Against Individualizing:
Personal Beef or Group Critique?

I’m catching blocks for my recent Zer0 Books post, with Mike Watson now declaring I’m obsessed with him. I am not. I may have more stamina for engaging with this drama than others — it is admittedly becoming quite stale — but I just think the details are important.

If I cite Watson’s public posts on the matter — or anyone else’s — it is because I think it is worth citing what you’re critiquing. He thinks this is a sign of an individual obsession, but I just think it is good practice, if only so others can follow up and see for themselves if what you have to say is vague ad hominem or a considered response to something someone else has said. This is a lesson that Watson might want to learn, because there is a pattern in his dismissals of my (or anybody else’s) critiques of Zer0. He obfuscates the actual issues being discussed and makes it about individuals and their egos instead, betraying a shameful anti-intellectualism that attacks a culture of critique as much as it claims to represent one.

In his latest Patreon post about the whole drama, Watson defends Zer0’s honour by arguing that the publishing industry and its various media outputs are good because they “engage the public with disruptive output aimed at fostering class consciousness”. Whether people like it or not, Zer0 and the rest of a left-wing publishing industry share that goal. Echoing a poor man’s interpretation of the Vampire Castle, however, he goes on to say that those who would critique Zer0 for their part in this are just “leftists who instead use these means to infight with other leftists over who is the better or more authentic purveyor of leftist truth (or, as sad as it truly is, who is the the best scholar of Mark Fisher)”, all for the sake of creating what Walter Benjamin once called “‘a con­tinuous stream of novel effects for the entertainment of the public.'” He continues:

These people simply seek the attention and recognition that capitalist social media has primed them to demand and expect. Yet those recognised authors (and it has to be said editors and publishers) that use social media to brow beat other authors and publishers, seeking to turn their followers loose on them, really ought to be recognised as the opportunists they are. I am unsure if they are liable to recognise themselves in this description, or that they will care.

I find this a pretty brazen argument to make, not only because Watson’s main topic of interest is memeing — does anything seek the attention and recognition of capitalist social media more than that, often at the expense of consciousness and knowledge? — but also because it conveniently ignores why so many people actually came to despise Zer0 in the first place. We need only consider their last drama before they were sold off, which involved a tweet made in support of the “Team TERF” segment from Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special, which Lain later admitted on Facebook was just a marketing ploy (as if that wasn’t already obvious).

To suggest others are unserious opportunists for cheering the end of this sort of unserious opportunism is Pretzel logic, pure and simple. But it also goes deeper than this, because this bending over backwards and ignoring Zer0’s actual contributions to the landscape at large is just another way of hiding their critics’ more structural concerns — that is, quite literally, how Zer0’s output relates to an overarching social media structure. This is evidenced by the fact that Watson also seems to think there’s no actual reason for all of this hate directed at Zer0 beyond petty publishing factionalism. We’re all leftists, even if we disagree on some things, so why can’t we act like it? Why must you always insist on being right and on the side of truth as if anyone can claim ownership of it? Why can’t we agree to disagree, or better yet just ignore each other, and then all just get along? In other words, why can’t we just ignore our social relations and positions within the structure at large?

For one thing, the very idea that we should all just get along, despite Zer0’s own undermining of solidarity, is precisely the sort of toothless critique I discussed last time, and in a context far wider than who now owns Zer0 Books. That Novara Media recently found themselves having a Twitter controversy for doing an interview on Unherd about their momentarily deleted YouTube channel, for instance, annoyed many because it presented this vague idea of solidarity between media outlets whilst actually ignoring the unequal balance of power that means right-wing media is more favored by algorithms and media controllers than left-wing media, precisely because right-wing media more often than not appeals to the ruling class.

This is what happens when we individualise critique — that is, when we consider people in some sort of bubble, outside of their social relations. Combatting this doesn’t mean you can’t say “x did or said something stupid and wrong”, however — it means we should try not to focus on individuals at the expense of the structures they might represent or give (sometimes unwitting) support to. And that’s precisely why people critiqued Chappelle and Lain in the first place. Chappelle championed “Team TERF” at the expense of one of the most vulnerable groups in society — a group that we should all be actively engaging in acts of solidarity with, especially right now as hostility towards trans people has reached unprecedented levels in our current media environment, echoing the homophobic media tactics of old. Sidestepping such an opportunity, Lain joined in only to shill Burgis’s book. What sort of solidarity or class consciousness is that? That’s not a way to raise group consciousness… Group consciousness is precisely what is lacking in that instance.

Burgis himself is another case in point here, of course. In his book, he also seems to have mistaken critiquing the actions of individuals for individualizing critique. But it has never been about Chappelle doing a bad thing and, as a result, being denounced and outcast. He’s doing just fine. Rather, it’s about challenging what he represents: a wider structural inequality that he is, in turn, emboldened by, and which allows him to make such comments in the first place. Calling this out isn’t “cancelling comedians while the world burns” but pointing out how comedians contribute to said burning. It’s asking what comedians, as a group, can — and should — do from their positions of cultural influence to raise group consciousness around issues like the climate crisis or LGBT+ discrimination, et al.

Consider the fact that Chappelle, in response to the backlash against his special, asked people to stop coming for high-profile black men who say homophobic things. As the Guardian reported at the time: “‘All I ask of your community, with all humility: Will you please stop punching down on my people?’ he said in reference to DaBaby and other Black celebrities such as Kevin Hart who have faced criticism for homophobic comments.” But all this does is suggest there are no gay or trans black people who also found his comments offensive — again, undermining solidarity and essentialising black people as being all like him rather than constructing solidarity across different experiences.

This is similarly how the Zer0 crowd sound when they claim they have been singled out without any structural critique in play — and that is a narrative taken right out the playbook of the conservative TERFs rallying around Kathleen Stock in the UK recently as well (also discussed in the previous post). Many of Stock’s defenders insist people are just trying to ruin her career, as if Stock losing her job will actually solve anything. But the problem isn’t Stock the individual, it’s the social atmosphere she created on campus — a toxic atmosphere curated at the expense of her students who she and the university at large have a duty of care towards but who she has instead chosen to attack.

This atmosphere has always been the focus for her critics, but it is Stock and her supporters who individualize that critique. That’s why her resignation hasn’t stopped anything — her supporters mourn Stock’s own decision, buying into the narrative she was pushed, but I’m sure it matters little to those who protested her because her cause was supported by the media and the university, further emboldening the atmosphere she had created, even extending it and making it a more pervasive part of public discourse in the UK at large. Simply put, there is a vast imbalance of power within this debate that is routinely hidden and obfuscated. Because of this, I very much doubt that trans students feel any safer now she’s gone, when they know that the senior management structure at Sussex university and the press openly supported someone who denies their experiences.

The ultimate result of this kind of obfuscation is that it further emboldens the liberalist logic that there is a hard line between the individual and their social relations. But the solution here obviously isn’t to ignore individual behavior — the point is to consider how social relations legitimize it. These things are not magically disconnected. And so, if we do have cause to critique an individual, we should make sure that pressure is felt beyond the individual in question to enact real change and foster a sense of solidarity across social groups.

For all their time spent invoking the Vampire Castle, this is the point that many of the Zer0 crowd repeatedly miss, despite the fact it is the first law of Fisher’s own diagnosis of social media as a co-opted infrastructure:

The first law of the Vampires’ Castle is: individualise and privatise everything. While in theory it claims to be in favour of structural critique, in practice it never focuses on anything except individual behaviour. … Remember: condemning individuals is always more important than paying attention to impersonal structures. The actual ruling class propagates ideologies of individualism, while tending to act as a class. … The VC … pays lip service to ‘solidarity’ and ‘collectivity’, while always acting as if the individualist categories imposed by power really hold.

Fisher made this same point again and again over the years that followed. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, in his essay “No Romance Without Finance” Fisher discusses Nancy Hartsock’s “concept of standpoint epistemology, which maintains – following Lukács and Marx – that subjugated groups potentially have an access to knowledge of the whole social field that the dominant group lacks.” This alone dismantles the toothless critique of solidarity meaning everyone just gets along whilst Doug Lain flirts with TERFs. Hartsock’s most powerful insight, in this regard, is that, yes, we all have different viewpoints, but some of those viewpoints are still better and more encompassing than others, and making those judgement calls is a central part of the consciousness-raising process.

As I’ve said before, the Zer0 2.0 crowd instead restrict the Vampire Castle to a place where individuals they don’t like live, rather than a structural analogy for the sort of individualizing behaviour that many at Zer0 actively promote online. They do this by denouncing a lack of solidarity with them specifically whilst ignoring all critiques that point out the ways in which they’ve failed to maintain solidarity with the left or marginalized groups at large. Zer0’s critics instead stand together, whereas Zer0 have stood against trans people and even against the old Zer0 crew when they explicitly asked for solidarity from the new team. You can’t just speak to “the left” and think that makes you part of the conversation when, at every opportunity, you break rank and fail to foster any new consciousness within the publishing world and beyond. Instead, they bottle it at every turn, only engaging with things on their own myopic terms. With all this in mind, that they are surprised no one wants to stand with them is bemusing. But it is clear why this has happened. The only community they care about is the one internally constructed between its authors, which clearly remains active. But the left sprawls outwards much further than the ends of their noses.

Update: Way to prove my point, I guess…

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