The novel's production of property
Critical legal scholars say 'narrative' inspire the property relations that govern much of the worlds assets. Where might we find stories that articulate alternative values?
In the introduction of Brenna Bhandar’s Colonial Lives of Property, the author invokes Edward Said’s critique of English literature as an engine of empire and imperialism. Bhandar, via Said, argues that the successful othering of distant sovereign cultures requires consistent maintenance through such work as a novel’s narratives, language and moralizing. Bhandar writes:
… [The novel] served to identify the true subjects of history, and thus it is no mystery as to why property ownership and propriety form such a colossal backdrop or, in some cases, explicit focus of so many key works of nineteenth-century English literature.
Fiction, to Bhandar, is one of the key cultural forms that does daily enacting1 of property. And in pursuit of the study of the role of property in the colonial project, it is English fiction’s role in enacting a certain selective view of property that not only justified advantageous logics of control and trade but created a bedrock “mechanism for the colonial accumulation of capital”.
For many critical legal scholars, they demand property be seen not a static artefact (as much legal work continues to labor away in doctrinal obscurity) but rather a means to an end. The selected ends, they argue, originate in imaginaries of how society should operate, who gets to benefit from resources, and what consists of productive use of land. As property theorist Carol Rose writes regarding property’s narrative origins:
The doctrine of first possession, […] reflects the attitude that humans are outsiders to nature. It gives the earth and its creatures over to those who mark them so clearly as to transform them, so that no one will mistake them for unsubdued nature. The metaphor of the law of first possession is, after all, death and transfiguration; to own a fox the hunter must slay it, so that he or someone else can turn it into a coat.
The story of property, told by English thinkers like John Locke and William Blackstone, suggested that furthering of economic activity and a reduction of costly resource conflicts required clearly delineated property rights. More modern thinkers like Friedrich Hayek saw strong property rights as a key foundation of liberty — as a core mechanism to protect individuals from authoritarianism. Economist Hernando de Soto famously applied this line of reasoning in The Mystery of Capital to the question of global poverty. He argued that the reason that poverty persisted in the global South was because of too much informalized and thus inefficient economic activity. De Soto’s policy proscription was to further deploy the strong ownership model to where it hadn’t yet reached, allowing the vibrant economic activity of the world’s poor to become de-risked and visible to potential investment streams. Much World Bank development policy followed suit, setting forth waves of formalization campaigns, creating rights to land and intellectual designs where there were previously commons.
For critical legal scholars, property laws served to embed and secure certain forms of economic activity and desired use of land. Today, equating property with individualized ownership may feel like common sense, but a close look at the development of property shows how the law served to manifest a fiction composed of a select set of societal values.
The strong ownership model of property that has come to dominate much of the world may be a quintessentially English phenomenon. It was English scholars and thinkers who justified the enclosures in the British Isles and the murderous frontier expansion in the Americas through articulations of ‘enlightened’ forms of property2. Bhandar expands upon this, showing how the story of property was key to legitimizing the colonial project though racializing certain forms of extraction and production, setting out a framework for who can own and who cannot.
And while it is vitally important to draw lessons of the wide diversity of land relations across the world, I think is important to also search for quintessentially English counter ideals of property. If Said identifies the nineteenth century novel as a driver of imperial rationality, might there be pieces of fiction that reject the property logicss at the heart of the colonial project? And might that suggest a dormant counter sensibility to the norms of property found embedded deep within the dominant core?
New visions of property in Howard's End
I suggest the permanence of Howard’s End in English culture presents alternative morals about the way we control, access, transfer, and use land —hidden in plain sight amongst England’s treasured stories.
At the conclusion of the novel, a sense of bittersweet justice is achieved when Margaret Schlegel, despite a book’s worth of efforts to prevent it, becomes the spiritual heir to the titular countryside home. The final pages consist of bucolic scenes of Margaret and her sister, Helen, playfully debating how to realize the rural estate’s potential brilliance. As they unpack, they notice how their furniture, shipped from industrializing London, ‘just fits’ into the home’s many weathered nooks.
Much literary criticism has been written on the themes of Howard’s End – the clash of families with differing ideals, the changing values of a nation, and to some extent, the role of class determination. But for me, I’ve come to see the book as mostly about one thing: a prescient meditation on what is rotten about property.
Howard’s End is a book about a house – who controls it, who ought to control it, and what it should and should not be used for. For Forster, the book offers a lament about a changing England’s propensity to rip apart social bonds in order to craft ingenious yet soulless commodities. Ruth Wilcox, the original owner of the house, becomes increasingly estranged from her childhood home, as her overtly capitalist and colonial profiteering husband draws her both physically and metaphorically away from her cherished pastoral way of life. On her death bed, put up against her wishes in a lifeless modern flat in London, she makes a desperate decision to bequeath the home to Margaret, a chance acquaintance in who she places her hopes. But the other Wilcoxes are emboldened by their right to property. Hungry for a permanent need to nurture productive assets, they secret away Ruth’s dying wish, writing it off as feminine folly and poor business.
Throughout the book there is a sense that the modest English country estate has its own agentic spirit. Its soul dictates a ‘right’ kind of use. Here, the correct user of such a property is Margaret, the idealistic and compassionate free thinker of worldly origins, rather than the Wilcoxes, the new money capitalists and colonialists who view all things, including Howard’s End, as a commodity added to a line in their accounting ledgers.
Maybe this feeling of injustice that is felt when Ruth Wilcox’s wishes are ripped up, can drive a note of warning that the way we relate to land primarily through ownership doesn’t have to be the only way. The book taps into a dormant, yet unmistakable piece of wisdom: The Wilcox’s own the house, but it doesn’t belong to them.
Of course, Forster’s solution to the impropriety of some property relations is also revealing in its limitations. Margaret’s power to make decisions over the land are only granted by a convenient erasure of a slew of other potential heirs with stronger legal claims than hers. Her husband’s eldest son is conveniently sent to prison. Her nephew’s father dies suddenly, and finally, Margaret’s husband, the current legal owner of the property, only agrees to pass the house on to Margaret and her nephew out of a feeling of disgrace for his various faults throughout the book. Margaret’s control of the house at the end of the book is based on a powerful yet precarious informal agreement.
Thus, while Forster saw a need to critique the way property was being further linked to capitalist logics, his own imagination of alternatives was severely handicapped, positing an alternative land relation based on the virtuous gifting of land to a better steward. The resolution offered still enshrines absolute private property, but suggests those rights be given to person best suited to match the home’s true purpose.
In our current system, a piece of land has no agency. It is allocated to individuals based on wealth and social connections, not to those who might use it best. Forster’s vision of land allocation, where the best use of the land is matched with the best person capable to fulfill that use is probably an advancement on the current way we allocate land. But the true horizon, the leading edge of what might remake land into something that is a stable foundation for truly regenerative food systems to emerge, might require moving beyond concepts of land ownership entirely. When we start to become comfortable with thinking of arable land not as something owned by farmers, but as a key piece of the many social relations needed to feed everyone and reproduce our way of life, things might be able to shift.
Recently, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food released an interim report to the UN General Assembly laying out a suite of policy recommendation to address the joint problems of severe food insecurity and climate change. The notable policy recommendations that stood out to me were points (e) and (f) under the heading Immediate action to begin medium- and long-term food system transformation:
(e) Expropriate large-scale tracts of land employing industrial intensive methods or owned by financial investors and redistribute them to indigenous peoples and local communities for the purpose of agroecological food production; (f) Ensure that land rights, the right to land and agrarian reform are central to any discussion of climate change and food security.
I’ve now had enough experience laying out the critique of the ownership model of property to groups of interdisciplinary agricultural researchers in the global North to know that such suggestions of expropriation and agrarian reform receive immediate pushback. Arguments over legality, efficiency, and political feasibility are quickly raised. But my hunch is that underneath these arguments lies a hidden commitment to the sanctity of an individual’s right to own — and an associated fear of a world without such a strong guide for the allocation of resources.
I’ve recently become a home owner. To say such, is a fiction. A lengthy contract from a bank dictates that it will be my home no longer if I cease to pay the requisite interest. The building I am in is the product of many people’s labor, hopes and dreams. My ability to ‘own’ is only granted through a complex set of national priorities, legal constructs, and tax incentives. The house is strongly governed by my own individual decision making, but it has the capacity to serve many interests beyond my own.
But after a lifetime of being sold on the virtues of property ownership can I begin to see ‘my home’ for what it really is and what it could be potentially do? How should one resist the peddled security of ‘getting on the property ladder’ and making into the bottom rung of the landlord class? Is not my own child learning quickly to differentiate between what is ‘mine’ and what ‘not mine’ as one of the core ordering principles for her world? There are many levels of cultural conditioning that pushes one to enact the same old story of the ownership model. And there are real material benefits to be one by dancing to that familiar tune.
In places where the vision of ownership is not only enshrined in the law, but also held up as a pinnacle of virtue, there is much work to be done. Unraveling the many cultural layers about what is proper about property is a crucial task that should be at the center of food system reform. As of now, the surest path to change how we use land is to buy it outright. This is a much, much too limited a pathway for the change in agricultural land use we desperately and urgently need. Consequently, I heard the house imagined as the inspiration behind Howard’s End was recently sold to the highest bidder.
The idea that property is not a static field but rather something that must be culturally performed through mundane daily enactments, is often attributed to the work of property scholar Nicholas Blomley.
This paragraph appears in a an article written for the Sustainable Food Trust: https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/news-views/property-and-sustainability/