- Review of Colonial Lives of Property by Brenna Bhandar
Colonial Lives of Property is a deft and nuanced analysis of the various ways that property—as both a concept and a set of practices—has been formative to the production and maintenance of categories of racial governance in late modern and contemporary settler colonial societies. It makes significant contributions [End Page 311] to social, political, and legal theory, as well as to Indigenous and settler colonial studies and is a necessary text for those with active research agendas or pedagogical interests in those fields.
The central argument that animates this book is simple in its core, but far-reaching in its implications: modern property laws emerged in and through colonial modes of appropriation, which have always tightly linked the ownership and control of objects to the status and standing of the subjects who hold them. In this way, the legal organization of property has been instrumental to the production of racial subjectivity. The aim of the book is to study these "racial regimes of ownership" in all their complexity.
The book is organized into four substantive chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion. The opening provides a broad sweep of the key concepts and categories at work in the rest of the text. Cedric Robinson, Cheryl Harris and Stuart Hall figure prominently in this conceptual staging ground. Bhandar begins in conversation with Harris, especially the latter's groundbreaking "Whiteness as Property" essay. Confirming Harris's thesis in its general form—i.e., that modern concepts of race and property "share conceptual logics and are articulated in conjunction with one another," (8)—Bhandar also takes some distance from the specific parameters of Harris's seminal contribution. Specifically, Bhandar contends that the coproduction of race and property did not hinge exclusively upon "whiteness as status" (as Harris is said to have it), but rather also included a range of ideological commitments to improvement and development mediated by way of relations to land. From Hall, Bhandar draws out a concept of "articulation" (itself indebted to Althusser). When put to use here, this articulation is meant to name how a racial regime of property can operate as a differentiated totality of sorts, that is, a network of practices that are at once distinct but linked. Moreover, in this mode of analysis (contra certain Marxist theories of law, such as those found in the work of Evgeny Pashukanis and Karl Renner), legal forms cannot be reductively read as expressions of economic exchange. Instead, "juridical forms" (as Bhandar prefers to call them) are a host of semi-autonomous legal techniques that "define legality and illegality, produce legal subjects, operate as a form of governance, and in all of these guises function[s] as a form of disciplinary power" (12). Juridical forms are always embedded in and interacting with economic processes; they are not wholly independent from the socio-economic context in which they arise. At the same time, they can also not be reductively reduced to any particular socio-economic process (for instance, taking a commodity form). Hence, juridical forms are "semi-autonomous" in this sense. Finally, from Robinson, we get the language of "racial regimes" which again emphasizes the contingency and mutability of racial governance in contradistinction to overly deterministic accounts (both Marxist and Foucauldian). In each of these cases, the resulting theoretical apparatus is more capacious than in their original formulations, which is necessary to contain the diverse range of cases examined in the substantive chapters.
Chapter One attends to how notions of "use" came to be expressed in terms of narrowly framed visions of improvement and were used to justify and solidify Anglo settler interests in land. Political theorists will be most familiar with these debates as they have long animated colonial-contextualist readings of Locke. Here, however, Bhandar begins with William Petty, whose seventeenth-century works on Ireland provided important background [End Page 312] material to an emergent Anglo settler concept of value indexed to cultivation and improvement of land. Locke is demoted to...