Three comments on Michele Spanò’s lecture on patrimony as a legal institution. by Gerardo Muñoz

One of the most illuminating talks at a recent workshop at Kingston University (hosted by the Centre for Modern in Modern European Thought) on institution, legal philosophy, and political thought, was Michele Spanò’s archaeology of the institution of patrimony entitled “Patrimony and the Legal Institution of Subjectivity”. Spanò’s work for some of us has been of extreme importance in thinking about roman law, the historical school of the German legal tradition, as well as the work of Yan Thomas whom he has edited and translated for Quodlibet. Although Spanò’s lecture was based primary on notes and part of a larger project on the ‘invention of subjective rights’, it made a few transitions that thematized the legal infrastructure of property that will be perhaps fundamental to understand, and radically transform, the problem of political economy and the logic of the capital coding that Katharina Pistor has recently explored in our post-sovereign present (I have discussed some aspects of imperial coding of capital here). But it is in the invention of “patrimony” in Roman law, where for Spanò a new epochal conception between things, persons, and reality (-res) was established as a relational matrix that he termined, following the Italian legal philosopher Riccardo Orestano, a conception of law without a subject [1]. This infrastructure of a relation without a central subject of authority – a problem too complex to analyze in this simple side note – revises and displaces the more modernist-style discussion on natural law and positive law, but also intra-conceptual determinations such as the subjects and the impersonal, between rights and obligations, which are part of the long dure Roman-modern matrix of the patrimonial foundation. For me there were at least three important elements that derive from Michele Spanò’s work, which I will leave here for some future elaboration in upcoming writing project on the problem of patrimonial and civil as roman categories of modern juristic-political thought and the American context.

1. The relationality or nexus of the conception of the patrimony (a. every person has a patrimony, b. all patrimony belongs to a person, c. there is a relation between obligation and patrimony) is an early form of exchange value; in fact, it is the equivalent structure that designs the total apparatus of social reproduction and the passage from the polis to the domus (housing / domestication). In this sense, Roman law of patrimony is not about substance or morality, but about the circulation, organization, and exchange of metaphoric value codified. This ensemble appears very similar to what will later be Ernesto Laclau’s theory of hegemony. If this is so, then hegemony is not about political “articulation”, but rather its “politics” is a mere veneer for a spectral patrimony. There is no patrimony without the work of hegemony, and the form of hegemony is a reduction of value that keeps it off from the autonomy of the political. In this light, it makes sense that even a Marxist political economist like former Vice-President of Bolivia, Álvaro García Linera, understood statecraft as the development of and from “patrimonialism”, which entailed necessarily the devastation of the ecological life world [2]. The patrimonial form will ultimately transform the exteriority of the natural world into an object at the service of value.

2. Spanò offered a typology of patrimony in two phases: a. For whom is the patrimony (the personalist type), and b. For what (the functionalist type). In a certain sense, we are now in a term phase of legal adjudication: c. what are the costs and benefits of the management of a patrimony? This entails the logistics of ‘creative destruction’ (Schumpeter) into the very interiority of the legal rationality based on balancing and equity functions. For the paradigm of the cost & benefit equity the problem is no longer posed as a question of function or proprietary, but rather of thorough administration and optimization: to what extent can the risk and security of a patrimony can render X costs in relation to Y benefits of Z of the social body? Here the abstraction of the regulation of patrimony coincides fully with the domination of the social space into the juridical logistics. The distinction between private and public law spheres of the European legal traditions (ius commune and Common Law) collapses. As we have suggested in recent investigations, this collapse today is expressed on the rise of administrative law as a restituted Lex Regia.

3. Finally, the collapse implies a chiasmatic movement in the history of the archaeology of Western domination: Roman law and modern positivist law, subject and object, production of rationality and extraction of resources for production of life, the limitations of Roman Law on property and Canon Law on statutes and morality. If medieval canon law of the Church was quenched in the wells of Roman Law, then the question regarding the modern state (its presuppositions, its conditions, crisis, and collapse) amounts to the problem of institution of patrimony as a regulatory of principle of rationality and network of the legislation between spheres (legality, economic, political, rational, instrumental, etc). If there is something to be today against and beyond “hegemony” (no longer an index of politics or culture), then the problem of the patrimonial framework must be understood as a juridical-economic paradigm in which “politics” is incapable of responding to. On the contrary, it could well be that the crisis of politics is an effect of this complex archaeology that, for some of us, Spanò’s work has already started to grasp in light of the return of ‘principles’ for social maintenance.




1. Riccardo Orestano. “Diritti soggettivi e diritti senza soggetto”, Jus: Rivista di Scienze Giuridiche, 2, 1960.

2. Alvaro García Linera. Geopolítica de la Amazonía: Poder hacendal-Patrimonial y acumulación capitalista (Vicepresidencia del Estado de Bolivia, 2013).