Property Abolitionism: Race, Colony, Body, Land

For the final post in our symposium on Colonial Lives of Property, Brenna Bhandar replies to her interlocutors. Brenna is Senior Lecturer in Law at SOAS, University of London. She is author of Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land and Racial Regimes of Ownership (DUP: 2018) and co-editor (with Jon Goldberg-Hiller) of Plastic Materialities: Politics, Legality and Metamorphosis in the Work of Catherine Malabou (DUP: 2015). She is currently completing Thinking Liberation: anti-racist feminist practice, a book on critical race feminisms with Rafeef Ziadah.


Thanks to all five contributors for these incredibly thoughtful interventions. It is a real gift to have such expansive and thorough responses to one’s work, and to have been given the opportunity to consider the questions they raise about the potential for some of the ideas in the book to travel into domains unexplored in the text. It is impossible to respond to each of the issues raised, but I have chosen 4 different themes to discuss which I think connect many of the articles.

One of the themes arising from the responses to the book is a question about the extent to which the concept, “racial regimes of ownership” is adequate to grasp the realities of colonialism outside of the sphere of British colonial and imperial rule.  To what extent has the co-emergence of racial subjectivities and capitalist property relations been a central part of the advent of colonial modernities beyond the settler colony?

There are a few ways of considering this question. One would be to turn to the histories of other European colonial endeavours of the 19th century, such as the German colonisation of Namibia, or the French colonisation of Algeria, and excavate the articulation of ideologies of ownership with racial logics that shaped the histories of colonisation in those sites. In turning to the specificities of different colonial sites, the contradictions and ambiguities that drive forward the formation of racial regimes of ownership can be better grasped. For instance, while British colonial appropriations of land were largely based on doctrines of possession and use, by the late 19th century European powers used “occupiability in a fictive sense” in order to achieve “commercial sovereignty” over African states.[1] While land appropriation was central to French, German and Belgian colonisation in central and West Africa, it is clear that forms of land title and the conceptions of sovereignty that underpinned them varied according to the exigencies of imperial desire for the exploitation and control of foreign territories that were primarily focused on commercial trade.

Emergent capitalist ideologies of ownership based on a commodity logic of abstraction emerged in the context of a globalised economic system. While the book focuses on land appropriation, it is also clear that the conception of land as property developed in conjunction with other forms of property that were central to the functioning of colonial trade and settlement, including slavery. For instance, the analogy between cargo and land as equivalent forms of property lay at the basis of Torrens’ arguments for a system of land registration; the analogy between human cargo and inanimate forms of cargo lay at the basis of the treatment of slaves as chattels in English and American law. Mapping the logics of propertisation and their emergence in conjunction with racial ideologies across different colonial regimes illuminates how the specificities of land holding systems and property law, along with particular racial ideologies converged in the settlement enterprises of other colonial powers. As Kerry Goettlich points out, scholars such as Patricia Seed have demonstrated that differences in legal doctrine and the rationales for the appropriation of indigenous land reflect profoundly varied histories of state formation, conceptions of sovereignty, and colonial legality. In these differences across jurisdiction, time and space lie multiple histories of resistance, different legacies for an ever more globalised world economy. And we can thus consider, returning to the issue of registration, how legal techniques central to colonisation have functioned in contradictory ways.  Slave registries that were implemented in some of the Crown colonies in 1815, after the first of the abolition acts had been passed outlawing the trade in slaves between Africa and British colonies, were a catalyst for slave revolts in the Caribbean.  The fact that the lives of slaves ‘bought lawfully’ were registered meant that their deaths would be counted, setting the stage for forms of accountability for the murder of enslaved peoples that were hitherto nigh impossible. Attempts to collect accurate statistics on slave mortality and fertility would also be used by abolitionists in the UK.[2] Techniques of legal abstraction cannot be understood solely as a form of violence, although they have certainly functioned that way in relationship to land.

Thus, an important trajectory of research to expand upon is to consider how various protagonists in histories of settlement and resistance – perhaps through taking up what K-Sue Park has called the “contact economy” – negotiated the differences between systems of value. Park utilises the term “contact economy” to examine the proliferation of transactions between European settlers and First Nations “in determining the political, economic, and social intercultural dynamics in the rapidly expanding Euroamerican territory, thereby also shaping the legal institutions that developed during this time.”[3] Park examines how the laws pertaining to the mortgaging of land were shaped by the contact economy in 17th and 18th century New England, accounting for the specific ways in which Dutch and English settlers manipulated indigenous forms of currency in conjunction with land policies (and specifically the use of the mortgage) to transform land into a commodity, an equivalent form to money, leading to the foreclosure and loss of vast amounts of indigenous land to the hands of the colonisers.

Park’s meticulous reading illuminates how early transactions between First Nations and European traders and settlers shaped the very legal form of mortgages that facilitated the dispossession of indigenous land and continues to exert its grip over racialised real estate markets. What other instruments of property law, and techniques of financialisation find their roots in the colonial ‘contact economy’ and remain with us today? The legal legacies of slavery in the British context remain sorely underexamined by scholars, although we know that contemporary finance and specific domains such as insurance were forged through the specific needs of the trade in slaves.[4]  These approaches to the history of property law, finance and political economy reveal the ways in which racial regimes of ownership and attendant formations unfolded on a global, interconnected scale.

A related question arises in the contributions by Lisa Tilley and Sara Salem. Do the legacies of racial regimes of ownership that emerged during the colonial era persist in the post-colony, that is, outside the spaces of settler colonialism? Their contributions indicate that they certainly do, albeit in ways that draw our attention more sharply to the ways in which finance capital has transformed the landscape of ‘real property,’ and real estate markets. Tilley draws our attention to the “speculative wasteland” produced in a Jakarta neighbourhood that saw the displacement of scores of people who were making productive use of the urban space they inhabited, both in relation to their homes and businesses, leaving these spaces vacant for indefinite periods of time. This is an exemplary instance of how specific models of capitalist investment in the age of financialisation colonise urban spaces on a global scale, much like the structural adjustment programmes of the World Bank imposed on “Third World” states from the 1970s onwards, whose echoes now haunt austerity wracked Europe. This colonisation through the use of a specific model of financialised real estate markets is imposed even where existing modes of use would, on the face of it, satisfy long established Lockean notions of use and productivity. The need for a “spatial fix”[5] to make use of an overaccumulation of capital overrides a mode of productive use that no longer serves the objectives of the overseers of financial capitalism. Even though, as we know, the fundaments of property and contract law are necessary to its operation, racial capitalism requires a certain recombinant approach to its modes of extraction and appropriation.

Let’s recall, as discussed in the book and noted above, that racial capitalism produces contradictions and ambiguities that defy general conclusions about its most prominent modus operandi. Racial segregation in apartheid South Africa produced conditions for women and family forms for black workers whereby black women were not responsible for ‘reproducing the worker’ but were treated as “superfluous appendages”, creating what looked like anomalies for feminist critiques of the place of domestic labour in the reproduction of capital emanating from Anglo-European feminists.[6]  The imperatives of ethno-racial nationalism of the Israeli settler state has produced anomalies in the development of real estate markets in Palestine. The insights gleaned from an analysis of capitalist modes of accumulation that situates colonial and racial logics at its centre reveals the ‘brutalising convenience’ with which techniques of expropriation and appropriation will unfold.

Getting back to the issue of financialisation and real estate, it is clear that a particular model of urbanisation has become hegemonic. As Raquel Rolnik observes, providing a magisterial overview of what she astutely terms a globalised “urban warfare,” the ideology of home ownership and housing financialisation have transformed the home as a social good into a financial asset.[7] Adam Hanieh, in his extraordinary new book, examines how capitalist classes across regions have been at the centre of transformations of urban space in the Middle East. Hanieh’s work spatialises this idea of “financialisation” by showing where and how and by whom capitalist accumulation and the extraction of value in the case of housing takes place. He also examines the relationship between infrastructure and urban real estate markets which is a crucial part of this story.[8] On the one hand, these transformations in real estate markets have re-shaped racial regimes of ownership in urban spaces by exploiting communities historically locked out of property ownership, through the use of debt instruments that extract value across monetary, psychic and biopolitical registers. On the other hand, referring back to the work of Park, it is also clear that property logics and ideologies of ownership have always been central to both the racialisation of people as owners/non-owners and mechanisms of displacement and dispossession. The use of indebtedness and the mortgage instrument specifically to accumulate wealth for some at the expense of other peoples’ lives has always been a global story, has always had embedded within it the sensibility of the frontier, despite the wildly complicated nature of contemporary algorithmic investment practices.

In this way, Lisa Tilley’s question about how ideologies of ownership travel without an actual physical presence of colonial authority reminds us of the complex character of colonisation and neo-colonialism. Models of land transactions and land-holding, such as the system of title by registration, have been exported globally after disparate points of emergence across colonial sites and imperial metropoles; colonial agents carry out the objectives of their state employers while accumulating vast personal fortunes; native comprador classes that adopted colonial regimes of ownership for their own benefit; resistance and revolt that have always forced colonial capitalist classes to react and develop new modes of juridical and economic discipline, are some of the many different dimensions to the continual re-creation of property and markets in land in the settler colony and post-colony alike.

The re-making of markets in land in urban spaces, as Sara Salem points out, has specific gendered aspects and relies on the continuation of bourgeois, hetero-patriarchal family norms. There is a thread that runs between land as real estate, the home, and social reproduction that goes in (at least two) counter-opposing directions. On the one hand, residential real estate, as noted above, has become in the last forty to fifty years a site of intensified capitalist accumulation, rendering the ability of those with precarious tenure (be it as a heavily indebted owner, as a renter in the private market, or a social housing tenant) to reproduce the conditions necessary for human security and flourishing ever more difficult. On the other hand, as feminists have long pointed out, the home remains a site of refuge, of political possibility, of care that exceeds a commodity logic and deals with the fullness of human needs.

As First Nations and Indigenous scholars have long argued, colonial attempts to break apart the social fabric of families and communities, and the accompanying denigration of Indigenous women, were central to land appropriation and the privatisation of land.[9] Today, whether it be at Standing Rock or in Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia, Canada, Indigenous women and organised, collective social provisioning have been at the center of the blockades and the protest camps. First Nations opposition to globalised, extractivist industries, premised on the ongoing violation of indigenous land rights, reflects the assertion of radically different political forms than the ones offered by the capitalist status quo, involving communal and collective relationships to land as the necessary basis for the reproduction of life.

Solidarity march with Wet’suwet’en Nation, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Darryl Dyck)

Contemporary forms of capitalism continue to enclose and appropriate land, and increasingly over the past several decades financialise what the curator Helene Kazan has termed the “lived-built environment”[10] in ways that render the very material conditions in which social reproduction can take place – namely housing – insecure and tenuous.  From the 1970s Wages for Housework claim, that ‘if the house is a social factory why should women pay rent’, to contemporary struggles against privatisation and gentrification of social housing waged by women and single mothers (such as the Focus E15 group in the Borough of Newham, London), this connection between domestic care work and the material infrastructure that renders it possible presents us with an analytic for challenging both capitalist strategies of valorisation in relation to labour, and also, at a very fundamental level, forms of private ownership.

I want to engage, by way of conclusion, with Kerem Nisancioglu’s provocative observation, that because “affirmations of identity can serve to legitimise and reproduce the very same attachment to property relations of racial capitalism…” that struggles to dismantle racial capitalism ought to be based on the dismantling – even the abolition – of those very same identities that have been forged through the colonial capitalist “identity-property” nexus. If the self-possessive individual is one of the key forms of subjectivity through which the juridical apparatus of racial capitalism operates, then shouldn’t self-possession, particularly as it relates to a proprietary notion of identity, be roundly rejected?

Combahee River Collective pamphlet, “Eleven Black Women: Why Did They Die?” 1979. Source: @wellreadblkgirl

The concept of identity politics has many different meanings. As Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor has written, in her introduction to How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017) the CRC named the tensions between Marxist, feminist and anti-racist struggles as a form of “identity politics.”

The CRC statement [made in 1977] is believed to be the first text where the term “identity politics” is used…

The CRC made two key observations in their use of “identity politics.” The first was that oppression on the basis of identity – whether it was racial, gender, class, or sexual orientation identity – was a source of political radicalisation. Black women were not radicalizing over abstract issues of doctrine; they were radicalizing because of the ways that their multiple identities opened them up to overlapping oppression and exploitation… “identity politics” was not just about who you were; it was also about what you could do to confront the oppression you were facing. (pp8-9)

We can see how black feminism emanating from the U.S. (and elsewhere) utilised the notion of identity politics in a way that was not based on the idea of the self-possessive individual, quite the opposite.[11] Identity was not something you ‘owned’ but was a way of articulating the manifold and interlocking forms of oppression that subtended forms of racial capitalism. What has happened in the intervening 40 years?

Kerem’s critique of identity politics is, I believe, that its current form is rather more static than that elaborated by the CRC; instead of being a locus for radicalisation, a way of articulating the “totality of what it meant to be a Black woman in the diaspora”[12] there is instead today a proprietary notion of identity that must be protected and defended against any perceived insult or injury. Race, sexual orientation, gender and class become reified and objectified rather than lived-experiences that guide and instruct our political analyses and action.

To this end, the evocation of “abolitionism” is a rich and productive idea to interrogate. I want to consider what property abolitionism might look like. Taking property and the dynamics inherent to it, such as appropriation, propriety, and possession, and subjecting it to the spirit and form of abolitionist politics that seek to dismantle the fundaments of racial capitalism is central to political imaginaries of freedom and liberation. I want to consider in this vain, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s conceptualisation of abolition geography:

Abolition geography starts from the homely premise that freedom is a place. Place-making is normal human activity: we figure out how to combine people, and land, and other resources with our social capacity to organize ourselves in a variety of ways, whether to stay put or to go wandering. Each of these factors—people, land, other resources, social capacity—comes in a number of types, all of which determine but do not define what can or should be done.[13]

How might we draw connections between movements to subvert or refuse forms of enclosure, to privilege social use over economic exploitation, to refuse the jurisdiction of a law that rendered people as property, to recognise existing (and to create anew) forms of valorisation that exceed and diminish capitalist forms of value? Property abolitionism recalls the histories of revolutionary attempts to “abolish bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom.”[14] But it also seeks to surpass the “double bind of emancipation” that has bound freedom in the modern liberal democratic order to a conception of the human that remains tethered to a racial and heteropatriarchal order rooted in white supremacy[15]. It seeks to radically re-envision and to emplace forms of being and ways of relating to the spatial and material infrastructures of lived-built environments that are unbound; freed from commodity and financialised logics of the estate, of the juridical status of the indebted, of the owner, of the owned. History is replete with moments of such rupture. Wilson Gilmore continues:

Working outward and downward from this basic premise, abolitionist critique… shows how relationships of un-freedom consolidate and stretch, but not for the purpose of documenting misery. Rather, the point is not only to identify central contradictions—inherent vices—in regimes of dispossession, but also, urgently, to show how radical consciousness in action resolves into liberated life-ways, however provisional, present and past….”[16]

Property abolitionism requires us to jettison feelings of expectation and entitlement that have taken shape through (and underpinned) racial regimes of ownership, and crucially, to centre in our political consciousness those instances in which individuals and communities have taken such action, even where they were momentary; it seeks a different grammar of relation to the non-human world; it aims to create new orders of use and the valorisation of human needs based not on alienation, profit, exploitation or extraction, but on an idea of (human) flourishing in the most expansive sense imaginable.


[1] Dierk Schmidt, The Division of the Earth: Tableaux on the Legal Synopses of the Berlin Africa Conference eds. L. Arndt, C. Krümmel, D. Schmidt, H. Schmutz, D. Stoller. U. Wuggenig (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2010) pp31-33

[2] Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (London: Zed Books, 1983) p.158

[3] K-Sue Park, “Money, Mortgages and the Conquest of America” in Law and Social Inquiry (2016) Vol 41, Issue 4, pp 1006 – 1035 at 1009

[4] Ian Baucom, Spectres of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery and the Philosophy of History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005)

[5] David Harvey, The Limits to Capital (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982)

[6] A.Y Davis, “The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-Class Perspective” in The Angela Y. Davis Reader ed. Joy James (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998) pp193-209 at 201

[7] Raquel Rolnik, Urban Warfare: Housing Under the Empire of Finance (London: Verso, 2019) p.31

[8] Adam Hanieh, Money, Markets and Monarchies: The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Political Economy of the Contemporary Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)

[9] Bonita Lawrence, Real Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004); Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

[10] Helene Kazan, “(De)Constructing Risk: The Weaponsied and Commodified Home” (2019), PhD thesis, unpublished and on file with author.

[11] See also discussion in Brenna Bhandar and Davina Bhandar, “Cultures of Dispossession: Rights, Status, Identities” in Darkmatter journal (2016), available at: http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/2016/05/16/cultures-of-dispossession/

[12] Demita Frazier, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017) pp121

[13] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence” in Futures of Black Radicalism eds. Gayle Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin (London: Verso, 2017) pp588 – 638 at 596 *Ebook

[14] Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848) accessible here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm

[15] See Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)

[16] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, 2017, 597

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