Scholars under the ‘Progressive Property’ banner distinguish between dominant conceptions of property, and its underlying realities. The former, exemplified by Singer’s ‘ownership model’, is said to misdescribe extant forms of ownership and misrepresent our actual moral commitments in worrisome ways. Put simply, it is argued that our representations of property’s reality are incorrect, and that these incorrect representations lead us to make bad choices. Better understandings of the reality of property should lead to better representations, and thus improved outcomes.
However, the relationship between ‘reality’ and ‘representation’ is not made fully explicit. This essay seeks to supplement progressive property through a more careful exploration of the relationship between the two, by drawing from performativity theory. From this perspective, accounts of property are in an important sense not descriptions of an external reality, but help bring reality into being. The ownership model is not so much constative (descriptive) as performative. Such an account, I suggest, directs us to several important insights. Rather than asking what property is or is not, the task becomes that of trying to describe how property is performed (or not) into being. But concepts do not stand alone: rather, other ideas, people, things and other resources have to be enrolled in complicated (and often fragile) combinations. Rather than criticizing the ownership model for its mismatch with reality, we might consider that models do not have to be ‘true’, just successful. As such, it may be more useful for progressive scholars of property to redirect their energy into enquiring how it is that certain conceptions of property are successful, and others not. To do so also requires that we think about the role of scholars in performing property, for good or bad, into being.