Matthew Erie, ‘The Afterlife of Property: Affect, Time, Value’

Abstract
This chapter asks the question: what happens when the state’s form of legalism no longer recognizes the basis of claims to property, bases which nonetheless may flourish beyond state property regimes? To address this question, the chapter brings into dialogue, on the one hand, theories of property rights that equate property ownership with personhood and, on the other hand, anthropological discussions of value, in particular, neo-Maussian approaches to persons and things. Whereas such approaches may agree that property is the basis of human flourishing, the state’s non-recognition or outright violent destruction of certain grounds for owning property do not result in the end of such attachments. Rather, attachments may survive their ‘death’ by state legalism, producing a condition of the ‘afterlife’ of property. I examine this condition through the empirical case of property contests (both buildings and land) in contemporary China. Specifically, property attains an afterlife when state legalism no longer monopolizes the categories of property, but rather, kinship, religious communities, and village life generate their own forms of legalism centred on property. I provide a number of examples of this effect that show property holders, while not wholly rejecting the legitimacy of state law, nonetheless question, challenge, contest, and reinterpret its logics. The afterlife of property is not limited to religious sites. The first case, for example, is that of a Han woman in Beijing who seeks the restitution of her family-owned courtyard based on a private property argument that exposes the violent arbitrariness of state law, specifically its omission of compensation for Cultural Revolution-era illegal takings. Similarly, in the second case, a Chinese Muslim (Hui) man encounters contemporary echoes of Cultural Revolution unlawfulness in local corruption in the real estate industry in northwestern China. Third, along these lines, a distinct Hui group also encountering local corruption declines to commoditize land they hold sacred due to its ties to their own history. Lastly, in the fourth example, another Hui group must weigh the competing valuations of property in multiple legalisms, those of state law and the market and those of their own Sufi-inspired legalism. Collectively, the examples stand for the idea that property’s value inheres in legalisms grounded in notions of family, home, and faith and that individuals’ sense of rights’ security is born from such legalisms. Such interpretations create strong affective ties which long outlive the formal basis of property rights in state law, producing irresolvable tensions — property’s afterlife.

Erie, Matthew S, The Afterlife of Property: Affect, Time, Value (January 5, 2018) in Legalism: Property and Ownership, edited by Hannah Skoda, Tom Lambert, and Georgy Kantor. Oxford University Press, 89-114.

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