Property Law and American Empire
54 Pages Posted: 5 Mar 2013 Last revised: 3 Oct 2015
Date Written: March 4, 2013
Current scholarship by legal commentators and political scientists recognizes that the weapons of American empire have involved non-militaristic activities as much as militaristic ones. Such non-militaristic activities include the hegemonic influence of trade agreements, the imposition of legal and procedural norms, and the dissemination of ideological and cultural predispositions through corporations and diverse medias. In this paper, we examine an under-explored area on the “soft” belly of the American leviathan, focusing specifically on how property and intellectual property law have operated on physical and ideological frontiers to comprehend, participate in, and legitimate the expansion of American empire. We offer new accounts of two historical instances of empire-building: the acquisition and seizure of property from Native Americans in the early- and mid-19th century, and the expropriation of intellectual property rights to plant genetic resources from indigenous communities in the global South in the late 20th century. These two stories, taken together, offer unique insights into both the process and the substance of law’s operation on the frontier of empire. They illuminate how the authority of law has fused with private power and legal legitimacy to enable the nation to expand swiftly, energetically, and powerfully. These insights, in turn, lead toward the more general conclusion that the rhetoric of property has functioned to subjugate peoples and places, cultures and natures, to an imperial regime.
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