Material World – Travesty on the high seas

The high seas — the sea beyond the territorial waters of coastal states — and the seabed beneath them, belong to nobody. They are in effect a ‘global commons’, available in theory to everybody, but in practice only to private or state capitalist enterprises in pursuit of profits. Given capitalism, what happens is a classic example of the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ that has been advanced against socialism. This argues that, if there were common ownership, the individual common-owners would use it in their own self-interest to the eventual detriment of the overall interest of all of them, as fishers over-fish today. With free access to what they needed, people would grab what they could and the system would break down.

This has never happened to any historical commons since the common-owners have always followed rules, often customary, to avoid this. Under capitalism, however, the result is indeed the ‘travesty of the commons’. Capitalist enterprises do behave as presumed and put their particular short-term profits before the longer-term general interest of all of them. The high seas are a commons, but one currently effectively commonly-owned by all the capitalist states of the world. Somewhat belatedly (it was in 1970 that President Nixon proposed making the resources of the sea bed, in his words, ‘the common heritage of mankind’ – the capitalist states have realised that it is in the general interest of all of them to lay down some rules. The timid result is a Treaty, agreed to at the end of March, to protect the biodiversity of the high seas.

It is not common ownership as such — the absence of property rights — that has been the problem but no ownership rights within the context of the capitalist economic system. Common ownership — the whole Earth, land and seas, as a global commons — is in fact the only framework within which global environmental problems can be rationally and lastingly dealt with. But this has to be common ownership by the whole of humanity, not all capitalist states.

All over the world production is in the hands of business enterprises of one form or another – some private, some state-owned, some mixed (it doesn’t matter which) – all competing to sell their products at a profit. All of them aim to maximise their profits. This is not the result of the greed of the owners or managers, as some suggest, but an economic necessity imposed by the forces of the market. If a business does not make a profit, then it goes out of business. ‘Make a profit or die’ is the economics of capitalism.

Under the competitive pressures of the market, businesses only take into account their own narrow financial interest, ignoring wider social and ecological considerations. All they look to is their own balance sheet and in particular the bottom line which shows whether or not they have made a profit and how much.

The whole of production, from the methods employed to the choice of what to produce, is distorted by this drive to make and accumulate profits. The result is an economic system governed by irrational market forces which compel decision-makers, however selected and whatever their personal views or sentiments, to plunder, pollute and waste.

All these problems of pollution and the environment can be traced back to the fact that today production is carried on for profit, not to meet human needs. It is the profit system that is to blame. It, not the absence of property rights, is behind the high seas being a capitalist free-for-all. So, if we are going to solve these problems, it is the profit system that must go.

We have to restore to production its original and natural aim of providing things to directly satisfy human needs. But we can’t do this unless we are in a position to control production and we can’t do that unless the means of production – land, industry and natural resources – stop being the private property of individuals and states.

There should be no private property or territorial rights over any part of the globe. The Earth and its natural and industrial resources should not belong to anybody – not to individuals, not to corporations, not to states. They should simply be there to be used by human beings to satisfy their needs. Naturally there will have to be rules and procedures governing their use, just as there have been in all historical commons.

What is involved is the disappearance of the whole idea of property and its replacement by the idea of access and use. Use in accordance with democratically agreed procedures. Common ownership is the same thing as no ownership — the high seas are a commons because nobody owns them.

Private property and territorial rights over any part of the planet need to be abolished as the only basis on which the human species can organise production – our relationship with nature – in an ecologically acceptable way. The Earth as the common property of the whole of humanity.


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