Property as Futurism

The third post in our symposium on Brenna Bhandar’s Colonial Lives of Property is by Sara Salem. Sara is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at the London School of Economics. Sara’s research interests include political sociology, postcolonial studies, Marxist theory, feminist theory, and global histories of empire and imperialism. She is particularly interested in questions of traveling theory, postcolonial/anti-colonial nationalism, and feminist theory. She has recently published articles in journals such as Signs; Interventions: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies; Review of African Political Economy; and the European Journal of Women’s Studies, among others.


Brenna Bhandar’s ‘Colonial Lives of Property’ is an incisive and exciting book on questions of race, empire, property and the law. Drawing on multiple settler-colonial contexts—Palestine, Australia and Canada—and various time frames, Bhandar meticulously unpacks the loaded legal and social concept of ‘property’ to reveal its entanglements with histories of settler colonialism and race. Bhandar shows us that there cannot be a history of private property law that is not also at the same time a history of land appropriation in the colonies. The colonial drive to appropriate indigenous land—often in the process exterminating indigenous peoples—did not only have specific social, political and economic effects, but also produced legal understandings of land, property and citizenship. Bhandar notes, “Property law was a crucial mechanism for the colonial accumulation of capital, and by the late nineteenth century, had unfolded in conjunction with racial schemas that steadfastly held colonized subjects within their grip. Property laws and racial subjectivity developed in relation to one another, an articulation I capture with the concept of racial regimes of ownership,” (p. 2).

The book demonstrates that by unveiling these processes of appropriation and extermination, we come closer to understanding the categories we today so often work with, such as property and private ownership, and who belongs in the category of the ‘modern human’ and can thus access these. It shows us that the law was developed in and through colonialism, and that “there cannot be a history of private property law, as the subject of legal studies and political theory in early modern England that is not at the same time a history of land appropriation in Ireland, the Caribbean, North America, and beyond,” (pp. 3). This is a particularly important project because of the ways in which property is often associated with freedom. To purchase property means to secure freedom from various calamities, including economic insecurity. Private property has long served as the bulwark of modern liberalism, and one only has to think of the various institutions that were set up primarily to defend private property, among these the police forces.

Race and property

In particular, Bhandar shows how racial purity was central to the emergence of modern understandings of property. In the first chapter, on the valuation of land, the appropriation of indigenous land in British Columbia, and the ideology and use and improvement, Bhandar shows the complex ways in which ideas of racial purity were used to ‘value’ land in particular ways. “While one can measure and quantify the value of land based on economistic criteria, one cannot measure blood as a means of quantifying some illusory concept of race. Emergent concepts of race and racial inferiority were smuggled into new forms of value, constructed, ostensibly, on logics of measurement and quantification,” (pp. 47). Here, value placed on using the land and making it productive, show the confluence of capitalist and racial logics: “The sole criteria for the redrawing of reserve boundaries, effectively expropriating native lands twice over, were whether they were being cultivated and the manner in which this cultivation as occurring,” (pp. 53). Of course, today when we are dealing with the disastrous effects of climate change—largely a result of this very ideology of use and productivity that encourages us to exploit land and resources—one cannot help but wonder how the idea of civilization came to be associated with colonial understandings of nature and land as exploitable resources and nothing else.

As a scholar who does not come from a legal background, I have always found it difficult to grapple with the concept of property. As a postcolonial scholar, I know that it has been imbricated in broader processes of colonisation, expropriation, and enslavement. As a postcolonial Marxist scholar, I also know that property has been one of the central mechanisms through which capitalism was produced and has been reproduced ever since, and that within this dark history, ‘property’ has not only been thought of as land or earthly matter. I have thus always ‘felt’ on some level that property was a racialised concept that was deeply imbricated in histories of European imperialism. But the legality of the concept made it difficult to ‘prove’ or ‘show’—on the law’s terms—that this was the case. For this reason (among many others), I have found Bhandar’s book timely and important: she takes the law on its own terms in order to show how the seemingly neutral and objective category of ‘property’ was actually created through some of the darkest moments of our modern history, namely: the expansion of settler colonialism in Canada, Palestine, and Australia. Bhandar writes,

The colonial encounter produced a racial regime of ownership that persists into the present, creating a conceptual apparatus in which justifications for private property ownership remain bound to a concept of the human that is thoroughly racial in its makeup (p. 4).

By looking at the ways in which European imperialism was part and parcel of the creation of ‘property’ as we understand it today, Bhandar adds to a growing body of work that moves away from the assumption that theories, concepts and ideas only travelled from the centres of empire to the peripheral colonies. Instead, as she shows, concepts such as ‘property’ can only be understood today as having been formed in and through the colonies; in other words, they were constituted in (settler) colonial spaces and then travelled back to the metropole. this highlights the two-way travel that often took place during imperial rule; concepts and ideas were constantly moving between colony and metropole, as well as between centres of empire themselves as well as between colonies. This movement is captured in this book and provides a fascinating lens into the social history within which legal concepts that we now understand to be ‘natural’ emerged. In this way, the book lays out the significance of the colonial scene to the development of modern laws of private property ownership, as well as—one could imagine—other types of law.

Property in the post-colony

Settler colonies are important spaces to look at in exploring race and empire because the logics of settler colonialism often bring these structures to the fore. In other words, settler colonies such as the ones explored in this book are by nature organised around some form of white supremacy in every way possible. One question I had while reading the book is the question of how Bhandar’s analysis would travel from the settler colony to other forms of colonies, and finally to the post-colony. In other words, what are the particular dynamics of settler colonies that lead to certain legal outcomes, and how does this change in other types of colonies? In this part, I want to explore some of the ways in which the question of land and property emerged in my research on Egypt, a country that was not a settler colony or even a ‘full’ British colony, but in which we can still see clear elements of what Bhandar talks about in relation to productivity and use of land and how this was used to colonise and discipline.

Land is something that keeps cropping up in my own research on Egypt. I am struck by how central land was to both the British colonial project in Egypt as well as Egypt’s postcolonial project; despite land being used and understood very different during both, it is clear that land was central mechanism through which power and nation were performed. Timothy Mitchell traced the initial moment in 1830 during which Egyptians were confined to their villages in order to produce for the market (Mitchell 1991, 34). Following this, Egyptians had to seek permission and official documents in order to leave their home villages. Drawing on military infrastructure, the village was from then on to be guarded and organized in a way conducive to the production of commodities for European consumption. Central Bureaux of Inspection were established, with local inspectors in each village:

The ‘general system of dependence and subordination’ was more fully elaborated in a sixty-page booklet issued in December 1829, which prescribed in detail how peasants were to work in the fields, the crops they were to cultivate, their confinement to the village, and the duties of those who were to guard and supervise them. The booklet was the outcome of a meeting of four hundred provincial administrators and military and government officers, called in Cairo in 1829 to address the problem of declining revenues and increasing desertion of the land, (ibid, 40-41).

We see here that the primary motivating factor was increasing revenues, alongside an argument about the correct and productive utilization of land. Peasants who did not obey were whipped. This new organization introduced a novel system of surveillance that included intense regulation and administration. The first population census in 1882 was part and parcel of this new system, whereby recording births and deaths be-came central to surveillance. Alongside these changes we see the shift in modes of production, whereby peasants had to accept wage labour in order to survive under colonial capitalist expansion. Many British capitalists hired overseers whose job it was to ensure that farmers were “working properly,” (ibid, 96). This was done through violence.

Thus we see that establishing land as an object and commodity was an extreme departure, and could only have come about through colonial rule and its mechanisms of imposing violence, both material and ideological. A similar process happened to induce Egyptian peasants to grow the commodities that the British needed: cotton, as well as opium, sugar and indigo. The British solved this problem through the institution of private property as well as a monopoly system that forced villagers to grow specific crops and then hand them over.

Moving to the post-colony, we can see the afterlives of colonial land relations, or the afterlives of colonial property as a social, legal, political and economic order. When Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers created their political project in the 1950s, land reform as at the very centre of Egypt’s decolonisation process. The redistribution of land from large landholders to small-scale farmers and peasants functioned as a means of weakening the agrarian class so closely connected to colonial capital as well as creating the basis of a modern nation based on principles of ‘Arab socialism.’ While this land reform program did not deliver as much as it promised, I am more interested in the centrality of land itself to the political project of the post-colony. In some ways, this project reproduced some of the key tents of the British colonial project in relation to land: the importance of productivity and making use of the land; the production of crops in order to develop the nation (albeit for the sake of developing Egypt rather than Britain); and finally the ideology of improvement that permeated the question of land and property. Land was seen as the means through which the nation could be developed, alongside industrialisation. This ideology of improvement and development, as Bhandar shows in her book, is very much based on a colonial epistemology of being that sees land as property. We can think here of alternative ways of understanding or being with land that in contrast do not place it within a linear teleology of development; I am thinking specifically of indigenous communities in the Americas and elsewhere who saw land as nature, rather than as property.

However, the postcolonial project also broke with the British colonial one in important ways. Co-operatives were founded and centred; experiments with communal ownership of land were created; and the quest to take land from the rich and give it to the poor cannot be erased as a component of the Nasserist project. In some ways, although postcolonial projects replicated some of the assumptions about land and property that had been cemented through colonial rule—thus ensuring that these had afterlives—they also instituted new ways of understanding land.

Coming back to the question I posed at the start of this section, I wonder to what extent we could map movement between settler colonies and colonies; and between colonies and post-colonies. I am thinking here of work such as Lisa Lowe’s The Intimacies of Four Continents, where Lowe the links between colonialism, slavery, imperial trades and Western liberalism. Lowe argues that race and social difference are enduring afterlives of colonial processes through which “the human” is universalized and “freed” by liberal forms. Meanwhile, the people who create the conditions of possibility for that freedom are assimilated or forgotten (2015). What struck me about Lowe’s narrative is how dynamic and fluid it was; concepts and ideas travel between places, and are moulded at each stop in this journey. I wonder to what extent we could imagine property through this lens, and specifically through the question of what happened to property as it moved between the colonial and the postcolonial, or even the colonial and settler colonial.

Property as futurism

I want to conclude this piece by turning to the title of my contribution: property as futurism. Here I turn to Egypt in the contemporary period, where finance capital has become an increasingly dominant driver of the economy. I have been struck over the past few years at how Cairo in particular seems to be over-run with billboards. These billboards, more often than not, seem to be advertising property: luxury villas in Cairo’s new outskirts, beach houses on the coast, apartments in new luxury developments. These billboards are interesting in how they portray these properties: often a nuclear family that looks foreign appears to be happily enjoying the garden or view from their house or apartment, raising questions about the role of gender, race or foreign-ness, and class. Property has come to stand in for a dream that is no longer achievable for the majority of Egyptians; a dream tied to social mobility and financial security.

Source: Insite

The ‘spectacle’ of billboards raises fascinating questions about what is being promised, or what futures are being promised. It also raises fascinating questions about who these billboards are speaking to, and who can grasp these futures. Property in many ways continues to be central to class, nation and gender, both in ways that reproduce older colonial legacies as well as in ways tied to the modern variation of finance capital. Bhandar’s book is an important intervention that allows us to understand these colonial legacies or lives or property. She skilfully shows us the ways in which the present is tied to the past through categories or ideas we may think of as neutral. Thinking of these billboards, I wonder what racial regimes of ownership look like today across the postcolonial world. I also wonder how these are gendered, and what role social reproduction plays in these. The articulation of a gendered subjectivity in these billboard advertisements—particularly through the centring of the heteronormative nuclear family—strikes me as an important part of the story of finance capital, property, and racial regimes of ownership. In what ways are our ideas of ‘home’ connected to how we think of land and property? I was constantly reminded, reading through Bhandar’s sections on Palestine, of the iconic image of the key in Palestinian memory and resistance; the key that symbolises the land they were expelled from and that they hope to return to one day. And yet the key is simultaneously such an intimate object; an object that represents both land and property, but also home. I wonder what the implications of bringing the idea of home into this would be; and how gender and social reproduction fit into this.

Source: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

Living elsewhere

Brenna Bhandar reminds us that anything that has been constructed can be deconstructed. The last chapter of the book does the difficult work of asking what next? Can we imagine a future beyond colonial and racialised property? What would this future look like? And of what use is the law in achieving a just future? She writes:

How does one imagine a legal form so central to colonial capitalist modernities? How do we imagine forms of property and place that are unbound from the racial and commodity logics of abstraction that continue to take root through land laws aimed at maintaining settler possession over indigenous territory? (…) The undoing or dismantling of racial regimes of ownership requires nothing less than a radically different political imaginary of property. This means at least three different yet related things. The first is to understand, study and revive the ontologies of property relations that have been suppressed by colonial techniques of dispossession and appropriation. The second is to imagine what radically alternate ways of holding and relating to land might look like. The third is to consider the kinds of transformation of the self and our relations with one another that are a precondition for wider social and political transformations (p. 193).

What does it mean to think of a future that could be otherwise? I want to end with a quote from this final chapter:

Piercing the “protective hues of rationalism” and thinking anew about the meaning of justice and freedom require of us nothing less than radical acts of imagining how we might relate to and use things that we usually expect to own, and how to collectively create the conditions for turning away from property as we know it (p. 200).

In the words of Avery Gordon, who Bhandar opens this final chapter with:

We need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere.
We need to imagine living elsewhere before we can live there
(cited in Bhandar 2018, 181).

 

 

References

 

Bhandar, B., 2018. Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership. Duke University Press.

 

Lowe, L., 2015. The intimacies of four continents. Duke University Press.

 

Mitchell, T., 1991. Colonising Egypt. University of California Press.

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