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Social Relations > Property Relations: A Speculative Curriculum

Anthony Romero

What I offer here is a speculative project. An evolving collection of thoughts, a fever dream of sorts, an admission, the purpose of which is to attempt to imagine how to privilege social relations over property relations. Or to not “privilege” them at all, as that would imply that property relations should be allowed to remain intact and that I am simply advocating for a reordering of values, when, in fact, I am suggesting that we can dream of a world in which our relations to each other, to animals, and to landscape are not produced and conditioned by ownership and property but by a kind of sociality, interdependence, and cooperation. How might this affect the ways in which we relate to each other (human/animal) and to the materials and resources that co-populate the landscape? What might we have to reimagine or rebuild? How could we accomplish such a task or at least approach it as a possibility?

My hesitancy, upon first writing, to admit to dreaming of such a thing should be taken as exemplary of the ways in which I (we) have been indoctrinated by capitalism and by the historical erasure of any past, present, or future alternative. Mark Fisher makes this point in Capitalist Realism in reference to the dystopia in Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men and the imaginary that it conjures. Of his recollection of the film, Fisher writes:

  • We are inevitably reminded of the phrase attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. That slogan captures precisely what I mean by “capitalist realism”: the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.1

Capitalist realism, as Fisher suggests, “cannot be confined to art or to the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.”2 Fisher hits two interesting notes here. First, he acknowledges the place of education within the discussion of capitalism; second, he articulates capitalism as an ideology, that is, as a pervasive and yet invisible—or better, “natural”—set of beliefs and relationships. It strikes me as an obvious necessity to understand the governing of and adherence to the logics of property and ownership as being part of such capitalist ideologies, but I want to complicate that notion by suggesting that these same logics are colonial imports and, as such, serve as remainders of the kind of settler-colonial systems that were violently forced upon native peoples, animals, and lands.

It is important to remind ourselves that systems like capitalism and neoliberalism have been so quickly naturalized because they remain functional within the afterlife of European settler colonialism. Much of the work of the settler-colonial state is built on the idea of preparation: making ready lands, resources, and peoples for extraction, profiteering, confinement, exclusion, erasure, and eventually death. These preparations occur in multiple directions at the same time. It’s not only about the colony and its environment, but about making ready the colonizers, the empires, the bureaucrats, legislators, and legal enforcers. If we imagine it as a machine, we must see a kind of self-correcting artificial intelligence: it learns from itself and its environments to make predictive choices about how to operate at the highest level of efficacy in the future. All of this is to say that while the term “property relations” necessitates a discussion of capitalism, it is also woven into a complicated knot of overlapping and interconnected ideas, including colonialism, education, and incarceration, to name only some.

The importance of locating education’s place within this ever tightening knot comes from acknowledging not only the privilege associated with access to education and knowledge production and the ways in which they constrain or expand based on the accumulation of wealth, but also the policies that distribute or deny opportunity based on geographic proximity to a given community or school. Disinvestment in a given community should be seen as a property relationship to the extent that disinvestment includes not only the bodies and lives of people within those communities but also their homes, schools, and surrounding lands. Poor schools, food deserts, restricted access to public parks—these are all governed by property, ownership, and profit. If part of the colonial project is about “making ready” lands, peoples, and resources, etc., then the role of education within the practice of colonial indoctrination is to “make ready” the intellect and spirit of both colonizer and colonized by erasing, withholding, and devaluing indigenous knowledge while simultaneously replacing it with a colonial worldview that rewrites one’s relationship to self and the world as it builds the capacity to self-produce colonial values. Colonialism not only tells us what to think but how to think. It is not enough that we build our world around things like property and ownership; we must also deeply internalize the truth of that decision and see it as unique and original. Martin Conroy follows a similar line in connecting education to imperialism and capitalism in his book Education as Cultural Imperialism:

  • The “traditional” theory of schooling is based on the widely held view that Western education brings people out of their ignorance and underdevelopment into a condition of enlightenment and civilization … With the advent of capitalist forms of production, this pedagogical concept of human transformation was gradually coopted into the theory of capital accumulation. Just as the human mind could be transformed from ignorance into intelligence, human labor could be transformed from unskilled to skilled, from having a feudal outlook to being rational and competitive, from being socially dangerous to being orderly.3

Conroy reveals the ways in which the very idea of education in the West, the very core of pedagogy as we typically practice it, is rooted in notions of inferiority, civility, order, penalty, and criminalization. This last idea is important for considering the pervasiveness of promoting and maintaining our commitments to property relations to the detriment of our social well-being. We must think not only of galleries and museums as sites where this occurs but also of art schools—the very sites of artistic knowledge production. It is in art schools that artistic values are written into the practices and minds of both students and faculty. We must think of the ways that our education systems, operating as mirrors and instruments of cultural and social norms, have not only been affected by neoliberal and capitalist logics but also infected with the kinds of carceral logics that take root in other areas of our lives.

This way of thinking originated for me while reading Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism. In writing about the Black Panther Party, lumpenization, and automation, Wang reminds us of the ideas of black radical intellectuals like George Jackson, for whom socio-economic conditions not only produce laws and, in doing so, determine what is and isn’t a law, but also produce who is or is not a criminal. Because these laws are predicated on property relations and not social relations, they are constructed to protect and preserve the very relations that produce them. It is worth quoting George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye here, as he illuminates the relationship between property relations, criminalization, and incarceration: “The ultimate expression of law is not order—it’s prison. There are hundreds upon hundreds of prisons, and thousands upon thousands of laws, yet there is no social order, no social peace. Anglo-Saxon bourgeois law is tied firmly into economics … Bourgeois law protects property relations and not social relationships.”4 “Order” here is the idea that connects these various colonial, pedagogical, and carceral threads. It is the need to order, to organize, to make sense of, which is to demand legibility and a kind of European intelligibility from the landscape; this ordering leads to the dividing of the landscape, to the distinction between private and public lands. It is this same need that continues to drive an education system that is more concerned with “social order” than collective knowledge production. It is this same need that disguises the warehousing of black and brown bodies within the prison–industrial complex as justice.

If we, at the very least, are to dream of a world in which our relations to each other, to animals, and landscape are not produced and conditioned by ownership and property but by a kind of sociality, interdependence, and cooperation—and I believe we can—than we must interrogate our own desire to order the world. Why do we demand that our neighbors, our students, our colleagues, families, and friends make themselves legible and available to us in a way that fulfills our expectations and presuppositions about who they are? Why must we fix the world in a static shape? Undoing the knot requires a disinvestment in property and ownership and the encouragement of a sociality that is not centered on the human but on an interconnected communism which includes peoples, animals, and lands.

—Anthony Romero

Anthony Romero is a Boston-based artist, writer, and organizer committed to documenting and supporting artists and communities of color. Recent projects and performances have been featured at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha; Blue Star Contemporary, San Antonio; and the Mountain Standard Time Performative Art Biennial, Calgary. Publications include The Social Practice That Is Race, co-authored with Dan S. Wang, and the exhibition catalogue Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements, of which he was the editor. He is a co-founder of the Latinx Artist Visibility Award, a national scholarship for Latinx artists produced in collaboration with artist J. Soto and OxBow School of Art, and a cofounder of the Latinx Artists Retreat, a national gathering of Latinx artists and administrators. He is Professor of the Practice at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, Boston.

1 Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (Zero Books, 2009), 2.

2 Ibid., 16.

3 Martin Conroy, Education as Cultural Imperialism (Addison-Wesley Longman Ltd, 1974), 2.

4 George Jackson, Blood in My Eye (Black Classic Press, 1975), 63.

February 21, 2019