“Property” references not only the objects that are owned, as in common usage, but the social system in which the right and ability to own are the bases of the state and civil society. In such a system, property is the fundamental right that guarantees all other rights, in that the property-owning citizen—what political theorist C. B. Macpherson (1962) called the “possessive individual”—is the only recognizable subject of the state. Property is commonly assumed to be a universally protected right, and the modern nation-state is predicated on the notion that all citizens have equal protection of their property. Yet such an assumption erases the violent, ongoing transformation of lands, social relations, and persons into property in settler-colonial societies. In such a context, the protection of the right to possess for some is the foundational violence that underwrites and enables dispossession for others within the system of property relations.
For this reason, “property” is better understood as referring to a set of social relations rather than the objects that are owned. In other words, ownership describes not only the relationship between oneself and that which one owns but also a system in which the state protects one’s right to own something by ensuring that no one else does. This right to property is guaranteed by the state; indeed, for John 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” ( 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. In this system, 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 Locke famously declared that “every man has property in his own person” (19), he named property as a system that produces a subject defined through its ability to own, first and foremost, itself.
While the state claims its legitimacy through its authority to protect property relations equally for all citizens, social theorists have identified a central contradiction within this political system: not everyone can exercise will freely, as one person’s expression of will is always the infringement of another’s, and so the state must privilege the will of some at the expense of others. Karl Marx ( 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, by guaranteeing 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.
As useful as Marx’s critique is, Indigenous studies, ethnic studies, American studies, and cultural studies have argued that the class contradiction identified by Marx must be supplemented by an analysis that highlights the colonial and racialized contradictions of capital. Marx described several changes in the system of property relations as forms of “primitive accumulation” that occurred at “the dawn of the era of capitalist production”: enclosures in Europe, which converted lands held and used in common into private property; the colonial appropriation of Indigenous lands as the property of settlers; and the conversion of people into property under chattel slavery (Marx  1990, 915). For Marx, because these processes are prior to the development of capitalism proper, feudal, Indigenous, or racialized histories cannot be the basis for a revolutionary challenge to capitalist property relations to occur.
In contrast, Indigenous studies scholars highlight the ways in which practices of Indigenous sovereignty challenge the legitimacy of settler-colonial property relations and become the primary grounds for dismantling settler-colonial capitalism (Simpson 2014). Such scholars have argued that the settler-colonial conversion of land, which is the territorial foundation of Indigenous societies, into property is an inherently unstable process. In order to appropriate Indigenous lands within the rule of law, settler states must legitimate its authority to take lands that are not property and thus obviously not under its authority (since the colonial state’s relationship to territory is only as property). It does so by retroactively defining lands taken from Indigenous peoples as having been property only after these lands have been divested, in a “recursive logic . . . that generates legal possession out of avowedly extra-legal seizures” (Nichols 2018, 20; italics in original). Indigenous people experience settler-colonial dispossession prior to being incorporated as possessive subjects. We can thus understand possession (the imposition of the property system) and dispossession (the taking away of property within that same system) not as opposites of one another but as mutually constitutive processes.
Though often portrayed within liberal capitalism as universally attainable, the subjectivity of the property-bearing, possessive individual implies its dialectical opposite; the owned who are turned into objects. Perhaps the most iconic example is that of chattel slavery. Orlando Patterson (1982), for instance, describes the condition of the enslaved person as that of “social death,” wherein the person has no relation to or place within society except through their owner. If property is the basis for freedom, defined as the ability to exercise one’s will in the absence of the influence of others, its antithesis is enslavement. Yet because liberal societies are based on the pretense of equality and horizontal comradeship, their material and ideological dependence on inequality and hierarchy must be erased. Enslavement, as an undeniably unequal condition, must be disavowed as freedom’s antithesis. Even after the formal abolition of enslavement in European colonies and the Americas, 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. They delineate the history through which US “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.
Thus we can define the colonization and racialization of populations as the process by which they are dispossessed as they are incorporated into property relations that have primarily been secured through heteropatriarchy and white bourgeois domesticity. Gendered forms of enslaved and carceral labor in the US South provided the material and ideological conditions of possibility for protected white womanhood (Carby 1987; Haley 2016). In Canada, the 1876 amendment to the Indian Act of 1868 established a patrilineal basis for tribal membership, meaning that status was conferred through male members. Indigenous women who outmarried, as well as their children, were stripped of tribal citizenship (Barker 2008). Indeed, couverture, or the legal doctrine under which women were recognizable only through the status of their fathers or husbands, has been a central mechanism for colonization and racialization (Cho 2013). 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 Roderick Ferguson (2004) posits “queer of color critique” as arguably the most telling intervention into the contradictions of capitalist property relations within liberal democracy.
For this reason, property may be understood as an epistemology or way of knowing that legitimates social relations based on ownership. This epistemology naturalizes nationalist narratives of subject formation; it also disallows knowledge of the ways in which imposition of propertied subjectivity is inherently dispossessive along the lines of race, class, and gender. Alternative articulations and inhabitations of social relations that are not based on property do exist, though they are occluded, rendered deviant, or erased by nationalist narratives and affects. They are often embedded in oppositional cultural forms and practices. While many definitions of culture emphasize the imaginative transcendence of the concerns of everyday life, the material histories of those who are dispossessed through incorporation into property relations emerge through culture differently. The imaginative function of literature and culture, in those instances, can reveal and intervene in the colonial, racial, and gendered structure of the property system. Further, we might look to culture for ways of articulating notions of self and community that do not buy into the universalizing logics of possessive individualism and national belonging.