Material World: One Thing the Romans Did For Us

What did the Romans ever do for us – other than pass down their concepts of property? For instance, land in Rome could either be ‘private property’, res privata or managed by the city authorities such as a park in which case it would be part of the res publica. Res nullis referred to land belonging to no-one, ownerless, therefore, it was available for occupation, the justification on which the British settlement in Australia was based despite it already being the home of indigenous peoples. However, res communis property was territory not subject to the legal title of anyone. It could not be claimed by a state because it belonged to all, or ‘the common heritage of mankind.’ In the sixth century CE, the Institutes of Justinian codified the relevant Roman law as: ‘By the law of nature these things are common to mankind – the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea.’ Two modern-day examples of res communis would be the continent of Antarctica and outer space.

In 1908, Britain made claims on parts of Antarctica and after that, several other countries did likewise. To avoid conflicts, the Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959. This was the start of the polar region being protected and preserved for the heritage of all. The treaty does not recognise territorial sovereignty claims ‘to ensure in the interests of all humankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.’

This year in October, the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (better known as the ‘Outer Space Treaty’) will turn 50. The Treaty explicitly forbids any government from claiming a celestial resource such as the Moon or a planet. Article Two of the Treaty states that ‘outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means’.

The 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other  Celestial Bodies (the ‘Moon Treaty’) was apparently intended as a new treaty to supersede or supplement the Outer Space Treaty, most notably by elaborating upon the outer space treaty’s provisions regarding resource appropriation and prohibition of territorial sovereignty.

It banned all exploration and uses of celestial bodies without the approval or benefit of other states under the ‘common heritage of humankind’ principle (article eleven). Dr. Christopher J. Newman, a reader in space law at the University of Sunderland explains ‘You couldn’t have the superpowers landing on the moon and carving up bits of territory on the moon. It’s not possible to own it, it’s not possible to appropriate it by means of sovereignty or any other such device. So it was designed to deal with a binary power bloc, and a superpower budget. The people who drafted the treaty didn’t have commercial space activity on their minds.’

They could not be expected to foresee the Space Act of 2015 (sometimes called the ‘Extraterrestrial Finders Keepers’ law), which grants US citizens or corporations the right to legally claim natural resources – including water and minerals. Commercial operations could reap trillions of dollars from mining precious metals like platinum, common metallic elements such as iron, and water. Handing out the right to exploit chunks of space to your citizens sounds very much like a claim of sovereignty. Congress is saying to these companies, ‘Go get these rights and we’ll defend you,’ and at the same time saying, ‘We’re making no sovereign claim of ownership’. The bottom line is, before you can give somebody the right to harvest a resource you have to have ownership.

Socialism has legal precedent back to Roman times for the aim of common ownership which can be defined as a situation where every individual has the potential ability to benefit from the wealth of society and to engage in the decision-making process of what and how we consume, to allocate resources in short-term and long-term collective goals. Even so, to use the word ‘ownership’ can be misleading in that this does not fully bring out the fact that the transfer to all members of the society of the power to control the production of wealth makes the very concept of property redundant. In that sense, socialism will be a ‘no-ownership’ society.


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