A Pure War?:
Late Dispatches from the Authenticity Olympics

Some on the left seem to have had a traumatic encounter with the University system, especially in the US. Comfortable posturing is big there, where tenured professors with what is arguably the best job in the world bang on about radical alterity and then go out to lambast ‘Berniebros’ and canvass for centrists. Accordingly, the left has a great many Marxist academics complaining about Marxist academics being too prominent in the socialist movement, which can feed into a sometimes cartoonish approach to class politics, where highly educated and extremely online people ventriloquise the concerns of an imagined hard-hatted 1960s Joe alienated by too much Foucault.

This points to some real problems – the left online does spend too much time talking to itself, it does often fetishise in-group knowledge and ostentatious correctness, and it does have a (rather NME-like, as it happens) fixation on building up and knocking down big names. But what it misses is encapsulated in the way that a book like Pure War and a publisher like Semiotext(e) could reach far beyond academia, and into the much less rarefied world of pop culture.

A generation of people in Britain came to theory through the music press and the fashion press, not through academia. That imprint was all over the bloggers who set up Zer0, none of whom had full-time academic posts. For us, making ‘theory’ books that would be read outside the academy was not about patronising simplification (‘How Derrida can help you understand the Marvel Comics Universe’) but about application. Our main influences were writers who took theory and put it to work in music reviews and features, and musicians who did the same in their records. Scritti Politti’s deconstructed Gramsci, Gang of Four’s 3-minute Situationism, Paul Morley’s stealings from Roland Barthes, Ian Penman borrowing Derrida’s ‘hauntology’ to describe an approach to music, Kodwo Eshun splicing Detroit techno and Baudrillard, or Simon Reynolds applying Deleuze and Guattari to the roiling chaos of jungle, to name the most obvious examples.

I thoroughly enjoyed this essay by Owen Hatherley for Tribune, which reflects on Zer0 Books’ beginnings, nodding to its recent shifts with a refreshing distance and as a way to pay tribute to the late Sylvère Lotringer.

It actually led me to reconsider the follow-up letter published by the Zer0 2.0 defenders on Cosmonaut. I thought it would be best to leave it alone this time, and I said as much on Twitter previously — Owen himself was wise enough to cut any reference to Zer0 mark II from his own essay, as he later added on Twitter as well — but I’ve kept thinking about this weird letter and the implicit accusations of snobbery or elitism.

With this in mind, Owen’s essay clarified something I’ve struggled to put my finger on, particularly the alien nature of an American discussion that seems like a collective hallucination from this side of the pond. But it’s not quintessentially American either. It just demonstrates the myopia of a culture war perspective, which can’t compute the alternative orientation that Zer0 and Repeater founded themselves on.

So here I am… Once again acting against all better judgement, to point out what is no doubt obvious to many, if only to help illuminate the situation for a few.

The latest Cosmonaut letter argues that I see Zer0 and Spiked as indistinguishable. I don’t. At the risk of being forced to repeat myself — much of this letter is a pointless regurgitation of what has come before — I just think the connections speak for themselves. This is not just regarding associated personnel but rather regarding a shared modus operandi.

After all, Doug Lain self-defines his project as “critiquing the left from the left”. That seems to suggest that he’s more left than the left… But I can’t see how that makes sense by any measure. In reality, as with Spiked’s token lefties — and, indeed, like certain strands of Cosmonaut’s own output, it seems — he critiques a certain conception of the popular left from its online right, hiding behind references to and bad readings of philosophers that far-lefties supposedly like, without applying their thinking in any meaningful way. If this is what passes for advancing the left and leftist discourse in the US, it looks like tailism from the UK and places Doug and his hangers-on explicitly on the cultural right in this country, if not in their own. (Although I’m assured by various Americans that — their podcast-industrial complex be damned — outside a very online sphere, they’re anathema to much of the US left as well.)

One of the primary ways this tailism presents itself is through repeated appeals to an idealised working class — a point I’ve also made repeatedly, but seemingly need to make again… This time it is because I apparently have no evidence. The letter once again rattles off the vague credentials of some individual authors, like Ben Burgis being a member of the DSA or whatever, which was already laughable the first time they brought it up. But the evidence for this is clear and comes direct from the source: from Doug and his editorial team.

You need look no further than the pinned tweet at the top of Ashley Frawley’s Twitter profile: a clip from her appearance on the Sky News culture war show Divided, where she rambles on about a working class that is objectified by leftists and academics, denying them their agency as subjects, as if it’s really political theorists and philosophers who are “objectifying” the working class — and “dividing” society more broadly — rather than the death throes of late capitalism itself. (In this sense, Frawley’s problem seems to be less with “objectification” and instead with materialist analysis in general, which is just dumb.) (Also, it’s always weird when self-identifying leftists find themselves in general agreement with Tory minister Liz Truss, but there we are.)

From here, Frawley makes vague swipes at dreadlocked, hemp-shirted hippies that the working class just don’t want to follow — where is that even an option, outside some Green Party hustings? — insisting that the working class are aspirational and so aren’t politically attracted to the affluent unwashed. (Who is?)

Because of this, the working class turn to the right… However, as the first commenter rightly notes, “Why would people move to the right to escape being talked down to? That makes absolutely no sense if you understand anything about the history of class in British society.”

This is precisely where Owen’s point comes into play. To watch this clip in the UK is to watch a useful idiot rattle off rhetoric we’re all too used to hearing from liberals, from Thatcherites and Blairites, or indeed from other clueless Americans, who appeal to a Protestant work ethic to solve the (social) problems of capitalism and the British class system more specifically. That’s because, for someone like her, authentic working-class agency is paradoxically only found in certain activities or certain styles of dress. In this way, she affirms subjective agency out of one side of her mouth, before immediately denouncing it with the other; agency just for the few she thinks are worthy of it, which is how the right in this country discuss the working class as well, and how liberalism had functioned for centuries.

In the end, this is nothing but an appeal to a petit-bourgeoisie — the pets of the New Right. But the damage this does to others is to implicitly deny that critiques of capitalism and analyses of the material conditions of the working class can come from within the working class themselves; indeed, that these “woke” arguments might precisely be the product of a growth in self-understanding among disenfranchised groups. Granted, it’s less common than it should be, but there are many working-class academics who write about these things, and who precisely see their own education (and that of others) as an exercise of their own agency. But this author seems to confuse a neurotically anti-academic sentiment with a broader anti-intellectualism, and it’s as patronizing as it is depressing. Still, it is true that outside of academia, few get the chance to be heard, but the founders of Zer0 and Repeater offered up a space to challenge this narrative explicitly, as Owen makes clear. And Mark Fisher was a prime example.

Contrary to their other misrepresentations, it’s not simply my argument that we all need to “read Mark Fisher”, because his “work shows us how to overcome fatal obstruction of class solidarity like that which occurred between ‘workers’ and ‘hippies’ (?)”. He’s certainly a way to quickly bring yourself up to speed though. Fisher knew this view of the working class came from the right, perhaps better than anyone, and he repeatedly championed books like Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out, John Medhurst’s That Option No Longer Exists (an early Zer0 title), Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive and Carl Freedman’s The Age of Nixon (another early Zer0 title) for charting a counter-history of the reactionary working class and its origins in the right’s early culture war narratives. These books “challenge the right’s story”, he writes in an essay entitled “Revolt of the Elites” — “they have begun the crucial work of constructing new narratives and countermemories”.

These books show up again in Mark’s final lectures, where he also references Penny Lewis’s book, Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks, which “challenges this collective memory of class polarization” that lingers in the US (and, to a lesser extent now, in the UK) following the 1970s and, specifically, the Vietnam war. The book investigates how the right has repeatedly conjured up the spectre of a working class that is fundamentally reactionary and wholly against some perceived progressive vanguard. She illustrates this by providing a counter-history of Vietnam war protest, drawing attention to the solidarity between workers of various cultural backgrounds with the often more middle-class hippie movement, particularly with regards to their shared anti-war sentiment. (Hence “Acid Communism”… Not doing politics on drugs, as the Lainers like to baselessly assume, but rather rebuilding a sense of psychedelia that isn’t defined by middle-class reflexive impotence and wishy-washy tie-dye aesthetics…)

Fisher similarly draws attention to May ’68 in France, when an alliance between workers and students effectively shut down the French economy, which is interesting not only because he avoids the prevalent May ’68 melancholy of Continental philosophy — “here’s what we could have won” — but rather emphasises how the polarization of workers and students continues today, with the UK government driving a wedge between both via its culture war agenda in recent decades, with student wokery somehow antithetical to real life, rather than often being aligned with workers’ own concerns. And so, despite what the right wants anyone to believe, that sort of solidarity still remains within our grasp today.

In one instance, Fisher references Lewis’s book again to draw parallels with Brexit and Trump — the successes of which were driven by two populist movements that tried to whip up the same sentiment of an imagined working class that rejects a more general sense of establishment progressivism (without asking what sort of grassroots sentiment the establishment might be nervously and often performatively responding to). (The letter notes this as well, before invoking some sort of Oxford / Apple Park counterpoint that reads like a non sequitur and another baseless insinuation of elitism.) Though these events are ultimately old news, the narratives they helped establish linger on. This is, again, blatant in a UK context. Here we have gotten very used to Tories talking about the fallen “Red Wall” — that is, the loss of apparent loyalty to the Labour Party in the working-class north of England, all because of Brexit. This part of the country has instead helped the Conservatives into power, so various pundits like to suggest, because the northern working class are fed up of all this Corbynite wokery. But it turns out this is also a myth. As is blatantly apparent here in Yorkshire, this is only true of a reactionary petit-bourgeois subset. With Yorkshire having an enormous working-class Asian community, many politicians have more recently found that Palestian rights are a core issue on the doorstep, for example, rather than some assumed woke irrelevance, as the right likes to argue.

This is clearly a narrative that runs wholly to the contrary of Frawley’s poor assessment of the British class system, particularly how it exists today, and even of the class system in the USA. But whereas Zer0 was originally founded on challenging this sort of thing, Zer0 2.0 instead leaned completely into it.

It’s this sort of narrative twisting that has allowed this back and forth to continue for so long. Both Lain and Repeater want to control the narrative — and I am obviously a particularly gobby supporter of the latter’s attempts to do so, if only because I know how long Repeater has held its tongue for in the face of Lain’s persistent idiocy. In subsequently humiliating Zer0 2.0 with the takeover, Lain now tries to play the victim and claims it is all business chauvinism, going on podcasts to play whataboutery games, saying it is all about Spiked — it’s not; although this speaks volumes — or misidentifying Zer0 1.0’s mistakes as his own — it’s not, it’s specifically his clickbait YouTube channel full of bad takes and the general plunge in quality under his stewardship. Repeater watched this with horror for years, and knew Zer0’s fate immediately. As Tariq recently made clear, when the founders were forced to walk away from Zer0 in the first place, they were horrified that “the replacement did not care about the issues we did, the issues we thought people who read our books did”. These issues are many, but the above challenge to the right’s culture war narrative is no doubt a central pillar of their founding ideals, as their early counter-narratives (for both Zer0 and Repeater) show.

Lain insists upon a narrative that is all his own, of course, consisting of massaged truths and misrepresentations, speaking out both sides of his mouth of questions of apparent left fidelity (just like Frawley), but the overarching the point is that it’s not even his narrative to begin with. It is another received one, which the founders of Zer0 recognised from the start as the product of a neoliberal cultural hegemony, but which Lain and co. try to rehabilitate as devil’s-advocate anti-wokism. Ultimately, it’s conceding ground the original team gained, and ground that the left at large has acquired over the last decade or so.

(Lain, of course, thinks the Millennial Left have lost it, preferring his own Gen X days, as he notes in a recent podcast appearance, but here he shows how far he lags behind, an old man yelling at clouds and tripping over the left’s tail with his head in the clouds. He’d do well to take a leaf out of Steve Albini’s book, who has much more interesting things to say about the origins of edgelord leftism and its insufficiency in the present.)

This is clear enough when the Cosmonaut letter writer suggests the Lainers still care about class struggle, contrary to my assertion they’re just living in Spiked‘s shadow:

The RCP-Spiked shift [to the right was] marked by the idea that ‘the class struggle was over’—that it was more important circa the nineties to win ‘the battle of ideas.’ It’s this change that made it particularly germane to the right… Yet if Zer0 2.0 leaned into anti-woke positioning, it did so precisely in order to advance the class struggle.

But again, this is a question of MO, not of absolute fidelity. After all, where exactly did the RCP get this idea that “the class struggle was over” from? At that time, the only people advancing that position were the establishment. Thatcher said there’s no such thing as society, just individuals and their families; Prescott said we’re all middle-class now. Bodied by both sides of the neoliberalised left and right throughout the 80s and 90s, it is as if the RCP and Spiked, contrary to their “revolutionary” credentials, uncritically accepted the political cartography of capitalist realism that a new centre-right establishment handed down to them — a cartography that defined British popular culture for decades afterwards.

But things have changed more recently. No longer able to deny that class remains a key political battleground in this country and elsewhere, class struggle has returned. David Cameron announced society itself was making a comeback, and it was big now, whilst nonetheless emphasising the core liberal principle of individual agency over any analysis of or responsibility for structural problems. But since then, governments have begun talking about the working class more explicitly. As a result, they have also placed limits upon class struggle, by making sure its contours are overtly and restrictively defined. And so, whilst Lain and co. might insist that they still care about the class struggle, it is a struggle wholly encased within a culture war perspective, epitomised by Frawley and trotted out in various forms over the years. And who is advancing this culture war stance? As has already been argued, it is the Conservative government itself who inflames these issues for their own gain.

Lain and co., at home and abroad, blindly assist with this cause, stuck with a socio-political analytic framework invented by Thatcher and Nixon in the 1970s, posing as eternal punks whilst ignoring anything that their own negativity might make possible (as Repeater’s more post-punk sentiment always advocated). As such, though Lain might adopt the role of leftist sparring partner in this particular “marriage of convenience”, he’s fighting wholly — and, indeed, literally — on their terms. It’s what makes many of the Lainers’ critiques so ironic and hypocritical. Just as Mike Watson has taken a soft opposition to the very thing he’s helped popularise among teenagers on Facebook, so too has Ben Burgis come out with asinine essays about how “we don’t need a culture war, we need a class war”, whilst nonetheless advancing the culture war explicitly with books like Cancelling Comedians Whilst the Work Burns. Just as Lain “critiques the left from the left”, devouring his own tail(ism), his associates make vague attempts to critique the culture war from the perspective of the culture war itself. That is what defines their impotence.

All this is to say, these issues of narrative, rather than being confined to publishing squabbles, are in fact fundamental to questions of class and cultural hegemony, and of a broader cultural narrative that reduces political debate to a set of talking points that are defined by a media establishment. Hence, for a defiant UK publisher, Zer0 2.0 represents the very asinine talking points, propagated by a political establishment, that they came into existence to fight against.

The final point this letter makes is regarding Liara Roux’s Whore of New York (again). My support for Liara is held up here, quite ridiculously, as evidence of my tailism. (“I know you are but what am I?”) In dismissing their swipes at her book in particular, seemingly based on some generic prejudice, they now claim I am “sidling up to workers in the advanced sectors of capital,” presumably because they assume Liara is an economically stable sex worker… I don’t know what Liara’s circumstances are and wouldn’t presume to know. That she seems to live a glamourous life is hardly surprisingly given the seductive nature of her work. But frankly, the very fact that they’ve reduced Liara to a football to be debated over here just makes me feel gross. It is a further exercise in “patronising simplification”, applied to both of us.

I love Liara’s book because I love memoirs, particularly those written by society’s transgressives, from Jean Genet and Georges Bataille to Hervé Guibert and Cosey Fanni Tutti. My interest in sex work, in particular, comes from various friendships held with SWs over the years, primarily from queer communities, which have often been founded on a shared interest in Tutti’s life and work. They too may enjoy sex work for the opportunities it gives them to express themselves — that being the silver lining to a form of work they may have been driven to by economic circumstance. But I know people in far more socially accepted jobs that relate to their labour the same way, and that’s what I find interesting about these narratives. They speak to complex issues that all workers experience, and even make them more legible given the intensity and excessive / expressive nature of the work in question. They also often highlight our sense of glamour and taste at the same time, with the very seductiveness of sex work bringing to mind Baudrillard’s critique of the political economy of the sign — at least for a nerd like me. Does Liara frame her own experience in this way? Not quite — she’s certainly acknowledged her thoughts on the politics of labour and desire in interviews — but she doesn’t have to. The politics of labour, power and seduction are simply there on the page, expressed in her own words, ripe for application.

As ever, if the Lainers bothered to do any research, they’d probably be able to find all of this out for themselves, instead of making such baseless and embarrassing claims about my motivations or Liara’s own. Instead, their argument that Repeater exercises a “false unity” is based on this dumb author’s continued reliance on hyperbole, misrepresentation and assumption — all because they published Liara’s book. Of course, no reference is made to Cynthia Cruz’s or Tommy Sisson’s vibrant and poetic books on being working class, Lee Scott’s or Kirk and Two Fingas’ kaleidoscopic modernist odes to working class culture, or even Joy White’s no doubt “objectifying” study of inner city black life. This constitutes Repeater’s explicitly broad coalition, contrary to this author’s baseless assumptions.

At the end of the day, their rushed book review of The Whore of New York fits with the general pattern. It’s just another example of a reductive and reactionary politics that judges everyone against some imagined criteria of authenticity that has little purchase on reality, as demonstrated by Frawley most blatantly and these very letters repeatedly. For all their cynical appeals to unconditional solidarity, turning my own argument superficially against me, they undermine themselves in every other paragraph, precisely by encasing their working definitions of (class) politics within slippery terms that they’ve borrowed uncritically from a centre-right cultural hegemony. All we hear about, as they build up their rickety defense, are broad generalisations of others’ credentials, picking apart why they don’t deserve our comradery or solidarity, exacerbating not class struggle but the very polarization they — if Burgis remains their unfortunate thought-leader — are supposed to reject. I don’t care what this says about their publishing chops or their future endeavors (although I think it says a lot). What it points to are utterly hollow principles that many online young leftists gullibly accept because they think it makes them edgy. It’s doesn’t. It makes you a useful idiot for the very forces you feign resistance to.

But worse than that, their hypocrisy erases the experiences of those people who are working class and happen to know better, or the valuable contributions offered by those from other circumstances who remain clear and unambiguous allies. But it turns out those people aren’t invited to the Lainers’ hosting of the Authenticity Olympics. Never mind.

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