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New Forms of Ownership and Possession in the Global Economy

By Rebecca Empson, on 4 July 2018

How do people access things that allow them to ‘live well’? Through what means and by brokerage with which agents are they able to do so? What does it mean for something to ‘bear fruit’, and what is the difference between ‘use’ and ‘possession’?

These are some of the questions that were posed by a group of international scholars gathered at UCL Anthropology on the 11th June.[1] Drawing inspiration from our non-Roman legal heritage, we sought ways to describe new relations of ownership in the global economy through the idea of usufruct.

Different from the sharing economy, or forms of ‘commoning’, usufruct denotes a legal relationship of temporary possession. It points to a thing (a res) which someone may be granted temporary access to, while it remains owned by someone else. What grows (can be reaped, derived, enjoyed or yield interest) out of such temporary access may be held in possession by the custodian, i.e. you can possess water from a well (use), but the state retains ownership over the well and the land on which it is placed (possession).[2]

While interest in this form of ownership emerged out of our research in Mongolia (here and here), we set the somewhat playful task of ‘thinking with usufruct’ as a provocative starting point or ‘theory machine’ (Helmreich’s 2011), to explore features of global capitalism and to understand new forms of ownership.

Each of the speakers presented work concerned with different kinds of possession and usage (res nilus, res extra-market, res commons, etc.). As environmental, political and economic landscapes have changed, new kinds of property and ownership regimes have emerged around the world. But rather than think of this as something forced upon people (due to neoliberal conditions of precarity or the effects of environmental change), we also explored the way in which recourse to this mode of ownership was the outcome of deliberate strategy-making that created difference and variation amid economies of ownership that were imposed. Temporary possession, we found, both sustains forms of contemporary capitalism (one that is more financialized, with a greater blurring of private-public domains than the privatisation characteristic of 1990s/2000s neoliberal capitalism), and challenges it from within.

The day was arranged around three panels. In session 1, States of Usufruct, Andrea Muehlebach (Anthropology, University of Toronto) presented work on the Italian anti-privatization water movement in the early 2000s and the different views of possession among lawyers versus local activists through the symbol of the water fountain. Hanne Petersen (Legal Cultures, University of Copenhagen) showed how recourse to earlier ideas and concepts (including inter-species marriage) allows us to begin to piece together a framework for renewal of the modern legal worldview, components of which are shifting on all levels. Seth Schindler (Geography/Global Development, University of Manchester) presented material on new transnational territories emerging in response to governance failure and market fluctuations. Here territory is plunged into global market chains without clear sovereign control. In such context, the management of waste and water becomes disrupted and new forms of ownership and use emerge. Nicola Triscott (Art, Science & Technology, Arts Catalyst / University of Westminster) talked about her curatorial work linking people, processes and environmental activism in the UK and the Arctic with geopolitical politics forcing people into states of usufruct.
In the second panel, Strategies of Usufruct, Luiz Costa (Anthropology, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) spoke about usufructuary custodianship as a strategy used by the Kanamari in Amazonia allowing for innovative human-animal relations as they look after white men’s cattle, in return for which they receive various goods. Here usufruct conceals relations of mistrust, allowing people to raise animals that they don’t eat and allowing the whites to eat animals that they do not raise. Laura Rival (Anthropology/International Development, University of Oxford) spoke about a North American environmental services company called Ecogenisis that set up rights of usufruct through a legal agreement with the Huaorani in Ecuador to implement a portfolio of businesses into the region, thereby ‘weaning them off’ oil. However, the agreement was deemed illegal under the Supreme Court who claimed sovereignty over ethnic territory as the Huaorani didn’t want an exclusive relationship with Exogeisis.

Padini Nirmal (Geography, Clark University) talked about her work from Kerala, in India, where Adivasi peoples are owned by land as much as the land owns them. Losing or being displaced from their land causes a disembodiment that points to alternative genealogies of ownership which mark land as property. Possession and dispossession are categories that need to be rethought in such light. Finally, Christopher Harker (Institute for Global Prosperity, UCL) spoke about his work among families in Ramallah, Palestine. Here, colonial forms of usufruct force things (land) which had previously been held in permanent ownership to become temporary. In contrast, new forms of debt and financial organisation allow for forms of temporary possession that open up futures and enable home ownership without land ownership. This panel highlighted ways in which usufruct can become a means by which to dominate or liberate people from forms of power and control. It also drew attention to the prevalence of public / private partnerships blurring models of ownership and the state.

In the final panel, Ethics of Usufruct, Antonia Walford (Anthropology, UCL) spoke about the generation of environmental scientific data in the Amazon. Here the ownership of data is highly contested, creating insiders and outsiders. She focused on the ‘cleaning’ of data and the lack of ownership over it by the people who do it. Instead these people hold partial possession over data but not the means to use it or transform it. Alberto Corsin-Jimenez (Anthropology, Spanish National Research Council) presented material on the Free Culture Movement in Madrid, Spain, with a focus on the Assembly that is formed to access communal spaces as property. Usufruct here appears as civic use. He highlighted in particular the idea of the right to the city, to inhabit and access its joy and the need to recognise this as a feature of free / new social forms that are emerging. Lastly, Peg Rawes (Architecture and Philosophy, UCL) presented her work on Spinozian ethics, ideas which underpin the Alms house in Amsterdam as a form of social housing. She reflected these ideas back onto architectural practices that make spaces which they see as reflective of such ideals and she questioned the moral codes that underpin this.

Using usufruct as a starting point by which to think through such diverse material allowed us to make comparisons across different spheres that we wouldn’t normally think of as connected. We also let go of the need to refer back to (or hold in place) that initial point of comparison and instead allowed it to open up a space by which to illuminate difference.

In an age when recourse to the ‘global’ (as in global economy) often serves to mask things as universal and inevitable, making such difference visible in economies of ownership that initially appear to be the same becomes an inherently political act. It is to show the diverse ways of owning, possessing and using which flourishes and exists within capitalism. Using usufruct, with its heritage in Roman law, as a means by which to identify this variation seems an appropriate means by which to begin to do so.

The day ended with a sense that rethinking usufruct was indeed highly exciting and presented an experimental way of thinking about present day conditions. We ended with a drinks reception in the Department and a vegetarian Indian meal. Sharing such fruits with our friends and colleagues, some whom joined us from great distances, was a wonderful occasion and one that will sow the seeds for the growth of future collaborative articulations in press.

[1] The workshop was organized by Lauren Bonilla and Rebecca Empson, with support from the members of the Emerging Subjects project and Paul Carter-Bowman at UCL.

[2] (Usufruct (n.): “Right to the use and profits of the property of another without damaging it,” 1610s (implied in usufructary), from Late Latin usufructus “use and enjoyment,” from Latin usus “a use” (see use (n.)) + fructus enjoyment,” also “fruit” (from Pro-Indo-European root *bhrug- “to enjoy,” with derivatives referring to agricultural products). Attested earlier in delatinized form usufruit (late 15c.).

A Brief Timeline of the Recent Anti-Violence Movement in Mongolia

By Guest Contributor , on 21 June 2018

 

Mari Valdur is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki, Finland. She is currently carrying out her fieldwork looking at reproductive healthcare, gender and personhood in Ulaanbaatar

The Publicity of Non-Global Tragedies

While the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements elsewhere largely remain linked to the rights of individual women, in Mongolia, the mainstream movement against violence started in autumn, 2017, with an emphasis on the need to protect children and the responsibility, concern and emotionality of being a parent. The social and news media has been central in giving voice to the emotion-laden stories so they can reach the wider public, where they have provided a platform for people to also advocate for justice.

Surprisingly the onset of the Mongolian movement cannot directly be paralleled with #MeToo – at which core lies the Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein’s long-term sexual harassment and abuse empire revealed in The New York Times’ article in October 2017. Instead, it carries similarities to the extensive international media coverage of other assault and violent deaths reported in August 2017. In that summer month, which usually tends to be somewhat uneventful in media terms, the international media reported extensively about the case of Kim Wall who disappeared after boarding Peter Madsen’s submarine in the Danish waters and the gruesome detail of her death that came to fore as weeks passed. There were several other stories repeatedly highlighted, such as the disappearance of the nine-year-old Maëlys de Araujo from a wedding in the French Alps; and seeking of court approval by the parents of a 13-year-old girl in India for their daughter to be allowed to have a late-term abortion after being raped.

The beginning of the movement against violence in Mongolia aligned with the start of a new school year after a girl was found dead in a hotel. Having gained ground primarily as mothers’ fear for their children, and ‘children being Mongolia’s future’, it soon moved onto including discussions of domestic violence. Like #MeToo, hashtags #NudeeNee (#OpenYourEyes) were adopted, but the extensive circulation of these hashtags has often been overtaken by other strands of the movement.

The Advocacy of Fear, Anger and Suffering

The following chronology looks at a range of causes that were advocated for as part of the broader anti-violence topic; And how these could been seen as having given rise to one another but also created lines of division.

1 February 2017. The current Law to Combat Domestic Violence came to force making domestic violence a punishable legal violation.

1 September 2017. The news breaks about the death of a 13 year-old girl whose body was found at a Bayanzurkh district hotel in Ulaanbaatar on 23 August. She was found with signs of violence, including sexual assault, with a fatal blood alcohol content that is later released as the cause of death by the officials. The girl’s father T. Lhagvasuren appears in the media to describe what he saw when entering the hotel room. CCTV shows that she had been picked up from a bus stop by two men. The news on television addressing this spark considerable fear, concern and compassion in parents.

October 2015. Cases of sexual assault against young children are addressed in the media. Lhagvasuren’s daughter’s case is first expanded to a scandal and later to a movement when the rape of boy younger than two years is reported. Another core story involves a 5 year-old girl who was sexually assaulted by her stepfather, taken to the emergency room and is initially turned away due to the lacked of 10,000 tugrik service fee (around £3 or 3.5EUR). In December the stepfather is sentenced to 18 years in prison. Drawing on statistics, domestic violence is given attention as the main context in which child assault takes place.

16 October 2017. Mongolian President Kh. Battulga starts working towards re-establishing the death penalty in connection to the reported crimes, providing validation and a certain outlet to anger and discontent that the reports have given rise to. The removal of capital punishment from the Criminal Code had come to effect only in July 2017.

24 and 26 October 2017. Lantuun DOHIO, a NGO established in 2012 that carries out different activities against human trafficking and domestic violence and abuse, organises two NudeeNee (OpenYourEyes) demonstrations in Ulaanbaatar. Shortly after they also create a Facebook group for the campaign that is extremely active in the last months of 2017. #NudeeNee and #OpenYourEyes are used on social media.

13 November 2017. Lhagvasuren provides an in depth account on the talk show Tsenzurgui Yaria surrounding the death of his daughter. He refutes the defamatory accounts of his daughter that had started to spread and describes the unfolding events during the past months and the lagging of the whole process in the justice system. The extreme level of distress that he reveals in this interview indicates ongoing processes of victimisation and trauma beyond the criminal act itself in a situation where democratic processes of jurisdiction and prosecution are presumed to be in some correlation with the pressures and attention to the case created by publicity.

18 November 2017. There is another Nudee Nee demonstration on Sukhbaatar Square, which is significantly bigger than the first two.

Image 1: Nudee Nee demonstration on Sukhbaatar Square on 18 November. The signs mostly address the sexual abuse of children. Photo: author

 

27 November 2017. President Kh. Battulga addresses a letter to the Minister of Justice and Internal Affairs proposing the restoring of the death penalty in cases of sexual violence, cruelty and murder of young children, linking it directly to the scandals of the past months.

Winter 2017-2018. Outdoor events come to a halt, while discussions continue online and in the news media.

8 March 2018. International Women’s Day, which is also celebrated as Mother’s Day in Mongolia. A march takes place that advocates more directly for women’s rights drawing obvious parallels to the international women’s movement.

16 March 2018. Bolortuya (Beverly) Dorjsuren, a woman in her 30s, goes public with the story of a severe assault on her on 8 March that left her injured and temporarily unable to work. She posts on her Facebook timeline and the post is shared 569 times reaching the existing anti-violence groups. In the coming weeks she appears on television and social media sharing her struggles concerning the stalling of her case. Talking to Bolortuya more than a month after the attack, it becomes obvious how advocating for her case to be taken seriously and pushing for progress with it has taken over her everyday life, adding to the stress and cost of her on-going treatment. Unlike many other women who she encountered at the emergency room and police department, she acknowledges that she is in a position to do be able to do this due to her stable financial situation, support of her family and her professionally respected platform.

21 March 2018. Odgerel Chuluunbaatar establishes Huuhdiig hüchirhiilliin esreg taivan jagsaaliin alban yosnii grupp (The Official Group for Peaceful Demonstration Against Child Abuse) on Facebook. Only about a month later on 23 April 2018 it has 416,691 members. Odgerel, who has a son herself, says she created the group in reaction to increasing child abuse ahead of a demonstration the following week. She invited six other mothers to join her moderating the group and did not expect such explosive online following. None of the moderators of the group are linked to the Nudee Nee movement and advocate only against child abuse.

30 March 2018. The president compiles a draft law on the death penalty to decrease and tackle violence against children. The Minister of Justice and Internal Affairs Ts. Nyamdorj has not responded to the president’s proposal to restore the death penalty sent in November. Deputy Minister of Justice and Internal Affairs B. Enkhbayar comments at a meeting with the representatives of the Delegation of the European Union to Mongolia that the ministry has not found a legal basis for this.

31 March 2018. The largest demonstration to date addressing violence against children, No More Tolerance (Dahin Tevchihgui) takes place. It is accompanied by aggressive exchanges online about the death penalty, creating division and making some worry that the gathering could become violent.

Image 2: A photo posted on the anti-violence group of a car decorated with stuffed bears and labels that had been seen driven around on 31 March. Photo: Facebook user Happy Time.

 

9 April 2018. Directly unrelated to the movement, 3333 students wearing deels recite the poem Independence (Tusgaar togtnol) on Suhkbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar as the president attends the event.

Image 3: School children celebrating Mongolia and Mongolia celebrating children on 9 April. Photo: Kh. Orgil on peak.mn.

 

25-28 April 2018. Lantuun DOHIO in collaboration with Gallery 88 showcases clothes of victims worn at the time of their assault, artwork, personal belongings and audio at an exhibition What Were They Wearing? (Ted Yuu Omsoj Baisan Be?) taking a personal and intimate approach to individual stories and portrayal of violence. Meanwhile, also in April, Lhagvasuren’s daughter’s case is still on-going; Bolortuya continues to post on social media, get treatment and add to the number of her visits to the police department; And the number of members of The Official Group for Peaceful Demonstration Against Child Abuse Facebook group is slowly decreasing.

The Exhausting Ways of Justice

This chronological review presents a handful of events that lead towards a brief and non-conclusive outline of the unfolding the recent anti-violence movement. This movement instigated a sudden rise of public interest and involvement of those who were previously not actively advocating against violence. Therefore, it has not done justice to the important efforts of organisations that continuously work toward moving forward the legal and discourse machine.

The freedom of press is shown to be problematic in today’s Mongolia owing to private ownership and links to politically active figures (see 5 May 2018 Defacto Review). However, it is curious how heavily the ideas of democracy and law enforcement remain linked to the sourcing of public knowledge of, and attention to, the particular cases. This is done through sharing one’s struggles on television or via other media, however taxing it may be. The speed of trials is presumed to be linked to the position of defendants: if they belong to wealthy and influential families there can be quite a lot of stalling and confusion with the validation of pieces of evidence, which become relaxed in their interpretative qualities during prosecution, similarly to what Lhagvasuren describes in the interview concerning the reason of his daughter’s death.

The attention to and discussions of law enforcement have been somewhat overshadowed by the emotion-provoking and releasing appeals for re-establishing the death penalty as well as false news on the existing law of punishment. While the Criminal Code could use certain updates and additions, this becomes a secondary focus in this context, where these laws are not implemented properly, or only eventually through other lanes of victimisation for those involved in lengthy legal processes.

This post was written in early May 2018. For an alternative perspective and a high-profile rape allegations case against a Mongolian MP, D. Gantulga, please see Lily Kuo’s article in The Guardian.