It seems various anonymised authors from Zer0 2.0 have come out in defense of the imprint’s conduct in an essay for Cosmonaut magazine. It’s weird of Cosmonaut to even think this warrants elevating to that platform, honestly, but it is clear they’ve taken Zer0’s own approach to editorial oversight — it’s hard to get through a piece that references you at length but never bothers to check if it is spelling your name correctly…
It’s a lame piece, all in all, that indulges wholeheartedly in both-sides rhetoric. “Yeah, Zer0 fucked up, but Repeater fucked up too!” There’s no denying plenty of others have made mistakes. (I’ve already been regretting entertaining this same whataboutery with Doug Lain directly on Twitter last week.) But the point has never been about who has clocked up the most faux pas, and that the ex-Zer0 bunch have twisted this into point-scoring whataboutery is telling.
The thing to celebrate here was the end of Lain’s soap box and the subpar projects he used his position to buoy. His conduct was been so consistently and persistently embarrassing — intellectually and aesthetically — that he has dragged the entire imprint into disrepute and its “Golden Era” along with it. From the horrendously baity cover of The Memeing of Mark Fisher to using trans people’s pain to shill books, this year alone it has been embarrassment after embarrassment. Those are the things people really hate; the finer details are just the results of his general comportment. It is his edgelord comportment and that of his lackies has always been the thing that turned off so many former Zer0 Books readers. He transformed Zer0 into a content farm for culture war nonsense and it was nauseating to watch, putting forward an utterly hollow idea of leftist solidarity that didn’t extend beyond their Discord.
I don’t really have anything more to add to that. I said my piece here and stand by it.
But it is interesting that the ex-Zer0 crowd have at least taken my earlier advice on board. After continuing to show just how embarrassing they are in their shit-slinging, they’ve decided to put a suit on and are now trying to look respectable in a magazine about “revolutionary strategy”…
The main takeaway from this article, following the whataboutery, is that they finally decide to wear their opinions on their sleeves. They finally address their obsession with Mark Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle” — an essay they hold up at the expense of anything else he wrote. It begins:
A few days after his initial post celebrating Zer0’s buyout, he [– that’s me –] published a follow-up piece. In it, he argues that Mark Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle” should not be read as a condemnation “of ‘identity politics’ and ‘cancel culture’” avant la lettre (a reading characteristic of the Zer0 2.0 set). Rather its message is a more pedestrian one: that the left’s “Twitter miserabilism” is symptomatic of its impotency, which favors internal disparagement over the construction of any kind of “common project.”
To characterise this as “pedestrian” is quite hilarious, when there is nothing more lazy and vague than a “culture war” reading of that essay, boiling it down to “idpol and cancel culture bad”. (I’ll have more even more evidence as to why that’s bullshit in a few weeks, as I’ve been transcribing a lecture Fisher gave on Irigaray in 2014 that clearly shows how his apparent “anti-idpol” sentiment is rather an anti-essentialism — when discussing identity, he is fully on the side of non-binary assessments of gender and goes right back to Plato to explore how contemporary debates of anti-essentialism are well-founded, despite what most TERFs say. But of course, there’s already plenty of other (and less specific) evidence for this out there, proffered by those who knew him best.)
We’re not particularly interested in dissecting Colquho[u]n’s reading of Fisher, which seems to us somewhat implausible (as well as somewhat unflattering, in so far as it partially defangs Fisher’s critique of dominant left-liberal positions).
I’d love to see them give it a go, at least. That would be hilarious.
Rather we’re more interested in why Colquho[u]n feels compelled to elevate Fisher’s writing to holy writ, declaring that the authors of Zer0 2.0 lacked the prodigious insight required to understand him.
And there it is — the prevailing intellectual dishonesty of the ex-Zer0 set. Though they hold the “Vampire Castle” essay aloft, as one of their founding inspirational documents, it is I — who simply says “read another essay” (like this one or this one, or my own distillation of the “Vampire Castle” essay, exploring its place in Fisher’s wider thought and its actual left-historical context) — who is the blinkered Fisherian priest… My argument is precisely that “Exiting the Vampire Castle” not be held up as the last gospel of Mark Fisher. He had so much more to say, and a great deal of it wholly complicates their lazy reading. That’s not treating it as gospel — that’s saying, let’s have an actual conversation about this popular figure that’s based on research and critical thinking rather than culture war bias.
Basically, I’m just trying to do some actual intellectual work here, rather than running with a poor reading of a single text and (ironically) building a whole identity off the back of it. I certainly don’t think the ex-Zer0 crew are somehow incapable of understanding Fisher. I’m simply saying that, if you really want to, you should probably read some more of what he had to say…
In one sense, of course, his rationale is obvious. Fisher’s work, and “Vampire Castle” in particular, are referenced favorably in several Zer0 2.0 works—Nagle’s Kill All Normies, but also Michael Brooks’ Against the Web and Ben Burgis’ Canceling Comedians While the World Burns (and this list is surely non-exhaustive). This ongoing fidelity to Fisher…
Referencing one essay, the same essay, every time is an “ongoing fidelity” now apparently…
…threatens to undermine the image of Repeater the rightful heirs of his work—and by extension, the rightful proprietors of Zer0. It must therefore be shown that they did not read it properly—that they are, as Colquho[u]n tells us time and time again, vulgarizers who sullied a storied tradition.
I don’t think they have vulgarized a storied tradition. There is no tradition. The full scope of Fisher’s work is underappreciated and needs to be actively constructed, because his three brief books (plus the “Vampire Castle”, I guess) don’t tell the full story. That’s my consistent point. Thankfully, I think my work to rectify that has been broadly successful and well-received. Even critiques of it has insisted the work is at least necessary, with Dan Barrow rightly arguing that “Few contemporary thinkers have needed more defence from their greatest admirers.” The ex-Zer0 2.0 crowd have remained on my radar throughout as a group of admirers in that very regard, who actively retard the development of his work’s reception, encasing Fisher in a 2013 amber, which they themselves can only read through their static Trump-era “culture war” lens.
But please, if “it must therefore be shown”, let’s get to the showing…
Of course, this reckoning never actually arrives….
In pursuing this thesis, Colquho[u]n predictably sets aside the possibility that the positions staked out by Zer0 2.0 might be consistent with Fisher’s work. In a recent online lecture for the University of London, Benjamin Noys—a longtime acquaintance of Fisher’s, and former Zer0 author—took a different stance. Fisher’s work, according to Noys, was beholden to an explicitly Nietzschean paradigm. This paradigm had elitist implications, and in Noys’ view diminished his ability to adequately navigate political conflicts. “Vampire Castle,” which casts the working-class as a sort of Ubermensch above petty moral concern, is a product of this ideological drift. Noys understood why Fisher thought the way he did: something unsurprising since, as—he points out—he comes from a similar class background as Fisher. Ultimately though Fisher’s inversion of Nietzsche—in which liberal-capitalist moralism (the “Vampire Castle”) appears as “something,” in Fisher’s words, “worse than Christianity”—isn’t up to the task of providing a nuanced and dialectical analysis of late capitalist society.
A pretty garbled summary of Noys’ argument here, and I’m also not sure how this actually helps their case? Are they arguing that Noys concurs with their reading so it’s acceptable, actually — even if Noys’ reading of Fisher in that lecture insists he is wholly ill-equipped to contend with the circumstances of the present? (That’s certainly true of the Zer0 set.)
Of course, I’m saying that having written on Noys’ essay previously. I’m familiar with it. Based on their summary above, I’d be surprised if it was clear to anyone else what Noys actually had to say.
The funny thing is that Noys’ argument in that lecture is as specious as their own. I’ve already addressed it before. Initially, I jumped the gun, going off his advertised abstract, which was very much question-begging. Later having the opportunity to read the full text, I offered up a number of concessions, but my hasty assumptions ultimately rang true. Noys’ critique reads like a product of Losurdo-fever but doesn’t actually track with the development of Fisher’s thought at all.
Ultimately, all the ex-Zer0 crowd have done here is cherry-pick someone they think of as close to Fisher and who they think is on their side, but they don’t do any of the intellectual work to bring the two together outside of butchering Noys’ already ill-conceived assessment of a position they hold, which he also thinks is bullshit…?
If you want a full engagement with Noy’s argument, follow the links above. To be brief, Noys’ suggestion seems to be that Fisher falls prey to Nietzsche’s own “aristocratic” thinking, looking down on those he deems insufficiently [insert bugbear here]. Clearly, Fisher wasn’t against a good ol’ online feud and telling people he thought were shit that they were shit. But does having “standards” amount to elitism now?
In certain spheres of thought, there’s a case to be made for this. What underlines our standards can be very telling. Who we choose to date, for instance, can reveal us to be ableist or racist or classist, etc. Our standards can reveal how we relate to and internalise positions of power. The right, of course — who generally find this line of thinking pathetic — nonetheless love to invert it. It is surprising — but also not remotely surprising — that ex-Zer0 would try a similar tactic. Like the right, they only exercise this critique of elitism when it comes to arguments about academic standards and intellectual rigour, precisely because the deployment of these standards might humiliate their bigotry and position them as useful idiots for cultural war reactionaries. Pointing out poor quality of arguments, misguided readings, lazy tactics and general idiocy — all with citations and receipts — is to wield the oppressive hammer of academia! Or maybe it’s just a way of critiquing “leftists” who hide behind reactionary talking points…
Ex-Zer0 continues to embolden their calls of anti-elitism by internalising their status as eternal underdogs, simply because people think the standard of what they have produced is poor and emboldens reactionary sentiments. They take this quite pathetic position and use it to advance another Nietzsche concept: ressentiment. “If everyone is mad at us, we must be doing something right!” they believe, which never translates into the more accurate “everyone is mad at us because our persistent shitting of our own pants makes us very difficult to be around.” In response, they advance a position similar to that put forward by our most impotent of cultural commentators, whose truly “defanged” critiques boil down to “we just want to talk and everyone to be nice to us in perpetuity.”
This is something notably trotted out by TERF apologists. I tweeted something about this the other day, in response to Kathleen Stock’s predictable “I was cancelled” tour of the British media. Lorraine Kelly, whilst commendably denouncing Stock’s transphobia, nonetheless ended their conversation by saying, “isn’t it nice to just chat and debate the validity of trans people’s experiences?” She makes it clear she thinks Stock is wrong, but then detaches her bigotry from any sort of material contexts. It’s all fair game in the marketplace of ideas!
Ultimately, this rejection of any kind of political militancy or harsh judgement by certain debate bros is just what happens when you succumb to end-of-history brain. To defend this in a magazine purported to be about “revolutionary strategy” is beyond laughable.
Having said next to nothing, really, about Noys’ critique, other than shooting themselves in the foot by identifying with what Noys’ (mistakenly) thinks Fisher gets wrong, they continue as vaguely as they began:
The point here—as is perhaps obvious—is not that Zer0 2.0 are the rightful heirs of Fisher’s legacy and that Repeater are not. Rather it’s that the two presses pursued differing political agendas in the wake of 2014, and that these manifested in different readings of Fisher.
A very selective reading versus one that also considers everything he wrote after the Vampire Castle…
Colquho[u]n describes the period of 2008-14 as a “golden era” for Zer0. We’re inclined to agree: under the expert editorial guidance of Goddard and Fisher, Zer0 moved from strength to strength in this period, helping popularize both object-oriented ontology as well as lay the groundwork for what would subsequently be referred to as “Accelerationism” or “Prometheanism” Just as importantly, it helped solidify a new style muscular social-democratic politics in the UK—take Russell Brand’s lauding of Mark Fisher, or the way Nick Srnicek and co. connected the dots between Capitalist Realism and Corbynism. Yet once this political agenda came to fruition, with the elevation of both Corbyn and Sanders, nascent left populism had to resolve the conundrum of how to yoke together the left’s professional-managerial base with the views of a working-class they sought to reconnect with. From a cultural standpoint, this required punchy and thoughtful polemics that would help expand the left beyond its existing demographic. Thoroughly ensconced in the UK intellectual circuit, Repeater published many standout books in this time: philosophical texts like Steven Shaviro’s Discognition, or cultural retrospectives like Post-Punk: Then and Now (as well as, funnily enough, a book by Spiked contributor James Heartfield). What they did not do was repeat the success of Capitalist Realism for an enlarged left readership. With Fisher’s passing in 2017, Repeater’s drift into a hazier and more abstruse—not to mention more left-liberal—cultural space seemed all but assured (something quite apparent now as they bring to market books about the spiritual nature of sex work, or whatever).
This dig at Liara Roux’s book at the end tells you all you need to know. “Repeater have betrayed their attempts to expand the working class! As an aside, fuck that book written by a sex worker about what it is like to be a sex worker, who cares about that…” Way to continue to pass comments on things you can’t be bothered to read, I guess, and divest yourself from even more solidarity with another marginalised group… TERFs and SWERFs unite!
It’s all very predictable. Ex-Zer0 2.0’s idea of the working class is a received one, handed down over decades by the ruling class. It is notably one of the topics Fisher turns to most throughout his final Postcapitalist Desire lectures. He doesn’t demand we appeal to some vague spectre of a lost generation of leftists, turned off by pronouns. Instead, he considers how this image was constructed by the ruling class to obstruct solidarity between hippies and workers. Ex-Zer0 ignore all of this. “We must appeal to and win over the reactionary working class!” they insist, but this is why their reading of Fisher has to stop after 2013. Fisher asked serious questions about why we desire our own subjection, but he went to great lengths to dismantle it, overcoming ressentiment and building solidarity without similarity. The lack of similarity ex-Zer0 hold dear is a lack of political similarity, making every principle they might hold — and, indeed, that Mark Fisher actually held — moot and inconsequential.
From here on out, they go back to talking about how hard done by they are, following the buyout. People lost jobs! But they’ve still got their Patreons, and that seemed to be more important to them anyway.
Ex-Zer0 contributed nothing to working class solidarity over the course of its lifetime. That’s not to say all their books were shit during that period, but their public face was most certainly a laughing stock across the international left. Some good books came out despite that and despite their lack of editorial standards and edgelordy aesthetics — a miracle, really. The only thing they seemed to actually put any effort into was their culture war podcasts and Twitter marketing strategies, and those more than speak for themselves.
Their loss is not the left’s loss. My assessment remains as it ever was: good riddance.
Update #1: As further discussion begins, it is heartening to see Cosmonaut’s readership be forthright about this. Repeatedly, Zer0 2.0 has been denounced as “tailism” in various Twitter discussions, and I can’t think of a more accurate summation of their achievements. As Raymond Ó Dubhghaill writes in an old and unrelated essay for Socialist Voice:
Lenin describes tailism in What Is to Be Done? as the tendency of some activists to drag (like a tail) behind the most progressive elements of the working-class movement, by reflecting in their politics only the most reactionary views of the masses. This is a mistake, because, firstly, it underestimates the political and revolutionary potential of the working class, and secondly, communists must be the revolutionary vanguard of the struggle, not lagging behind it as reactionaries within the movement.
The tendency of tailism can be observed in the dismissive and confrontational attitudes some on the left take to matters of social importance—women’s struggles, LGBT+ issues, racism, etc.—that are adjacent to class struggle. We have surely all heard it said countless times that certain issues are “a distraction from class struggle,” or “not of any concern to the working class.” It surely does not need pointing out that the working class comprises people of all gender backgrounds, sexual orientations, races, and ethnicities, and these struggles are of direct and immediate concern to them and their lives. In fact these struggles are inextricably linked to class struggle and should always be regarded as such.
As communists, we assert that the primary contradiction that shapes and defines the world is that of class struggle: between the bourgeoisie and the working class. However, it does not follow from this that our work or our analysis must disregard all other contradictions and struggles as irrelevant. Quite the contrary: we must seek to unite struggles against all forms of exploitation in the revolutionary fight for communism. This is the very nature of class struggle.
Update #2: The persistent misspelling of my name seems to implicate — who else? — Mike Watson as the author here, although he denies it. It certainly reads around about his level of reading comprehension.
Also, contrary to what I said in the close of this post, apparently they don’t have their Patreons, because they were relying on those to pay Zer0 freelancers. Because of this, what constitutes Zer0’s assets in the buy-out are now in contention. This just sounds like dodgy dealings — or at least a very dumb accounting arrangement — on Doug’s part… My guess is he was attempting to counter a deficit that was no doubt the result of him driving Zer0 into the ground, both as an intellectual venture and as a business.
Update #3: Cosmonaut has now republished this blogpost as a letter on their website here.