Aileen Moreton-Robinson in her book The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty presents a collection of essays on race, dispossession and sovereignty. She argues that ‘the thread that weaves the chapter(s) together is the intersubstantive relations between white possession and Aboriginal sovereignty’. Moreton-Robinson’s position aligning with the aim of the book as written by a critical Indigenous scholar is clear and well-defined through a wide range of issues that are addressed in each of these essays. Thus, there are a number of avenues that a commentary on this book can take – I choose to focus on two main broader themes in relation to solidarity and power.
The aim of this book is to reveal how racialization is the process by which whiteness operates possessively to define and construct itself as the pinnacle of its own racial hierarchy.
There is no doubt that this is a powerful aim. However, as a migrant to Australia I was questioning the core of this book: are possessive logics only limited to whiteness? According to Aileen Moreton-Robinson, based on the arguments in the book, the answer to this question is undoubtedly ‘no’ as she limits the boundaries of indigeneity to the US, Canada and New Zealand. This book would have been more impactful had it addressed issues with indigeneity and dispossession beyond the so-called global north context and beyond whiteness.
I would like to acknowledge that I am writing this commentary as a migrant coming into Australia with existing sets of ontological attachments to land. Although Moreton-Robinson does refer to non-white migrants as those that ‘can belong, but they cannot possess’, she also states:
Nonwhite migrants’ sense of belonging is tied to the fiction of terra nullius and the logic of capital because their legal right to belong is sanctioned by the law that enabled dispossession.
There is a lot of emotion attached to the above statement and depending on the ontological positions, various non-white migrant groups will read this accordingly. This is a different take to critical colonial history as compared with Priyamvada Gopal’s views in her recent book Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent. Through a comprehensive historical analysis of anticolonial resistance, Gopal illustrates the significant role of solidarity among various groups (white and non-white) to create meaningful revolutions. Solidarity is a key aspect and potentially a way forward towards decolonization, which is missing from The White Possessive.
The above observations and reflections on the book are based on who I am and my relation to Country (as a migrant). The following few paragraphs will focus on specific reflections on the content with reference to the use of Michel Foucault and the post-structural approach framing The Whie Possessive. First, there are some discrepancies in Moreton-Robinson’s position as a post-structuralist especially in relation to the issue of power. In the last, third section of the book, Moreton-Robinson uses ‘Foucault’s sovereignty, race and biopower thesis to propose a new research agenda for Critical Indigenous studies.’ In my view, Foucault’s concept of power is relational. In Foucault on Power, Dore argues that Foucault defined power as a ‘multiplicity of force relations’ which are non-subjective because they do not result ‘from the choice or decision of an individual person’. Bio-power according to Foucault is ‘one of these macro-strategies of domination by the modern state’.
However, throughout the book, Moreton-Robinson’s position and the relationship of sovereignty, race and biopower is very much subjective and limited to whiteness – ‘possessive logics of patriarchal white sovereignty’ – as forms of structured dispossession. This is different from post-structuralists such as Gayatri Spivak, who in Can the subaltern speak engages with a more nuanced, relational understanding of power and discusses the implications of ‘tiers of domination and power between and within groups rather than a structured, almost homogenised understanding of the dispossessed and dispossessor. Similarly, Hagar Kotef in her book The Colonizing Self: Or Home and Homelessness in Israel/Palestine captures these nuances offering a theory of the dispossessor through various, rich case studies documenting the complexities of meaning of home and property.
The complexity within the settler colonial context such as Australia becomes more complex (even more subjective at a micro level) when the ‘logics of capital’ convert one’s ‘home’ into private ‘property’. This conversion of home into property through ‘theft’ enabled by dispossession is eloquently articulated by Robert Nichols in his book Theft is Property: Dispossession and Critical Theory where he uses Within a settler colonial context Nichols argues that:
First…dispossession merges commodification (or, perhaps more accurately, “propertization”) and theft into one moment…and second because of the way dispossession generates property under conditions that require its divestment and alienation, those negatively impacted by this process—the dispossessed— are figured as “original owners” but only retroactively, that is, refracted backward through the process itself.
Nichols uses the term recursive dispossession to define this logic. He uses this discipline-specific term of recursion as ‘a self-referential and self-reinforcing logic’ whereby the ‘recursive procedures loop back upon themselves in a “boot-strapping” manner such that each iteration is not only different from the last but builds upon or augments its original postulate.’
…in this (colonial) context, theft is the mechanism and means by which property is generated: hence its recursivity. Recursive dispossession is effectively a form of property-generating theft.
Although this book as part of an ‘Indigenous Americas’ series of critical literature on Indigenous studies, is a significant contribution to understanding the logics of property, power and Indigenous sovereignty in the Australian context, a more nuanced and holistic analysis of various layers of complexities attached to these issues would have elevated it. Moreover, there is limited direction for possible future pathways. The last section, Afterword begins with:
Throughout this book I have illustrated how the possessive logics of patriarchal white sovereignty discursively disavow and dispossesses the Indigenous subject of an ontology that exists outside the logic of capital, by always demanding our inclusion within modernity on terns that it defines.
Without actually paving potential pathways towards this – how can this be achieved? Moreton-Robinson is limited in terms of proposing any possible directions due to her lack of engagement with changing geopolitical global power relationships and the emergence of non-white possessive structures in the present era.