mature lest we are doomed to a repeating cycle of rises and falls, of the Holdens and Inaroses now and in the future.
113. Rupert Woodfin and Oscar Zarate, Marxism: A graphic guide (London: Icon Books, 2018).
114. Thomas Sowell, Marxism: Philosophy and economics (Abingdon: Routledge, 1985).
115. Critique Sociale, “The basic principles of Marxism”, 2009, https://libcom.org/article/basic-principles-marxism-critique-sociale.
116. Jim Cullen, The American dream: A short history of an idea that shaped a nation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
117. John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on humans and other animals (London: Granta, 2023).
118. Gray, Straw Dogs.