Roger Scruton and the Conqueror Worm

On Roger Scruton, the housing crisis, witch-hunting, and the necropolitics of austerity…

Some of Roger Scruton’s fellow wine-lovers having a good time: Peter Lorre, Vincent Price, and Joyce Jameson in The Black Cat (1963)


So, time to talk about Roger Scruton, the hunting, shooting, wine connoisseur, right wing philosopher. In November 2018 this great conservative exemplar of western thought and philosophy got appointed to the UK Governments new ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ Commission, which aims to intervene in the design and style of homes. Scruton was heavily criticised for his views on homosexuality, feminism, Islam, and George Soros (read: Jews). With the exception of the last [1], which he denies, Scruton has mostly left a defence to others and re-iterated and clarified his role in the commission wont be as dictator, while his supporters have cried that he is the subject of a witch-hunt. [2]

In the same month UN Rapporteur Philip Alston announced early results from his fact-finding mission to examine poverty in the UK. Alston’s report starts with a stinging condemnation of the outcome of a decade of policies which he squarely places at the feet of a succession of government (not just Tory) practices:

“…in the area of poverty-related policy, the evidence points to the conclusion that the driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering.” [3]

The report has been mostly rejected by the government thus far, who are busy burying it amidst the bad news of Brexit. Yet it’s not the first time conservatives have ignored the writing of a UN rapporteur. In 2014 it was the turn of Raquel Rolnik, then working on housing policy in the UK. Rolnik was critical, but nowhere near as explicit as Alston, being content to mererly express “her concern that recent measures are contributing also to an increased vulnerability of those who, until a few years ago, were protected” [4] and raise alarm about the impact of the Bedroom Tax.

For her troubles Rolnik was not only criticised by the government and housing minister for the construction of the report but was also slurred with remarkable speed. Rolnik was branded a ‘Marxist’, which in British journalism continues to be treated as if it were a trump card in argument [5], or a “loopy Brazilian leftie with no evidence masquerading as a serious UN official” by one Tory MP [6]. The media then dredged interviews with Rolnik’s sister [7], who mentioned that Rolnik had sacrificed a chicken to the spirit of Karl Marx, leading the Daily Mail to run a piece that didn’t even mention the report, but made plenty of this act of ‘Witchcraft’ [8]. The opposite of a Tory christian philosopher, she was said to be a mentally ill Marxist witch. A woman whose work could be disregarded as dark magic.

Something about the accusation of witchcraft still carries potency. The geographer Amber Murrey has observed the ways “imagined geographies of ‘witchcraft’ have been central to a racial system of social classification” and how this racism persists through assertions of rationalism of the kind Scruton defends, even when scholars seek to create a virtuous, resistant, or even anti-colonial narrative of witchcraft [9]. Silvia Federici has claimed that the European Witch hunt of the 1500s-1600s installed a regime of terror against peasant women aimed at forcing them into quietude and docility, and enacting their “confinement to a sphere of activities that in capitalism has been completely devalued” [10]; this meant, amongst other things, forcing them into domestic labour and confining them to the home.

There’s resonance in austerity with this description of terror and social classification. As Alston observed in his report on austerity:

“If you got a group of misogynists together in a room and said ‘how can we make a system that works for men but not women?’ they wouldn’t have come up with too many other ideas than what’s in place.” [11]

The Runnymede Trust have argued that the brunt of this impact has been borne by BME women [12]. In light of this, lets return to ‘radical social re-engineering’: Conservatives have ignored multiple UN reports and instead appointed a conservative philosopher to head up a commission to govern the design process for the nations housing, one whose stated views are hostile to gender studies and dismissive of any interrogation of gender identity [13], and who thinks the true purpose of ‘sexual union’ is reproductive and, on that basis, has opposed adoption for gay couples [14]. But the real issue is not if Scruton actively hates certain groups. It’s how the government doesn’t appear to listen to other voices, or care to understand the alarm.

Home and Horror

The design of homes isn’t a trivial footnote to the economy of homes, and the mantra of ‘location, location, location’ disguises the way in which design matters. Riffing on a point Doreen Massey made in the documentary The Dilapidated Dwelling [15], one of the most persistent problems of British housing isn’t its scarcity or abundance, which fluctuates, but a fixation on design for the needs of small, middle-class heterosexual family units as the norm, at the expense of others. We might also add to that problem the treatment of these families as the default homeowner [16].

We all depend on housing to fit our needs, but these needs differ dependent on social power and class, and at different times of life. People need housing, be they as families, extended families, gay couples, single parents, migrants, elderly companions, domestic violence survivors, sex workers, itinerant labourers, travellers, electively solitary people, wheelchair users, ‘crazy cat ladies’, christian Tories, or mentally ill Marxist witches. UK housing policy and rhetoric places homemaking and homeownership at the centre of citizenship, and exerts governance through housing access [17]. Displacement from housing is a way people become and stay marginalised. This fact is neatly illustrated by the case of the sex worker who was told “you’re at risk of eviction if you carry on telling me what you’re telling me” by a police officer when reporting an assault by a client in her flat [18]. At present, housing design, law, and markets, continue to give many people a stark choice between two kinds of violence; exposure to homelessness or conformity and silence. Refusing to recognise the multiplicity of housing need, and understand these needs as valid, is to strip people of stability and safety.

For fairness’ sake both Scruton and the government claim they will involve ‘communities’ in the commission, and he won’t act as a top-down dictator (though such claims are urban planning boilerplate for many developers at this point, and we shouldn’t accept them as firm assurances until we see it in action). I’m not a philosopher, and I don’t have time for a full dissection of Scrutopian thought, but it is clear from his article writing, such as his comments on homosexuals or his defence of Boris Johnson’s Burka Joke [19], full as it is of ahistorical assertions about Britain as a ‘face-to-face’ society, that for Scruton ‘community’ frequently appears as the existing norm to which minority groups should subordinate themselves. More importantly how Scruton casually and intuitively thinks and talks about these groups matters as much as his more extended philosophical claims, especially where day-to-day policy decisions are concerned.

The Conqueror Worm

What political purpose does putting Scruton in this post serve? What is appointing him supposed to do? A perpetuation of the social re-engineering the austerity agenda has undertaken seems to be part of the answer. Appointing a thinker with the reputation of Roger Scruton to a design commission is a statement of a desire to force one way of being and living onto the nation and withdrawing support to those who do not fit. In neoliberal governance, this process of withdrawal is how the state kills people, and attempts to re-impose confinement onto social groups. Austerity continues to work to structurally embed itself in our lives, as “for some individuals and organisations, austerity spells a series of distributed withdrawals that re-orientate them gradually: for others it spells a fall… straight through the cracks.” [20] This kind of governance is necropolitical; the production of forms of existence which confer upon people the status of the living dead [21].

Scruton’s appointment isn’t about his competence, or even him, but the way in which it is a statement of intent by government. This intent concerns the assertion of the proper sphere of women, the division of gender, the primacy of reproduction, the superiority of the British, Christian way of life. I’m not ‘offended’ by what Scruton has said, I’m disturbed by what it means in practical policy terms. It’s time we stopped treating these appointments as ‘disasters’, ‘gaffes’ or ‘mistakes’ on the part of people making them; they’re deliberate and purposeful and mean harm.

A witch hunt isn’t someone being made to account for their philosophical beliefs, it’s a campaign of social engineering through violence and fear intended to devalue the lives and activities of certain groups, among which women are the primary target. It’s hard not to see in the rhetoric and outcomes of austerity housing policy precisely such a campaign. But if we’re really going to go down this metaphorical line, Scruton can’t be the victim of a witch-hunt. Clearly, as the figurehead supposedly expert in metaphysics and rhetoric, whose self-declared mission is to defend Christianity, tradition and community, Roger Scruton’s closest analogue isn’t the ‘witch’.

It’s the witchfinder general.


Vincent Price in Witchfinder General (1968)

  1. You can read Scrutons defences here
  3. citizens-un-says
  4. inadequate-says-un-envoy-rolnik-bedroom-tax
  5. See this BBC interview with John McDonnell for a classic example av/uk-politics-39835429/andrew-marr-questions-john-mcdonnell-on-marxism
  6. politicians
  7.  It’s worth adding here that Suely Rolnik herself is a formidable figure in 20th and 21st century intellectual history, radical psychiatry and an anti-colonial activist in Brazil.
  8. animal-sacrifice-Marx.html
  9.  Amber Murrey (2017) Decolonising the imagined geographies of ‘witchcraft’,
    Third World Thematics: A TWQ Journal, 2:2-3, 157-179, DOI: 10.1080/23802014.2017.1338535.
    Murrey also astutely observes that academic structures, including the format of articles, blogs, and conference papers, even the most radical, re-inscribe this racialised legacy. I should tread carefully.
  10. Silvia Federici (2018) Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women PM Press
  12. minorities-hardest-
  13.  Roger Scruton (2016) ‘Universities War Against Truth’ universities-war-against-truth/
  14. Roger Scruton (2007) ‘This Right for Gays is an Injustice to Children’ https:// children.html
  15. Patrick Kieller (2000) The Dilapidated Dwelling
  16. Tory policy and political strategy has long fixated on the idea of the enfranchised property owner over and above all other forms of housing, see Francis, M. (2011). A Crusade to Enfranchise the Many’: Thatcherism and the ‘Property-Owning Democracy. Twentieth Century British History, 23(2), 275-297.
  17. [17] Melanie Nowicki (2018). A Britain that everyone is proud to call home? The bedroom tax, political rhetoric and home unmaking in UK housing policy. Social & Cultural Geography, 19(5), 647-667.
  18. [18] quoted in Molly Smith and Juno Mac (2018) Revolting Prostitutes London:Verso p108
  19. [19] Roger Scruton (2018) ‘The art of taking offence’
  20. [20] Ruth Raynor (2018) ‘What Ends in Austerity?’ ends-in-austerity/
  21. [21] Achille Mbembe (2000) ‘Necropolitics’

(Personal notes) On the backlash against student activism

It’s been impossible to follow the news this month and not be aware of two interacting dynamics; revelations about abusive men, and anxieties about the implication of feminist and LGBTQ activism for ‘free speech’ on campus. Yet it also seems remarkable that so little of this coverage has noted any relationship between these two things. Very little coverage has acknowledged that the latter explicitly and directly position themselves against the former.

It’s also been impossible for any decent person to follow without some degree of introspection. I turn 30 next year and for the last month I’ve been thinking a lot about the person I was ten years ago. There was a lot to be proud of but also a lot of awful things. When I left school to go to University at 18, I had some very bad views and sensibilities on a lot of, if not almost all, social issues, which defined a lot of my teens and early 20s. Like too many young men, even though I thought of myself as radical and progressive, I remained fairly racist, pretty misogynist, with a lot of anger and entitlement, often making edgy ‘jokes’, and I acted in all sorts of entitled ways. Jared O’Mara’s scandal provoked me go back and look at old forum comments I made, and it was a fairly distressing experience to re-encounter past digital selves giving animus to those attitudes and making gags at other peoples expense (alongside the expected embarrassing and rubbish political views). I don’t know if I can say precisely how much I’ve developed since then because ultimately thats a matter for others to judge, but for a long while now I’ve looked at how I was then and felt appalled. I think about how I am now and feel a lot more at ease, and certainly feel a lot better about myself.

It was people who challenged me on this stuff who made the difference and to whom I owe any growth. People who put endless amounts of time into calling me up on bad language, crass comments, and shitty jokes, and who patiently explained why certain words and phrases weren’t acceptable. I had some really great university teachers who took time to explain notions and the intersections of patriarchy, gender, violence, racism, colonialism, and how they shape our world-views. They unflinchingly talked about these problems and set feminist and anti-racist texts in classes, and emphasised the power of language. I spent time working and campaigning among student groups in the UK and Canada who were more versed in dealing with concepts of oppression, and people introduced me to concepts like power and privilege, safe spaces policies, and content notes/trigger warnings for the first time. Encountering these via the medium of living activists, not outrage pieces in the press, helped me think differently about them when I encountered them again later. Good role models and friends as well as activists, and campaigners I worked with as part of student politics challenged me, often to their own exhaustion, and I took a long time to catch up to what anyone had tried to teach me. We are all in, and are the beneficiaries or victims of, relationships of power in different ways, and undoing the worst of these systems is the work of lifetimes, not moments. But people don’t change by magic.

This is one part of why  it’s so important to challenge the current backlash against student activism. It’s vital that we push back against a reaction to calls for intersectional and de-colonial thought (as seen in the demonisation of Lola Olufemi in the Daily Telegraph this week), and oppose reductive criticisms of ‘identity politics’ across the political spectrum. It’s vital that we challenge the vilification of the tools young people are asking for to deal with the problems they face, like safe spaces policies and trigger warnings. There is a genuinely dangerous move afoot to restrict and uproot the activism and political engagement of young people in the UK. It should be confronted.

It seems absurd to me that in press narratives these two stories, one about the vileness of abusive men, the other about how dangerous youthful, intersectionally-minded, activists are, sit side by side but are never brought to bear on each other. It might be because that would require acknowledging that the latter are actually the frontline working against the creation of the former, and that press exposés after the fact are less effective than organised and direct engagement. While they inevitably make mistakes, young anti-racist, queer, and feminist activists are often labouring to exhaustion, (mostly unpaid with the exception of a few SU officers), challenging and pushing other young people (especially young (cisgender) men), to do better and to be better. And they get harassed, picked on, and bullied for doing it.  If you find yourself echoing the press and politicians who rail against these activists (often the same side also gunning for anti-Brexit academics), it might be worth considering what side you’re on.

Election Comment

I was trying to write an election comment on here for most of the day but kept giving up. In the end, I’ve decided to do this by talking about my academic research for once on this blog (apologies to my avid fans who thought you’d be getting more of that). Over the last few years as part of a PhD project on evictions I researched the practices of eviction enforcement from initial arrears to the day of eviction itself. In particular I focused in a city (which is anonymous) in the North of England. You probably know a city like it: a post-industrial town where heavy manufacturing and extractive industries defined its development, which gave way to mass unemployment from the 1970s on until the Blair-era ‘creative regeneration’ expanded the Higher Education and Arts sectors, but inevitably it was always insufficient, and when austerity policies came into effect the impacts were overwhelming. I spent time interviewing people whose job it was to enforce debts, rents and evictions in this place.

There are basic, scholarly, things to raise: MoJ statistics show evictions have increased dramatically in the rented sector since 2010. FOI data shows that police attendance at evictions in a city like Manchester have doubled since 2010. I could cite all the empirical data that I produced and found in interviews etc. But there’s a whole thesis of that.

In commenting on this election, I thought I’d mention several personal observations on this research. These are things I want to mention [CN: Eviction, suicide, domestic violence]:

I want to mention the way interviewees would often save their worst stories for me until after the recorder was switched off, and how they were scared to go on record about just how bad things seemed to be. They would share stories about tenants living on nothing more than sacks of potatoes, women pressured into handing their rent money to abusive partners because they didn’t have anywhere else to go, and people with mental health problems who were at the mercy of the bailiffs’ decision about whether they got support or evicted. They would talk about the people who were evicted after being sanctioned who then went missing, only to be found in the river two weeks later. Many of these stories will never make it into any official academic publication, but they need to be remembered.


But I also want to talk about the friends and strangers who contacted me privately or tried to talk to me, when they learned what I was researching, to ask for legal or practical advice because they or their family members were losing their home. So many other researchers in housing I’ve spoken to report the same experience. The actual advice or charitable services most people go to for legal advice should this happen, such as Citizens Advice Bureau, have also faced significant cuts and strain on their resources at a local and national level. A tremendous stigma still surrounds being in debt or losing your home. If you think austerity isn’t that bad because you’ve not been affected, I would say that it’s likely more of your friends are hurt by it than you think. Mine only told me because I accidentally became someone they thought might be able to help.

Austerity is a special kind of violence. And it is incredibly difficult to study anything affected by it and not conclude that. It is grounded in the idea that the poorest people must not only be ignored but be actively punished for failings of the economy. It assumes the most vulnerable people in our lives are either incapable of, or do not deserve to do, any activity beyond the most basic: any creative endeavour, any experience of the wider world, or any attempt at building relationships with others. It is grounded in the idea that balancing the books is more important than any possible form of existence, and it has no sense of an end beyond this. If you support austerity, you are cheating yourself of so much of the abundance and joy of others.

I don’t expect it will end tomorrow, but it ought to.

The Jolyoncene

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Pro-EU protest, London

There’s a segment of the British middle class who have been drawn into public life in response to Brexit and the collapsing centre. Prior to 2016, this group was largely satisfied with the status quo. They were pursuing professional jobs and their political activity involved incremental challenges to current policy; through academia, law, journalism or lobbying, advisory, consultancy and think tank work. Most of their engagement, though intensive intellectually, did not involve working in the public eye or trying to mobilise large groups of people in protest. If they wanted to change something, they’d contact a colleague in Westminster, arrange a policy session or luncheon, or lodge a formal legal complaint.

2016 changed that, as the status quo; liberal, market oriented, based in globalised trade and open borders for the wealthy white nations, began to collapse. Institutions that had previously been taken for granted as the birthright of a political class: free movement, legal protection, and most importantly, influence in reform and legislation, waned rapidly. At the same time the Labour centre lost substantial ground and control of the party to an insurgent Labour left, losing the liberal class its most numerous voice in parliament. A large chunk of this previously docile class has become mobilised around restoring some of these privileges: A decade ago, Alastair Campbell stalked Labour HQ behind the scenes, while Jeremy Corbyn spoke on a platform at the end of a march down Whitehall against Labour foreign policy in Iraq. At a protest on 25th March 2017, their positions were almost reversed, as Campbell took to the stage to oppose Brexit. British centrists have had to ‘go activist’ to defend their inheritance.

While the socialists’ inexperience in the politics of Westminster is pilloried, less attention has been turned to its mirror, the centrists’ inexperience in the politics of the streets. A whole generation of once-contented grey blurs have been forced into the public eye. The result is a parallel of that found in the US as Democrats talk awkwardly of ‘resistance’, going against their intuition to rub shoulders with socialists. Political liberalism is now being forced by the right to share dwindling platforms, airtime, and column inches with the historically extra-parliamentary left, which resents what they see as arrivistes who previously had no skin in the game and veer away from the consequences of their rhetoric.

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Jolyon Maugham’s listing on the wikipedia page for ‘Jolyon’ as of 27th March 2017

To a segment of the British left that uses twitter, this process is embodied in ‘The Jolyons’: legal campaigner and former Miliband advisor Jolyon Maugham and vocal anti-Corbyn activist Jolyon Green (among others).  Jolyon sticks because it is a name that captures several essences: to them, it reeks of middle class indulgences in child naming and cultural superiority. As an antiquated way of spelling ‘Julian’, the primary classical referent is Julian The Apostate, the Roman Emperor who tried to reconvert the Empire to the dying doctrine of paganism. Some insist that they had never heard the name until now; it’s a Baader-Meinhof effect, or even an entirely novel appearance in the shifting boundaries of shared reality. Whether men like Green and Maugham actually embody the new political landscape is irrelevant: they have become totemic of an entire class of suddenly disenfranchised centrists, who are now attempting to speak the language of protest to restore lost honour. Welcome to a new, tragic, age of activism. Welcome to the Jolyoncene.

Some books by friends

I want to give a quick plug on here to some work by my good friends and colleagues at various institutions who have supported me in various ways; there’s been a bit of a rush this last two months of books or edited collections out or forthcoming. I thought I’d give a quick shout out to them as they deserve your support and all bring invaluable contributions to new developments in the social science and humanities. In no particular order:

Marie Thompson- Beyond Unwanted Sound Bloomsbury

Marie is a music and cultural theorist, and works through theories of affect and its relationship to how we think about noise to create new and relevant critiques.  She was on Radio 4 recently and you can listen to her chat about noise here. Worth reading if you’re at all interested in affect.

Deidre Duffy- Evaluation and Governing in the 21st Century Palgrave

By one of the hardest-working social scientists I have ever met, I’m sure this is going to be a very timely look at youth service and the role of evaluation mechanisms in neoliberal governance.

Alex Vasudevan – The Autonomous City Verso

Forthcoming, but looking likely to be the definitive overview of political squatting in the ‘global north’ for the foreseeable future. Alex’s previous book Metropolitan Preoccupations is detailed and rich.

David M. Bell Rethinking Utopia: Place, Power, Affect Routledge

Utopian Studies can appear to outsiders as a somewhat sleepy backwater full of science fiction nerds and intellectual hobbyists, but the quality of publications tends to show otherwise. Dave is a very good communicator and brings a vital energy to the idea of utopia that challenges many assumptions of the concept.

Cemal Burak Tansel (ed.) States of Discipline Rowman and Littlefield

I’ve not had the chance to read through this yet but the impressive list of endorsements speaks for itself. Likely to be very relevant to anyone interested in coercion and disciplinary power under capitalism.

Vasudevan, Arrigoitia, Brickell (eds) Geographies of Forced Eviction Palgrave

I’ve got a chapter in this, so I’m biased, but this is a long-overdue collection of work bringing together world-leading research on forced eviction. If you have any interest in the global housing crisis or the politics of evictions you need to read it.

Behind the Red Doors: 3 Points on Asylum Seeker Housing

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Today’s Times Headline (paywalled), “Apartheid on the Streets of Britain” is a significant public expose of a disturbing policy that appears to have been in effect in Asylum Seeker Housing in Teesside. The report concerns Jomast, a company subcontracted by the multinational G4S to manage the housing of asylum seekers and refugees on behalf of the Home Office as part of the Home Office’s COMPASS asylum housing outsourcing program, brought in in 2012. COMPASS outsourced housing provision to 3 contractors: Serco, G4S, and Clearel.

Jomast are accused of enacting a policy of painting asylum seekers doors red to mark them apart from ‘normal’ housing. The report also documents Jomast’s millionaire owner Stuart Monk, and interviews many tenants who have been affected by the apparent policy. G4S, for its part, denies that such a policy exists. There are 3 points that I think are worth making in relation to the story.

1)The ‘Policy’ is Not New

Reports as far back as 2013 document the practiceof painting the doors of Asylum Seekers red. In a report by Suzanne Fletcher, a former councillor in Stockton on Tees to the Home Affairs Committee on Housing Conditions for asylum seekers, Fletcher stated:

“Despite instructions in the Compass document about reducing the possibility of conflict in the neighbourhood, the landlord has painted the doors of each of their properties housing asylum seekers red. This clearly says “this is where asylum seekers live”. It should be part of the contract that such clearly outwardly visible signs should not be allowed by housing providers.”

Page 28 of a joint Report from the same year, by the Regional Refugee Forum and North East Child Poverty Commission quotes an asylum seeker:

“We know that… local communities were not prepared for our arrival. We know that many of them face disadvantages themselves and are angry. And we know the negative picture the national media presents about asylum seekers as ‘bogus ‘and ‘scroungers’. We see how asylum seekers become the target of hate and we’re easily identified by our skin colour and the painted red doors of the houses we’re accommodated in.”

The Times article itself mentions Ian Swales (then Lib Dem MP for Redcar) raised the issue at a parliamentary committee hearing in 2014. Swales mentions a ‘intake of breath’ being audible from those present when he mentioned the practice.

2) This is about More than Doors

G4S have claimed that the Red Doors were not an official policy: they’ve missed the point; door colour or no, it is the separate system of asylum housing itself that is creating the conditions reported above. Red Doors, like Homeless Spikes and Poor Doors, are just the tip of the iceberg. Behind the red doors lies a whole set of policies marginalising of asylum seekers through housing.

Dr Steven Hirschler documented these practices in his PhD thesis, ‘The Biopolitics of Asylum Seeker Housing Provision in the UK’. Hirschler looked at COMPASS, and interviewed employees of housing providers and asylum seekers in the region. Amongst other findings were the profound psychological impact of being effectively forcibly relocated to a new city:

“For instance, of the interviewees that explicitly described a sense of depression, half (6) of these respondents were living in the North East of England. Like others in COMPASS housing, asylum seekers dispersed to Middlesbrough cited feelings of stress, isolation and fear. The impact of shared housing felt uniquely acute for respondents in the North East; over 60 per cent of respondents reporting problems with housemates were residents in Middlesbrough or Sunderland. Two respondents explained that they felt that the managers of the COMPASS programme were insensitive to the cultural and religious differences of residents, and that it seemed as if no consideration was made for such factors when dispersing people to individual properties.” (p126)

The research also points to a need to consider the conditions of housing provided to asylum seekers- and Jomast are not the only firm to be concerned about. One interviewee for instance, described the service provided by Orchard and Shipman, a subcontractor for Serco:

“Daya, a resident in an Orchard and Shipman property in Glasgow explained that when she was initially moved into the property following the transition to COMPASS, it was very clean and she considered it to be habitable. However, one night while she was sleeping, the ceiling over her bed collapsed. She exclaimed: ‘I had to jump on the bed and was screaming! I thought somebody had [broken] into the house.’ Daya called Orchard and Shipman the same night to report the incident and was told that no one was available at that hour and that someone would come by the property in the morning. According to Daya, no one arrived the next morning. She made continuous efforts to get somebody to come to the house – ‘I phoned, and I phoned and I phoned, and nobody came.’ It was only after she went to the Unity Centre, an agency providing support for asylum seekers in Glasgow, that she felt that her situation was being adequately considered.” (pp192-193)

In a report on Open Democracy, John Grayson records how these dynamics of neglect and dislocation work to impact the health of tenants:

“Tony has lost the sight in one eye and is losing the sight in the other one. He was living in Bristol and undergoing treatment for kidney trouble at Bristol Royal Infirmary when he got the Home Office order: “I got the letter that I was moving again. They didn’t tell me where I was going.” G4S staff brought him 180 miles north to Sheffield to a filthy back street terrace house. “This house is the worst they have given me in all those years,” Tony said.

G4S is obliged to help Tony to travel for essential medical treatment and registration with a local GP, but that hasn’t happened…Tony told me that in the week he had been in Sheffield, “I was given a map to find advice places and I walked into the city – I had no cash for the bus”. He had to walk four miles into the city centre to a drop-in advice centre and then another four miles back to his house.

Tony had no cash, only his government-issued Azure card allowing him a little over £5 a day and only useable at specified supermarkets.

How was his new home? “The carpets were dirty, there was rubbish dumped outside at the back, the bathroom was filthy and I was given a room with the furniture broken. They said they wouldn’t take me back to Bristol, I had to stay in the house.”

These reports by tenants in the COMPASS program suggest that dangerous housing, forcible relocation, and physical and psychological pain are commonplace. If so, it is hard to conclude that this is not also the practical outcome of racialised and racist public debate, policies, and practices which treat migrants, let alone refugees or those from outside the ‘global north’ as untrustworthy, suspect or dangerous. In the context of controversies around deaths such as that of Jimmy Mubenga, claims of sexual abuse at detention centres, to the ‘softer end’ like Cameron’s recent call to force immigrants to learn English within two years while cutting ESOL classes, painting the doors of asylum seekers red is just another drastic symptom of a persecuting society.

3) Asylum Seeker Housing is Just The Beginning

Firms like G4S and Serco may have a stake in managing asylum seeker housing, but they have little intention of stopping there. G4S had no prior experience as a provider of asylum seeker housing before they were awarded the government contract, which they gained on the grounds of their competitive bidding; “Stephen Small, the Managing Director of Immigration and Borders at G4S, explained that the corporate vision for asylum housing was the expansion of a new ‘asylum market’” (Hirschler p9). These contractors are not experts in the provision of services (this is part of why they used subcontractors) but they are experts in bidding for contracts and lobbying for legal changes in order to open up new markets. Jeremy Stafford, former Serco CEO made an interesting comment when quizzed about the motivation for their bid:

We are very focused on building an accommodation business, and we believe that by taking on regions of the COMPASS service, we could establish the right team to do that and we felt that we could establish the platform that we felt was scalable … and take [it] to other geographies. (ibid, p88)

This suggests that Serco are interested in using COMPASS as a base from which to develop skills to expand both overseas, and possibly into other sectors of the UK housing market, including social housing.

The Future

A scathing 2014 select committee report into the Home Office’s COMPASS program concluded:

“The standard of the accommodation provided has often been unacceptably poor for a very fragile group of individuals and families. The companies failed to improve quality in a timely manner. None of this was helped by the Department’s failure to impose penalties on contractors in the transition period. It is disturbing that over a year into the contract the accommodation is still not of the required standard and the Department has only chalked up £8 million in savings.”

With the most recent government housing reforms stripping away security of tenure, MPs voting down provisions for liveable housing, and policies like ‘Right To Rent’ which demand checks from landlords of tenants’ immigration status, the conditions in asylum seeker housing serve as a precursor to the future of social housing: precarious, dangerous, and marginal.

On Cannibals and Sovereignty

This short essay explores the linkages between cannibalism and sovereign power. Much is updated but it remains based on what was originally a piece of MA coursework back in 2010. It emerged out of a close reading of the work of Giorgio Agamben on sovereignty, and a style of theoretical work which I find myself less engaged by today. There are many adjustments, things that would have been done differently: Ecology should have taken a more prominent role, and in particular I would like to have explored anthropological literatures more. The Eurocentricity of parts the narrative could also have been challenged.  It’s clear I will never probably achieve such a rewrite, so I offer this piece here simply because it might be better in the light of day than sitting on a hard drive, and it brings up what I think are still interesting linkages. I welcome comments, thoughts, and suggestions. 

Demoboros Basileus: Of Cannibals and Sovereignty


In Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring his Children we see an elderly man devouring a naked and dismembered body. Famously, and running counter to the mythology from which the scene is drawn, the body is that of an adult, but beyond this it is androgynous enough to deny any speculation on intended gender or identity. The old man is several scales larger than the body; the only thing indicating any element of the mythological in the scene apart from the title. Goya’s work emerged only after his death, produced in isolation sometime after the end of the Napoleonic wars, a reflection on two decades of nationalist violence, personal isolation, and encroaching silence.

The familiar frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan shows an image of the defining form of sovereignty; a body made of a multitude of other bodies. The framework laid out by Hobbes and Rousseau defines the start of ‘modern’ political thought; sovereign will is the accumulation of peoples into a “form and association of  which will defend the person and goods of each member with the collective force of all” (Rousseau p60). This is a line of reasoning that emerges at the point of what Michel Foucault called Raison d’Etat; “a practice, or rather the rationalization of a practice, which places itself between a state presented as given and a state presented as having to be constructed and built” (2008, p4). This echoes Foucault’s work elsewhere, especially in Discipline and Punish, in which the aim of disciplinary power is postulated to be the normalisation of a social construct through the arrangement and inscription of human bodies. Saturn Devouring his Children, and Hobbes’ frontispiece share the same subject matter – the consumption of the lesser body by the greater body. There is, then, a conceptual and material linkage between the sovereign and the cannibal: the human body that is made of human bodies.

17th Century Orthodox Icon of St. Christopher

“You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second.” – Machiavelli

Until the emergence of such Raison d’Etat, in the discourse of Western Christendom the cannibal had primarily occupied the space of the monstrous on the outside of the political world. The Cynocephali, dog-headed humans, described as back as a far as Pliny, and who feasted on human flesh, were common in European medieval mythology, persisting even beyond 1492.  They appear on the maps of the middle ages, prowling the borderlands of the near east, sub-saharan Africa, and islands just across the world ocean; The Byzantine confusion over the identity of Saint Christopher the Canaanite/Canineite supposedly led to his depiction in Orthodox iconography as such a dog-headed monster. ‘Modern’ scientific treatises were still troubling themselves over the dog-humans at least as late as 1699, notably Edward Tyson’s work of early racist anthropology Orang- Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man. To which is added, a Philological Essay Concerning the Pygmies, the Cynocephali, the Satyrs, and Sphinges of the Ancients. Wherein it Will Appear that They are all Either Apes or Monkeys, and not Men, as Formerly Pretended. But after the realignment of European geographical imaginaries following from the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the formation of European colonial capitalism, some kind of shifting from the curious monstrosities made by God upon creation to question humanity, to the human itself as the source of it’s own inhumanity, took place.

Unknown, ‘Cannibals on the Caribbean Island’ in Lorenz Fries, Uselegung der Mercarthen oder Carta Marina, Strasbourg: Johannes Grüninger 1525

Such a shift parallels the realignment of the state from the divine mandate to the conscious product of a constitutional process. Montaigne’s famous encounter with ‘cannibals’ from the ‘New World’ led him to opine on their habituated consumption of the flesh of their enemies:

They do not do this, as some think, for nourishment, as the Scythians anciently did, but as a representation of an extreme revenge; as will appear by this: that having observed the Portuguese, who were in league with their enemies, to inflict another sort of death upon any of them they took prisoners, which was to set them up to the girdle in the earth, to shoot at the remaining part till it was stuck full of arrows, and then to hang them, they thought those people of the other world (as being men who had sown the knowledge of a great many vices amongst their neighbours, and who were much greater masters in all sorts of mischief than they) did not exercise this sort of revenge without a meaning, and that it must needs be more painful than theirs, they began to leave their old way, and to follow this.

Montaigne’s eyes, like those of the great philosophers of early colonialism, looked at the distinct cultural practices of the indigenous people of the New World and saw European man in a more primitive state, sharing in an infantile sense of vengeance in the defence of the honour of primeval sovereignty. The Europeans read their own crude drive for violent accumulation onto the cannibal, both condemning the barbarity of the colonial settler but at the same time justifying such actions as grounded in universal human conditions. While for Hobbesians the greater body consumed the lesser for the good of security and safety to guard against such barbarity, in the First of his Treatises on Government, John Locke argued:

“ But if the example of what hath been done be the rule of what ought to be, history would have furnished our author with instances of this absolute fatherly power in its height and perfection, and he might have showed us in Peru people that begot children on purpose to fatten and eat them. The story is so remarkable, that I cannot but set it down in the author’s words: “In some provinces, says he, they were so liquorish after man’s flesh, that they would not have the patience to stay till the breath was out of the body, but would suck the blood as it ran from the wounds of the dying man; they had public shambles of man’s flesh, and their madness herein was to that degree, that they spared not their own children, which they had begot on strangers taken in war: for they made their captives their mistresses, and choicely nourished the children they lead by them, till about thirteen years old they butchered and eat them; and they served the mothers after the same fashion, when they grew past child-bearing, and ceased to bring them any more roasters.” Garcilasso de la Vega, Hist. des Yncas de Peru, 1. i. c. 12.” (§55)

The cannibal native was degenerate on both counts: either as justification for originally authority that needed to be refined into pure sovereign will (Hobbes), or the cannibal was a dangerous warning about relying upon the state of nature as the basis for a new political system (Locke). The cannibal remained the go-to figure throughout the ‘bourgeois revolutions’ of Europe as the symbol of power let slip from constitutional convention, but also anomic vengeance: “A l’exemple du Saturne, la révolution dévore ses infants” (‘Like Saturn, revolution devours it’s children’), said French reactionary Jacques Mallet du Pan, while Jean-Paul Marat supposedly held that “men” had the right “to deal with their oppressors by devouring their palpitating hearts” (ironically the mummified heart of Louis XIV, beacon of the ancien regime, is supposed to have been accidentally ingested in 1848 by the  Reverend William Buckland). As recent moral panics around Islamic State fighters in Syria eating the body parts of their enemies has shown, the anxiety is still a live one. The coinage, however, is ancient: as the anthropologist Frank Lestringant notes, the ancient Greeks used to call tyrants demoboros basileus – eaters of people (p8).

The exception” Giorgio Agamben claimed in Homo Sacer “is what cannot be included in the whole of which it is a member and cannot be a member of the whole in which it is included” (emphasis in original, 1998 p25). The demoboros, the ‘European’ cannibal, in consuming another, makes a decision based in this circumstance – to simultaneously deny the body of the eaten and incorporate it into the body of the eater – in one understanding of the ritual form of cannibalism the Freudian Eli Sagan suggests that the cannibal “eats the person who, by dying, has abandoned him” (Sanday, 1998, p11). Cannibalism is an act that occurs at what, using Agamben’s (1998, p27) words, is “a threshold in which life is both inside and outside” the consuming body of the juridical order. In order to exclude his children from supplanting him as sovereign of the gods, Saturn ingests them into his own body (in such an ultimately unsuccessful manner that his children are reborn whole after he is fed a boulder by subterfuge). The Sovereign, as Agamben understands it in Homo Sacer-that which decides upon exceptions, excludes by including, acts as the demoboros does.

Following Agamben’s framework as laid out in Homo Sacer, it is necessary to interrogate the previous claim through the concept of ‘bare life’. Agamben distinguishes between bios “a qualified life” and zoē is defined as “the simple fact of living” (1998, p1), later rephrased as bare life “life exposed to death…the originary political element” (emphasis in original 1998. p88). Bare life is created by the act of sovereign exception- Homo Sacer, the exemplary figure of bare life in Roman law is rendered “sacred insofar as it is taken into the exception”. As the sacred entity that cannot be sacrificed, Homo Sacer occupies a space that is the preserve of the mythological and mystical, the wargus, the wolf-man, or the cynocephalus.

These figures resonate in the passages from Plato which Agamben cites, recalling a trick played by priests at the Tomb of the Lykaon Zeus; “whoever tastes one bit of human entrails minced up with those of other victims is inevitably transformed into a wolf…[likewise] a leader of the mob [dēmos], seeing the multitude devoted to his orders, does not know how to abstain from the blood of his tribe” (1998, p108). Here the demoboros erupts and consumes the multitude, at the point in at which  the figure of Homo Sacer and the Sovereign meet and become indistinct, occupying a shared space of internal externality. Within this space within and outside the law, the contrasting status of the Eucharist as a sacred act of flesh-eating, and the taboo status of Cannibalism also enter; the king is both sacred and foul, and the act of consuming the human body is both cleansing and abominable. It is important to note, however, that for Agamben this indistinction only reaches the form of the permanent State of Exception in the modern era- while the medievals saw the Cannibal as an occasional and contingent exception that confound distinction; for Agamben it is in the formation of a State of Exception that an exceptional cannibalism becomes the norm. The Cannibal is a tool for an understanding of the concept of Sovereignty, suitable not only because it is a recurring form in the Official Canon of European thinkers, but because it relates the philosophy of sovereignty to a continuum of philosophies of power centred on the body comprised of other bodies; the state-machine, the cyborg, the many-headed hydra, the multitude.

“Famine-Stricken and Plundered India” (Irish World, March 7, 1874)

Is this then pure metaphor? The historian Mike Davis has found that during the 1877 famine in British India a “a self-proclaimed Benthamite ‘Experiment’” was conducted in the relief camps offered to famine stricken Indians, where only the minimum rations necessary to conduct hard labour were provided, a regime which “provided less sustenance for hard labor than the diet inside the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp”(p38). All the while ships loaded with grain left India for the mills of England. Here the connection between the logic of modernism and the camp – the concept of the camp as the ‘paradigm of the modern’ in Agamben’s terms- is clearly apparent. Agamben notes that the basis of experimentation on the human body by “voluntary consent” is “simply meaningless for someone interned at Dachau” (p158); how can one truly agree to submit to such a regimen, when the choice is between two kinds of dying? In the Indian context a cycle of “decay and dislocation” (Davis, p47) appears combined with a famine cannibalism occurring outside the camps; “India, like Ireland before it had become a Utilitarian laboratory” (p31) argued Davis: what Swift had satirised with his Modest Proposal was, in the space of a generation, practical policy. An external cannibalism of necessity in the villages and farmland, was counterposed to a manifestation of a Liberal Utilitarian bios which acted to consume bodies through an explicit project of calculating bare life in the camps. An explicit turn to a Marx here reveals a confluence of sovereignty and capital, and the endgame of ‘European’ thought; the dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, is facilitated through the bio-political logistics at work in the formation of colonial sovereignty.

In an essential essay on colonial power, Necropolitics, Achille Mbembe writes:

contemporary experiences of human destruction suggest that it is possible to develop a reading of politics, sovereignty, and the subject different from the one we inherited from the philosophical discourse of modernity. Instead of considering reason as the truth of the subject, we can look to other foundational categories that are less abstract and more tactile, such as life and death.

The European imaginary of the cannibal as both the core and the periphery of the sovereign project is the fusion of these categories. It is the project of the ‘human’ in it’s absolute form: the living made of the dead. In The Open Agamben points in the direction of a medieval puzzle concerning the anthropophagus whose fate upon the ressurrection and final judgement is unclear; will the bodies of their victims be resurrected, thereby denying the cannibal the molecular substance needed for resurrection and judgement? Surely there can be no future for the sovereign power that operates in such a manner, but in a cruel turn, it certainly also escapes judgement: it must be dismantled in order that the very substance it is made of might bear witness against it.


Agamben, G. The Open translated by Kevin Attell (Stanford University Press, California: 1994)

Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen ( California: Stanford University Press 1998)

–  State Of Exception trans. Kevin Attell  (University of Chicago Press 2005)

Davis, M.  Late Victorian Holocausts; El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World  (London:Verso 2001)

Foucault, M.  Discipline and Punish trans. A. Sheridan Penguin, (London: Penguin 1998)

-The Birth of Biopolitics  trans. Graham Burchill (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2008)

The Will To Knowledge: The History of Sexuality volume1  (London: Penguin 1998)

Hobbes, Leviathan Oxford World’s Classics

John Locke, Two Treatises on Government Cambridge University Press

Mbembe, A. (2003) Necropolitics 

Montaigne, Of Cannibals

Phillips, J. ‘Cannibalism qua Capitalism’ in Cannibalism and The Colonial World eds. Francis Barker, Peter Hulme and Margaret Iversen (Cambridge University Press 1998)

Reeves Sanday, P.  Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System (Cambridge University Press 1998)

Rousseau, J-J.  The Social Contract trans. Maurice Cranston (London: Penguin 1968)