Earth into Property: Colonization, Decolonization, and Capitalism by Anthony J. Hall
Article first published online: 23 JAN 2012
© 2012 The Author Antipode © 2012 Antipode Foundation Ltd.
Volume 44, Issue 1, pages 269–272, January 2012
How to Cite
McCREARY, T. (2012), Earth into Property: Colonization, Decolonization, and Capitalism by Anthony J. Hall. Antipode, 44: 269–272. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2011.00950.x
- Issue published online: 23 JAN 2012
- Article first published online: 23 JAN 2012
Anthony J. Hall , Earth into Property: Colonization, Decolonization, and Capitalism , Montreal : McGill-Queen's University Press , 2010 . ISBN 978 0 77353 122 2 ( paper ), ISBN 978 0 77353 121 5 ( cloth ).
Anthony Hall's voluminous Earth into Property is an epic offering, weaving together the stories of various figures, moments and ideas that informed the global development of colonialism and capitalism as well as decolonization movements. In this volume, the second in a series entitled The Bowl with One Spoon, Hall develops a twinned history of globalization, informed not only by the commodifying and exploitive drive of capital but equally by the development of confederacies to defend the commons. Hall broadens the metaphor of the bowl with one spoon, a treaty depicting territory shared among the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe peoples, as a powerful Indigenous conception of the possibility for international confederation against colonial dispossessions and aggression. Hall deploys this image of the commons as a contrast to the master parable of the West, that of property and capital protected by force of arms.
Hall constructs an account of dispossession as a formative and enduring feature of capitalism that also continues to be a central node of resistance. Rather than following a strict chronology, Earth into Property braids together themes, connecting the interests of industrial and financial capital to the development of the military–industrial complex. The breadth of the book is admirable, traversing the period of European imperialism and the rise of American empire, carrying the narrative forward to the financial crisis of the late 2000s. Hall exposes how the Cold War and subsequently the War on Terror extend the trajectory of conquest originating in the colonization of the American continent. Hall is unfortunately prone to drawing overstated parallels in repetitious prose, and his treatment of different episodes often serves polemical and mythopoetic ends that obscure the complex social forces involved. This is aggravated by his propensity to read key figures, such as Henry Ford or Tecumseh, metonymically as representatives of larger social movements. Nonetheless, the breadth of his reading presents a pattern of historical development and contestation often neglected in more nuanced post-structural studies.
Although Hall elucidates the genocidal consequences of imperialist globalization, he does not eschew the Enlightenment rationalities that spawned it. Rather he attempts to recuperate an alternative globality, an Indigenous globality grounded in respect for cultural and ecological diversity. Rather than an empire built through conquest, Hall envisions a global confederacy of law. For Hall, the Enlightenment put forward the promise of protecting and promoting human dignity; but the overemphasis on the individual above the collective, and the denial of the value of cultural diversity, subverted the promise of the Enlightenment. Thus in Earth into Property, the legacy of empire represents the distortion of law as a tool of the powerful, selectively embraced to advance elite interests. Against this, Hall counterposes a competing lineage of law, at once more pluralistic and more universal, emerging from the hybrid marriage of revolutionary ideas and traditional identities in myriad pan-Indigenous, pan-African, and international confederacies.
Aspects of Hall's history parallel Hardt and Negri, who position the exclusion of Aboriginal peoples as the negative foundation of the American constitution. However, rather than a progressive unfolding of history that produces new dialectical tensions, Hall suggests that the formative contradiction between recognition and abjection of the Indigenous Other continues to animate the present. For Hall, Anglo-American imperialism is a contested lineage, characterized both by the violence of colonial dispossessions and the mutualities of trade and peace treaties between the Crown and Aboriginal nations. While the imperial sovereignty of the British Crown exploited Aboriginal labour through mercantile relationships, it also conditioned its exercise of authority within the terms of alliances with Aboriginal peoples. However, the revolutionary sovereignty of the United States, rather than developing a robust treaty federalism, gave broader expression to Locke's seminal ideal that the primary purpose of government was to legitimize and protect private property. Centering settler territorial designs, the United States justified the projection of ever-expanding American frontiers through the abjection of Indigeneity. Thus, America created a vehicle to remodel corporate power unbound from the prior obligations of the European sovereign, eventually translating into the growth of transnational corporations. In Hall's transnational account, however, the dynamic process of privatizing land and wealth has been and continues to be resisted by a lineage of struggle for the commons extending from treaties to the New Deal, from anti-colonial movements to the contemporary struggle for the recognition of Aboriginal rights to self-determination.
Hall admirably refuses the containment of national histories, and refuses to separate the anti-imperial movements of Africa and Asia from the political assertions of Aboriginal peoples submerged within North American states, but his transnational and interdisciplinary approach is marked by significant gaps. His work draws heavily upon political histories and studies of political economy, and neglects many of the important developments in cultural studies. As a result, some of Hall's most central and important claims, such as the vitality of Aboriginal traditions as an active force within movements for global justice, are under-theorized. Aside from gestures to Edward Said, Hall also accords little attention to post-colonial and post-structural theory. His analysis of the exclusion of Aboriginal peoples from the benefit of law would have benefited from further engagement with legal theorists such as Elizabeth Povinelli or Giorgio Agamben.
In the end, Hall's Manichean meta-narrative is simply too neat. From the birth of America and forced relocations of Indigenous peoples, through American corporate support of Nazi Germany as a bulwark against communism and the reconstruction of post-war America as the bastion of free enterprise, to the current War on Terror and massive corporate bailout, Hall presents an account of the growth of corporate power and the military–industrial complex that, while often compelling, suffers from over-stretch. Hall regularly conflates not only socialist and Keynesian attempts to defend the commons, but also often parallels these traditions with those of anti-imperialism and Indigenism. However, the policies that benefit industrial workers cannot be assumed to serve Aboriginal peoples. Similarly, his conflation of post-colonial societies in Africa with Aboriginal peoples in America at times neglects important differences between their encounters with imperialism, neo-colonialism, and settler colonialism. In simplifying historical events, Hall also has a predilection for conspiracy theories that overemphasize the role of particular individuals and, correspondingly, understate the importance of social forces. Suspicions of elite conspiracies, such as government malfeasance in the events of 9/11, often overstate the degree of competence and coherence of the state and economic elites, and underestimate the extent to which elite consensus is structurally produced rather than planned. While Hall proposes an alternative world, flush with diversity, his historical narrative is, ironically, homogenizing, organized by the monolithic categories of imperialism and resistance.
This over-simplified model of power relations as elite manipulations and resistance as broadly inclusive but far too uncomplicated better suits the conventions of movement propaganda than academic literature. Hall neglects the complex and substantive tensions between various constituencies of the common (white settlers, different Indigenous nations, industrial labour, etc). Earth into Property highlights the importance of interrogating the imbrication of capitalism and colonialism, and provocatively questions the parameters of current scholarship; however, it will remain for future scholars to more fully integrate the insights of contemporary theorizing, particularly on the complex workings of power, to extend Hall's project.