Notes Against Reading Widely
(For a Pluralist Militancy)

Based on two Twitter threads from earlier, gathered together for posterity.

I made it three whole months without prodding any of the old Spiked Online / Zer0 2.0 network — as was my New Years resolution — but their creeping influence in the UK, as more people try and copy the US model of edgelord political podcast, is a disaster for leftist media in this country, and it (still) deserves challenging whenever it tries to take another drive at legitimacy.

This isn’t to suggest there has been some new concerted effort, however. In fact, since Zer0 2.0 was bought out, the attempts have been far more fragmented. But they are all the more dangerous because of it, in being far more easily absorbed into the bloodstream of the body politic.

This was made newly apparent by a series of “unlocked” posts from old Zer0 2.0 allies, The Popular Show, chatting up old RCP member and now Baroness Claire Fox (along with a few other Unherd columnists and the like). This isn’t much of a scandal in and of itself; the podcast is pretty inoffensive, allowing Fox and others to make themselves sound presentable and reasonable over the course of an utterly toothless hour-long conversation. But that’s also part of the problem. Though some may argue that it’s all in the service of “knowing your enemy”, this is just a continuing pattern of behaviour where edgelords continue to platform each other, and they always end up being someone who is a stone’s throw from Spiked Online.

In the past, people have claimed my assertions that Spiked and Zer0 are linked are tenuous, but it seems that few actually now the full scope of this network and its incestuous “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” approach to media appearances and co-signs. For a long time, Zer0 was the most blatant example. Beyond the constant appearances on each other’s platforms and podcasts, the main headlines are that Frank Furedi and Luke Gittos were both published by Zer0 2.0, with Furedi’s book being particularly popular with the UK far-right. Even as Zer0 3.0 attempts to distance itself from that era, the lingering and sadly binding contracts from Doug Lain’s tenure include the likes of LGB Alliance bigot Don Milligan. Zer0 2.0 and Spiked also engaged in something of a useful idiot exchange, with a dozen Zer0 authors writing articles for the website, including Ashley Frawley, Angela Nagle, Mike Watson, Philip Cunliffe, George Hoare and Christine Louis Dit-Sully, to name but a few. Leigh Phillips also returned the favour by writing a defense of Spiked for the Zer0 blog, which he titled “In defense of reading widely”, but which was nothing more than a sycophantic ode to Brendan O’Neill (of enormous forehead meme fame) that has aged so terribly it is now genuinely hilarious to read.

Granted, this essay was written in 2015. That feels like ancient history, in political terms. And anyway, surely no one in their right mind would think of calling Brendan O’Neill “left-wing” in 2022. Nevertheless, we’re told that this new generation of Spiked hangers-on are different. But seven years on, the tactics are the same. New faces, same insistent “leftism”. These people are real, traditional leftists, we’re told. It’s the left more broadly that has lost its way. As RCP historian Evan Smith has pointed out, it’s the Grampa Simpson approach to politics. “I used to be with it but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now, what I’m with isn’t it and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me.” (Alternatively, it’s the Bill Maher version of leftism, which is just as telling.) The same argument is made every time. We’re on the same side. Read more widely. Consider dissenting viewpoints. Don’t encase yourself in the leftist echo chamber. But it is very possible to do that without pandering to Spiked. What is it about this hot mess of a thinkpiece farm that anyone would think it contributes to a healthy media diet? In the end, this version of “reading more widely” just means reading more of their reactionary op-eds in an increasing number of places, from mainstream newspapers to government culture war missives, as a disturbing number have been part of Boris Johnson’s cabinet at one point or another.

For how much longer are people going to take their word for it? Giving them the time of day, accepting their “leftism” based on their own assertions and nothing more? It happens all the time, because people just don’t know any better, and it’s understandable. I fell into this trap myself. All they want is the benefit of the doubt, and many are willing to give it to them in the interests of balance and fairness. Never mind that you might, like I did, drastically change your mind. Any time spent hearing what they have to say is a win for their anti-woke salesmanship. “Let’s just hear them out” can be easily translated into “this person is worth listening to”. But we need to learn the history of the RCP and its ilk, else we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the last few decades where, from time to time, these idiots have been taken seriously. That is all we have to look forward to in platforming these people: a crowd of mini O’Neill’s, having gone fully mask-off for the culture war.

Many of them have already, of course. And once you’ve dealt with one of these people, you’ve dealt with them all. We don’t need to respond to them as a new threat — this lot are all Gen X has-beens and millennial man-children — but instead remain vigilant as they attempt to dilute a resilient cultural hegemony that the left has developed against all the odds since the financial crash and its aftermath made it a necessity. At the end of the day, that’s all their “anti-woke” agenda amounts to. These “leftists” are good for “critiquing the left” in much the same way that TERFs are “feminists” good for “critiquing gender”. It’s the current reaction against an ascendant leftist mediasphere and a broader changing world that pays lip service to leftist ideas — particularly capitalist realism, in Zer0 2.0’s case — whilst decrying those who have contributed the most to the denaturalisation of a neoliberal status quo. Over the years, this reaction has been very effective, to the point that the UK thought it warranted its own Fox News channel to seal the deal. But the right has been overconfident in its perceived cultural prowess and the tables are already turning. After years of the right holding court with moral panics against pro-Palestinian activists and supporters of trans rights, which caused real damage to an overall leftist project, the right are losing the overall argument. They won some battles but they’re losing the war. Support for both Palestinians and trans people (to stick with just two particularly prevalent examples) is increasing; the media narrative against both is faltering. The Spiked crowd are next for the chopping block.

The old response from this lot, when faced with their inevitable delegitimisation, is that this kind of vitriol makes the left less diverse and weaker. The left is too punitive, too morally stringent, they say. On the contrary, so many of those who hate this reactionary nonsense are sinning in ways that would make Brendan O’Neill’s forehead gain a few more stories. But still, they insist we should accept them as part of a 21st century rainbow coalition. No, sorry, entryists stay at the door. Cranks and TERFs aren’t wanted here, because their position is fundamentally one of closing spaces off to some of the most vulnerable and the most radical. For those well-meaning leftists caught in the fray, the point to be taken away from all this is that militancy and pluralism are not antithetical to one another, despite what these people would have you believe. To refuse to engage with this bullshit needn’t invoke yet another “so much for the tolerant left” eye roll.

This is the one lesson I find useful from Badiou (which I also find compatible with a deleuzoguttarian politics, though Badiou himself would no doubt disagree): “Against the idea of normal desires we must sustain the militant idea of a desire that permanently affirms the existence of that which has no name.” The idea that militancy insists upon a singluar and stationary position is wrong. Militancy instead marches onwards. The Grampa Simpson politics of the wider Spiked network could never.

So why kick up the dust again? Three months was a good run. Maybe three months more of Spiked neglect are in order. But for all those who decried this hostile sentiment as a personal or low-stakes vendetta, just look around you. Never have the stakes been higher.

As they wander recklessly into discourse surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, people are waking up to the fact that these useful idiots have been useful for foreign powers too. Their pro-Putin op-eds have been constant, and you need look no further than former Zer0 editor Ashley Frawley, a now-frequent pundit for (K)GB News, who was shilling her tired libertarian takes for Russia Today just last month.

This is where this sort of bullshit cashes out: what is little more than the most asinine political commentary during peace time looks a lot different from the other side of Russia’s invasion. For some time, their contributions to the culture war have benefitted few beyond a deeply reactionary establishment, now up to its neck in oligarchy. Sure, in December 2021 it might have looked like a pissing contest, but as things heat up across Europe and as we take a closer look at the information cold war of the last few years, it is becoming clear who among the commentariat has actively made things worse. The most deplorable, for my money, are part of the promiscuous Spiked network.

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