The Implosion at Current Affairs
Three staffers and editor Nathan J. Robinson on what happened at the leftist magazine
The staff of Current Affairs announced Wednesday morning that they had been fired by their boss, pocket square aficionado and author of “The Urge to Dominate” Nathan J. Robinson. The bimonthly leftist magazine, where Bernie Sanders’ former press secretary Briahna Joy Gray is a contributor, kept a small staff with just a few full-time employees, but carved a niche for itself by combining socialist polemics with pop culture criticism, full-page illustrations, and takedowns of pseudo-intellectuals like Charles Murray and Jordan Peterson.
The mass firing came after the staff attempted to form a worker’s cooperative — a reorganization that lines up with the socialist outlet’s ethos — but one which Robinson reportedly took issue with last minute, prompting a one-day tantrum during which he kicked his colleagues off Slack and sent them emails requesting their immediate resignation. The editors and administrators shared the news in a tweeted statement (which you can read here), but three former full-time staffers at Current Affairs told Gawker how it unfolded. Robinson also weighed in. Here’s what he said on the phone:
I made a horrible call in judgement. What happened? Well, let’s see. As you know, last week I asked three people to resign. I offered one a different position and I changed somebody’s title. They have declined to resign and we’re working right now on a severance agreement. I offered people two months initially. It may still have to be that depending how much subscription revenue takes a hit from this. I don’t want them to suffer financially.
When Robinson co-founded Current Affairs back in 2015, the magazine was organized informally. “We weren’t a cooperative, we weren’t a non-profit, we weren’t anything — we were a structureless mess,” Robinson said. But it did have a fairly straightforward set of left-leaning ideals, laid out in a brief note titled “Our Promise.” The main ideal was this one: “this magazine...is, for example, firmly against the hurting of human beings by other human beings,” which put them “on the Left.”
One extension of that, the staff said, was figuring out a way to run a “more democratic workplace.” Lyta Gold, who served as the Managing and Amusements Editor for over three years, said that conversations about how to execute that goal have been going on for nearly as long. But at the beginning of last year, the magazine staff made their ambitions more explicit. “We wanted to figure out a way to formalize what we wanted to be,” Gold said, “to make what we had come up with into a practical reality, something that reflected our ideals.”
This involved hiring a business manager — a woman named Allegra Silcox — specifically tasked with figuring out the fine print. She started in March of 2020. Over the following months, Silcox said, the magazine held one-on-one interviews with everyone on staff and sent out a survey via Google Form asking about their thoughts on reorganization. The questions ranged from hiring and firing procedures to whether they should have bosses at all.
“We really did feel that we were putting our all into a very holistic process to figure out where to go next,” said ex-staffer Kate Gauthreaux, whose job title was “administrative Zoomer. “It wasn’t that we had found the thing and we were trying to stuff ourselves into it to fit.”
The general consensus seemed to be that the magazine should transition to a worker’s cooperative model. The outlet isn’t “profit-seeking,” Silcox said, so they weren’t interested in profit-sharing. The focus was more on general decision-making, company bylaws, and internal governance. “We thought it would make more sense for everyone to have an equal vote on who gets to be a member of Current Affairs and who doesn’t,” she said.
In early August, Silcox met with Robinson and other full-timers to go over the proposal. At this meeting, Silcox said, Robinson “started to show signs of being very perturbed.” He told Silcox that the magazine should become a non-profit, rather than a co-op — though all three staffers said that they’d dismissed the non-profit option for tax reasons more than a year ago. Robinson became frustrated to the point that he “walked away physically from the room before [they] had reached any agreement.”
“It seems in retrospect that he felt I was against him,” Silcox said, “or trying to usurp his power or control.”
That sentiment came to a head in a meeting on Aug. 7, when the whole staff got together to go over Silcox’s revised proposal. Before she even opened the first slide, Robinson “came in hot.” Gauthreaux said they knew “immediately” that “something had shifted really quickly.” Robinson made it clear that “he felt coerced,” Silcox recalled, that “there was absolutely an attempt on [her] part to silence him...in order to ram through a fast change.”
“You could hear a pin drop when he started recounting the conversation” of the earlier meeting, Gauthreaux added. “He ended up framing it as a sort of coup-esque, coup-adjacent situation.”
For Robinson’s part, he argued the emotion came from a frustration in what he thought was “an erosion of the vision [he] had when [he] co-founded the magazine” five years ago. Specifically, the erosion was in their revenue — subscription growth had flatlined and web traffic was declining. He felt the magazine wasn’t putting out its best work, was becoming “a little bureaucratic,” and “just didn’t have a clear sense of its mission.”
“I think that kind of frustration boiled over,” Robinson said, “and I did something that was irrational and impulsive and did not respect the colleagues who have given so much to the magazine and that I basically immediately regretted.”
The day after the Zoom, the staff had two planning meetings for the next year of the magazine and its in-house podcast. But Robinson cancelled those in an email, adding “further information to come.” The further information, it turned out, was that Silcox had been removed from Slack. As had another employee. Here’s Gauthreaux:
It was one by one. I got a text from Allegra saying “I can’t get into Slack.” Someone else said, “Oh, neither can I.” And then I was still in the Sack, but I called Nathan and I said “I don’t know what’s going on. Do you want to tell me what’s going on?” And then I just asked him, “Do I still have a job?” And he said: “No, I’m afraid not.”
For the next few hours, the staff said “it was absolute chaos.” No one knew who was staying or leaving. They were in the middle of a print issue — some first drafts had already come in. Eventually, Gold, Silcox, and Gauthreaux each received emails from Robinson asking for their immediate resignation.
Technically, he wasn’t allowed to fire them. A few months earlier, the staff had implemented an “employment protection policy” — which required that Robinson implement a two-week performance plan for any firing other than “harassment or gross misconduct.” The emailed requests, Silcox said, reflected “some awareness” that he couldn’t legally fire them.
Robinson’s emails included some “extremely nasty things” about their performance, their dedication to the magazine, and how they had disappointed him. But within 24 hours, he sent them all apologies, saying — by way of Silcox’s paraphrase — “Okay, all the stuff I said yesterday was not true. I was trying to be as hurtful as possible.”
“They really seemed like almost the kind of email a character gets when they’re fired from their office job in a movie,” Gauthreaux said. “It was very like ‘Thanks for your work. Not a great fit. Best to you. Bye.’”
If just one staffer had been fired, severance might have been easier to pay out. But the mass layoff put the magazine in a financial bind. Though Current Affairs has money in its accounts, the majority of its funds are “obligated” — meaning legally reserved for subscribers or creditors. The days between the firings and the staff’s public announcement were spent figuring out whether the departing staff would get paid at all.
“Until 10pm last night, we didn’t know if we would have a way to pay our September rent,” said Silcox, who just bought a condo in New Orleans. “And now we still have the uncertainty of — should we be looking for jobs? Or hoping for the project that we poured a lot of hope and care for very little money into, because we were here for the cause? We were putting in the hours that you put in when you believe in a cause. And now to feel that perhaps we were just laboring for Nathan’s vanity project is — that consideration causes a lot of psychic pain.”
Here are the unknowns about Current Affairs: whether Robinson will stay on as Editor-in-Chief, whether the outgoing staff will return or be replaced by new hires, whether the current issue will go to print, whether the magazine will continue to operate — as a co-op or otherwise — or whether the whole project will be dissolved.
For the time being, the magazine is on hiatus until the end of September. The fired staffers have organized into a Google Group called Past.Affairs2021, where they are sending email updates on their future plans and soliciting donations on Cash App. They are not in contact with Robinson — Gold told him not to speak to her; Silcox blocked him on social media. “I haven’t seen him,” Gauthreaux said, “but we are members at the same gym. It’s only a matter of time. My full-time job is getting super buff now.”