Does property serve a social function? Re-imagining real estate in Brazil and beyond

Does property serve a social function? You might think the answer is “yes, of course”. The purpose of a house, for example, is to house people, to serve as a space in which to create a home. These days, though, it seems that houses are more often used as a financial good rather than to serve a direct use like that of providing shelter. This is evident in the vast international system by which land and property are bought and sold according to the supply and demand of the “property market”. In many national contexts, you cannot really be secure in your housing situation until you own your own house. This in many ways dictates patterns of urban development: people will buy or rent property in areas where the property value is low enough that they can afford; meanwhile, wealthy developers have every right to buy up property and profit off of it as they see fit—after all, they paid for it.


But this is not an inevitable process; in fact, it reflects only one interpretation of what we call “property”, one that fulfills a trajectory of urbanization that seems near impossible to challenge. It is therefore not surprising that the concept of the “social function of property” whereby property must fulfill a social function and cannot merely be used for profit, is increasingly taken up by social movements fighting for the rights to land and housing around the world.[1]

São Paulo is one city where the contradictions of the “property market” are especially apparent, and groups contesting the situation particularly active. The housing deficit is currently estimated to be at 230,000 homes.[2] Meanwhile, there are hundreds of vacant buildings in the city center. In response to this, dozens of sem-teto or “roofless” movements have formed, demanding the right to secure housing and undertaking occupations of vacant buildings to draw attention to the housing crisis. These occupations not only highlight the current urban reality of unequal property ownership, but also put into question the very concept of property.

The private ownership model of property

In his work Unsettling the City, Nicholas Blomley highlights the hegemony of what he calls the “ownership model” of property, where there is generally one definable owner to a clearly delineated piece of land, and property almost exclusively means private property. Private property indicates a certain form of power that seems to have “an independent, nonstatelike quality”, as the idea that someone can exclusively claim a parcel of space is taken for granted.[3] This model came to dictate what kind of property we are supposed to value–i.e., private, owner-occupied, etc.–which in turn raises the overall perceived value of this kind of property, in a process seen as uncontestably determined by “the market”. But only those who are able to buy into this market get the right to property.

People did not always conceive of property in this manner. This particular understanding of property arose to prominence out of a desire to provide order to the city, beginning with the colonization of land. Indigenous groups did not usually conceive of property in the same way as their colonizers, and so a new, more regulated, interpretation of property was necessary in order to physically “settle” the land: “the colonization of land, the physical substance, could not have proceeded without the simultaneous colonization of property, the mental structure for organizing rights to land.”[4] Adrian Blackwell describes how this ownership model then enabled property to be carefully partitioned and therefore easily exchanged in a capitalist market:

The secret of capitalist property lies in the way in which the most grounded and immobile of things—land—can be made to move through its financialization and exchange-ability, while this same property is rendered absolutely solid, reified, as each absentee owner decides who can and cannot enter it.[5]

Thus property has come to be viewed as a parceled good to be bought and sold. Brazilian scholar and planner Raquel Rolnik argues that housing is viewed increasingly as an investment asset in a globalized financial market, rather than as a social good. She explains how, rather than a means to distribute wealth, housing has become a “means to wealth”, where “the value is the possibility of creating more value, which depends on the speed and number of transactions capable of generating value appreciation”. While ideas of housing as commodity confronted various national welfare models in different national contexts, many governments around the world have mobilized a range of policies to “extend market discipline, competition and commodification”.[6] The result has been urban enclaves created for the wealthy and international elite, with the poor confined to peripheral areas (or, in the North American case, “inner city” areas), often with limited basic services and employment opportunities.[7] Clearly in Brazil as elsewhere, this has meant the growth of informal settlements, forming part of an agenda which Rolnik asserts is “to create an urban scenario where the poor don’t exist and at the same time ‘unlock’ the value of land”.[8]

Viewing property and the real estate market as natural and self-evident has a de-politicizing effect. It masks the actors and social processes involved in deciding the “value” and accessibility of property. It assumes that the value of property lies only in its exchange value, and that this value is to be decided by the “market”. It makes it very difficult to imagine that property could be understood in any other way.

Continue reading “Does property serve a social function? Re-imagining real estate in Brazil and beyond”

Suppose it is granted that a plongeur’s* work is more or less useless. Then the question follows, why does anyone want him to go on working? I am trying to go beyond the immediate economic cause, and to consider what pleasure it can give anyone to think of men swabbing dishes for life. For there is no doubt that people–comfortably situated people–do find a pleasure in such thoughts. A slave, Marcus Cato said, should be working when he is not sleeping. It does not matter whether his work is needed or not, he must work, because work in itself is good–for slaves, at least. This sentiment still survives, and it has piled up mountains of useless drudgery…

…I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be too dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think.

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933

*a plongeur is an employee of a restaurant charged with washing dishes and other tasks; in Orwell’s book it is described as extremely arduous work.

Why does Israel occupy Palestine?

It’s not a question to be taken for granted. If I had to give a short answer, I might say that Israel continues its occupation for land and resources—that it engages in what it knows to be a doomed “peace process” in order to eventually gain control over all of historic Palestine, “from the river to the sea”. At least, based on its actions, this is what Israel appears to be trying to do.

But there are continual and obvious contradictions in this idea. It is widely recognized among people educated in this topic that the longer Israel continues its occupation, the more it continues to build settlements throughout the West Bank along with infrastructure to serve those settlements, the closer it will come to having to deal with the 4 million+ Palestinians that inhabit the same space. Israel exhibits two conflicting desires: that for territory and that for a majority Jewish state. If Israel gains control over the entirety of historic Palestine, it will paradoxically lose its Jewish majority and thus its identity as a Jewish state.

So then how do we explain the current system? I recently read The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation: Repression Beyond Exploitation, written by Israeli academic Shir Hever. I outline here some of the theories he describes that can be applied to the occupation of Palestinian land.

A great video of Hever speaking at King’s College London. He does not address the theorists discussed below in the video but his talk summarizes the main points of his book.
Continue reading “Why does Israel occupy Palestine?”

HSBC is Too Profitable to Prosecute

I fear the most recent grotesque example of US hypocrisy is getting swept under the rug, so I want to take a moment to try and grasp what it all means.

It was revealed last week that HSBC, one of the world’s largest banks, has been involved in a number of criminal acts over recent years. These crimes have mainly involved laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels and groups linked to Al Qaeda. There was even evidence that senior bank officials were in on the whole thing.

What was the outcome of this unveiling of such blatant crimes? HSBC was asked to pay a fine (of minimal proportions in comparison to its profits), and received NO CRIMINAL PENALTY.

I won’t go into the disastrous effects of the international drug trade, and I’m probably not the right person to do such a thing, but it’s safe to say that the drug trade fuels violence, poverty, gang activity, and a multitude of other detrimental phenomena in many countries. Yet it seems the US’ main approach to dealing with drug crime is to throw average American citizens in jail for possession of drugs like marijuana, an approach that disproportionately targets minorities and the poor. And when HSBC is found to be guilty of crimes that surely play a much bigger role in fueling the international drug trade than my neighbor smoking a joint that one time, not a single person is prosecuted.

Even moreso than the drug trade, the US government repeatedly presents terrorism as one of the greatest threats to the United States. Accordingly, the US regularly detains people all over the world, illegally, with no charge, where they may be held for undefined periods of time and subject to cruel and inhumane treatment. This even applies to US citizens, though the chances of this happening to you are substantially higher if you are brown or Muslim. Yet when one of the largest financial institutions in the world is found to be moving money for potential terrorist groups, to the tune of billions of dollars, it gets away with barely a slap on the wrist.

Not a single person at HSBC was jailed or penalized for their actions. The reasoning? HSBC is too big, and too important, to be prosecuted. (A nice extension of 2008’s tagline, “too big to fail.”) Meaningfully prosecuting HSBC, it is argued, could undermine the entire banking system!

I think it’s quite clear who is really in power here. The US government, or should I say the corporate interests that essentially run it, do not care about the rights of US citizens or the human rights of internationals. The ruling elite is interested in protecting one right only, and that is the right of that elite to continue pursuing profit at whatever cost.


Obviously, Glenn Greenwald explains it better than I do:

Matt Taibbi with further thoughts:

Staring at Nothing

[Originally published in I Rez Therefore I Am.]

I imagine that walking into the current Invisible exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery is a little like what walking into French avant-garde artist Yves Klein’s Le Vide or “The Void” in Paris back in 1958 would have been. For that piece, officially titled The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, 3000 visitors were led into a white-walled room that, apart from a large cabinet, was totally empty. Knowing that the exhibition consisted of “Art about the Unseen,” I walked into Invisible wondering what it was I should be looking for, and whether a gallery full of “invisible” art would be worth the effort it seemed to imply.  As I entered the second room of the exhibition, a jaded gallery attendant joked that I should watch out for the invisible door. Humoring him by turning an invisible doorknob, I soon realized that I’d need to experience the art in much the same way—with a little bit of humor and patience. And that is the common thread running through Invisible: works that bring us to acknowledge our pre-conceived notions and limitations about what it means to experience art.

Klein throwing gold into the Seine.

The exhibition—in which pieces are presented chronologically in various rooms—begins with Yves Klein himself, whose art often revolved around a fascination with nothingness and the immaterial. In Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility), begun in 1959, Klein sold “empty spaces” throughout the city of Paris in exchange for gold. Upon receipt of the gold he gave the buyer a certificate of ownership of the space, though in a second part of the performance he threw half of the gold into the river Seine if the buyer agreed to set fire to the certificate. “Through this act,” states one description of the piece, “a perfect, definitive immaterialization is achieved, as well as the absolute inclusion of the buyer in the immaterial…. Klein presents capitalist trading strategies and illuminates his ideas about the indefinable, incalculable value of art.”* It is a ritual that at once allows the buyer to experience the “Void” that was showcased in his earlier exhibition, and that shows the ultimate impossibility of obtaining ownership over such a space. (Even with a highly valuable material such as gold.)

Other works are more obviously “invisible,” such as American artist Robert Barry’s Electromagnetic Energy Field (1968) in which an electromagnetic energy transmitter sends out invisible waves of energy. We can’t see the energy field, we may not be able to tell that it is there, and yet it unquestionably exists. Inevitably, it made me think of all the other forces in the universe which are invisible to humans, but which have a profound effect on our world regardless. Some are physical, like gravity; others are even less easily categorized, like human emotions. Similarly ambiguous, Tom Friedman’s 1000 hours of staring (medium: “Stare on paper”) appears to consist of a rather large, though utterly blank, white sheet of paper. Of course, seeing this framed and displayed on a museum wall can be a little frustrating. But the more I thought about it, the more the idea of using “stare” as a medium made complete and total sense. Many artists use bodily fluids or other unconventional materials to create works of art; just because you can’t see the effect on paper, why is a stare different? Staring at the paper, glimpsing my own reflection in the glass, immediately evoked the 1,000 hours of intent and focus the artist spent looking at this same sheet of paper, a sheet of paper that will in turn be stared at fleetingly by thousands of people. Love it or hate it—the concept is powerful.

A similar piece consisting of frustratingly-blank paper is by American artist Glenn Ligon. Though in this case, the emotion of frustration is probably central to understanding He tells me I am his own.  As the description notes, Ligon, whose work often reflects his experience as an African American gay man, tries to capture the white bias of literature and Hollywood with a photograph of “whiteness.” The blank piece of photo paper reflects the blinding whiteness that pervades the majority of American popular culture; the absent photograph simultaneously brings to mind all the other images that are absent from Hollywood, as the bias of the camera shuts out darker skin tones in favor of glossy all-encompassing whiteness. To me, it seemed staring at this piece was one way to access the complex emotion of being faced with this reality.

“Invisible” art, like any other art form, may evoke a vast array of emotions and concepts. Comments on consumption and the “value” of art, using unseen forces like electromagnetic energy as art media, and highlighting existing racist structures are only a few examples. Though certain aspects of the art in this exhibition are often invisible, they are by no means unperceivable. Quite the opposite, in fact, as exploring what is absent may have endlessly more possibilities for the human imagination than focusing on what is present.  As the artist Robert Barry stated in 1968, “Nothing seems to me the most potent thing in the world.”

Invisible is showing at the Hayward Gallery until August 5th.

* Berggruen, Olivier, Max Hollein, and Ingrid Pfeiffer (eds.) Yves Klein. Hatje Cantz, 2004.