From the December 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard
Nearly all the land of the Earth has been claimed by one or other of the many States into which the world is divided. The one exception is Antartica which, like the Moon, is governed by an international treaty which bars States and individuals from exercising territorial or property rights over any part of it.
Much of the sea area of the world, however, including the sea bed is still unclaimed. This is now beginning to cause problems as the seabed, especially the various continental shelves, are potentially profitable sources of raw materials like oil, natural gas and minerals. The United Nations Seabed Committee has been meeting in Geneva since August to consider the problem. Various suggestions have been put forward as to who should own the rest of the seabed once the matter of just how far out the territorial waters of coastal States should go has been settled.
The British government has proposed that the seabed outside these limits should be divided amongst all the States of the world, including land-locked ones. The sea would thus, like the land, come to be divided up by frontiers.
Another proposal is that the seabed outside territorial waters should belong to an international agency which could grant licences to States and/or companies to exploit the mineral resources. Royalties might be used to help finance investment in the underdeveloped countries. This proposal is sometimes described, as it was by President Nixon in a message he sent to Congress on 9 July, as one to make the oceans and the seabed “the common heritage of mankind". This is not really accurate but at least this arrangement would avoid the absurdity of drawing frontiers all over the seabed and an international agency would be able to exercise better control over conservation and pollution.
If ownership of the seabed were vested in an international agency this would not make it the common property of mankind, for the agency would be an inter-governmental body responsible to the various capitalist States of the world (including state capitalist Russia) perhaps through the United Nations. It would be an example of common ownership. but by the capitalists of the world rather than by the people of the world.
Individual ownership of land is not essential to capitalism. Indeed landed property is a particularly parasitical form of ownership since the landowner is in a position to extract a tribute as ground rent and royalties from the rest of society, not only without having to work but also without even having to invest any capital. It was this that made landed property unpopular amongst some industrial capitalists in Britain in the last century; they resented the fact that landowners were able to share in the proceeds of their exploitation of the working class without contributing a penny towards it. Various proposals for ending this burden on profits were put forward: estate duty, Henry George's single tax on ground rent, and outright land nationalisation. This last proposal was of course often claimed as one to make the land “the common heritage of the people”. But there was nothing socialist about it as can be judged from the fact that when Labour nationalised the mines in 1948 the coal had already been nationalised previously by the Tories.
Nationalisation of land or of mineral resources is a measure that allows capitalist concerns access on equal terms to these essential materials. The proposal to have the seabed owned by an international agency has the same purpose: some States are afraid that others might deny them access to the resources of the seabed and want some international body set up to ensure that this does not happen.
Something quite different is required to really make these resources “the common heritage of mankind”. This is meaningless unless the land and the manmade instruments of production are also made part of this heritage in a world without frontiers on land as well as under the sea.