‘Don’t take my shit…’ Property, Identity and Abolition

The fourth post in our symposium on Brenna Bhandar’s Colonial Lives of Property comes from The Disorder of Thing’s very own Kerem.


In the last few years, I have become increasingly interested in the ways race and racism are being reconfigured in the UK and ‘the West’ more broadly, not least in light of the War on Terror, the referendum on Britain’s EU membership and the election of Donald Trump.[1]  Prompted by the conversations in organising, academic and online spaces (as well as outside of those spaces, where the real conversation happens), I have also become increasingly concerned with the ways in which activists, academics and commentators have attempted to comprehend and describe the politics of race and racism in the UK. Although the wearisome hegemony of liberalism has long marginalised radical theorisations and activisms against racism in favour of diversity, inclusion and multiculturalism, more recent discussions of race and racism have taken on a new cadence wherein ‘debates on race and class have descended from inadequate to toxic’.

One side of this debate argues that race and racism is a false consciousness which obscures if not hinders the necessity of political work centred on class oppression. Softer versions of this argument tend to portray any racialized grievance as secondary to class, whereas harder versions have sought to defend the cultural integrity of an imagined ‘white working class’ from the dual threats of racialized Others and ‘political correctness’.[2] On the other side of the debate is an increasingly popular form of antiracist politics which prioritises the category of race through fixed and hermetically defined cultural differences that are reducible to the experiences of any given individual. Softer versions of this argument have sought minority recognition and representation from historically hostile institutions; harder versions have rejected any possibility of reconciliation and have advocated political work that corrects problematic behaviours and attitudes in racially defined, discrete and coherent ‘communities’ (often inadvertently centring the agency of white and ‘white proximate’ people in doing so).[3]

Gargi Bhattacharyya has recently argued that the overarching tendency in these competing explanations is ‘the reduction of class and race to aspects of identity (which, of course, they are but not to the exclusion of all else) and the narrowing of the debate about race and class into a battle of competing affiliations and, sometimes, oppressions.’ There is moreover a complementary tendency to accept and valorise such identities as fixed, immutable and ends in themselves. Finally, in doing so, class and race are situated in ideational and cultural terms, rather than as social relations reproduced through the functioning of capital and the state.

These trends have produced an impasse in both theorising and politically organising against racism. In using race and class to describe what communities or individuals are, such an approach ‘offers almost no insight into what race or class do or how what they do gets done’ in Bhattacharyya’s words. The resulting political aim becomes one of fulfilment and representation of these identities within existing social relations rather than their contestation and transfiguration through the dismantling of racial capitalism itself.

Although Brenna Bhandar’s brilliant Colonial Lives of Property is not explicitly written in response to these debates, it offers numerous insights into how we can better understand and move beyond their restrictive hold. For Bhandar’s primary concern in Colonial Lives of Property is to interrogate the social relations which draw together practices of capitalism, colonialism and racialisation both historically and contemporaneously. This, I suggest, enables us to rethink such relationships in ways that challenge the reduction of their effects to particular manifestations and expressions of identity. In this piece, I elaborate on these features of Bhandar’s work before concluding with some questions prompted by the current conjuncture.

Articulations of Racial Capitalism

The Colonial Lives of Property opens with an exploration of how to theorise race and class in ways that draw out their organic connections and mutual constitution without reducing one to the other. From Stuart Hall, Bhandar takes the idea of ‘articulation’ to understand how a series of differentiated practices and processes – political economic, juridical – become interconnected and ‘“condensed” into forms of domination over particular social groups and classes’ (p. 12). Similarly, from Cedric J. Robinson, Bhandar emphasises how ‘one must be attuned to the contingencies, “the intentional and unintended”, the fractured and fragmented means by which relations of power and cultural forms coalesce in racial regimes’ (p. 14).

The emphasis on irreducibility and contingency does three things to our understanding of race. Firstly, the articulation of race and class in any given social formation is understood to be ‘noninevitable yet nonarbitrary’ and shaped by the specificity of any given conjuncture (p. 13). Far from fixed and immutable categories (of structure or identity), racial regimes are subject to coincidences of power but also moments of contestation and rupture brought about by struggle, resistance and refusal.

Secondly, because articulations of racial regimes are contingent and contested, they ‘must be continually sustained and renewed by specific social, economic and juridical practices’ (p. 12). We are therefore reminded that racial regimes are fractured and recombinant processes: ‘makeshift patchworks masquerading as memory and the immutable’ in Robinson words. It is therefore only through the articulation of social, economic and juridical practices that the specific ideological formations of racial regimes become obscured, reified and fabricated as natural and fixed.

Thirdly, any attempt at understanding and ultimately denaturalising race (and class) must therefore do the hard work of excavating these historically specific processes, practices and social relations. In other words, invoking ‘articulation’ only gets us so far. The concept less explains racial formations but more begs the cardinal questions: How do we understand the relationship between capital accumulation and racialisation without reducing one to the other? What racialising practices (social, economic, legal) generate conditions for capital accumulation in specific conjunctures? How has racialisation determined particular trajectories of accumulation, extraction and exploitation? How has capital accumulation generated racial formations in specific conjunctures? In short, what is being articulated and how?

One of the crowning achievements of Bhandar’s Colonial Lives of Property is to answer such questions by delicately demonstrating the inner workings of these articulations within the practice of property law in settler-colonial contexts, specifically, Australia, Canada and Israel. In doing so, Bhandar convincingly argues that property law has not only enabled the appropriation of indigenous land but also produced racial subjects and identities.

For example, Bhandar shows how ideologies of ‘improvement’ which circulated in early Enlightenment thought drew together (articulated) emergent practices of capital accumulation, colonial dispossession and modern racial thinking. In particular, political economists such as William Petty and John Locke respectively argued that the foundation of value and private property was found in improvement: the mixing of labour with land. In turn, the improvement of land through use, cultivation, extraction and productivity became a necessary marker of progression out of ‘the state of nature’ into ‘civilisation’. In contrast, in the colonies, the absence of private ownership on indigenous common land indicated a ‘state of primeval simplicity’ (p. 48), a wasteland that was lacking improvement.

In the colonial imaginary, lack of improvement illustrated the absence of civilisation among the indigenous inhabitants of these lands (the Irish for Petty, Native Americans for Locke) who, deemed incapable of improving land themselves, would require colonial settlement. In turn, ‘[t]he distinction between cultivated land and wasteland ultimately became the basis, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, upon which European colonial powers justified their legal doctrines of terra nullius and discovery’ (p. 49). The equation of improvement = value = property = civilisation thus combined (articulated) three dynamics through the specific practice of property law:

  1. logics of accumulation based on an emergent English agrarian capitalism;
  2. new forms of racial thinking that distinguished between different types of human being (or human, non-human and not-quite human, to draw on Alexander G. Weheliye), and;
  3. conceptions of colonial space that justified colonial dispossession.

The specific example of improvement is but one part in a much wider array of historical processes, social relations and discursive formations examined by Bhandar. In particular, Bhandar does a remarkable job of concretising the practice of these articulations through an examination of various legal contestations over ownership rights to indigenous lands in Canada, Australia and Israel. This is where I found the book at its most compelling – in its disclosure of such articulations in their historical specificity and concrete practice.

Where I found the book most powerful was in identifying contemporary continuities of such articulations today. Bhandar provides an important contribution to literatures which locate the making of the contemporary world in long durational colonial projects. But in a context where much of this is expressed in the language of ‘legacies’, ‘traces’ and ‘afterlives’, occasionally requiring inferential jumps between histories of the past and present – between origins and reproductions (of which I have myself been guilty) – Bhandar takes us further.

Her intervention demonstrates that despite variances in the continuities and reconfigurations of racial regimes in the 20th and 21st centuries, the resolute presence of colonial logics remains today. In Canada, well into the 20th century and beyond, improvement – expressed through ‘agriculture, forestry mining and hydroelectric power’ – continued to function as a legal justification for ‘the infringement of aboriginal title’ (p. 69). Similarly, property law in Israel continues to mobilise discourses of use, cultivation and improvement to articulate the racialisation Palestinians, reaffirm Israeli identity and justify Israeli dispossession of and settlement on Palestinian lands (pp. 119-148).

Indian Status and Self-possession

In short, Bhandar is successful in demonstrating the narrow point that conceptions of property and their legal expression in settler-colonial contexts can only be understood by drawing together uneven but combined histories of capitalism and racism. But there is a wider point here too: the secret of any given social formation can only be revealed by examining the articulation of these uneven histories and not through their hermetic separation into competing analytics

This includes identity formation itself. Bhandar argues that racial identities are not simply analytically prior to such articulations but also products of their formation and reproduction. She demonstrates this through an interrogation of ‘Indian status’ as a ‘colonial invention’ of nineteenth century juridical practice in Canada. Although ostensibly designed to recognise the rights of First Nations peoples by institutionalising their ‘cultural authenticity’ and access to reserve lands, Indian status became a ‘core dimension… of colonial governance and knowledge’ through which First Nations peoples could be regulated and controlled.

Bhandar argues that the creation of Indian status has had five especially notable effects:

  • Firstly, Indian status designated legal standing in specific relation to land (reserves and reservations) and was therefore expressed as a form of property itself; Indian status bound together identity and property relations (p. 150).
  • Secondly, Indian status was articulated through patriarchal associations of property ownership. Indian status introduced a set of gendered hierarchies imposed by colonial rulers, which designated men as the bearers of partial rights at the exclusion of First Nations women and children.
  • Thirdly, Indian status has functioned as the legal medium through which First Nations peoples have expressed their rights to reserve land. It has therefore encouraged First Nations peoples ‘to recognize themselves to be under federal power within federal terms’ (in the words Joanne Barker) by controlling the transmissibility of Indian status and thus also identify.
  • Fourthly, property laws pertaining to First Nations reservations prevented the appropriation of their land through the selling or exchange of any part of that property or products derived from it (other than to Indians of the same band) without consent of the colonial superintendent (pp. 172-3). Although ostensibly a policy of colonial containment, it also had the effect of preventing both indigenous economic independence and signs of ownership equivalent to white settlers.
  • Fifthly, the recognition of Indian status in a subordinate position to the colonial sovereign state has therefore worked to buttress and stabilise white identity, and more specifically the ‘status of the white (male) possessive individual’ (p. 151), in contradistinction to the incomplete and dispossessed status of the Indian.

Now this final point might require some elaboration! Again taking Locke has her interlocutor, Bhandar argues that white subjectivity has been formed through a conception of the Self in terms of possession by appropriation. Self-possession expresses both an external capacity to appropriate from nature and an interior ontological structure of self-constitution and reflection which distinguishes the self from nature. Behind this conception of the Lockean Self sits a racial substratum against which the white possessive individual and whiteness as property is defined. The racial other is marked not only by the absence of property and an incapacity to appropriate (see the above discussion on improvement) but is moreover located in the exterior realm of nature itself, indistinguishable from flora and fauna. In short, property – as a practice through which racial regimes are articulated – produces and reifies racial subjects by creating and institutionalising distinctions between self-possessive (white) subjects and their dispossessed counterparts.

Identity and property

Bhandar’s analysis here is considerably more sophisticated, deeply compelling but also specific. Given her emphasis on the contingency and variability of these formations, some care should be taken in making more general claims about the identity-property nexus. Indeed, one ambiguity in this chapter, and throughout Colonial Lives of Property, is the extent to which Bhandar intends her analysis to be extended beyond the settler-colonial contexts in order to analyse racial formations elsewhere.

I therefore want to conclude by reading Bhandar somewhat unfaithfully and abstracting her analysis of the identity-property nexus from both the settler-colonial context and also from specific legal expressions of it. After all, once reified, such articulations of identity and property may have the power to travel, both temporally and geographically, not least to locations of deep colonial contact such as the British imperial metropole. Such articulations may also have the power to inform contemporary articulations of Self and identity in conjunctures such as the one we are faced with in the UK today.

So, when Bhandar asks ‘[h]ow does one think identity outside of its relationship to property?’ we might be able reinterrogate the debates around race, class and identity with which I introduced this post. Is it possible to think about identity in a way that is not ‘based in acts or processes of appropriation?’ In Bhandar’s words, ‘is it possible to conceive of identity outside of relations of ownership in which it remains embedded?’ (p. 178)

The relationality of racial identities produced by articulations of property that Bhandar pinpoints forces us to ask some testing questions. Inasmuch as the construction of the possessive individual is enacted through a relational opposition of the white male bourgeois subject against the racialized and gendered Other, to what extent do affirmations of Othered identities enable the reproduction of that relation to persist? A similar question can be asked of class identity. Given the accumulation of capital is predicated on the exploitation and hence existence of a proletariat, to what extent do affirmations and protections of working class subjectivities enable the reproduction of capital?

These are partial examples, but I hope they demonstrate how affirmations of identity can serve to legitimise and reproduce the very same attachment to property relations of racial capitalism, even by those who are excluded from its fortunes and freedoms. Conversely, identifying this problem might assist us in thinking about how racial capitalism might be dismantled not through the self-possession and affirmation of specific identities but through their abolition.

Here, I think Colonial Lives of Property can be put into productive discussion with certain currents in materialist feminism, afropessimism, queer nihilism and communisation theory. Each of these perspectives argue that although identities might serve as experiential starting points for organising, or sites through which strategic defence might be pursued, they remain articulations of real historical processes and social relations of racial capitalism (and practices of colonial violence therein). If this basic premise is correct, the remedy for colonial violence cannot be found in self-possession – the recovery of an ownership that has been historically denied[4] – but through the very dismantling of those social relations which produce the identity-property nexus. What else then, other than ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’?

[1] With thanks to Sita Balani, Adam Elliott Cooper, Kojo Koram and Ella Jay Taylor for their help with this post. All mistakes are my own.

[2] For a critical engagement that draws together these tendencies in the case of the US, see Alana Lentin’s ‘On Class and Identity Politics’.

[3] For a useful interrogation of the tensions between these two versions see Chi Chi Shi’s article, ‘Defining My Own Oppression’.

[4] I appreciate the problems of transposing this argument back onto settler-colonial contexts where the repatriation of land is a central demand of decolonisation. Following Bhandar’s emphasis on specificity I therefore restrict this comment to an intervention into anti-racist politics in the UK.

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