Politics beyond Dalston: An Interview with Alex Niven

by Tom Cutterham

Alex Niven is a London-based writer and a recent addition to the editorial team at Zero Books. Zero was founded by Tariq Goddard, Mark Fisher and Matteo Mandarini at the tail end of the noughties; among its early titles were Owen Hatherley's Militant Modernism, Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism, and Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman. Alex's own book, Folk Opposition, was published by Zero in 2011. We talked to him about books, music, sport, and a politics ‘beyond Dalston’.

A lot of the first Zero books came out of online writing, and it's interesting that many of these blogs and writers are ostensibly focusing on things like football and music. Why do you think that is? What's the relationship between those cultural concerns and the more explicit political imperatives that also shine through Zero's books?

Well these subjects are actually profoundly serious in themselves, because they are sites of rampant exploitation and dysphoria in people's day-to-day lives. Quite a few Zero authors have had direct experience of this, and I think one way the blogosphere flourished was as a place where people could try to work through negative encounters with the neoliberal culture industry.

This was certainly my own experience. I finished a masters degree in the summer of 2007 and did two things pretty much simultaneously. I started a pop band with a friend from school (actually we'd decided to start it almost a year earlier) with a sort of Paul Morley-inspired, poptimist aesthetic. The idea as I saw it was to try to take contemporary R&B pop music and fashion a vaguely Futurist project out of it, and between the two of us we chose the name Everything Everything, a détournement of sorts of an over-saturated media culture into something idealistic and expansive.

At the same time I started blogging, and as the band became increasingly compromised by the capitalist realism of the music industry, I was galvanised by the cultural stuff on the blogosphere - bloggers like Mark Fisher, Carl Neville, Simon Reynolds, and Owen Hatherley. They seemed to embody the sort of avant-garde sensibility that was lacking in my experience of the band, which turned into a commercial venture almost as soon as the other members arrived and the band started performing in the autumn of 2007.

Owen Hatherley says that the noughties blogosphere was the old leftist music press in exile, and I think Zero Books was amongst other things an attempt to drag that musical tendency out of the wilderness. And generally I think talking about things like pop music and football is a heuristic, a way of prising open this pretty rotten neoliberal system and then mining deeper into more supposedly serious terrain.

That's crucial, isn't it, the idea that this work is addressing what you call 'exploitation and dysphoria in people's day-to-day lives.' Clearly the kind of politics we're exposed to in the mainstream media, or in political parties, just isn't doing that. Do you see Zero as part of an emerging - or perhaps a long-standing - alternative, non-parliamentary political struggle?

I suppose there's a sense in which culture was one of the few grounds on which political arguments could take place in the noughties, when mainstream political discourse was very blandly reactionary in a way that stifled discussion, especially on the so-called disillusioned left. Pop culture sends up smoke signals about how society works that can be very valuable to marginalised or disenfranchised groups who wouldn't otherwise have a vocabulary for attacking power structures. It always has that democratic potential.

But then capitalism has been gradually wheedling into even those ‘alternative’ areas you talk about over the last thirty years. How could it not, when there was so little opposition? So there is a new exigency to the struggle, though of course the ‘year zero’ premise is indebted to the struggles of the past. The twentieth-century counterculture most obviously, but also a much longer leftist tradition of pamphlet and polemic writing, which interestingly often flourishes when the capitalist print media is in a phase of flux or crisis as it is now.

Sometimes it can seem like Zero is sort of a little brother to Verso, and that raises some questions about the incestuousness and insularity of the left-wing press.

The Zero model differs significantly from the Verso model in that it tends to be one of polemic or cultural intervention. Zero books tend to be much shorter and less concerned about stuff like footnotes, which allows for more idiosyncrasy and experimentation. The typical Zero text is a kind of impassioned essay full of biographical digressions and eclectic references, though there are some longer, more academic works too.

Zero certainly grew out of a leftist milieu but one of its strengths is that it exists at arm’s length from the insularity of the London left. I think that partly accounts for the interest in slightly outré topics: brutalist architecture, football, pop music, TV, film. Zero is grounded in cultural theory and continental philosophy, but it tends to start from those references and venture into more populist territory, which I think is a large part of its appeal. For example there was a Verso book published last year [Marc Perelman, Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague (Verso, 2012)] that was very critical of sport culture, which is a classic metropolitan leftist mistake to make I think. Zero is actually publishing a book by Joe Kennedy next year about football that argues the exact opposite and tries to reclaim sport in the name of a kind of left populism.

But there’s no point in exaggerating these differences too much. As you say, although there’s certainly no official relationship, Zero and Verso are basically on the same side. They just have slightly different tactics.

What about the relationship with academia in all this? You're a DPhil student at Oxford; a lot of Zero's authors are also graduate students or lecturers. Sometimes people complain that academia is too detached, that there's a lack of engagement in actually existing struggles. At the same time the academy itself is also breaking down - or being hollowed out. How does the changing shape of politics and everyday life fit in with the changing shape of the academy?

Well academia is exactly like alternative pop music or football in that it’s been infiltrated by the values of the market quite aggressively during the neoliberal period. In a cutthroat environment academics are forced to focus on their personal careers to a ridiculous extent. One symptom of this is that they tend to churn out journal articles to bolster their CVs, and of course very few people read journal articles. My contrast would be with academics of the social-democratic period, who had significantly more professional security and could therefore venture into public intellectual territory with impunity.

So you had a kind of golden age of popular cultural criticism, works like Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society or Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy or Christopher Hill’s books, the Pelican books model I guess. I think that’s something Zero tries to resurrect. Even the modest-selling titles reach a much, much wider readership than your average university press monograph, let alone a journal article that no one will ever read.

Despite the timeliness and success of his book, Mark Fisher has said recently that capitalist realism itself is stronger than ever, and the continual assaults on welfare and on the working class by government and media bear that out. What do you see in the future for Zero, and perhaps for the British left more generally?

I think we have to accept that the left is still in quite an early stage of reconstruction after the defeats of the post-Thatcher years. There will probably be successive waves of revival before a significant breakthrough occurs, and of course that sort of breakthrough moment usually happens quite unexpectedly. So you have to be long-termist about radical change, though quite how long-termist is difficult to say.

My major criticism of the left right now is that it's still trying to shake off the legacy of postmodernism. Radical chic is still quite a pernicious influence. The mainstream left is characterised by a sort of hipster bohemianism and has almost totally lost contact with the actual proletariat. The British left has to try to build an actual political network to rival the union and co-operative movements of the past, one that looks beyond Dalston and engages with a normative demographic right across the country. The litmus test for any political discussion has to be: what relevance does this have to an unemployed person in Bradford, or a sex worker in Glasgow, or an immigrant working in a call centre in Swansea? The danger at the moment is that the right is communicating its message to these groups of people with alarming efficiency. So we have to focus on slowly overturning the structures that allow that to happen.