In defence of reading widely – by Leigh Phillips

Aug 24th, 2015 | By | Category: Articles

In the following essay Zero Books author Leigh Phillips argues for crossing ideological lines and reading widely. Leigh Phillips' book Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-porn Addicts is due out on October 30th from Zero Books


dismalandI made the mistake yesterday of sharing on Facebook an article from Spiked, the British contrarian online magazine written by Marxists who take great pleasure in extirpating sacred cows of the contemporary left. Lefties love to hate Spiked, but lefties also love to furtively share their articles, especially those that critique identity politics or defend modernity, via private message or email, but never publicly. I know lots, and lots of us read Spiked in a sort of sneaky, secretive, "OMG! You totally can't say that! (But really, that's totally true!)" way, because lots of people privately share with me their content on the down-low, but would never openly post their content.

This is childish.

The article I had posted was a critique of famed UK graffiti artist Banksy’s latest wheeze, Dismaland, a grim, live-action ‘bemusement’ park that is meant as a critique of amusement parks and consumerism more widely. I had felt that the concept was a bit mean-spirited. I loved Disney World as a kid. There are of course *lots* of problems with Disney as a company, its labour practices and so on, but why poke fun at people who’ve saved up all year to enjoy themselves with their family? I’m not a great fan of Adbusters/Banksy/No Logo-style anti-consumerism for precisely these sort of implicit or explicit snobbish attacks on working-class purchasing decisions.

“Are you looking for an alternative to the soulless sugar-coated banality of the average family day out? Or just somewhere cheaper,” went the mission statement of Dismaland. “Then this is the place for you—a chaotic new world where you can escape from mindless escapism. Instead of a burger stall, we have a museum. In place of a gift shop we have a library, well, we have a gift shop as well.”

“Bring the whole family to come and enjoy the latest addition to our chronic leisure surplus—a bemusement park. A theme park who’s big theme is: theme parks should have bigger themes.”

brendanoneilBut I made the mistake of posting an article by Brendan O’Neill from the verboten Spiked making a very similar sort of argument to the one I would normally make about this sort of thing. It was one thing to make an anti-anti-consumerist argument. But it was another thing entirely to post such an argument from the widely anathematized Spiked, put out by a group of individuals some of whom were involved with a British Trotskyist organisation in the 1980s called the Revolutionary Communist Party that had a penchant for the Irish liberation struggle and a bit of a libertarian bent to their thinking.

“I wouldn't listen to anyone associated with the old RCP as Spiked and Brendan are, nasty right wing libertarians and entryists, attempted to wreck the left in the UK in the 80s well known for taking 'fake' with the people positions of questions like this,” wrote one person in response to my posting of O’Neill’s piece.

“Brendan O’Neill and the spiked online crowd really are obsessed with defence of untrammelled (capitalist) modernisation, a position from which to launch endless trolling op-eds against liberalism. They derive their origins in the worst kind of modernising Marxism,” wrote another.

“these bastards are bastards if you know their schtick you don't even need to read the articles, I could have told you he'd right this before he wrote it,” wrote the first person later on.

remain-ignorant-and-ad-hominemThere is a great error here. Too many people believe that it is wrong to read the writing of or agree with people that one otherwise disagrees with.

Firstly, it is a logical fallacy: arguments are not wrong by dint of who has them. Arguments are wrong only if they are wrong. Who it is that makes an argument is immaterial.

Secondly, it is intellectually infantile to close yourself off from a world of other ideas. Read as far and widely as you can! Beyond the usual left-wing suspects, I read Reason, and the Spectator, and the National Review. I read the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph, not just the Guardian and the London Review of Books. The left is very far from being the sole fount of wisdom.

Indeed, given the scale of much of the contemporary left's abandonment of its traditional radical liberal ideas, and the unfashionableness of putting economics at the heart of our thought, there is very little wisdom from the left—with a handful of noble exceptions such as the amazingly pluralist Jacobin magazine—to go around.

Socialism was the vision; historical materialism was the explanatory framework, and rank-and-file trade unionism was the practical activity that defined what it was to be on the left. This triumvirate has been largely replaced by postmodernism; relativism; activist-ism; technophobia; nanny-state moralism; the circular firing squad that is essentialist identity politics; an authoritarian attitude to speech; NGO lobbying; a Victorian attitude to sexual mores; a democracy-sceptic opening to technocracy; a small-is-beautiful, scientifically illiterate, anti-modernist and Malthusian version of environmentalism; a revival of noble-savage condescension; unreadable word-salad gobbledygook that passes for ‘theory’; a juvenile 'anti-imperialism' that basically reduces all foreign policy questions to an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend oversimplification that sidles up to religious obscurantism and flirts with anti-semitism; an abandonment of genuine internationalism in favour of varieties of 'left nationalism'; and an anti-intellectual and anti-organisation/anti-party spontaneism (a.k.a. 'horizontalism'). If you take all this together, you begin to see that there's very little left that is left on the left.

suporthotlineThe left has fallen so far from its Radical Enlightenment origins that many can no longer recognise a left-wing publication when they see it. And Spiked is very much a left-wing publication. I don't agree with a fair amount that they argue (for example on climate change, gay marriage, and the state), but then I don't agree with a fair amount that the CPGB argues, or Platypus, or the International Socialist Organization, or Syriza (or the new Popular Unity breakaway group for that matter), or Die Linke, or Podemos, or the Front de gauche, or the effusion of different groupuscules that emerged out of the demise of the UK’s Socialist Workers’ Party, or Bernie Sanders, or Jeremy Corbyn. And how on earth am I going to find out where my ideas are wrong, if I don’t read people with whom I disagree?

Spiked do an excellent job on the questions of modernity, freedom and universalism. Their arguments here are much more in keeping with historic left positions than the stances that many other publications take today.

My main problem with Spiked is that I wish they were less grouchy toward other left groups and publications, so that their often very good arguments on these subjects could win over more progressives. A handful of those involved are friends of mine. One a very good friend of mine. And, my god, do they know their Marxist canon. It’s a shame that they hide this breadth of knowledge under a bushel.

Nevertheless, while I may disagree with them on a number of issues, at least they have the bravery to say so many of the things we all know to be true, but don't dare say publicly: That much of what passes for left-wing thought and organization these days is utterly bonkers, that many of those on the outside looking in see what we get up to and very sensibly run as far away as possible.


Leigh Phillips is a science writer and EU affairs journalist. His writing has appeared in Nature, the Guardian, Scientific American, Jacobin, and the Daily Telegraph. His book Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-porn Addicts is coming from Zero Books in October.

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2 Comments to “In defence of reading widely – by Leigh Phillips”

  1. Chelim Yrneh says:

    ” “these bastards are bastards if you know their schtick you don’t even need to read the articles, I could have told you he’d right this before he wrote it,” wrote the first person later on… ”

    Is this as “right on” as the ‘first person’ thinks it is ?!?!?

  2. Visa Rantanen says:

    Philips’s argument would work if the question was about any other magazine than Spiked. Spiked intentionally seeks the left’s anathema. It’s part of their brand and been so since the RCP. One can be a contrarian without being a troll, but Spiked often crosses that line. Reading widely is a good idea, but reading widely different forms of ignorance doesn’t produce superior insights. Can we honestly claim that the RCP’s/Spiked’s fear of moralism, nanny state & feminists is somehow less gobbledygook than the gobbledygook of the ‘intersectional left’? Or the gobbledygook of the Daily Telegraph.

    RCP/Spiked positions have always been original (AIDS, Rwanda, Serbia and now Brexit) but I wouldn’t call them left or wise. If humanism and socialism are to be rebuild into a real movement which abolishes the present state of things it cannot be based on nostalgia for the most embarrassing sects of the old left.

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