Possessive Nationalism: Race, Class and the Lifeworlds of Property

Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times
Andy Warhol, Orange Car Crash Four­teen Times, 1963

This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in the ear­ly part of 2017, as an attempt to grasp the mean­ing of two sig­nif­i­cant elec­toral out­comes – the UK ref­er­en­dum on EU mem­ber­ship and the elec­tion of Trump – out­side of what felt like an echo cham­ber of racist pop­ulism. The pas­sage of time has only slight­ly mut­ed the sense of acute cri­sis expe­ri­enced by those on the left in the after­math of the U.S. elec­tion and the Brex­it ref­er­en­dum. In this arti­cle, I sug­gest that the mate­r­i­al, imma­te­r­i­al and psy­chic dimen­sions of the cur­rent polit­i­cal moment can fruit­ful­ly be explored by think­ing about the role of prop­er­ty log­ics in con­sti­tut­ing the con­di­tions of its emer­gence. My intent is to con­sid­er how prop­er­ty and rela­tions of own­er­ship give a spe­cif­ic form to con­tem­po­rary racisms and nation­alisms, use­ful­ly cap­tured by the term “pos­ses­sive nation­al­ism”. By way of con­clu­sion, I sug­gest that cur­rent inten­si­fi­ca­tions of racism, right-wing pop­ulism and glob­al­ized, neolib­er­al forms of cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion require us to find ways to estrange and depose the pos­ses­sive indi­vid­ual and its prac­tices, desires, and habits that are at the foun­da­tion of con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal for­ma­tions.

While the polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic, cul­tur­al, and social his­to­ries of the Unit­ed States and the Unit­ed King­dom are rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent, both the cam­paign to Leave the EU and the cam­paign run by Trump shared many char­ac­ter­is­tics. The xeno­pho­bic and racist dis­cours­es, the sex­ism and, indeed, the unmis­tak­ably gen­dered appeal to mas­culin­i­ty embed­ded in the dis­course of sov­er­eign­ty in both cam­paigns, and the class com­po­si­tion and per­son­al wealth of the (near­ly uni­form­ly) white men and women at their fore, lead me to ask what kind of racial regime (fol­low­ing Cedric Robin­son) is being instan­ti­at­ed in this moment? Both cam­paigns appealed to a fan­ta­sy of a pri­or, sim­pler exis­tence, a time when real Amer­i­can cit­i­zens and tru­ly British sub­jects (i.e., Eng­lish sub­jects) had the cer­tain­ty of employ­ment in good jobs, con­trol over their bor­ders, and access to mar­kets over which they had dom­i­nance.1 With a gov­ern­ing cab­i­net in the Unit­ed States bear­ing the weight of sev­er­al wealthy white suprema­cists, and the ref­er­en­dum to leave the UK the result of a fra­ter­nal spat amongst Eto­ni­ans (with the fam­i­ly wealth of one of the lead­ing pro­tag­o­nists deriv­ing part­ly from involve­ment in the slave trade), the inter­ca­la­tion of race, gen­der, cap­i­tal, and class inter­ests demands an ana­lyt­i­cal frame­work capa­ble of tak­ing account of these inter­sec­tions.2 Prop­er­ty and specif­i­cal­ly rela­tions of own­er­ship pro­vide one such lens.

Here, prop­er­ty is con­ceived of in two dif­fer­ent ways: prop­er­ty as pos­ses­sion, and prop­er­ty as the life­world of the brand. In the first instance, as I will dis­cuss below, the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of the pos­ses­sive indi­vid­ual is scaled up to the lev­el of the nation state, where­in a desire to main­tain con­trol over social goods and pri­vate wealth, and a fan­ta­sy of absolute own­er­ship over the bound­aries of cit­i­zen­ship and the nation state man­i­fest as pos­ses­sive nation­al­ism.3 Sec­ond, I con­sid­er prop­er­ty in the form of the brand, and specif­i­cal­ly the life­world that the Trump brand rep­re­sents: one in which a strong man and his author­i­tar­i­an regime pro­tect the inter­ests of peo­ple enti­tled to secu­ri­ty (i.e., white peo­ple pre­dom­i­nant­ly of the mid­dle class), in a world that does away with “polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect” laws intend­ed to pro­vide racial and oth­er minori­ties with a mod­icum of equal­i­ty under the law, or to pro­vide women with access to health­care and abor­tion, and which van­quish­es the rel­a­tive­ly weak and very recent attempts to pre­vent com­plete envi­ron­men­tal cat­a­stro­phe. While much of Trump’s wealth and polit­i­cal pow­er hinges on the suc­cess of an actu­al brand (him­self), in the UK, appeals from the Leave cam­paign to shore up the Great­ness of Britain based on its impe­r­i­al past were cer­tain­ly cen­tral to the mar­ket­ing of its mes­sage and, while not trade­marked, fol­lowed the log­ic of the brand in its attempts to cre­ate a com­mu­nica­tive sphere based on shared val­ues with mate­r­i­al, imma­te­r­i­al, and psy­chic dimen­sions.4

Possessive Nationalism

At least two strands of com­men­tary have emerged in the after­math of the elec­tion and the ref­er­en­dum. One advances the idea that among the caus­es of both Brex­it and the Trump vic­to­ry, the most sig­nif­i­cant was a dis­en­fran­chised, white work­ing class revolt­ing against the estab­lished polit­i­cal order (“glob­al­ism,” “Brux­elles bureau­cra­cy”) and the prop­er­tied class­es (or “met­ro­pol­i­tan elites”). This nar­ra­tive, despite evi­dence to the con­trary, con­tin­ues to inform media cov­er­age of those “have-nots” who are only now com­ing to their sens­es, real­iz­ing the error of their ways as basic social enti­tle­ments upon which they depend are increas­ing­ly com­ing under attack. The bare­ly veiled con­tempt of the lib­er­al media pun­dits for the work­ing class, the under and unem­ployed, those with­out cul­tur­al cap­i­tal, was quite evi­dent in both the pre-elec­tion and ref­er­en­dum cov­er­age of those who intend­ed to vote for Trump/Leave; BBC inter­views and “in-depth” sto­ries about impov­er­ished white peo­ple in north­ern Eng­land, for instance, had a dis­tinct­ly “Nation­al Geo­graph­ic” feel about them, with well-mean­ing jour­nal­ists attempt­ing to under­stand the depraved and exot­ic pop­u­la­tions who were stu­pid and une­d­u­cat­ed enough to think that vot­ing Leave would improve their lot.

This is not to deny the fact that some work­ing-class vot­ers, and indeed, entire com­mu­ni­ties in areas of Eng­land and Wales that had been sub­ject­ed to decades of state neglect opt­ed to vote Leave. How­ev­er, what is of cru­cial impor­tance here is to chal­lenge the easy recourse (by some on both right and left of the polit­i­cal spec­trum) to the dis­course (implic­it or explic­it) of a white work­ing class as a nat­u­ral­ly con­sti­tut­ed group who has inevitably embraced a racist nation­al­ism as an under­stand­able or unavoid­able con­se­quence of neolib­er­al forms of glob­al­ized cap­i­tal­ism which have “left them behind.” The work of Vron Ware, Sat­nam Vird­ee and Bren­dan McGeev­er reminds us that this is a social­ly con­struct­ed cat­e­go­ry as much as that of “the immi­grant” and that this term has been mis­used and abused for the ben­e­fit of pre­dom­i­nant­ly right-wing politi­cians.5 Indeed, Ware’s arti­cle, pub­lished in 2008, seems most pre­scient when we con­sid­er how both the “print and broad­cast media con­tributed to a sense of the white work­ing class as a homo­ge­neous social seg­ment dri­ven inex­orably into the arms of the far right” in the after­math of the Brex­it vote.6

Nonethe­less, Vird­ee and McGeev­er argue that a decade-long peri­od of cri­sis in which the “white work­ing class” as a descrip­tive and ana­lyt­i­cal cat­e­go­ry fea­tured promi­nent­ly in the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive about glob­al­iza­tion and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism has “brought [it] to life… as a col­lec­tive social force.”7 The deci­sion amongst some poor and work­ing-class pop­u­la­tions to accept the racial frame­work that has long been at the core of Eng­lish nation­al iden­ti­ty needs to be placed in this con­text.

Anoth­er more plau­si­ble set of expla­na­tions com­pli­cates both the cat­e­go­ry “work­ing class” by exam­in­ing its racial com­po­si­tion, and com­pli­cates the cat­e­go­ry of race by look­ing at the class com­po­si­tion of white vot­ers who opt­ed for leav­ing the EU and vot­ed for Trump in large num­bers.8 Sev­er­al stud­ies in the after­math of both the ref­er­en­dum and the Amer­i­can elec­tion have shown that the aver­age income amongst a major­i­ty of Trump sup­port­ers was above the aver­age house­hold income, and that a major­i­ty of those who vot­ed to Leave were mid­dle class (59%).9 A fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor, Dor­ling, Stu­art, and Stubbs have shown, is age. Their analy­sis of Lord Ashcroft’s (admit­ted­ly lim­it­ed) polling data, shows that “dif­fer­ences in vot­ing pat­terns appear to divide along the lines of age (above all else), then by social atti­tudes, and then by edu­ca­tion, with old­er, social­ly con­ser­v­a­tive and less well-edu­cat­ed vot­ers more like­ly to vote to leave the EU.”10 When we con­sid­er the evi­dence, of the large num­ber of old­er, white, mid­dle-class vot­ers who opt­ed for leav­ing the EU in the UK, and who vot­ed for Trump in the Unit­ed States, one can sur­mise that at stake in both the elec­tion and the ref­er­en­dum was a fear of loss of exist­ing enti­tle­ments, pow­er, and priv­i­lege.11 In a world that may seem increas­ing­ly volatile, even if not for those in pow­er, and even if things are more volatile as the result of an inten­si­fi­ca­tion of struc­tur­al vio­lence and bru­tal exploita­tion wrought by those in pow­er for the ben­e­fit of the wealthy, it is arguable that the fear of loss of secu­ri­ty which under­pins the Ben­thamite ratio­nale for pri­vate prop­er­ty own­er­ship informed the deci­sion to embrace the bla­tant­ly pro­tec­tion­ist, xeno­pho­bic, and racist brands of nation­al­ism being ped­dled on both sides of the Atlantic.

This fear of loss of secu­ri­ty not only per­tains to the indi­vid­ual qua own­er, but also to the indi­vid­ual as part of a racial, eth­no-nation­al com­mu­ni­ty, which takes cit­i­zen­ship as its juridi­cal form. The notion of pos­ses­sive nation­al­ism can be under­stood as a corol­lary of pos­ses­sive indi­vid­u­al­ism. For the pos­ses­sive indi­vid­ual, the val­ue of prop­er­ty own­er­ship lies not only in the mate­r­i­al pow­er it affords the own­er, but also in own­er­ship being posit­ed as the path to full per­son­hood, cit­i­zen­ship, and belong­ing with­in the nation state. The psy­cho-affec­tive dimen­sions of the pos­ses­sive indi­vid­ual, includ­ing the desire to pos­sess exclu­sive­ly and to con­trol one’s pos­ses­sions absolute­ly, to deal with the need for secu­ri­ty and to calm the fear of los­ing one’s prop­er­ty, are here trans­mut­ed to the stage of the nation-state. The pos­ses­sive indi­vid­ual devel­ops a close iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with nation­al iden­ti­ty. Frank Cun­ning­ham describes pos­ses­sive nation­al­ism as a coa­les­cence of the “worst aspects of nation­al or eth­nic chau­vin­ism and aggres­sive cap­i­tal­ism” with the val­ues of the self-pos­ses­sive indi­vid­ual, includ­ing greed and self­ish­ness.12

Trump rep­re­sent­ed him­self as the embod­i­ment of pre­cise­ly this con­fla­tion; for instance, it was his alleged acu­men as a “smart busi­ness­man,” evi­denced by his suc­cess in avoiding/evading tax lia­bil­i­ty (through ques­tion­able means), that would enable him to pro­tect America’s bor­ders and busi­ness­es, and make a deal with his Mex­i­can coun­ter­part to foot the bill for a wall that would keep out Mex­i­can “mur­der­ers and rapists.” In the U.K., the Leave cam­paign was premised on the argu­ment that indi­vid­ual pros­per­i­ty could only be gained by “tak­ing back con­trol” over the nation’s bor­ders, reject­ing the pres­ence of for­eign­ers from Poland, Roma­nia, Lithua­nia, and oth­er parts of east­ern Europe, whose “white­ness” became con­testable seem­ing­ly overnight.

The pos­ses­sive indi­vid­ual is a raced and gen­dered sub­ject. As an ide­al – that is to say as the arche­typ­al sub­ject of the lib­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic cap­i­tal­ist nation state form – this fig­ure car­ries with­in it the man­i­fold his­to­ries of vio­lent dispos­ses­sion inau­gu­rat­ed by colo­nial­ism and slav­ery. The priv­i­leges that accrue to the pos­ses­sive indi­vid­ual, as Cheryl Har­ris argued in her sem­i­nal arti­cle, “White­ness as Prop­er­ty,” are not sim­ply a con­se­quence of own­ing stuff; indeed, the priv­i­leges that attach to being con­sid­ered (legal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly) white appear regard­less of one’s actu­al sta­tus as own­er. The even­tu­al legal cod­i­fi­ca­tion of slav­ery as a state of sub­jec­tion reserved for black bod­ies, and the legal cod­i­fi­ca­tion of racial seg­re­ga­tion that fol­lowed the end of slav­ery, pro­duced over time a val­ue attrib­uted to white­ness that func­tions much like a prop­er­ty inter­est.13 Race, as many fem­i­nists have ana­lyzed and explained since at least the late 19th cen­tu­ry, is gen­dered and oper­ates dif­fer­en­tial­ly along the axes of sex­u­al dif­fer­ence and sex­u­al­i­ty. There are thus many iden­ti­ty char­ac­ter­is­tics, prop­er­ties, that come to have val­ue in a way anal­o­gous to oth­er prop­er­ty inter­ests.

The fear of los­ing one’s secu­ri­ty that grips the pos­ses­sive indi­vid­ual not only relates, there­fore, to tan­gi­ble goods both per­son­al and social, but to the raft of priv­i­leges attached to white­ness, het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty and mas­culin­i­ty. The strong sense of enti­tle­ment to these tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble priv­i­leges oper­ates, recur­sive­ly, with anoth­er hall­mark of prop­er­ty own­er­ship, expec­ta­tion. The pos­ses­sive indi­vid­ual has “legit­i­mate” expec­ta­tions that the state will pro­tect his inter­ests, based on a sense of enti­tle­ment to the priv­i­leges and pow­er he enjoys. When these expec­ta­tions are threat­ened, or indeed not met, the resis­tance ranges from attacks on pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tion intend­ed to lev­el the field (such as affir­ma­tive action poli­cies), to lethal vio­lence. When scaled up to the lev­el of the state, pos­ses­sive nation­al­ism is expressed in xeno­pho­bic, eth­no-racial terms that lay claim to a white nation, with the expec­ta­tion that the state will secure the bor­ders, both inter­nal­ly and exter­nal­ly.

When con­sid­er­ing the man­i­fes­ta­tion of pos­ses­sive nation­al­ism in the set­tler colo­nial con­text, the impe­r­i­al dimen­sions of this polit­i­cal for­ma­tion become clear. Writ­ing in rela­tion to Israel, Judith But­ler has observed that “we can see how, in fact, the aims of both the nation and the colony depend­ed upon an ide­ol­o­gy of pos­ses­sive indi­vid­u­al­ism that was recast as pos­ses­sive nation­al­ism.”14 Lock­ean ratio­nales for the appro­pri­a­tion of indige­nous land, includ­ing the belief that one who improves the land accord­ing to cap­i­tal­ist agrar­i­an modes of pro­duc­tion is enti­tled to own it, have long been the basis for the trans­mu­ta­tion of pos­ses­sive indi­vid­u­al­ism into a form of nation­al­ism premised on the mar­gin­al­iza­tion if not era­sure of indige­nous pop­u­la­tions. Eva Mack­ey has revealed in com­pelling detail how “set­tler expec­ta­tions” of ter­ri­to­r­i­al integri­ty and per­son­al secu­ri­ty are based both on a fan­ta­sy of enti­tle­ment and ter­ra nul­lius.15 In her remark­able book, she shows how the ratio­nales for own­er­ship devised by Locke and Hobbes, entrenched in leg­is­la­tion, gov­ern­ment poli­cies, legal judg­ments, and state insti­tu­tions over cen­turies have cre­at­ed a com­mon-sense “set­tler log­ic” in indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties that inform their resis­tance to the recog­ni­tion of indige­nous rights to land and resources.

In this first sense of prop­er­ty as pos­ses­sion, pos­ses­sive nation­al­ism emanates from the his­tor­i­cal and ongo­ing dis­pos­ses­sion of First Nations, indige­nous, and racial­ized com­mu­ni­ties. Pos­ses­sive nation­al­ism took root in the “real prop­er­ty” of land and enslaved bod­ies: the indi­vid­ual owner’s sense of enti­tle­ment to secur­ing his sta­tus as a full cit­i­zen, as right­ful own­er, coa­lesc­ing with the ter­ri­to­r­i­al sov­er­eign­ty and juridi­cal pow­er claimed by the colo­nial state, both as impe­r­i­al pow­er in the case of the UK, and as a set­tler colony, in the case of the Unit­ed States.

The clear rejec­tion of mem­ber­ship in the Euro­pean Union sig­naled by the vote for Brex­it marked not only a desire to pro­tect the bor­ders and ter­ri­to­r­i­al integri­ty of the UK from for­eign­ers in the present, but in doing so, hear­kened back to a time of impe­r­i­al rule when the British also laid claim to vast swaths of ter­ri­to­ry glob­al­ly. The Brex­it vote was not only about keep­ing for­eign­ers out, but reflects a desire to reviv­i­fy a moment when the British ruled colo­nial pop­u­la­tions either direct­ly or indi­rect­ly. The repeat­ed ref­er­ences to the “Com­mon­wealth” as a poten­tial alter­na­tive source for immi­gra­tion was a polite if bare­ly veiled ref­er­ence to this pri­or time when Britain was, in the minds of colo­nial apol­o­gists, tru­ly Great.

Giv­en the basis of pos­ses­sive nation­al­ism, the fact that Trump is a real estate devel­op­er (with a fam­i­ly his­to­ry of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion against would-be ten­ants) is not insignif­i­cant. His alleged busi­ness acu­men is based on his expe­ri­ence as a ren­tier and spec­u­la­tor, rather than as an entre­pre­neur in a field requir­ing any sort of tech­ni­cal knowl­edge or exper­tise, nor on the pro­duc­tive invest­ment of cap­i­tal. His abil­i­ty to “make deals” is premised on know­ing­ly over­valu­ing his prop­er­ties so as to inflate his image and the pub­lic per­cep­tion of his per­son­al val­ue and net worth. More­over, Trump has acknowl­edged that his own eval­u­a­tion of his wealth is depen­dent on his emo­tion­al state, tak­ing the affec­tive and psy­chic dimen­sions of own­er­ship to new heights. As a pos­ses­sive indi­vid­ual, his net worth fills him with feel­ings of self-worth and val­ue; as a brand, his own emo­tion­al state and feel­ings about him­self deter­mines his net worth.16 And it is this con­fi­dence in his capac­i­ty to shore up his own val­ue, based on a feel­ing (about him­self) that gives way to the sec­ond type of prop­er­ty log­ic at play in this mael­strom of race, class, and nation­al­ism.

The Political Lifeworld of the Brand

Trump, as a brand, sig­ni­fies and cel­e­brates indi­vid­ual greed, a phan­tasm of absolute con­trol over a vast prop­er­ty empire, as well as author­i­tar­i­an­ism. His bla­tant­ly racist, sex­ist, and ableist hate speech has become a license giv­en to loy­al fol­low­ers to freely unleash sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments. The brand that he had cre­at­ed over sev­er­al decades that was more-or-less lim­it­ed to the world of celebri­ty tele­vi­sion, real estate, and oth­er busi­ness hold­ings, was recast as a polit­i­cal brand that would oper­ate as a unique and unprece­dent­ed stage for his and his family’s per­son­al cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, and would engage in a bio-polit­i­cal form of gov­er­nance that is not only about indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties of con­sumers (as with most brands) but now oper­ates on the lev­el of nation­al iden­ti­ty and cit­i­zen­ship. That the Trump brand pre­vailed in the Novem­ber elec­tion reflects a new inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the cit­i­zen cum con­sumer; the com­mu­nica­tive sphere engaged by the Trump brand mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy for years, the cor­po­rate dri­ven “pub­lic” plat­forms of social media, celebri­ty tele­vi­sion, and alt-right web­sites gave way to polit­i­cal ral­lies that trans­formed loy­al customers/consumers into a polit­i­cal con­stituen­cy.

If “build­ing brand equi­ty is about fos­ter­ing a num­ber of pos­si­ble attach­ments around the brand…[including] expe­ri­ences, emo­tions, atti­tudes, lifestyles or, most impor­tant­ly per­haps, loy­al­ty,” we can see what the impli­ca­tions are of the Trump brand being recast on the lev­el of nation­al pol­i­tics.17 Arvids­son empha­sizes that the eco­nom­ic val­ue of the brand is pro­duced by (and based upon) the social rela­tions and emo­tion­al involve­ment cre­at­ed by peo­ple around a brand.

In its con­tem­po­rary use, the brand refers not pri­mar­i­ly to the prod­uct, but to the con­text of con­sump­tion. It stands for a spe­cif­ic way of using the object, a prop­er­tied form of life to be real­ized in con­sump­tion. In their pro­duc­tive agency, con­sumers employ this prop­er­tied con­text as cap­i­tal in the obvi­ous sense of a means of pro­duc­tion. Brands sup­ply a vir­tu­al con­text that facil­i­tates or enables the pro­duc­tion of a par­tic­u­lar kind of com­mon.18 The brand is a “plat­form for action” that antic­i­pates cer­tain activ­i­ties and cer­tain modal­i­ties of relat­ing to those activ­i­ties.19. The vir­tu­al nature of the brand­ed con­text means that it only exists in so far as con­sumers take it seri­ous­ly: “The pow­er of a brand is what resides in the minds of cus­tomers.”20 The brand has to be enact­ed. (Arvids­son, “Brands: A Crit­i­cal Per­spec­tive,” 244.))

When recast at the lev­el of nation­al pol­i­tics, the enact­ing of a brand based on indi­vid­ual greed and accu­mu­la­tion (most point­ed­ly at the expense of the envi­ron­ment), racist nation­al­ism, and author­i­tar­i­an­ism become clear. The “vir­tu­al con­text” becomes the polit­i­cal ral­ly; the “plat­form for action” that was pri­mar­i­ly an indi­vid­ual one in the con­text of a vir­tu­al or imag­ined com­mu­ni­ty becomes the polit­i­cal plat­form of pro­posed poli­cies, leg­is­la­tion, supreme court appoint­ments, and mil­i­tary action. The polit­i­cal ral­lies, like Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion, were also often mis­rep­re­sent­ed in terms of the actu­al num­bers of atten­dees. The con­stant asser­tion of “alter­na­tive facts” was part of a con­tin­u­um of brand­ing, now of the pres­i­den­cy. The enact­ing of the Trump brand as sov­er­eign author­i­ty pos­si­bly her­alds a new cor­po­ratist form of author­i­tar­i­an rule. While ear­li­er fas­cist regimes sought to con­serve forms of class priv­i­lege and own­er­ship that essen­tial­ly rei­fied feu­dal rela­tions (such as was the case in Franco’s Spain, for instance), the brand based on the indi­vid­ual per­sona of author­i­tar­i­an fig­ures such as Trump appear to derive val­ue from the affec­tive, psy­chic, and per­for­ma­tive nature of his most odi­ous traits and ten­den­cies (or prop­er­ties). Where­as C.B. MacPherson’s the­o­ry of pos­ses­sive indi­vid­u­al­ism was based, as J.A. Pocock point­ed out, on prop­er­ty in its land­ed, or “real” form, the increas­ing impor­tance of the brand sig­nals the emer­gence of a dif­fer­ent kind of sub­ject, and rela­tions of own­er­ship that rely more heav­i­ly on imma­te­r­i­al and mobile forms of prop­er­ty.21 These are both pro­pri­eto­r­i­al sub­jects, but they are embroiled in dif­fer­ent forms of prop­er­ty, and per­form dif­fer­ent func­tions in the con­sti­tu­tion of con­tem­po­rary forms of nation­al­ism.

Con­sid­er­ing the oth­er side of this dialec­tic of con­sump­tion and cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, the Trump brand has gained an unpar­al­leled plat­form for prof­i­teer­ing (with unprece­dent­ed eth­i­cal com­plex­i­ties for the cus­tom­ary dec­la­ra­tion of per­son­al inter­ests that pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents have always adhered to). In this way, the life­world of his polit­i­cal brand has a per­son­al dimen­sion lack­ing in the UK con­text, where the brand­ing of the Leave cam­paign did not enter­tain a nexus with the per­son­al finan­cial inter­ests of any of the politi­cians behind it in such a direct man­ner. Notwith­stand­ing that, prop­er­ty as the life­world of the brand, of the prop­er­tied life that is the def­i­n­i­tion of a brand, has salience in that con­text too.

In the UK, the Leave cam­paign and sub­se­quent dubi­ous pro­pos­als for cop­ing with the fis­cal fall­out of leav­ing the Euro­pean mar­ket have both appealed to Britain’s impe­r­i­al past either explic­it­ly or implic­it­ly. The Leave cam­paign focused on two pri­ma­ry claims: the need to take back sov­er­eign con­trol over the nation’s bor­ders, and to regain Britain’s eco­nom­ic and legal auton­o­my by with­draw­ing from the EU and insti­tu­tions such as the Euro­pean Court of Human Rights and the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice. Despite the fact that Britain has the capac­i­ty to opt out of cer­tain aspects of EU immi­gra­tion and refugee law, the Leave cam­paign con­jured an image of for­eign­ers (be they Syr­i­an refugees or Pol­ish work­ers) flood­ing into the nation, tak­ing the jobs of real and deserv­ing British sub­jects and drain­ing what remains of the social wel­fare state (after sev­er­al years of aus­ter­i­ty at the hands of the Tories no less).22

The anti-immi­grant dis­course both recalled and echoed ear­li­er racist dis­cours­es against immi­gra­tion in the after­math of decol­o­niza­tion, and at the same time, has attempt­ed to recu­per­ate a ver­sion of Empire that nev­er came to pass, now being unof­fi­cial­ly referred to as “Empire 2.0.”23 In the lead-up to the ref­er­en­dum, the rhetoric of Farage was eeri­ly sim­i­lar to Enoch Powell’s infa­mous “Rivers of Blood” speech. While the tar­get of the anti-immi­gra­tion rhetoric was large­ly East­ern Euro­peans, who lost any exist­ing sta­tus as prop­er­ly “white” sub­jects, the nature of the xeno­pho­bia recalled the racism direct­ed at migrants of col­or that is con­sti­tu­tive of British nation­al­ism.

At the same time, the Com­mon­wealth came to be posit­ed as the panacea for poten­tial labor short­ages and trad­ing part­ners. In reject­ing Europe, Britain was to turn back towards that famil­iar (if now post-) colo­nial enti­ty that could reli­ably restore favor­able trad­ing con­di­tions, migrant work­ers, and the imma­te­r­i­al and psy­chic enti­tle­ments attached to their impe­r­i­al past – name­ly, the belief in the supe­ri­or­i­ty of their lan­guage, cul­tur­al habits, par­lia­ment, and legal insti­tu­tions, and their right to rule over oth­ers. Vird­ee and McGeev­er put this well: 

We con­tend that the allure of this “Glob­al Britain” [Prime Min­is­ter There­sa May used this term sev­en­teen times in the course of her first speech fol­low­ing the ref­er­en­dum] acquires res­o­nance among large swathes of the Euroscep­tic pop­u­la­tion in part because of its asso­ci­a­tion with Empire 1.0. That is, to speak of a Glob­al Britain is not only to sug­gest how great Britain can be in the future, but also to invoke warm col­lec­tive mem­o­ries of a now lost world where Britain was the glob­al hege­mon of the cap­i­tal­ist world econ­o­my. It is to remind that pop­u­la­tion of those glo­ry days of eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al supe­ri­or­i­ty, where every­thing from ships to spoons were marked with a Made in Britain stamp.”24

In leav­ing the EU, the accu­mu­la­tion of wealth and enti­tle­ments dur­ing the colo­nial era would be restored in a new era of coop­er­a­tion with Com­mon­wealth nations, now as inde­pen­dent but pre­sum­ably sub­servient part­ners to Great Britain. Hailed as delu­sion­al think­ing by more than one jour­nal­ist, the real­i­ty of trade in much of the Com­mon­wealth is of course much more com­plex than such a vision would allow.25

The brand­ing of Empire 2.0 appeared most ris­i­bly in a speech giv­en by Andrea Lead­som at the annu­al Tory par­ty con­fer­ence in Novem­ber 2016, where she claimed that Britain now exports “cof­fee to Brazil, sparkling wine to France, and naan to India.” Recall­ing Anne McClintock’s Impe­r­i­al Leather, these ref­er­ences to Britain (alleged­ly) export­ing the very com­modi­ties that sym­bol­ize the nation­al iden­ti­ty of those states to them is intend­ed as a demon­stra­tion of British pow­er, hav­ing the capac­i­ty and inge­nu­ity to lit­er­al­ly stuff their own food down their throats, or per­haps in a more gen­teel vain, to beat them at their own game.26

The strong sense of enti­tle­ment that lies at the basis of pos­ses­sive nation­al­ism per­vades the fan­tasies of a return to an imag­ined past, asso­ci­at­ed with par­tic­u­lar modes of pro­duc­tion. For Trump, this is a cir­ca-1950s Fordist uni­verse in which the fac­to­ry work­ers were white and had the means to be own­ers them­selves. The con­tin­u­al blus­ter and threats of war direct­ed at states that were once Cold War ene­mies reflects a desire for a return to a pri­or moment, before impe­r­i­al vio­lence donned the mask of human­i­tar­i­an inter­ven­tion. The strong man-brand who will defend Amer­i­can inter­ests abroad and for­ti­fy its bor­ders from out­siders con­sti­tutes its own form of impe­r­i­al nos­tal­gia. For the Tory gov­ern­ment in Britain, this fan­ta­sy is con­nect­ed to a time of mer­can­til­ism, when trade was on British terms and work­ers had the psy­cho­log­i­cal wage of being part of an impe­r­i­al pow­er. The cur­rent polit­i­cal moment, when grasped through the prop­er­ty log­ics dis­cussed above, requires us to con­sid­er how ide­olo­gies of own­er­ship, includ­ing expec­ta­tions to secure priv­i­leges and enti­tle­ments are enwrapped with­in xeno­pho­bic, racist, and gen­dered dis­cours­es of sov­er­eign­ty and nation­al­ism. Nation­al brands derive their pow­er from a prop­er­tied life­world in which indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties make emo­tion­al invest­ments in the fan­tasies of a return to a more sim­ple, secure time of plen­i­tude.

How can the prop­er­tied sub­jects of own­er­ship and accu­mu­la­tion be deposed and depro­pri­at­ed?27 It may be that the polit­i­cal chal­lenges of this moment require a recal­i­bra­tion and indeed, a re-cen­ter­ing of how we under­stand own­er­ship and its rela­tion­ship to race, class, and nation­al­ism, while we heed the urgent call to aban­don what Richard Wright once called “the fever of pos­ses­sion.”28 Eva Mack­ey con­fronts one of the hall­marks of own­er­ship in the set­tler colo­nial con­text, expec­ta­tion, with an argu­ment for the need to unset­tle expec­ta­tions of cer­tain­ty, sta­bil­i­ty, and pros­per­i­ty that have been built on the dis­pos­ses­sion of First Nations. In attempt­ing to depose and depro­pri­ate con­tem­po­rary sub­jects of own­er­ship who remain embed­ded in impe­r­i­al cir­cuits of accu­mu­la­tion, the chal­lenge before us becomes noth­ing less than a rad­i­cal unset­tling of a social con­tract based on appro­pri­a­tion and a desire to pos­sess. The cre­ation of types of com­mon­ing that break with the legal forms of prop­er­ty as know them, and the dis­man­tling of sov­er­eign forms of pow­er and sub­jec­tiv­i­ties with­in their orbit, leads us to recall Brecht’s speech to the First Inter­na­tion­al Con­gress of Writ­ers for the Defence of Cul­ture in Paris, 1935, where he enjoined his com­rades to “reflect on the roots of evil”: “Com­rades! Let us talk of prop­er­ty rela­tions!”29


  1. In the Unit­ed States, this was typ­i­fied by ref­er­ence to a time before the debt to Chi­na had spi­ralled out of con­trol, while in the UK, this was noth­ing oth­er than Empire itself. I con­sid­er the pecu­liar revival of appeals to the “Com­mon­wealth” below. 

  2. Car­o­line Davies, “How Do We Know David Cameron Has Slave Own­ers in His Fam­i­ly Back­ground?The Guardian, Sep­tem­ber 29, 2015. 

  3. Ana­lyz­ing the­o­ries of own­er­ship as pos­tu­lat­ed by Locke, C. B. Macpher­son explores how the emer­gence in the 17th cen­tu­ry of a mar­ket soci­ety inau­gu­rat­ed a con­cept of the sub­ject who was defined pri­mar­i­ly through his self-pos­ses­sion, defined by his capac­i­ty to alien­ate his labor in the mar­ket­place, and his osten­si­ble free­dom from reliance on oth­ers. See C.B. MacPher­son, The Polit­i­cal The­o­ry of Pos­ses­sive Indi­vid­u­al­ism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1962), 264. 

  4. Tony Blair’s infa­mous attempts to re-brand the nation as “Cool Bri­tan­nia” is one exam­ple of how brand­ing became a cen­tral fix­ture in mar­ket­ing strate­gies uti­lized by politi­cians. Wal­ly Olins explains how and why coun­tries devel­op nation­al brands: “The ways that coun­tries have sought to do this have been much mocked and mis­un­der­stood. They are not build­ing their nation­al brands so that mid­dle-aged politi­cians can look cool, but rather to help them com­pete not only for pow­er and influ­ence, but in the new bat­tles for exports, inward invest­ment and tourism. Each nation now seeks to pro­mote its indi­vid­ual per­son­al­i­ty, cul­ture, his­to­ry and val­ues, pro­ject­ing what might be an ide­al­ized but imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­niz­able idea of itself. These pres­sures dri­ve nations to adopt the mar­ket­ing and brand­ing tech­niques used suc­cess­ful­ly by so many glob­al com­pa­nies for a long time.” Wal­ly Olins, Trad­ing Iden­ti­ties: Why Cor­po­ra­tions and Coun­tries are Becom­ing More Alike (Lon­don: The For­eign Pol­i­cy Exchange, 1999). 

  5. See Sat­nam Vird­ee and Bren­dan McGeev­er, “Racism, Cri­sis, Brex­it,” Eth­ic and Racial Stud­ies 40 (2017): 13; and see Vron Ware, “Towards a Soci­ol­o­gy of Resent­ment: A Debate on Class and White­ness” in Soci­o­log­i­cal Research Online 13.5 (Sep­tem­ber 2008. 

  6. Ware, “Towards a Soci­ol­o­gy of Resent­ment: A Debate on Class and White­ness,” at 2.7. 

  7. Vird­ee and McGeev­er, “Racism, Cri­sis, Brex­it,” 13. 

  8. Omar Khan and Faiza Sha­heen, eds., Minor­i­ty Report: Race and Class in Post-Brex­it Britain (Lon­don: Run­nymede Trust, 2017). 

  9. Frank Mols and Jolan­da Jet­ten, “Why Trump and Brex­it are Not Work­ing-Class Revolts,” ABC Reli­gion and Ethics, Novem­ber 15, 2016. 

  10. Dan­ny Dor­ling, Ben Stu­art, and Joshua Stubbs, “Brex­it, inequal­i­ty and the demo­graph­ic divide,” LSE British Pol­i­tics and Pol­i­cy Blog, Decem­ber 22, 2016. 

  11. Mols and Jet­ten, “Why Trump and Brex­it are Not Work­ing-Class Revolts.” 

  12. Frank Cun­ning­ham, “Could Cana­da Turn Into Bosnia?” in Cul­tur­al Iden­ti­ty and the Nation-State, eds. Car­ol C. Gould and Pasquale Pasquino (Lan­ham, MD: Row­man and Lit­tle­field, 2001), 36–37. 

  13. Cheryl Har­ris, “White­ness as Prop­er­ty,” Har­vard Law Review 106, no. 8 (1993): 1710–91. 

  14. Athena Athana­siou and Judith But­ler, Dis­pos­ses­sion: The Per­for­ma­tive in the Polit­i­cal (Lon­don: Poli­ty Press, 2013), 9. 

  15. Eva Mack­ey, Unset­tled Expec­ta­tions: Uncer­tain­ty, Land and Set­tler Decoloni­sa­tion (Hal­i­fax: Fer­n­wood Press, 2016), 88. 

  16. David Cay John­ston, The Mak­ing of Don­ald Trump (Brook­lyn: Melville House, 2016), 79. 

  17. Adam Arvids­son, “Brands: A Crit­i­cal Per­spec­tive,” Jour­nal of Con­sumer Cul­ture 5 (2005): 239. 

  18. Rob Shields, The Vir­tu­al (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2003). 

  19. See Celia Lury, Brands: The Logos of the Glob­al Econ­o­my (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2004), 1. 

  20. Kevin Lane Keller, A Blue­print for Cus­tomer Based Brand Equi­ty (Mar­ket­ing Sci­ence Insti­tute, 2001), 3. 

  21. See Éti­enne Bal­ibar, Equal­ib­er­ty (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014), 69–70. 

  22. See Shel­ley Phelps, “Real­i­ty Check: Who Sets the UK’s Immi­gra­tion Pol­i­cy,” BBC News, June 9, 2016. 

  23. James Blitz, “Post-Brex­it Delu­sions about Empire 2.0,” Finan­cial Times, March 7, 2017. See also the dis­cus­sion in Vird­ee and McGeev­er, “Racism, Cri­sis, Brex­it.” 

  24. Vird­ee and McGeev­er, 4. 

  25. Ishaan Tha­roor, “Brex­it and Britain’s delu­sions of Empire,” The Wash­ing­ton Post, March 31, 2017. 

  26. Anne McClin­tock, Impe­r­i­al Leather: Race, Gen­der and Sex­u­al­i­ty in the Colo­nial Con­quest (New York: Rout­ledge, 1995). 

  27. Bal­ibar, Equal­ib­er­ty, 70–72. 

  28. Richard Wright, 12 Mil­lion Black Voic­es (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002), 25. See expand­ed dis­cus­sion of these themes in Bren­na Bhan­dar, Colo­nial Lives of Prop­er­ty: Law, Land and Racial Regimes of Own­er­ship (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2018), 

  29. Reprint­ed in Fran­co For­ti­ni, A Test of Pow­ers, trans. Alber­to Toscano (Kolkata: Seag­ull Press, 2016). 

Author of the article

is Senior Lecturer in the School of Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and the author of Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership (forthcoming, Duke University Press).