In a recent article for Cosmonaut — praised as the most balanced take on the Zer0 Books debacle (but only by those who were affiliated with Zer0 Books) — a lot of time is spent playing whataboutery regarding who has or hasn’t published certain people affiliated with Sp!ked Online. It’s very petty. In my own response to the essay from the other day, I mostly chose to ignore it, focusing on its baseless analysis of Mark Fisher’s trajectory instead, but that’s not to say that their other case doesn’t warrant addressing. It does. Just not on their terms.
The former Zer0 set has repeatedly argued that the reactionary tailism of the Doug Lain years did not begin with them. Although Zer0 did publish Frank Furedi, the reactionary co-founder of Sp!ked‘s initial form, the RCP, as well as regular contributors like Philip Cunliffe, other authors like Angela Nagle have only really contributed a couple of times, maybe even just once. Their relationship is tenuous at best, the essay seems to argue — and anyway, Zer0 2.0 inherited the relationship from Zer0 1.0. James Heartfield, for instance, was published by both — first with Zer0, then with Repeater in 2017, but notably back to Zer0 in 2019 when he joined the Brexit Party… But what does any of this achieve? Focusing on Sp!ked authors does nothing, they continue, but draw attention away from the fact that “the vast majority of [their authors] are unambiguously socialist if not Marxist.”
What sounds reasonable is, of course, a manipulation of the facts at hand. They reduce this contention down to the classic leftist hysteria of guilt-by-association. (The worst instance of this comes from the Zer0 crowd, of course, who go so far as to insist the name Zer0 Books is a reference to Nick Land, as if Land had the monopoly on a number that wasn’t — then and now — far more closely associated, philosophically at least, with Sadie Plant and Alain Badiou.) But if that were the main thrust here, of course there would be no leg to stand on. Never mind Repeater, I’d have no leg to stand on, considering the various company I’ve regrettably made appearances with in the past. But whereas relationships come and go, and I’m not sure I have any bridges left to burn, Zer0’s conduct has remained constant, flirting with “cancellation” at every turn and then getting really upset when the left cheers their downfall.
It is for this reason that I think many of the Zer0 set has (probably willfully) misunderstood the nature of the complaints here. It is not simply that they published some questionable authors, but rather that their entire modus operandi is still largely consistent with that of Sp!ked Online itself. This isn’t buried in the Cosmonaut article but embraced, as discussed last time. They insist upon the validity of reading Mark Fisher as a “cancel culture” critic, using this to put forth the argument that we must reconnect with the neoliberal spectre of a reactionary working class, despite Fisher’s multitude of both pre- and post-Vampire Castle writings to the contrary. But how much this retains fidelity to Mark Fisher himself also obfuscates their fidelity to a website like Sp!ked Online as a whole. Though their actual connections may be murky and, yes, straddle two closely related publishing platforms, the fact remains that Zer0’s project and Sp!ked‘s project are essentially the same. Whereas Repeater has repeatedly distanced itself (in private if not in public) from many who cross the line into culture war punditry, Zer0 has never done any such thing, instead embracing and continuing to pick up Repeater’s left-overs. As such, it’s not a question of who has the purest run of good leftist publications but a question of how Zer0 has responded to the conditions of the present and how it retains fidelity to the left at large. (The charge: increasingly poorly.)
This post isn’t an opportunity to just kick up the dust again but rather to point out a certain talk that I think will clarify this particular corner of the (UK’s) left-wing media for many orbiters who are confused about this whole thing. It is, admittedly, far from clear cut.
Sp!ked‘s role in the UK media landscape today cannot be overstated. The organisation’s history, and its general comportment in recent years, has allowed it to curry a lot of favour with the current Tory government and its media representatives, to the point they have previously been a soap box for some of its cabinet members and with some of its contributors moving into notable positions within the UK’s various right-wing parties. But this history is far from straight forward. Like Zer0 itself, Sp!ked arguably began life as a far-left organisation — at least in name. Later pivoting to the right, it has used its vague left-wing signifiers and aging credentials to court further favour and influence where it doesn’t warrant any.
Though I think of Adam from the Acid Horizon podcast as the most knowledge person on this tattered history, this morning the above video appeared on my Twitter feed which lays it out for anyone else who might feel like they don’t have the full story.
It is a panel of three speakers from the recent Historical Materialism conference, which took place online, and from around the 41:00 minute mark onwards, Evan Smith unpacks the peculiar history of the RCP, its journal Living Marxism, and how it later became Sp!ked Online. “In the last twenty years, Sp!ked has become an increasingly vocal and visible actor in Britain’s culture wars”, he explains, “combining libertarianism and populism with a penchant for contrarianism.” It all sounds very familiar…
And yet, this comportment that we might now think is symptomatic of a general shitposting contingent has actually made significant inroads in UK politics. Smith cites a 2020 article by Andy Beckett for the Guardian, titled “Why Boris Johnson’s Tories fell for a tiny sect of libertarian provocateurs”, which focuses on the RCP and Sp!ked‘s history explicitly. Beckett’s summary of the RCP is straightforward and succint:
The RCP was a tiny British party, founded in the 70s, officially disbanded in the late 90s. Despite its name, most of its stances were not communist or revolutionary but contrarian: it supported free speech for racists, and nuclear power; it attacked environmentalism and the NHS. Its most consistent impulse was to invoke an idealised working class, and claim it was actually being harmed by the supposed elites of the liberal left.
Smith argues, citing a few other leftist historians, that things aren’t quite that cut and dry. There are, of course, “continuities, discontinuities and contradictions” between the shifting outlets, just as there are between Repeater and Zer0 themselves, but Beckett’s summary certainly emphasises the parts of an RCP MO that have been carried over and emboldened by the Sp!ked contingent.
This final “consistent impulse” in particular, of invoking an idealised working class under attack from the elite liberal left, is, of course, an impulse shared by those at Zer0 2.0. In fact, it has been a line they have fallen back on persistently since the takeover, arguing that, not only has this idealised working class now lost out on a publishing outlet, but it is just another tale of “elites of the liberal left” shutting down a dissenting project.
What has led many in the UK in particular to despise Zer0 is that they recognise this sentiment as one shared by many of the current Tory government. Beckett’s article asks a number of questions in relation to this. “Journalists have periodically probed the methods and motives of the ex-RCP network”, he writes. “Much less attention has been paid to why the Tory party and press have become so keen on them.” The same is true of many far-right political figures in the UK, who also have a soft spot for Zer0 as an apparently left-wing publisher. Despite this lack of attention, Beckett argues that the answer is quite simple: the current Tory government and its representatives in the media “love to publish people from supposedly leftwing backgrounds who bash the left, and who use what seems like neutral logic to arrive at essentially rightwing conclusions. Both were RCP skills.” The same clearly applies to Zer0 2.0 as well.
This is the frontline of the culture war, but we must remember it is a war that the Tories started and attempt to wage largely on their own, pushing buttons and defining the media agenda, precisely to humiliate an erudite left that seems to have developed a position on everything but is instead only called upon to debate hot-button issues on the right’s myopic terms.
That Zer0 wants to frame their takeover as an interpersonal spat between two publishers obfuscates their larger function in much the same way. But this isn’t just a question of publishing drama, it’s a question of leftist strategy. I’m certainly of the opinion that how the left presents itself and circulates its arguments is vastly important. Whereas those sycophantic to power reduce this to a culture war battle over specific and supposedly contentious issues — trans rights most frequently and disappointingly — the broader point here is that leftist media can change hearts and minds, and it takes a certain discipline and clarity of message to do so. Mark Fisher was a clear case in point, and his “Vampire Castle” was a further (if largely ineffective) defense of this sentiment, as I’ve explored here.
Rather than follow Fisher on the road down various kinds of corrective and strategic organising, challenging the prevailing idealised view of the working class both in and outside of the UK media sphere, Zer0 has largely fought to stir up reactionary sentiment instead, emboldening that fictional conception of the working class, assisting those on the right who rely on this image to champion their own illusory relevance.
Here’s Zer0 2.0 editorial board member Ashley Frawley as a case in point. By doing precisely what she claims to reject, objectifying the working class as a idea somehow beyond politics, as if working class people can’t be, in themselves and through their own agency, “left-wing”, he gives in to the Tory ideal of a fictionalized and reductive “white working class” that is without any natural political home.
They also do this by rejecting solidarity with other groups, just as the RCP once did, and by instrumentalising Fisher and his “acid communism” to reconstruct a kind of “acid RCP”. Sp!ked Online are appropriately named in that regard. They hope to put something in the water, calling it “left-wing” but only really contributing to the general mindlessness of our contemporary Tory-controlled media landscape, all the while affirming an anemic form of “free speech” and contrarianism in a manner that Fisher would have surely identified as “psychedelic fascism”:
Psychedelic Fascism legitimates and propagates a radically unSpinozist notion of being free: i.e. give free reign to your Inner Child = yr Inner Fascist.
Spinoza rightly says that children are in a state of abjection because, unable to repress their passively-generated and self-damaging impulses, they confuse being free with ‘doing as [and saying whatever] you please’.
Ask yrself this: who or what is it that cannot or will not explain what it is doing or why it is doing it?
There are myriad answers to that question today, but it is no coincidence that the old Zer0 crew and the Tory party have been two particularly prominent examples since the advent of the Trump era.
Update [16/11/21]: Incredible to see from such a huge Twitter account that I’ve never actually interacted with…: