(Post)Colonial Lives of Property and the Contradictions of ‘Use’

The fifth post in our symposium on Colonial Lives of Property is by Lisa Tilley. Lisa is Lecturer in Politics and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. She is also co-convenor of the Colonial, Postcolonial, Decolonial Working Group of the British International Studies Association (CPD-BISA); co-founder of the collaborative research project Raced Markets; and Associate Editor of the pedagogical resource Global Social Theory.Her work draws on various theoretical approaches to ‘the colonial question’ in analyses of processes of accumulation and expropriation, especially along urban and rural extractive frontiers in Indonesia.


Brenna Bhandar’s thoughtful and detailed work, Colonial Lives of Property, is a vital reference for anyone seeking to understand land and property in historical, juridical, and economic perspective. This text has application well beyond the disciplinary boundaries of Law and should be given a central place within the Political Economy canon too, especially as it illuminates the long-disregarded, yet undeniably constitutive, relations between the formations of property and race. The text also has a wonderful pedagogical order to it, owing to the way it is structured around central chapters on Use, Propertied Abstractions, Improvement, and Status. I can fully imagine planning a module on the political economy of property around each of those rich and weighty concepts, guided by Bhandar’s exemplary way of thinking them through.

Technologies of private property beyond the settler colony

In the hope of adding something distinct to the already expansive and insightful engagements by Sara, Alvina, Kerry, and Kerem, I want to bring Colonial Lives of Property into conversation with voices from land and place struggles I’ve engaged with through research across rural and urban sites in Indonesia. Travelling with Bhandar’s analytics to the post-independence, former franchise colony (beyond the book’s intended confines of the settler colonial context) raises some difficult questions relating to just how well those analytics ‘fit’ in the post-colony. Indonesia is a context where anti-colonial struggles brought hard-won freedom for many – an achievement never to be underplayed – but where an acceleration of land expropriation at the hands of corporations expanding territorially across resource frontiers continues, and where old colonial racial hierarchies continue to have productive afterlives. Across the archipelago, the rationalised (and racialised) land form of the plantation – first set in motion in this context by the Dutch on estates on Sumatra and Java – continues its destructive expansion in the present. New plantations threaten to violently erase Indigenous communities and land relations, as well as the complex and irreplaceable ecologies developed through many centuries of human/nature cultivation of biotic life.

Indigenous expropriation is aided in one way or another by a state which continues to classify and reclassify those Indigenous ‘isolated peoples’ who do not always conform to what Bhandar calls “the ideal of settlement” nor the linguistic and religious measures of the proper Indonesian (on which, see Acciaoli[i]). These classified exclusions continue to produce the kind of relationship detailed by Bhandar between the characterisation of peoples as ‘in need of improvement’ and expropriation for accumulation. In response to accelerating state-corporate expropriation, detailed counter-mapping has become a key mode of resistance, rolled out at scale by diverse and disparate Indigenous and peasant communities across the archipelago. And yet, mapping against expropriation brings another bind owing to the nature of the geomatic spatial technologies employed, which are designed with the logics of a private property regime embedded within them. Land is inevitably represented in two dimensions with borders and claims fixed on the map itself. As a result, communities find themselves simultaneously navigating and negotiating real and immediate corporate expansion across resource frontiers, the colonising spread of standardised private property relations, and the liberal logics which are embedded even in the technologies of resistance at their disposal.

With the above in mind, I find it productive to take Bhandar’s work beyond its intended settler colonial contexts of reference in order to ask: How are the logics of private property ingrained into technologies and systems such that, even absent the physical ‘coloniser’, appropriation may still be enacted? How does private property function within a wider set of relations which urge communities, by hook or by crook, towards individuation? Thinking about the individuating push of particular commodity and seed regimes for example – whether wilfully adopted or imposed through technocratic development interventions – the property regime itself is not always prior. In other words, there is an array of technologies, including private property and commodity regimes, which complement one other, each opening a door to the next. However, this form of colonisation by individuation has long been resisted and complementary processes don’t always instigate processes of private land relations. In reality, Indigenous communities in Indonesia have long found economic survival through commodity production for global markets, enacting a kind of strategic individuation which doesn’t necessarily have to be permanent and irreversible.

Urban evictions and the contradictions of ‘use’

Bhandar comprehensively surveys how naturalised rationales for colonial land appropriation, first articulated by thinkers such as Petty, Locke, and Blackstone, have designated Indigenous land as wasteland. Such doctrines hold that only when ‘man’ has mixed his labour with the earth, does he have a right to the land that he has ‘improved’ – by which is implied a particular European understanding of ‘improvement’ as cultivation. This ideology has had multiple afterlives and has been deployed over and over in the service of expropriation globally. However, when we turn to analyse state-corporate dispossessory actions in the urban context – often for grand projects dreamed up to materialise capital-as-spectacle, or even simply because of the speculative actions of investors which might leave expropriated land empty and idle for many years – the ideology of ‘use’ appears to be completely contradicted. Bhandar indicates this contradiction in the opening of her first chapter on ‘Use’ with reference to the claims of urban activists in Spain.

In Jakarta too, the contradictions of ‘use’ have particular resonance. As urban activists there stress, ‘kampung’ (or urban village) communities make intensely productive and efficient use of their urban land by combining their living space with economic space. We can even see from the figures of those evicted that this is the case. Across the years 2015 and 2016 around 14,000 families were evicted from their kampung homes in Jakarta, which effectively meant that over 11,600 integrated businesses were also forcibly removed as part of the same process. This is because most of the homes destroyed also contained viable businesses. In other words, even by Lockean standards, urban poor communities unquestionably fulfil the use requirement of ownership. However, in contrast, the speculative wastelands they are often replaced with should, in theory, be understood as the real affront to European ideologies of use and improvement, on their own terms. Again though, the erasure of communities and the production of speculative wastelands is not always a foregone conclusion. Residents of the coastal neighbourhood Kampung Akuarium in North Jakarta rebuilt shelters directly onto the rubble of their former homes after they were violently evicted by the state. After an exhausting two-year occupation, they won a key battle against the state and the rebuilding of their community began in 2018.

Occupation shelters on the rubble of demolished homes, Kampung Akuarium, 2017

Towards other ontologies of (anti)property relations

The urban and rural subversions and adaptations mentioned above suggest that, in this postcolonial context at least, property regimes continue to be variously negotiated, adapted, and refused by those with a commitment to living otherwise to private property. Speaking in some ways to these lived experiments, Bhandar’s final reflections in Colonial Lives of Property dwell on how “alternate political imaginaries of property” might be crafted. However, Bhandar effectively works against other critical academic interventions which tend to call for ‘new’ or ‘immanent’ solutions, imagined as emerging ex nihilo in the Western academy. Instead she calls for a “radically different political imaginary of property” but emphasises that this begins with understanding, studying and reviving “the ontologies of property relations which have been supressed by colonial techniques of dispossession and appropriation”. Maybe Bhandar is really talking about anti-property relations here – ways of relating to land and shelter based on communal custodianship, guardianship, and care, rather than ownership. Bhandar’s is a totally vital intervention, especially considering that many of the ontologies referenced have survived 500 years of ongoing colonialism and have been adapted or reinforced in relation to it. In the current context of intensifying financialised property relations and speculative cultures, the recovery of forms of organising society’s material relations against racialised and dispossessory private property remains as urgent as ever.

[i] Acciaoli, G., 2001. ‘Archipelagic Culture’ as an Exclusionary Government Discourse in Indonesia. The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 2 (1), 1—23.

 

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