S. Knewitz: The Politics of Private Property

The Politics of Private Property. Contested Claims to Ownership in U.S. Cultural Discourse

Knewitz, Simone
Political Theory for Today
Lanham, MD 2021: Lexington Books
Anzahl Seiten
XI, 283 S.
€ 108,95; $ 110.00, £ 85.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
M.J. Packo, Historisches Seminar, Universität Erfurt

Held back by student debt, the gig economy, stagnating wages, the 2008 financial crash, and, of course, COVID-19, the average American citizen is becoming ever more disillusioned with the American Dream.1 Though consumer culture is more prolific than ever before, key landmarks of stability, notably health insurance, social security and homeownership, are ever farther from our grasp, drastically more so for those who fall on the wrong side of the education and racial wealth gaps.2 From Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders’ campaigns calls to rally “the 99%”, to renewed discussions over reparations for the descendants of slavery, the focus of modern American discourse eschews class lines and rather delineates between its society’s haves and have nots – a consciousness of inequality measured primarily in property and asset ownership.3

Often framed as merely a legal distinction, there has long existed an intimate relationship between private property and American notions of human rights, identity, and citizenship. However, the very definition of property has rarely been static or uniform in the how – and to whom – it is applied. With this considered, Simone Knewitz’s The Politics of Private Property offers a much-needed analysis on an under-explored, yet vital factor in understanding the American socio-political consciousness. Central to her analysis are how the political discourses and the legal precedencies underwriting private property became intertwined with their social functions and vice versa. Organized chronologically, Knewitz’ analysis is laid out over five chapters, with its primary focus on the early 19th to early 21st centuries. Rightfully so, Knewitz has not taken on the task to write an extensive, detailed history of all American property contestations, but rather to present a handful of key case studies she considers emblematic of the larger discursive trajectory. The term “property” here is considered an umbrella term for “that which can be owned”, though in most cases concerns issues with land, homeownership and so-called “real” property.

Chapter one concerns the early 19th century discourse over land ownership and democratic participation in the wake of industrialization. Knewitz follows three interrelated political efforts, the Anti-Rent movement, Associationism, and the National Reform movement, all of which advocated on behalf of small-scale farmers to own and work their own land. Theoretically, these movements grounded themselves in the belief that land ownership gave citizens a higher stake in larger society, and thus the ability to participate in public politics. As far back as the Early Republic, founders such as Jefferson and Paine envisioned the small-scale yeoman farmer to embody their ideal citizen, arguing on a Lockean basis that the right of ownership was dependent on the work and improvement put into what was to be owned. Though theoretically inclusionary in its rhetoric, this focus on the white homesteader consistently came at the detriment to the rights and livelihood of Native Americans, whose (so-deemed) “unproductive” relationship to their lands would be used as a rational for their dispossession. Knewitz thus makes the important observation here that the liberal tradition of property regimes have been long tied to exclusionism and racial violence.

Following from this point, the second chapter describes the antebellum-era rhetorical battles surrounding slavery leading up to the beginning of the Civil War. Knewitz notes that both pro- and anti-slavery advocates argued their case using liberal theoretical frameworks. Examining oratory records from the Virginia Assembly and Congress, property is in this chapter revealed to not only be fundamentally political, but also highly contestable and changeable depending on social norms, values, and rhetoric.

Chapter 3 describes the transition of the small-scale farmer as ideal citizen into that of the wage-earning homeowner following the corporate revolution at the turn of the century. In this period, the advent of corporatization lead to debates surrounding the role and necessary regulation of corporations in relation to society. Importantly, the legal interpretation of property in this era shifted to the “bundle of rights” model, which understood the concept as fundamentally, “social, as a complex web of legal arrangements” (p. 117). This change allowed the government normative control to regulate private property, while simultaneously personalizing homeownership as the backbone of American society. Knewitz argues that, despite concerted efforts by reformists, the American working class ultimately traded active participation in production for domesticity and consumer culture.

This focus on the individual homeowner had the effect of prioritizing the white middle class, and ultimately served to systematically marginalize Black and minority populations for decades to come. Chapter 4 picks up on this issue, describing how redlining, federal programs and other discriminatory housing practices made it extremely difficult for Black Americans to afford to own their own homes and left urban and suburban spaces highly segregated. Recognizing that inequality was systematically ingrained in American institutions, advocates such as Stokley Carmichael, Malcom X, and the Black Panther Party sought to denounce the supposedly unbiased myth of meritocracy and reveal the aspects of institutions that led to what George Lipsitz has termed a “possessive investment in whiteness.”4 On the other end of the spectrum, conservative Black Capitalists had the same end goal in mind: expanding political and economic power for Black Americans, though they believed it should be achieved by working within the system rather than an outright rejection of it.

The final chapter describes the increasing libertarian property rights discourse prior to the financial crash of 2008. This rhetoric hinged on an antagonism between the public and private spheres, “naturalizing property rights as being apolitical and antistatic” (p. 194). The chapter begins by analyzing legal proceedings and the resulting media outcry over the exercise of eminent domain, in which homeowner rights lost the Supreme Court but won in the court of public opinion. It furthermore describes the presidency of George W. Bush and his campaign for the refashioning of the United States as a small government, market-driven “ownership society” (p. 193). His attempt to privatize social security and healthcare were ultimately unsuccessful, though they served to introduce a particularly lasting neoliberal rhetoric against government intervention ongoing to this very day.

Knewitz’ book rejects previous scholarship that would understand the American property regime as one of uniformity, and rather frames it within a field of ongoing renegotiation. In this framework, the history of property is a history of systematic exclusion, the centering of the white middle class in political discourse, and the continued hindrance of wealth and land acquisition for Black, Indigenous and other minority Americans.5

Having sketched out the fundamentally political, and often problematic character of property ownership, it is not difficult to connect Knewitz’ conclusions to even more contemporary matters, such as the sharing economy, intellectual and data privacy, and cryptocurrency investment. Future forms of property appear to be ever more intangible in nature, and yet still fundamentally contestable and socially constructed.

1https://jacobinmag.com/2018/02/young-families-median-worth-economic-recession (22.04.2022).
2https://time.com/6142138/young-voters-unhappy-washington/ (22.04.2022).
3 Sarah van Gelder (ed.), This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement, San Francisco 2011; William A. Darity Jr. / A. Kirsten Mullen, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, Chapel Hill 2020.
4 George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, Philadelphia 1998.
5 Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, Reconsidering Reparations, Oxford 2022.