I’m currently reading Marquis Bey’s Anarcho-Blackness: Notes Toward a Black Anarchism. These are some reflections on and excerpts from the fourth chapter, titled Unpropertied. This post comes against the backdrop of continued protests and uprisings here in Oakland and the rest of the Bay Area in solidarity with Minneapolis, Kenosha, and the broader fight against police violence.
Bey explores the notion and construction of property in this chapter. Generally speaking, anarchist philosophy rejects capitalism’s perpetuation and accumulation of private property — a relevant topic while we are in the midst of anti-police uprisings and rebellions in the US. Some folks are critical of the destruction of private property during protests like what we have seen across the country, but it is quite justifiable when you consider the historical context in which the concept was developed — through colonization, plantations, enslaving people, redlining, and the weaponization of debt that caused the subprime mortgage crisis which disproportionately affected people of color during the Great Recession. Just watch Kimberly Jones’s critique which went viral earlier this summer. If that isn’t a coherent and compelling justification of property damage and destruction, I don’t know what is.
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What is property? There is of course the definition of property as a state-protected monopoly over resources or privileges that are then deployed to others’ exploitation (e.g. to own land and then rent that land to others for one’s own profit). But there is also the sense of property as an essential or peculiar characteristic of a thing. Anarchism seeks, then, to remove the private ownership of property that sustains capital accumulation. Black anarchism must consider both senses by way of acknowledging and forming a politicized movement around the fact that the history of Blackness is testament to the fact that there are some whose property (essential characteristic) was property (an ownable thing).
Enslaved people, who owned no property and no wealth, were themselves considered highly valuable property. The land on which plantations were built was naturally unowned and taken from native people. If the very foundation of the concept of property is rooted in such immorality, illegitimacy, and tenuousness, how could we possibly defend it now? How can we defend a system where a small portion of the wealthy control massive corporations while millions are unemployed, where the wealthy few own multiple homes or entire apartment buildings while hundreds of thousands are homeless?
The entire concept of protecting corporations, banks, and federal private property is even more preposterous when you realize that these are the very institutions that are unwilling to protect, house, and hire Black lives. We’ve seen in hundreds of videos that police are more interested in protecting property than people. They will use astonishingly excessive force to do so. As Jones said in her critique, “Fuck your Target. Fuck your hall of fame.”
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In closing the chapter, Bey writes:
Racial and gendered capitalism rest at the heart of the will to possess and privatize the ownership of possessable things. Thus, anarchism demands its abolition, not a conciliatory reform, for “it is impossible to reform the system of racial capitalism.” The capitalist demand for property and its ownership by those in power recognizes only gluttony, and the necessity for exploitation to maximize that gluttony’s expansion. This theft is of the first order, and to move toward anarchic life is to steal on the second order, to steal back and let free what is unownable. Indeed, property and capitalism have deemed this stealing back a negatively connoted theft without recognition of its own theft. But we are on to that ol’ tired smokescreen. We know what’s really up. We’ve known for a while. We’ve known, in the final instance, that as the seventeeth-century folk poem goes,
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
The poor wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.
Early in US history, only white men who owned property were allowed to vote. While property ownership is no longer a prerequisite for voting, it remains a tool of oppression and exploitation under capitalism. When you begin to understand the idea of property through this lens, rather than how capitalism has conditioned us to think of (and protect) private property, you begin to uncover how the system perpetuates itself and its injustices. Understanding the historical context and inquiring into the current role of property in our society opens the door to a deeper understanding of its function within capitalism.