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?

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(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.

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‘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]

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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.

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On the British Empire Among Empires, and on Property Beyond Sovereignty

This guest post, from Kerry Goettlich, is the second contribution to our symposium on Brenna Bhandar’s  Colonial Lives of Property. Kerry is a PhD candidate in the IR Department at the London School of Economics. His research is on the historical relationship between space and international politics, particularly the origins and consequences of linear borders. His latest work is ‘The rise of linear borders in world politics’ in the European Journal of International Relations. He was also recently co-editor of Millennium: Journal of International Studies.


As part of the fieldwork for Colonial Lives of Property, Brenna Bhandar witnessed the seventieth razing of the Bedouin village of Al-Araqib by the Israel Land Authority since 2010 (p. 116). Some Bedouin living under Israeli authority are now so used to having their homes destroyed that they have begun building them with particularly pliable materials in order to make reconstruction easier. Others destroy their own homes in order to avoid being charged bulldozing costs by the state. One of Bhandar’s interviewees ‘paid for someone to build his house and paid the same person to destroy it’ (p. 117).

This is just one of many ways in which Colonial Lives of Property powerfully demonstrates the meaning of a ‘history of the present’. The book is a compelling history of private property regimes in settler colonial contexts which never loses sight of what makes this material important for scholars—and, I think, particularly IR scholars—today. It takes us through many centuries of different articulations of the concept and practice of property, each abstracting land space in different ways, and shows us historically how property came to be the upholder of racial and gender inequalities that it is today. It brings together a wealth of theoretical resources to do this, from legal studies scholars such as Cheryl Harris and Alain Pottage to more general social theorists such as Stuart Hall and Cedric Robinson, and many more. The book without a doubt demolishes any account of property as natural, as somehow separate from race and gender, or as emerging fully formed within a self-generating Europe. These, in my reading, would be the main counterarguments, and after reading this book, it would be quite difficult to sustain any of them.

With that in mind, what I want to offer in this post is less of a critique of Colonial Lives of Property than some reflections on some relevant questions it raises. In particular, I focus on two things that are not as prominent here as one might expect: non-Anglophone imperialism and the sovereign or imperial centre. The point here is not that these things are missing, but rather to think about how their relatively subdued roles might help us appreciate the book’s significance differently.

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Colonial Lives of Legality and Possibilities for Resistance?

The Disorder of Things is delighted to host a symposium on Brenna Bhandar’s new book, Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership. First up is the symposium organiser, Alvina Hoffmann, a PhD student in IR at King’s College London. She is review article editor, social media officer and member of the editorial board of Millennium: Journal of International Studies. She is co-convenor of the research group Doing International Political Sociology. Her thesis investigates the annexation of Crimea, the Sami people’s struggle over land rights and the Internet users’ claims over digital spaces through the lens of rights claims practices which intersect in various institutional settings such as the UN.


Brenna Bhandar’s Colonial Lives of Property takes its readers on an analytical journey through various empirical and temporal contexts, excavating the racial assumptions underpinning the development of modern property law which animate contemporary settings of settler colonialism. In Bhandar’s own words, the book’s main focus lies “on the political ideologies, economic rationales, and colonial imaginaries that gave life to juridical forms of property and a concept of human subjectivity that are embedded in a racial order” (p. 22). The book is an impressive study which skilfully combines archival material, legal cases and fieldwork to showcase the various practices of appropriation of land and its rationalisation through property law regimes. It will appeal to scholars from various disciplines studying the development and contemporary manifestations of racial capitalism, Indigenous people’s dispossession and resistance struggles, and the history of property, territory and sovereignty more broadly. This interdisciplinary form of inquiry not only helps shed new light on questions surrounding the enduring forms of racial and economic inequalities, but also offers thoughtful reflections on new political imaginaries of property.

In this post, I want to draw out three points that Brenna Bhandar’s rich and thoughtful book raises. First, I will show how her historical analysis of processes of racialisation constituted political subjects in colonial settings. Then I will focus on practices of legality and consider ways in which her analysis can be applied in international law with regards to Indigenous peoples and their claims to land rights. The final part will consider Bhandar’s conclusive thoughts on alternative political imaginaries of property which draw on an array of scholars and resources which inspire critical theories and practices of such imaginaries.

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Booker’s Bitter Legacy: British Guiana after Empire

A guest post from Ben Richardson, Associate Professor in International Political Economy at the University of Warwick. Ben researches trade and development with a focus on agricultural commodities. He is author of Sugar (Polity, 2015) and is currently completing an ERSC project Working Beyond the Border: European Union Trade Agreements and International Labour Standards on which this post is based.   


Awarded annually for the best novel in the English language, the Man Booker Prize has established itself as a major event in the British cultural calendar. Its fiftieth anniversary was commemorated accordingly: a documentary on the BBC; a festival at the Southbank Centre; a reception at Buckingham Palace for former winners. But the prize harbours a darker history, one which this Anglocentric story of literary triumph firmly seals within the distant past. The prize takes its name from its initial sponsor, Booker McConnell, one of the preeminent companies of the British empire. The commercial lifeblood of Booker had been sugar and its heartland was British Guiana, a colony on the northern tip of South America. Indeed, so dominant was the company in the country’s affairs that it became known simply as ‘Booker’s Guiana’.

Bringing a rare shaft of light onto this imperial relationship, the winner of the Booker Prize in 1977, John Berger, used his acceptance speech to publicly denounce the company’s exploitative practices in what by then had become the independent state of Guyana. Fusing race and class politics, he symbolically dedicated half his prize money to the Black Panthers and their ongoing resistance in the West Indies “both as black people and workers”. While Berger’s intervention retains critical force, it requires contemporary renewal. Booker’s has long since gone, divesting from the country and diversifying into other activities like wholesaling, slowly erasing public memory of their colonial past. For Guyana meanwhile, the preeminent issue in the sugar industry is no longer exploitation but expulsion, with mounting economic pressures linked to trade reforms in Europe erupting in plantation closures, mass redundancy and political discontent. The ongoing celebration of the Man Booker Prize thus provides a way to reconnect these developmental stories and consider again what the legacies of British imperialism mean for both modern-day Guyana and the UK.

Formerly owned by the father of British Prime Minister William Gladstone, the Wales sugar estate was closed in 2017. Source: author.

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