first published in Arthur No. 16 (May 2005)
Freedom Now Maybe: The New Secessionism
By Peter Lamborn Wilson
Last November, right after the Election, I attended an odd event in Middlebury, Vermont—a two-day conference devoted to the question of whether Vermont should consider seceding from the USA and declaring itself the “Second Vermont Republic.”
The first Vermont Republic lasted from 1777 to 1791, during which time it recognized neither Britain nor the USA as sovereign. Thanks to Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Rangers the state has an old and still-lively sense of itself as unique and independent-minded, if not downright cranky.
The keynote speeches delivered at Middlebury by SVR founder Prof. Thomas Naylor and activist/historian Kirkpatrick Sale made it clear that any Vermont independence movement would be radical, Green, Populist non-violent and typically “Vermont-socialist.” (The Bread & Puppet Theater is already interested.) SVR’s underlying philosophy is derived from the “Small Is Beautiful” school of Leopold Kohr (his The Breakdown of Nations is the bible), “Buddhist economist” E.F. Schumacher, the UK-based Fourth World Movement, and ultimately from the minarchism of Thoreau and the American tradition of “unterrified Jeffersonians,” extreme democrats and even anarchists.
All this may be considered odd enough. But what really struck me as strange was the mood of the conference. Everyone there was cheerful, optimistic and pugnacious. Everywhere else in America that weekend leftists, liberals and libertarians were plunged in gloom. But in Middlebury the triumph of Bushite Pre-Millenialist idiocy was taken as a sign that the US Empire is about to disintegrate.
The conference voted unanimously to support the aims of the Second Vermont Republic. Delegates stomped and cheered. One woman, whose son was in Iraq with the National Guard, proclaimed herself ready to die for this new cause if necessary. Suddenly it felt kind of like 1968 again. Were all these people crazy?
Four More Years.
You know what I’m talking about already but let me spell it out. Imagine: Four more years of Neo-Con Jihadist slope-browed pseudo-Zionist McImperialism; four more years of stomping on Iraq and Afghanistan and possibly Iran, Syria and North Korea; of deficit spending and debt both national and individual; of ludicrous Red/Blue culture war; of inflation and unemployment; erosion of civil liberties; no tree left behind; more tax breaks for the rich and the corporations; blah blah blah; and to top it off, “JEB IN ’08!”—and another Four More Years.
Some of my friends are moving to Canada where they can join grayhaired draft-dodgers of the Vietnam era and suffer the bitterness of exile along with the compensations of socialized health care and quasi-legal pot. No one dares to dream of staying on and overthrowing the Empire. Not even us grayhaired really believe in The Revolution anymore. But the piffle of tepid reformism (the “left wing” of Skull’n’Bones, so to speak) makes many of us reel with nausea and depression, or anyway terminal boredom. What’s to be done?
Barely anything remains of the alternative economy and society of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Most of the food co-ops are gone, as well as most of the back-to-the-land communes, and the free schools. Low-rent bohemian enclaves have been yupped up, college campuses have grown quiet and dull (except for binge drinking), labor unions have been smashed or corrupted. The “peace movement” can mobilize millions in minutes but mysteriously nothing happens—war goes right ahead on schedule. The only force holding back environmental armageddon sometimes appears to consist of a handful of brave doomed eco-saboteurs. Leftist organization in the US takes place mostly in cyberspace, where nothing happens except more blahblahblah.
Third parties always end up as mere exercises in futilitarianism, hobby groups for the disgruntled, paper tigers sucking up all dissident energy and turning it into a politics of failure. As far as the Democrats—oh please, I can’t.
If not Canada or Holland or something, then what? Do we have to accept some sacred organic link between the landmass called Turtle Island and the regime called the “USA”? Let’s say we happen to love our land and our language, that we want to stay here. Yet somehow we also want to escape from the sleazy guilt feelings involved with citizenship in the Empire of Stupid Greed. Does this make us schizophrenic?
If a single person is possessed by two antagonistic personalities (call them Red and Blue), the usual solution would be a term in the bughouse. But if a whole state has a split personality, it can actually split. Part of it can secede.
Naturally the government is going to tell you this is a crazy notion, and treasonous as well. The Constitution is our holy founding document and can never be revoked. Too bad you were born too late to sign the Social Contract, but that’s how it is. The Civil War decided it once and for all. Thou shalt not secede.
This argument, delivered with a gun to the head, is persuasive and even conclusive. The US government is not going to allow itself to devolve. Only Indians are permitted to have “independent” reservations and only certain genes carry the right to tribal recognition (in other words race still defines political status in US law). If you don’t like it here go back to Russia…uh… or Sweden, or maybe some rogue nation in the Axis of Evil. What are you, a terrorist?
Who would have dared to predict in (let’s say) 1984 that the Soviet Empire was about to break up into dozens of independent little countries?
Or—to take an even more astonishing example—who could’ve foreseen that Scotland (a part of Great Britain since 1707) would succeed in achieving independence again after 300 years? (It’s hard to get information on this, but I gather that the miracle was achieved by a strange coalition of Labour and Scots Nationalists.)
In any case devolution of the USSR and UK would not have occurred without prior economic collapse. A rich empire will tend to cohere, a bankrupt one to Decline and even Fall. With hindsight we can see this clearly. But foresight is always skewed by appearances. The US is believed to be the super-wealthy hegemon of the Global Market and land of total affluence, and so we see it that way.
But is it?
What about the deficit spending, that insane waste of war, that deep debt? America actually produces very little except weapons, data and entertainment—no shoes, no umbrellas, no pencils. Globalism demands that whole countries be proletarianized for the benefit of other countries that can then be called bourgeois or ruling-class. But what if Globalism itself has been derailed by US greed and revanchism? What if Europe gets so fed up with the US that it begins to elect leftoid governments that refuse to serve our interests? What if China went “off the dollar” and on to the Euro? What about a major depression in America? Would that make secession look more “realistic” and less crazy?
Under these conditions (…four more years…) the question of legality might become relevant. Is it in fact legal to secede? The SVR says yes, at least in theory. The Civil War did not decide the issue. In 1789 the Constitution looked like a very bad deal to the true revolutionaries and Jeffersonians, then called “Anti-Federalists.” These radicals liked the Articles of Confederation (based on the Iroquois Confederation, according to many historians) which recognized the thirteen states as independent entities. They made many of the same arguments as the Small-Is-Beautiful school—for instance, that only in small autonomous regions can practical direct democracy work fairly and efficiently.
But the Anti-Federalists were out-maneuvered by Alexander Hamilton and the big bankers. Eventually all the states acceded and ratified. However in three states the protocols of ratification included a guarantee of the right to secede—Virginia, Rhode Island and New York. These protocols have never been rescinded or even challenged in law. By the logic of the Constitution itself, a right that belongs to one state must belong to all. Ergo: secession is legal, q.e.d.
Tell it to the judge, you might say. Or quoting the German fascist legal philosopher Karl Schmidt: law is made by power, not reason or precedent. But if the US Empire loses its power to define law, then secession may become “legal” de facto in the act of secession. Civil war may not be necessary—again, see the case of Scotland, or Estonia. “Devolution” happens.
Although the result of secession would be a new state, many anarchists and anti-authoritarians have supported it as a tactic, a good first step toward small-region autonomy. During the Civil War the American anarchist Lysander Spooner shocked people by supporting both abolition of slavery and the right of secession. Proudhon believed in secession and anarcho-federation. Emma Goldman supported the secession of Catalonia from fascist Spain. Nestor Makno fought for a free Ukraine; and so on. In fact secession has a potential appeal across a wide spectrum of political creeds, since anyone can hope to gain power (or at least a voice) in a new small state.
If you don’t care for Vermont-style secession there are plenty of other movements afoot. Capital-L Libertarians (“Republicans who smoke dope,” as Robert Anton Wilson calls them) have organized the New Hampshire Project, hoping to live free or die. Texas has an old and rather wacky independence movement (I once met their “Ambassador to the Court of St. James” in Dublin after he’d been evicted from his London “embassy” for unpaid rent).
Hawaii has a sovereignty movement based on the old native monarchy, overthrown by US forces in 1893; and there are many other tribal separatist causes. Black nationalists and separatists have their visions of utopia. Alaska has a group, and in Maine a “militia” with secessionist ideals has been founded by novelist Caroline Chute (The Beans of Egypt). In New York City, the secessionists want to secede from New York State as well as the USA. And in the process they plan to have some fun.
Being urban cynics unlike the sincere Vermonters, the NYC secessionists don’t necessarily expect to succeed. But the City has always dreamed of independence—a tradition no doubt dating back at least to Dutch resentment of the Brits, and farmers’ hatred of feudal landlords. We New Yorkers (I speak here for at least a dozen people) simply feel that folks with no power have nothing to fear from the “politics of the very worst.” If the Empire’s going to implode, let it. At least we’ll be ready with some sort of Plan B.
In the meantime we expect a bit of political adventure, and some good parties. Maybe eventually the other kind of party, too. A good motto for us would be Fats Waller’s famous saying: “One never knows—do one?”