The Pathology of Marginal Forces

Election season is almost over and over the last two months or so I have been struck by what I have seen as an intentional disengagement from the political process by many in my local constellation of the left. Don't get me wrong, I know that many, many self-identified leftists have been taking the time and energy to make an informed voting decision, but beyond showing up at the ballot box - which many still opt out of - there has been little to no co-ordination or organized involvement in partisan politics. From conversations I have had  with several folks, there appears to be a shared pattern of reasoning - that voting "legitimizes the system", that voting is "just reformist politics", that incorporating strategic partisan electoral campaigns into an overall strategy for change is a betrayal of sound leftist politics and principles.

If a principle is to be a difference that makes a difference - meaning, if it is to lead us to remake the world in ways that align with our shared values - then it should lead us to take certain kinds of actions. What I am increasingly seeing on the left is, largely, this strange insistence on clinging to ideological purity and philosophical abstraction as opposed to formulation and implementation of actual strategies in the real world of concrete change.

There is a pervasive assumption and fear that engaging in partisan political activity is a slippery slope to hosting Thomas Friedman reading groups at the local Starbucks.

This strange assumption and fear is not just solely confined to elections though, it bleeds over to concerns over incorporating struggles for progressive legislative reforms into our overall strategies for a better world. I have seen and continue to see how many groups and organizations on the left are becoming increasingly fragmented and sectarian towards one another over the issue of "reform" and utilizing the channels of the government in the struggle for justice.

Differences and conflicting opinions over specific strategies, goals, tactics, and how they align with our values and principles are all very important and should be debated vigorously. But what I am typically seeing more and more of is less debate and conversation and more shutting down. On the left, we seem to typically be our own worst enemies.

These thoughts were brought home to me as I read over a 2010 interview with Noam Chomsky on Reddit in which Chomsky describes the pathology of marginal forces as "the insistence on purity of proposal" which "simply isolates" individuals and groups "from effectiveness in activism, and even from reaching, from even approaching [their] own goals" as well as "the kind of sectarianism and narrowness and lack of solidarity and common purpose" which has so often come to define the left in the United States.

I have reprinted the Chomsky discussion below. I think it is well worth reflecting on (emphases are mine):
Q: What are some of your criticisms of today's anarchist movement? How to be as effective as possible is something many anarchists overlook, and you're perhaps the most prolific voice on this topic, so your thoughts would be very influential.
Noam Chomsky: Well, don't agree with the last comment, but my criticisms of today's anarchist movement are a little bit like the critique of cognitive science. What is today's anarchist movement? I mean, there's quite a lot of people, in fact, you know, an impressive number of people, who think of themselves as being committed in some fashion to what they call "anarchism". But is there an anarchist movement? I mean, can one think of -- you know, is there something like, say, during the day -- . 
Twenty years ago I happened to be in Madrid. That happened to be May Day. And there were huge demonstration -- May Day demonstration, hundreds of thousands of people from the CMT, the old anarchist labor organization. Well, you can have all kinds of criticisms of the anarchist movements in Spain and so on, but at least there was something to point to, there was something there, there was something to criticize or to support or to try to change or whatever. 
But today's anarchism in the United States, as far as I can see, is extremely scattered, highly sectarian, so each particular group is spending a great deal of his time attacking some other tendency -- sometimes doing useful, important things, but it's extremely hard to -- . I think what is -- this is not just true of people who think of themselves as anarchists, but of the entire activist left. Count noses. There's plenty of people, I mean, more than there were at any time in the past that I can think of, except for maybe, you know, tiny, ["pyoosh"], very brief moment late '60s, or CIO organizing in the ' 30s, and things like that. But there are people interested in all sorts of things. You know, you walk down the main corridor at this university, you see, you know, desks of students, very active, very engaged, lots of great issues, but highly fragmented. There's very little coordination. There's a tremendous amount of sectarianism and intolerance, mutual intolerance, insistence on, you know, my particular choice as to what priorities ought to be, and so on.
So I think the main criticism of the anarchist movement is that it just ought to get its act together and accept divisions and controversies. You know, we don't have the answers to -- we have, maybe, guidelines as to what kind of a society we'd like, not specific answers; nobody knows that much. And there's certainly plenty of range -- of room for quite healthy and constructive disagreement on choice of tactics and priorities and options, but I just see too little of that being handled in a comradely, civilized fashion, with a sense of solidarity and common purpose. 
As to how to be as effective as possible, yeah, that's exactly the point: what should we address? You don't have to give a list of severe problems that the world faces. Some of them are extremely severe. So, for example, there are really questions of species survival, literally, at least two, maybe more. One of them is the existence of nuclear weapons. Somebody watching from Mars would think it's a miracle that we've survived for the last 60 years, and it's extremely dangerous right now, so I can't see how that can fail to be a priority. And the other is a looming environmental crisis. And that is something that anarchists in particular should be very dedicated to addressing, because it involves -- on the one hand, it does involve questions of technology, like, you know, can you get solar power to work and so on. 
And the antiscience tendency in anarchism, which does exist, is completely self-defeating on this score. I mean, it is going to take, it is going to require sophisticated technology and scientific discoveries to create the possibility for human society to survive -- I mean, unless we decide, well, it just shouldn't survive, we should get down to, you know, 100,000 hunter-gatherers or something. Okay, except for that, if you're serious about, you know, the billions of people in the world who -- and their children and grandchildren, it's going to require scientific and technological advances. 
But it's also going to require radical social change. I mean, there's been a -- particularly in the United States, but it's true elsewhere, too, there have been, you know, massive state-corporate social engineering projects -- very self-conscious; they don't hide what they are doing -- since the Second World War to try to construct a social system that is based critically on wasteful exploitation of fossil fuels. You know, that's what it means to suburbanize, to build highways and destroy railroads, and so on through the whole gamut of planning that's been undertaken. Well, you know, that means very substantial social changes in order, and anarchists ought to be thinking about it. 
You know, thinking about it doesn't just mean I'd like to have a free and just society; you know, that's not thinking about it. We have to make a distinction if we want to be effective. That's the question: if we want to be effective, we have to make a distinction between what you might call proposals and advocacy. I mean, you can propose that everybody ought to live in peace, love each other, we shouldn't have any hierarchy, everyone should cooperate, and so on. Okay? It's a nice proposal, okay for an academic seminar somewhere. 
Advocacy requires more than just proposal. It means setting up your goals (proposal), but also sketching out a path from here to there (that's advocacy). And the path from here to there almost invariably requires small steps. It requires recognition of social and economic reality as it exists, and ideas about how to build the institutions of the future within the existing society, to quote Bakunin, but also to modify the existing society. That means steps have to be taken that accommodate reality, that don't deny it's existence ("Since I don't like it, I'm not going to accommodate it"). These are the only ways to be effective. 
You know, you can see that if you look at, you know, the serious, substantial anarchist journals. Like, take, say, Freedom in England, which maybe is the oldest or one of the oldest anarchist journals, that's been around, you know, forever. If you read its pages, most of it is concerned with mild reformist tactics. And that's not a criticism. It should be. It should be concerned with workers rights, with specific environmental issues, with problems of poverty and suffering, with imperialism, and so on. Yeah, that's what it should be concerned with if you want to advocate long-term, significant social change towards a more free and just society, and I can't think of any other way to be effective. Otherwise, the insistence on purity of proposal simply isolates you from effectiveness in activism, and even from reaching, from even approaching your own goals; and it does lead to the kind of sectarianism and narrowness and lack of solidarity and common purpose that I think has always been a kind of pathology of marginal forces, the left in particular. But it is particularly dangerous here. 
... I guess the question that comes to mind that just grows out of these comments is there's a very large number of people who are committed sincerely and rightly to the kind of long-term objectives that anarchists have always tried to uphold. And the question is: why can't we get together and decide on -- and instead of, you know, condemning one another for not doing things exactly the way we do, why can't we try to formulate concrete proposals which combine two properties? One, dealing with the real problems that people face in their immediate, daily lives -- if you're going to get anywhere, you're going to have to deal with those, and it's not just for tactical reasons, it's also out of simple humanity. So on the one hand those, while maintaining as your guidelines the conception of the kind of just and free society that you would like to bring into being through these steps. And sometimes the two are very close together, as in the case that I mentioned, like takeover of a productive enterprise by a workforce and communities, which is not -- you know, it's a feasible objective, and one that has great deal of appeal, or would have if it were put forward, as do others, and combines both long-term vision and the short-term dealing with real, existing grievances and problems. And there are quite a few things like that. So the question is: why not focus on that rather than on abstract questions, such as what's the best strategy for destroying state? Answer: well, no best strategy, 'cause nobody's proposed any.