Property is as central to discussions of culture as culture is to discussions of property. “Property” references not only the things that are owned, as in common usage, but also a social system in which the right and ability to own are protected by the state. Property is commonly discussed as a universal state of being, and the U.S. nation-state is predicated on the notion that all citizens have equal rights to property. Yet in U.S. history, property relations have grown out of and secured class, racial, and gender hierarchies. The keyword “property” thus indexes a contradiction between the ostensibly universal endowment of the right to property for all U.S. citizens and the uneven actualization of that right through forms of racial and gender dispossession. U.S. culture is a crucial site where this contradiction is managed, troubled, and destabilized. Diverse cultural artifacts and practices disavow this contradiction, even as they serve as sites where the histories of the propertyless can be articulated.
Rather than merely referring to things that are owned, “property” is better understood as describing a set of social relations. In other words, ownership describes not only the relationship between oneself and the thing one owns but also a system in which the state protects one’s right to own something by ensuring that no one else does. Ownership of something entails the ability to do with it what one wills, thus suggesting that the will of others does not impinge on one’s ability to express one’s will. When John Locke famously declared that “every man has property in his own person” (1690/1980, 19), he named property as a system that produces a subject defined through its ability to own, a subject that political theorist C. B. Macpherson (1962) called the “possessive individual.” This subject is defined by its ability not simply to own but, first and foremost, to own itself. This right to property is guaranteed by the state; indeed, for Locke, this is the central role of the state: “Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property” (1690/1980, 8). The state does not merely allow for property relations; rather, the protection of property interests is the justification for the state’s existence.
There is another fundamental contradiction embedded in this definition of property. No one can truly exercise will freely, as one person’s expression of will is always the infringement of another’s, and so the state privileges the will of some at the expense of others. This is a tension at the heart of what political theorists refer to as the liberal or liberal-democratic state. Karl Marx (1844/1978, 34), one of the best known of those theorists, notes in “On the Jewish Question” that membership in the political sphere of the liberal state requires the shedding of individual particularity for the “unreal universality” of the abstract citizen. However, representation through abstract citizenship does not mean that individuals in society somehow relinquish their self-interestedness. The state instead becomes the guarantor of those interests, albeit unequally, through being the guarantor of private property. Because the abstract citizen is also the propertied subject, the state must profess equality while also functioning as the guarantor of the unequal property relations occasioned by capitalist modes of production.
American studies and cultural studies scholarship has extended Marx’s discussion of this class contradiction to note that claims of universality through citizenship are contradicted by racialized and gendered difference as well. The possessive individual is not universal but is defined over and against these racial differences. Perhaps the most iconic example is that of chattel slavery. Orlando Patterson (1982), for instance, describes the enslaved person as existing in a condition of “social death,” a condition that can be understood as the dialectical opposite of the possessive individual. If property becomes the basis for freedom, defined as the ability to exercise one’s will in the absence of the inﬂuence of others, this definition of freedom needs an antithesis—enslavement, in this case. Yet because liberal societies are based on conceptions of equivalence and horizontal comradeship, these societies’ material and ideological dependence on inequality and hierarchy must be erased. Enslavement, as an undeniably unequal condition, must be disavowed as freedom’s historical antithesis. Even after the formal abolition of enslavement in the United States, the legacy of possessive individualism and its erased corollary, social death, continues to structure racialized citizenship. As legal scholars have noted, property and whiteness are mutually constitutive categories. They delineate the history through which “courts established whiteness as a prerequisite to the exercise of enforceable property rights,” thus ensuring that “it was solely through being white that property could be acquired and secured under law” (C. Harris 1993, 1724). But the law did more than establish whiteness as a prerequisite to ownership of property. It also established whiteness itself as property that “white people” own. Citing precedents in which law has “protected even the expectation of rights as actual legal property,” Cheryl Harris (1993, 1729, quoting powell 1990, 366) contends that in this type of racist society, white privilege becomes an expectation that is then reified as property by law.
This analysis of property has implications beyond a strictly legal domain. If we think of property as the condition in which the state protects one’s right to ownership equally, we must extend the definition of dispossession to mean the unequal inclusion of racialized subjects in the liberal state. While the normative citizen is theoretically able to forgo private particularities for public universality, this process is not universally applicable in practice. In the United States, property relations have been constituted by myriad forms of racialized dispossession, many of which have been reinforced through the protection of white bourgeois domesticity. Gendered forms of slave labor in the U.S. South, for instance, provided the material and ideological conditions of possibility for the “cult of true womanhood” (Carby 1987), while the recruitment and exploitation of itinerant male laborers, such as Chinese and Filipino “bachelors” along the U.S. West Coast, created nonnormative forms of belonging against which a proper and moral white domesticity could be articulated (Shah 2001). In the early twentieth century, new forms of consumerism emerged that reworked notions of domestic propriety by establishing the domestic sphere as a place where consumer goods were utilized in a proper manner; this too was defined against racialized excesses (Glickman 1997). In the mid-twentieth century, de jure segregation as well as de facto practices such as racist home-lending policies and restrictive covenants brought about racialized dispossession through the mechanisms of suburban homeownership and privatized domesticity (Lipsitz 1995; Oliver and Shapiro 1995). This genealogy explains why Rod Ferguson (2004) posits “queer of color critique” as the most telling intervention into the contradictions of capitalist relations within U.S. liberal democracy.
“Property” as a keyword thus marks the history of the U.S. liberal-democratic state that, in maintaining a conception of citizenship as the universal protection of property rights, must erase the ways in which those relations depend on racialized and gendered forms of dispossession. In this way, property is also an epistemology, or way of knowing; it allows for knowledge of nationalist narratives of subject formation and disallows knowledge that attests to the ways in which propertied subjectivity is not universal. Alternative epistemologies, though occluded, rendered deviant, or erased by nationalist narratives, do emerge, often embedded in cultural forms and practices. While many definitions of culture emphasize the imaginative transcendence of the concerns of everyday life, the material histories of the propertyless emerge through culture differently. The imaginative function of literature and culture, in those instances, can reveal and intervene in the racial and gendered structure of the property system. Investigations into the intersection of property and culture might productively take into consideration histories of race and gender that belie the ostensible universality of propertied citizenship, lest such studies reproduce the mystifying effects of national culture. Further, we might look to culture for ways of articulating notions of self and community that do not buy into the universalizing tendency of possessive individualism and national belonging.