On Roger Scruton, the housing crisis, witch-hunting, and the necropolitics of austerity…
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 , 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. 
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.” 
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”  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 , or a “loopy Brazilian leftie with no evidence masquerading as a serious UN official” by one Tory MP . The media then dredged interviews with Rolnik’s sister , 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’ . 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 . 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” ; 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.” 
The Runnymede Trust have argued that the brunt of this impact has been borne by BME women . 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 , and who thinks the true purpose of ‘sexual union’ is reproductive and, on that basis, has opposed adoption for gay couples . 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 , 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 .
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 . 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 . 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 , 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.”  This kind of governance is necropolitical; the production of forms of existence which confer upon people the status of the living dead .
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.
- You can read Scrutons defences here https://www.roger-scruton.com/articles
- https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/nov/16/uk-austerity-has-inflicted-great-misery-on- citizens-un-says
- https://www.theguardian.com/society/patrick-butler-cuts-blog/2013/sep/11/uk-housing- inadequate-says-un-envoy-rolnik-bedroom-tax
- See this BBC interview with John McDonnell for a classic example https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/ av/uk-politics-39835429/andrew-marr-questions-john-mcdonnell-on-marxism
- https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/15/bedroom-tax-un-investigator-hostile- politicians
- 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.
- https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2418204/Raquel-Rolnik-A-dabbler-witchcraft-offered- animal-sacrifice-Marx.html
- 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.
- Silvia Federici (2018) Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women PM Press
- https://www.runnymedetrust.org/blog/rethinking-austerity-is-overdue-it-has-hit-women-ethnic- minorities-hardest-
- Roger Scruton (2016) ‘Universities War Against Truth’ https://life.spectator.co.uk/2016/06/ universities-war-against-truth/
- Roger Scruton (2007) ‘This Right for Gays is an Injustice to Children’ https:// http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3636798/This-right-for-gays-is-an-injustice-to- children.html
- Patrick Kieller (2000) The Dilapidated Dwelling
- 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.
-  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.
-  quoted in Molly Smith and Juno Mac (2018) Revolting Prostitutes London:Verso p108
-  Roger Scruton (2018) ‘The art of taking offence’ https://www.roger-scruton.com/images/_The_art_of_taking_offence.pdf
-  Ruth Raynor (2018) ‘What Ends in Austerity?’ https://antipodefoundation.org/2018/11/19/what- ends-in-austerity/
-  Achille Mbembe (2000) ‘Necropolitics’ https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/postgraduate/masters/modules/postcol_theory/mbembe_22necropolitics22.pdf