Zach Levenson’s book, Delivery as Dispossession, arrived this summer as an unexpected but much-needed gift. Here in Los Angeles, our research collective, made up of university-based researchers, unhoused scholars, and movement organizers and historians, is deeply immersed in the ongoing work to study and challenge racial banishment, the state-organized spatial expulsion of poor and working-class communities of color from the city. Following Orlando Patterson (1982), we understand racial banishment as social death, a casting out of society and sociality. Of course, such social death often engenders actual death. But what is at work in Los Angeles is not just the necropolitical violence of the state. Amidst a visible urban crisis of mass homelessness, liberal biopolitics is also at hand, with offers of housing placements and promises of housing vouchers. In our research, we have come to call this the “ruse of housing” and have argued that this ruse facilitates displacement and dispossession, inserting the poor and houseless, surplus populations if you will, into systems of carceral containment and supervision. Waiting – waiting for housing, waiting for a voucher – is a crucial element of such containment. As a lucid account of the relationship between the democratic state and surplus populations, Delivery as Dispossession has taught us a great deal. Let me highlight three key lessons and provocations.

First, this book takes on the difficult question of why some land occupations succeed and others fail. In doing so, it provides a meticulous and critical analysis of political formations and strategies, with an unflinching look at conflict, factionalism, strife, and distrust. Levenson reminds us that it is a mistake (and I would add, our desire for, and fantasy about, radicalism) to view all occupations as transformative. Instead, they are often about material claims, important ones, to land and shelter. These claims are also often mediated through organizers and organizations, and thereby entail bitter competition for who has access to external resources, a point that Levenson (p.181) poignantly makes by noting his consequential presence in these settlements, even when he had resolved “not…to distribute a thing.” Levenson has given us an important set of methods, and an analytical vocabulary, for making sense of the variegated terrain of what I have elsewhere called dis/possessive collectivism (Roy, 2017) – the claims to emplacement, often in the idiom of possessory politics, by those who have been dispossessed.

Second, if this is a book about the critical analysis of the self-organization of landless people, then it is also a book about the self-representation of a democratic government in the wake of apartheid. Here in California, where housing justice movements are rallying to enact a constitutional right to housing, South Africa is hailed as a beacon. As Levenson notes, housing has been an important site of post-apartheid distribution and delivery in South Africa and the constitutional right to housing has set up the law as a space to adjudicate such rights. Following Gautam Bhan’s (2016) work on eviction politics in Delhi, Levenson warns of the effects of such judicialization, noting how resistance is channeled into a disciplined and orderly legal process. Quite a bit of our current work on policing in Los Angeles (Graziani et al., 2021) is concerned with the “lawlessness of the law,” and so I am struck by the insistence on order and orderliness expressed by South African state officials to Levenson as well as by the performance of democratic fairness that is enabled by the use of the law to manage dispossessive collectivism. In various writings on the postcolony, Mbembe (1992: 2) reminds us “the postcolony is a critical and dramatic site in which are played out the wider problems of subjection and its corollary, indiscipline.” Indeed, I read Delivery as Dispossession as a book about subjection. This is, as Levenson notes, the significance of the waiting list. The problem of subjection also allows us to read differently the ruse of housing in the postcolony that is the U.S.A., for the point is not to house people but rather to subject them to what Levenson calls permanent temporariness, and what we have been calling – following Oren Yiftachel (2020) – permanent displaceability. Indeed, Levenson (p. 161) concludes the story of the Siqalo occupation, the successful one, with the following analysis: “While we can think of Siqalo as a success case in that they were not evicted and provisionally achieved the right to stay put, this decision was just that: provisional. This legal limbo leaves them in a permanently temporary state, with the threat of eviction perpetually looming over them.”

Third, as a book about the postcolony, specifically the subjects of democracy, Delivery as Dispossession, belies our usual conceptions of patronage and clientelism. I read the book during a trip to Kolkata where my mother’s caretaker had to rush back to her village to cast a vote in the panchayat elections. The transaction was a pretty straightforward one – miss a vote or vote for the wrong party and access to all state-dispensed resources (what Levenson terms delivery) will be cut off. The significance of Levenson’s research is that no such simple story of patronage holds in the case of postapartheid evictions. Instead, the logics of eviction are much more unpredictable and fickle. They also seem disassociated from the imperatives of land-based accumulation for if that were the case then the utterly marginal Kapteinsklip would have survived and Siqalo, bordering on a middle-class neighborhood, would have been evicted. Put bluntly, this is not a story of real-estate rationalities.

But it is a story, I would argue, about property. Buried in the appendix (p. 185) is an important provocation by Levenson: “When the [Kapteinsklip] occupation began, the MPHA framed it as the distribution of plots to homeowners in the making. We can scoff about a scenario in which people living under overturned shopping carts think of themselves as prospective homeowners, but it was actually a fairly rational position. Since the transition, discourses of citizenship were very much tied to employment and property ownership. But given the unemployment rate in this section of Mitchells Plain, property was their best bet.” This then is a book about the postcolony where property becomes the best bet. Levenson theorizes the power of the postcolonial state as hegemony and indeed it is. I would argue that how and why property became the best bet for the postapartheid/postcolonial state is a crucial part of the story, ensuring that delivery is dispossession. For such a bet can never pay off. Not for the subjects of democracy. And not for the postcolonial state in a world-historical system of dispossession.


Bhan G (2016) In the Public’s Interest: Evictions, Citizenship, and Inequality in Contemporary Delhi. Athens: Unviersity of Georgia Press.
Graziani T, Montano J, Roy A, and Stephens, P (2022) Property, personhood, and police: the making of race and space through nuisance law. Antipode 54(2): 439-461.
Patterson O (1982) Slavery and Social Death. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Mbembe A (1992) The banality of power and the aesthetics of vulgarity in the postcolony. Public Culture 4(2): 1-30.
Roy A (2017) Dis/possessive collectivism: property and personhood at city’s end. Geoforum 80: A1-A11.
Yiftachel  O (2020) From Displacement to Displaceability: A Southeastern Perspective on the New Metropolis” City 24(1-2): 151-165.

Ananya Roy is Professor of Urban Planning, Social Welfare, and Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is also the founding director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy.