Rinaldo Walcott calls for the abolition of property

Rinaldo Walcott argues that the fight to abolish slavery is still unfinished — and that the ultimate project of abolition will require abolishing the idea of private property itself. He speaks with Nahlah Ayed about how a history of being bought and sold shapes Black people's relationship to the notion of property today.

The author of On Property argues private property is tied to inequality and police violence

From plantation rebellion to prison labour’s super-exploitation, Rinaldo Walcott examines the relationship between policing and property in his book, On Property. He argues the history of being bought and sold shapes Black people's relationship to the idea of property. (Biblioasis)

Rinaldo Walcott says he learned early on that "property was a problem for Black people."

As a child growing up in Barbados, he and other young boys would sometimes take a stalk of sugar cane from a plantation, and the watchmen would call the police on them. 

"That has stayed with me all these years because it really demonstrated the way in which property organizes social relations, the way in which property is used to keep people in particular boxes, the way in which property is not just about something that's material, but it's also about a set of ideas," Walcott said. 

He sees a disturbing echo between the fact that young Black boys in Barbados were punished for stealing a small piece of sugarcane — and the fact that their ancestors were brought to that island as property themselves.

"The people who I am a descendant of were taken to that small island, Barbados, to work on sugar cane plantations … They were not only producing resources for others, but they themselves were a resource. They were the property of others," he said. 

"The history of that continues to shape Black life, I would argue even today."

That childhood experience also taught him that property was often accompanied by threat of violence — a belief that was strengthened after George Floyd was killed by the police for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill. 

Protesters hold up signs during a Black Lives Matter protest in New York City, June 8, 2020 - two weeks after George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man was killed, in Minneapolis by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer. Floyd was suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

"To transgress someone else's property brings with it this kind of tremendous form of violence, this tremendous form of prohibition and that prohibition can be such that you lose your life for it," he said. 

In his latest book, On Property, Walcott argues that private property is a driving force behind problems of inequality and police violence in contemporary society — and comes to a provocative conclusion. 

"If we take seriously that the history of Black people having once been property is a part of the fundamental problem of our social arrangements today, if we take seriously that the theft of Indigenous resources and the movement off of their own lands is a part of the problem of our social relations today, then at the heart of fixing that problem is going to have to be a reckoning with property. I think that there's only one way, then, to address that problem, which is abolition."

Communal forms of ownership 

Walcott argues instead for a society based around communal forms of ownership. 

"Under this idea we wouldn't say that someone can't own their own house. But housing would not be something that becomes an investment. Housing would not be the thing that becomes someone's retirement package. Housing would be something that is understood as foundational to how people can live," he said. 

"So the question then becomes not so much individual ownership of the things that we love and cherish, but rather a communal conversation about how we can expand all those things to people currently without them."

Rinaldo Walcott asserts 'that we have to invest in in the way in which we've come to understand, for instance, how land becomes property and property becomes private and this private property becomes something called real estate. We have to divest from all of that history and reshape it as something else.' (Shutterstock)

The abolition of property has been tried before in communist countries, and were accompanied with tremendous violence. Walcott acknowledges those failures, but argues "there's a way that we can think about the failures of communist countries that doesn't really have anything to do with the abolition of property so much as that those forms of communism failed because … they were not able to abolish elite cultures and elite legislative power in terms of shaping what the society looks like."

He argues we should look, instead, to other societies through history that have more successfully practiced forms of communal living and ownership, including some Indigenous communities. 

"When you look to other societies that have practiced forms of communal living that have been somewhat successful, if even interrupted by colonization and Trans-Atlantic slavery, often what you find is that those societies don't have necessarily elite structures."

Indigenous conceptions of property

While many Indigenous legal orders involve some form of communal ownership, Val Napoleon, the Law Foundation Chair of Indigenous Justice and Governance at the University of Victoria, says Indigenous law contains a wide range of approaches to property. 

"Some of the ways that we organized ourselves are similar or have similar attributes to what is considered private property today," she said. "So I'm very reluctant to go and just say private property is the problem."

"Indigenous peoples owned land through different structures. For the Gitksan people, lands were owned by kinship groups and other things in the world were owned as well, such as oral histories ... So there's a whole complex way of understanding property that has to be broadened." 

In her book, Creating Indigenous Property: Power, Rights, and Relationships, Val Napoleon explores the public/private divide in Indigenous and Canadian law, and why it matters. (University of Victoria)

Napoleon argues for a wider understanding of what property can be, rather than its abolition.. 

"What I wouldn't want to see is another conversation that wipes out Indigenous peoples' ways of relating to the world and the things in the world. That happens through many discourses, where people have decided, for instance, that law is a problem and it's law that's oppressive, then want to wipe that out from their imagination of what matters in the world," she said. "In doing so, they also wipe out Indigenous law."

Property and equality 

Christopher Essert, an associate professor of law at the University of Toronto, says he believes what we have today is "a distorted, defective version of what a system of property could be." But he believes it's possible for property to become an egalitarian institution.

"I agree with Rinaldo's thought that we should be thinking about housing not as a kind of the preserve of the one percent, as a kind of a financial instrument, but rather as a right that everybody should have. But I want to say that a right to housing ... would be a kind of a property right," he said. 

Christopher Essert argues it’s possible to reimagine property as an egalitarian institution. (Greg Black Photography)

"I do think that the idea that when I own a piece of property, when I own a house, it allows me to kind of participate as an equal with my neighbours in all kinds of different activities, inviting them over and and having sort of community events that are predicated on each of us having a kind of a part of the world that we have a little bit of authority over."

"What we need is a system that ensures that each and every one of us can have some form of that protection," Essert said. 

Guests in this episode:

Rinaldo Walcott is the director of Women and Gender Studies Institute and an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education both at University of Toronto. His research is in the area of Black Diaspora Cultural Studies, gender and sexuality. His latest book is called On Property

Val Napoleon is the Law Foundation Chair of Indigenous Justice and Governance at the University of Victoria. She is a member of Saulteau First Nation and an adopted member of the Gitanyow (Gitksan) House of Luuxhon, Ganada (Frog) Clan. She is also the co-director of the joint JD and Indigenous law degree, the director of the Indigenous Law Research Unit at UVic, and the co-author of Creating Indigenous Property.

Christopher Essert is associate professor at the Faculty of Law at University of Toronto. He's currently working on a book about private property and its relationship to equality called Yours and Mine

*This episode was produced by Pauline Holdsworth.

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