Race, real estate and real abstraction

RP 194 () / Article, Dossier, Property, Power, Law

The crises and mutations of contemporary capitalism have rendered palpable Marx’s observation according to which in bourgeois modernity human beings are ‘ruled by abstractions’. [1] The processes of financialization animating the dynamics of the 2007–8 crisis involved the violent irruption into the everyday lives of millions of a panoply of ominous acronyms (ABSs, CDOs, SIVs, HFT, and so on), indices of highly mathematized strategies of profit extraction whose mechanics were often opaque to their own beneficiaries. At the same time, this process of financialization was articulated to the most seemingly ‘concrete’, ‘tangible’ and thus desirable use and exchange value available to the citizens of so-called advanced liberal democracies: the home. This is a site, a social relation, that as Ferreira da Silva and Chakravartty have noted encompasses the ‘juridical, political and economic’, thus serving as a lived material synthesis of the three main axes of modern thought. [2]

In the United States it was quickly revealed – indeed, it had been pointed out before the crisis by some critical geographers [3] – that the devastating socialization of the costs of accumulation via the housing market took deeply racialized (and gendered) forms, grafting, through a host of complex mediations, the forbiddingly impersonal realities of derivative contracts onto the deep and ongoing racial history of property markets and urban geographies. In this article, we want to think through this articulation of race, property and capitalist abstraction, exploring how attention to the forms of property may permit novel and politically urgent insights into the relationship between capitalism and race, addressing a critical area of social contestation in which processes of racialization are intensely present, but in which they are also frequently ‘disappeared’. [4] We revisit the place of property in Marxist theories of abstraction, to consider whether it can provide us with some of the instruments to think the present conjuncture, but also to explore the ways in which a consideration of the racial logics of property may require us to recalibrate our understanding of the violence of abstraction.

Separation, dissolution, abstraction

If we take Marx to have been engaged in the practical, emancipatory critique of capitalism, not just as a class system of exploitation but as a social form of abstract domination, then we can understand that under the misleadingly simple slogan ‘the abolition of private property’ lies the formidable problem of transcending a social relation, ‘bourgeois property’, which serves as the crucial nexus between the state (the object of Marx’s earliest critique) and the economy. In what sense is the question of private property a question of abstraction? Above all, perhaps, in the sense that private property (understood not as personal possession but as the legally sanctioned power to dispose of the means of production, and thus to dispose of labour-power: property as synonymous with capital) depends on a social process of separation – abstraction in the etymological sense of pulling out, extracting. In one of Marx’s most important mature treatments of the question of property, the section on pre-capitalist formations in the notebooks later collected as the Grundrisse, this separation is discussed in terms of a dissolution.

In passages that foreshadow his treatment of so-called primitive accumulation in the first volume of Capital, Marx depicts capitalism as the first system in which political or communal relations are no longer presupposed by property but are ‘posed’ by it. Far from being conditioned by a pre-existing community, property qua capital becomes the only real community, the one dominated by abstraction, by money. As he writes, ‘the relation of labour to capital … presupposes a process of history which dissolves the various forms in which the worker is a proprietor, or in which the proprietor works.’ He is alluding to the dissolution of the relation to the earth, in which there is ‘direct common property’; [5] the dissolution of proprietorship of the instrument (in craft production); the dissolution of the means of subsistence; and the dissolution of serfdom and slavery. These are the ‘historic presuppositions’ ‘needed before the worker can be found as a free worker, as objectless, purely subjective labour …