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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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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Notes on Ex-Yu Justice, Part I

I don’t recall when I first heard of Radovan Karadžić, but I know it wasn’t any time before the run-up to the first democratic, multi-party elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Radovan, with sarcastic endearment called Rašo in my family, emerged as the leader of something called the Serbian Democratic Party, one of the three main “national” political parties that were formed to steer us away from Marxist politics and economics and towards Western, liberal, democratic capitalism.  I do recall voicing scepticism about their promises, and trying to convince my eight grade classmates that ‘national’ really meant ‘nationalist’ and that with “them” at the helm Bosnia would soon look like Lebanon rather than Switzerland. And forget Lebanon, one only had to look over to Croatia to see what parties with the same names were doing, and how well that particular Westernization was going. I remember arguing that there was an alternative, pointing to Ante Marković (a.k.a. Antara, but with slightly less sarcasm) and his “reconstituted” Commies (and to drive the point home I pasted Union of Reform Forces of Yugoslavia campaign posters all over my room).  But there was no alternative, not really. Not with the bad guys in Belgrade, far more powerful than Marković, itching for “armed battles,” and not with the vast majority of citizenry successfully interpellated into political, mutually exclusive Muslims, Serbs & Croats. A Cerberus coalition of said national parties won the elections in November 1990 and took us all to hell.

karadzic_AP

Fast forward to June 2013: it’s a Monday morning and I am looking into Courtroom 1 of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Karadžić, sitting behind a huge glass screen, is complaining about some key meaning lost in translation. He appears uncomfortable, at least compared to the other nasty blast from my past: Vojislav Šešelj, a.k.a., Šešo. In the 1990s, he was Serbia’s one-man version of the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines; today, Šešelj is the tribunal’s bête noire. Those who follow the life of the ICTY are familiar with his mixed-methods approach to delegitimizing the court and its proceedings. Hissy fits, impossible demands, hunger strikes, insults, bullying, speechifying, filibustering. Then there is the regular uploading of confidential court documents onto http://www.vseselj.com‎ such that the names of protected witnesses are no longer protected. This certified political scientist (while writing a PhD dissertation on fascism in late 1970s Šešelj apparently spent a year teaching at the University of Michigan) knows how to assess the power of the strong as well as of the weakHe has repeatedly justified his behaviour as “only politics” (“this court is political, I am political, and I am here to destroy you”). And whenever he gets convicted of contempt of court (twice or thrice now), he laughs it off: “I don’t care, I am having the time of my life.”   

He was on fire that morning as well. Invited to Karadžić’s trial as a key witness, Šešelj manages to waste hours of the court’s time on stories that feature, among other things, Swedish prostitutes, Serbian folk heroes, and European medieval history (I paraphrase again, this time from my notes: “Magdeburg, the city that’s now flooded, yes, make sure it goes into the court’s record just like I explained in my book and on my website: it was the Croat armies that massacred its citizens back in 1631”). The little time devoted to answering the questions posed by the prosecutor Alan Tieger – Karadžić, recall, is indicted for genocide; extermination; murder; persecutions; deportation; inhumane acts; terrorizing of, and unlawful attack on, civilians; and taking of hostages – testifies to Šešelj’s focus and impeccable memory. “Absolutely not,” he concludes, Karadžić had nothing to do with any conspiracy to ethnically cleanse parts of Eastern Bosnia. “What happened was a natural population transfer, that’s all.” Continue reading

Russia’s Anti-Gay Laws: The Politics and Consequences of a Moral Panic

A guest post from Cai Wilkinson on recent LGBTQ developments in Russia. Cai is a Lecturer in International Relations in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University, Australia. Her research interests include critical approaches to security, fieldwork-based securitization studies, norm contestation and resistance, and genders and sexualities in International Relations. Her geographic focus is on the former Soviet Union, and she is currently working on projects about LGBT rights and human rights norms in Kyrgyzstan and Russia. She received her PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK, in 2009 for a thesis entitled Interpreting Security: Grounding the Copenhagen School in Kyrgyzstan, which drew upon seven months of fieldwork conducted in Bishkek and Osh in the aftermath of the 2005 overthrow of the Akaev regime. Her work has been published in Security Dialogue, Central Asian Survey and Europe-Asia Studies, and she has contributed chapters to volumes on securitization theory, statehood in Central Asia, and fieldwork-based research methods. Cai is also Chair of the International Studies Association LGBTQA Caucus.


Russia Gay Pride Putin

The issue of LGBT rights in Russia first properly came to mainstream international attention in March 2012, when the St Petersburg Duma passed a law prohibiting “public acts aimed at the propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism and transgenderism amongst minors“. The law provoked an international outcry, including calls for tourists to boycott St Petersburg, sister-cities to consider cut off ties with Russia’s “window on Europe”, and condemnation from the EU, with the European Parliament passing a resolution noting that it was “gravely concerned by developments which restrict freedom of expression and assembly on the basis of misconceptions about homosexuality and transgenderism” and calling on Russia and other countries considering the adoption of similar legislation to “demonstrate, and ensure respect for, the principle of non-discrimination”.

In actual fact, this was not the first “anti-gay” law to be passed in Russia; Ryazan Oblast’s Duma adopted an amendment to local legislation to outlaw the “propaganda of homosexualism” in May 2006, and Arkhangelsk and Kostroma Oblasts followed suit in 2011. Yet the passing of the St Petersburg law proved to be a catalyst for other administrations to introduce similar laws, with a further six subsequently adopting similar legislation and others considering it (so far only the Moscow Regional Duma has rejected legislation). Most significantly, these laws paved the way for consideration of a federal bill outlawing the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors”, which the Russian Duma passed on June 11 despite continuing international condemnation and the fierce opposition of local LGBTQ activists and their supporters, who frequently endured physical attacks and arrests while protesting against the law.

Despite being a long-time Russia-watcher, the swiftness at which anti-gay laws have spread and at the ferocity of both popular and state homophobia has been striking. This is not, I should add, simply the result of not paying close enough attention. As a queer undergraduate student studying Russian with a compulsory year abroad to plan for, I was extremely conscious of attitudes towards homosexuality and queerness and the stigma and dangers that local LGBTQ people faced (Laurie Essig’s Queer in Russia was an essential primer), and was extremely careful not to out myself to anyone who wasn’t definitely queer-friendly while living with families first in Krasnoyarsk and then Voronezh in 2001-2002.

At the same time, it appeared until the mid-2000s that slowly but surely Russia was becoming more tolerant. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993 without any notable opposition, declassified as a mental illness in 1999, and the percentage of survey respondents advocating for the “liquidation” of homosexuals fell from 31% in 1989 to 22% in 1994 and all of 5% in 2013 (although inevitably survey results are heavily contingent on the phrasing of questions and, as Alexander Kondakov demonstrates, attitudes to homosexuality are no exception). Attempts to recriminalise homosexual relationships between men failed in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

Popular culture in the first half of the 2000s appeared to offer further evidence of the trend: Continue reading

Human Rights Contested – Part I

This post (presented in two parts) is drawn from a review article that will be forthcoming in The Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, which looks at a recent set of critical writings on human rights in order to consider the profound limitations and evocative possibilities of the contested idea and politics of human rights.

Human Rights in a Posthuman World: Critical Essays by Upendra Baxi. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights by Mark Goodale. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

The Divided World: Human Rights and Its Violence by Randall Williams. Minneapolis, MN and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights by Robert Meister. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011.

The central tension of human rights is that they propagate a universal and singular human identity in a fragmented political world. No one writing about human rights ignores this tension, but the most important question we face in judging the value of human rights is how to understand this tension and the divisions it creates. The expected divisions between good and evil, between moral universalists and dangerous relativist, between dignified interventionists and cowardly apologists, have long given shape to human rights, as both an ideal and a political project. Seeing the problems of (and for) human rights in these habituated ways has dulled our capacity for critical judgment, as few want to defend evil or violent particularisms or advocate passivity in the face of suffering. Even among serious and determined critics our inherited divisions are problematic (and increasingly over rehearsed), whether we think of human rights as the imposition of Western cultural values, or in terms of capitalist ideology serving the interests of neo-liberal elites, or as an expression of exceptional sovereign power at the domestic and global levels. The ways that these divisions deal with the tension at the heart of human rights misses the ambiguity of those rights in significant ways.

     Rather than trying to contain the tensions between singularity and pluralism, between commonality and difference, in a clear and definitive accounting, the authors of the texts reviewed here allow them to proliferate. Rather than trying to resolve the problem of human rights, they attempt to understand human rights in their indeterminate dissonance while exploring what they might become. To create and invoke the idea of humanity is not a political activity that is unique (either now or in the past) to the ‘West’. The people most dramatically injured by global capitalism sometimes fight their oppression by innovating and using the language and institutions of human rights. Political exceptions – the exclusion of outsiders, humanitarian wars and imperialist conceits – are certainly enabled by the same sovereign power that grants rights to its subjects, which is a metaphorical drama all too easily supported by human rights, but it is only a partial telling of the tale, a telling that leaves out how human rights can reshape political authority and enable struggles in unexpected ways. The work of these authors pushes us to reject the familiar divisions we use to understand the irresolvable tension at the centre of human rights and see the productive possibilities of that tension. If human rights will always be invoked in a politically divided world, and will also always create further divisions with each declaration and act that realises an ideal universalism, then our focus should be on who assumes (and who can assume) the authority to define humanity, the consequences for those subject to such power, and the ends toward which such authority is directed. Continue reading

The Politics of Austerity: Emergency Economics and Debtocracy

austerity |ôˈsteritē| noun – sternness or severity of manner or attitude

It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you.

– George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys”

Why what have you thought of yourself?

Is it you then that thought yourself less?

Is it you that thought the President greater than you?

Or the rich better off than you? or the educated wiser than you?

 I do not affirm that what you see beyond is futile, I do not advise that you stop,

I do not say leadings you thought great are not great,

But I say that none lead to greater than these lead to.

– Walt Whitman, “A Song for Occupations,” Leaves of Grass

The Politics of Austerity – Part I

This is the first in a series of posts that look at the political implications of the ongoing global economic crisis. I begin by examining the way that crisis is being used to attack the very idea of democracy through an assertion of the political imperatives of “the market” and the violation, bending and re-writing of the law by capitalist elites. I conclude by laying out how understanding the economic crisis in political terms shapes our ability to respond to it.

In the second post I’ll look at the ethos of austerity, which justifies the pain inflicted on largely innocent people, while suggesting that an affirmative democratic response to the economic crisis must begin with its own ethos, which I suggest should be an ethos of care for the world – which can provide orientation and inspiration for political struggles seeking to address the deeper causes of our current crisis. In the third post, I turn to the structures of the economy and of politics that define the current crisis, looking at the banking crisis, the bailouts, the politics of recovery/austerity and also reflecting of the structural imperatives of capitalism that led us to crisis. This, then, leads to the question of how to respond to the politics of austerity, and of what alternative actions are available to us, which is where the fourth and final post will pick up – with an affirmation of a caring ethos that supports a radically democratic economic vision.

Emergency Economics

In a previous post I briefly highlighted Bonnie Honig’s work, Emergency Politics, to examine the way that the ethical case for austerity is made; most basically, the existence of a supreme emergency, in this case economic, justifies actions that would normally be considered unacceptable. Honig’s work looks at how the appeal to emergency is used to reassert the exceptional political power of the sovereign over and against the law, with a focus on the reassertion of sovereignty witnessed over the past ten years in response to the threat of terrorist attack in the US and Europe.

Rather than accepting the necessarily intractable conflict between the power of the sovereign and the power of the law, Honig attempts to deflate this paradox by turning her attention to the always ongoing contestation that defines democratic politics, a contest over both the content of the law and the institutional embodiment of sovereign power. She suggests, then, that attending to the ambiguities of the “people”, who are both the democratic sovereign and a diffuse multitude, as well as the political element in the law – as new laws come into being through political action – enables us to avoid thinking about emergencies as moments of exception in which the rule of law is lost to the play of political power, while also acknowledging the limits of established law in moments of profound crisis. By undermining the exceptional nature of crises and emergencies Honig alters the challenge we face when circumstances force us to make choices or carry out actions we know are harmful and wrong by asking what we (democratic publics and citizens) can do to survive an emergency with our integrity in tact.

What do we need to do to ensure our continuity as selves and/or our survival as a democracy with integrity? Our survival depends very much on how we handle ourselves in the aftermath of a wrong. We will not recover from some kinds of tragic conflict. But when faced with such situations, we must act and we must inhabit the aftermath of the situation in ways that promote our survival as a democracy.

I continue to find this a useful way to understand our current economic crisis. Appeals to austerity depend upon the exceptional state created by crisis in order to justify the pain inflicted upon masses of people and the priority given to private interests (the markets, investors and bankers) over democratic publics. So, as democratically enacted laws must bow before the sovereign power threatened by exceptional attacks, so economic justice and democratic equality must bow before the commands of market forces, of economic inevitability, in this time of crisis.

The economic version of this argument is stronger still. While the space of political contestation that remains open when we accept the framing of emergency politics is limited, it does exist in the clashing of opposing sovereigns. The prospect of a substantive alternative to neoliberal economic ideology is dim, a light flickering weakly on antiquated appeals for a return to Keynesianism or watered down triangulations of the moderate-middle that sell off dreams of a just economy bit by bit – capitalist realism in action.

Honig awakens us to an important aspects of our current crisis: that “the market” is not in fact supremely sovereign, and the move to re-establish and further neoliberal policies and push through austerity measures requires an engagement in democratic politics – albeit one that undermines the notion of the public itself and seeks to use the power of the law to subvert democracy. Recognising the current crisis in these terms not only challenges us to consider how to survive our current troubles without giving up democratic virtues, it also reinvigorates and clarifies the political challenge we face. Emergency economics – with its assertion of debtocracy over democracy – is not an inevitable response to the crisis, it is a political one that we can, and should, fight against.

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