Let’s not think about it

This evening on BBC national radio, a presenter managed an item about the Coalition government’s legislation to make squatting in (or on?) vacant property a criminal rather than a civil offence.

There were two interviewees. The first an academic and specialist who had been studying squatting, its causes and effects, for at least 15 years; the second a member of the public who said he had found that squatters had occupied his newly purchased property.

The academic could provide a wealth of information about who squatters were and why they squatted in vacant property; and from this could suggest what the effect of the new legislation would be. The possible results were disturbing: people who would have squatted, frightened by the law, would sleep rough. Others would risk criminal penalty, including jail.  Without saying so directly, there was an implication that this legislation would do nothing to relieve the homes, but instead would punish the poor.

At this point the presenter intervened with stories in the media about people who went on holiday and came back not just to find their property occupied, but to discover that everyone was powerless to remove the squatters. The academic replied that in 15 years of study she had found hardly any such cases. They were rare and atypical.

So the last word was given to the member of the public and his story, in which he admitted that the police had successfully removed the squatters within four weeks under existing law. However, based on his experience the new legislation was wholly necessary and no occupation of vacant property was ever justified.

Paul H. Rosenberg has written about the intellectual and knowledge deficits which have been created by neoliberal fundamentalism. This interview was a classic example: one person’s experience together with anecdotal evidence from the popular press were given greater credence and weight than academic study and analysis.

Legislation in the USA and UK has been plagued by this: notoriously in the framing of laws by mothers who have, sadly, suffered the loss of children to paedophiles.  That is, of course, a truly terrible thing to happen. However, it does not make such an individual capable of legislation or more wiser and knowledgeable than bodies of good academic study.  The result of laws intended to name and locate offenders had predictable effects – that is, effects predicted by knowledge and analysis – offenders would hide from authority and innocent people would be assaulted and murdered (in one case, allegedly, for being a paediatrician).

Anti-intellectualism is necessary and inevitable when there is a fundamentalist certainty to be held: in the neoliberal case, that there is no alternative (TINA) to the free-market model and the neoliberal logics.  It is unsurprising then that academic institutions are portrayed as left-wing monoliths, and the reason why i”independent” right-wing think-tanks are necessary.  Neoliberals are particularly sensitive to any economic thought which questions their fundamentalist free-market beliefs.

This also explains why the Coalition government is determined to privatise education and higher education; and why for the last two decades public primary and secondary education has been subject to strict regulation and monitoring.

Ironically – or rather, without irony – neoliberals often justify all this with sweeping generalisations about the horrors of the old Communist states, where free thought was punishable; or even the Islamic states. But the neoliberal state is itself a theocracy, and must be built and preserved on the ignorance and uncritical thinking of the consumer.

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