Pulling Up Stakes: Secession? Seriously


Secession is often derided by liberals as some kind of cock-a-mammy right wing nut idea from Texas. But the idea of being free to leave an organization or union or union of states should not be dismissed out of hand. In modern times, thoughtful people have come up with pretty solid theories to support this kind of freedom that both right and left should think about.

Back in the 19th century all kinds of unification was going on. Germany was forming into a nation state from a bunch of principalities. Italy too thought putting a bunch of papal states and counties together was a good idea. But anarchist thinkers were wary of the nation state. They liked the idea of confederations of regions made from smaller groups. In 1867, the anarchist writer Michael Bakunin wrote about a United States of Europe. He said that he wished to see

“…a new organization based soley upon the interests, needs, and inclinations of the populace, and owning no principle other than that of the free federation of individuals into communes, communes into provinces, provinces into nations, and the latter into the United States, first of Europe, then of the whole world.

But this world view needed to always include the right to secession.

“Just because a region has formed part of a State, even by voluntary accession, it by no means follows that it incurs any obligation to remain tied to it for ever. No obligation in perpetuity is acceptable to human justice…The right of free union and equally free secession comes first and foremost among all political rights; without it, confederation would be nothing but centralisation in disguise.

(from Colin Ward “Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction” p.84-85.)

Right now, in the region of Catalonia (Catalunya) in Spain there is serious talk of seceding from Spain and going it alone and joining the EU. Vermont has a secessionist movement. Neither of these are wing nut ideas, but ways of seeking more say, more autonomy in the lives of the citizens of these regions while acknowledging that they live in a global village. To govern without a central authority is not impossible. Ward gives the example of mailing a letter from the U.S. to China without a central world post office. Same for railroads. It’s a different kind of federalism, that frankly, I’m still trying to figure out.

In September 20, 2012’s “Counterpunch”, Morris Berman in “The Waning of the Modern Ages” speaks of secession in order to stem the crisis of climate change. The world needs a no growth policy since we no longer have the space to keep expanding and dumping garbage into empty land and supposedly endless supplies of water.

“…our job is to dismantle capitalism before it dismantles us. Again, this does not mean taking on Wall Street, which I don’t believe can succeed. But it does mean leaving the field: for example, seceding. (Movements for secession do exist at this point, Vermont being a prominent example.) And if that’s not quite viable right now, there is at least the possibility of living in a different way, as David Ehrenfeld suggests. My guess is that “dual process”—the disintegration of capitalism and the concomitant emergence of an alternative socioeconomic formation—is going to be the central story of the rest of this century. And I suspect that austerity will be part of this, because as capitalism collapses and we run out of resources—petroleum in particular—what choice will we have?

We still need a revolution. What we did in 1776 was a war for independence, but we retained much of the old feudal system with a House of Lords, (the Senate) and a Monarch (Executive Branch) rather than the more democratic institutions of the northern town hall meetings. But it may start by learning more about the Zapatistas in Chiapas or reviving the mutual aid societies of the union movements. In may be that we reinvigorate that old hippie idea of “dropping out”; of seceding by coming together with our neighbors or fellow workers to change the way we live and do work. (For inspiration and further study I’m reading “Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History” by Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic simultaneously with Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Dancing in the Streets”).

As David Graeber says in his essays called “Revolutions in Reverse”, we at least have to start the conversation that there is an alternative to capitalism and warring nation states. And the first step is to look at language and not dismiss an idea like secession without some thought.

18 responses to “Pulling Up Stakes: Secession? Seriously

  1. A very interesting point.
    I thought that the basis for uniting the 13 states was the option of seceeding.As I remember it that was a condition of all for joining and a basis for the Secesh movement in the 1850’s.
    A flexible confederation of like-minded states would be a wonderful idea but for the basic flaw of all wonderful ideas……that the world is largely run by psychopaths who are not going to let go of anything they think they control and only want more,remains.
    Morris Berman saying that he doesn’t want to take on Wall St.is like Poland saying it doesn’t want to take on Hitler.You won’t have a choice in the matter …..unless Wall St. sees an advantage in it.
    But ,I think you should take every opportunity to tout(does that translate?[towt]to sell or promote)the idea .You never know,you might open a few minds and possibly become Praetor or Procurator of the independent peoples republic of Montana, member of the North-West Hanseatic League of Western States!
    All Hail Praetor!

  2. While secession seems like it would solve a lot of problems, in actuality, it results from severe social strains that are not to be welcomed under any circumstances. You might profitably read up on the secession movement in Catalonia for a different perspective on secession. Secession movements happen under severe economic distress and once started, don’t stop without a lot of bloodshed – the U.S. Civil War is a prime example of that. If (and that is a huge ‘if”) a secession movement could be enacted proactively, that would be an entirely positive thing. But that doesn’t happen – secession is a reactionary movement, not a progressive movement. As much as I like the idea of secession, I doubt seriously that it would unfold according to the plans of progressives. It is much more likely to unfold according to the agenda of reactionaries. Read up on the League of the South and their links to the Vermont secessionist movement.

  3. Okay, Okay, no Praetorship for me. Just a bit of dreaming of the Northwest League of Happy Campers. I do get that most likely any friendly soft confederation of states will succumb to the iron law of oligarchy and psychopaths will take over. Because psychopaths lie and tell people that they won’t cheat – and then do. They are a bunch of Lucys with the football.
    Or as Alcuin points out a legitimate idea of freedom can be hijacked by crazy private property rights types with heavy doses of Christianity of the manifest destiny variety and not the Archbishop Oscar Romero variety that puts capitalism in the dustbin.
    In the Staughton Lynd book, he mentions that the very democratic town meetings were replaced with our present system of representative democracy. Not necessarily a bad thing until the rich take over as representatives and do not bring the town’s agenda to the Congress. (That’s another reason for many more representatves than we have now. We have one rep for the 4th largest state in the Union).

    In ancient Athens all citizens had to serve. But they were picked by lottery to run the sewer system or the defense of the city. Why not? The Japanese teacher Suzuki embraces the beginner’s mind. The beginner mind is not a closed mind, “but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” Hat tip Alan Arkin in his memoir “An Improvised Life”.

    Got to do some more ready then. Then back to the drawing board.

  4. Here’s more from Staughton Lynd on creating new institutions. He was asked by a student if another world is possible do we begin to bring it about “from the ashes of the old ” or “within the shell of the old”? Can we build it from within the “interstices of the hierarchical society? He answers:

    I have discussed this problem elsewhere. Briefly, an ex-Trotskyist named James Burnham wrote a book entitled “The Managerial Revolution” in which he argued that the institutions of a capitalist society–free cities, guilds, banks, corporations, Protestant congregations, courts, in the end parliaments–developed within feudalism long before the bourgeoisie seized state power. Socialist institutions could not develop within capitalism, he contended: notably, trade unions did not prefigure another world but were institutions that ameliorated capitalist excesses and thus stabilized capitalism.

    He now believes that we should not seek state power but “nurture an horizontal network of self-governing institutions down below”. But we can’t do that without experiencing it. Occupy opened up this idea. Occupy the SEC working group is a powerful example of the dual process that Lynd and Berman talk about. Lynd does not see it as a coincidence that these post capitalist movements happen in places that have direct experience with pre-capitalist folkways and institutions such as Chiapas, Bolivia and South Africa.

  5. Agree,and a good idea.Co-ops,mutual aid societies and small self -protection agencies began in Midiaeval times and thrived in red-claw early capitalist times so I can see them making a comeback.
    In fact,they may be the only way that the struggling rural classes will survive the Holocaust.
    So,if you can’t be Praetor perhaps you can be Director-General of the Montana Rural and Manufacturing Co-operative.
    Pardon my foreign-ness,but does the pitcher at the head of the article have a history?

  6. The picture is a famous one of Norman Rockwell’s in 1943.

  7. Unfortunately, (anti-capitalist) green movements will never succeed unless they ditch egalitarianism, which is difficult as the reds pivoted in such a way most of the ideology simply has a green veneer.

    • Can you expand on that? Not sure what you mean by “reds” and what you mean by pivoting. I’m all for getting rid of the terms “greens” and “reds”, by the way. They don’t really seem to describe what is going on now or what we need in terms of alternative thinking.

    • If by “ditch[ing] egalitarianism” you mean that the rhetoric must be toned down to appeal to a wider audience, I would have to agree with you. There are so many right-wing individualists in this country that the word “egalitarian” sends them into apoplexy. Green needs to be defined in such a way that it is in the self-interest of the individualists that they buy into the idea. As long as green = liberal, it is a non-starter.

  8. And I agree with Alcuin. I am going to go to a luncheon for the local “Health and Wellness Center”. I don’t normally go to luncheons. I’m usually too bored. But this organization was put together by a mix of very conservative women and some do-gooder more liberal types. It reminds me of a mutual aid society. I was going to look for ways to put forth some ideas that would be more about financial aid or disaster help. These conservative women run free health clinics. They have a recycling day to bring in old computers. They had a bike repair program and now are dealing with fat kids. So they sound kinda greenish really but would be horrified at the label. Their brochures are quite anti-government, so that is why I avoided them up until now. “We need your help to buy uniforms for women working at the medical center because the government is forcing them to wear and buy certain uniforms.” But now I am anti-government too, it turns out, when the government is full of corrupt bloated bureaucrats. And small businesses and workers are regulated while banks and big businesses aren’t. Much more of an anarchist, but I can’t use that term at the luncheon. So maybe there’s a way to definitely ditch the egalitarian stuff since most people still want “to get ahead” while still doing the egalitarian stuff of helping people “to get ahead”.

    Alcuin was that book “Becoming Animal” by David Abrams? I ordered it.

  9. Yes, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. I like your interesting take on the conservative women you write about. I recently read of a local politician who received a complaint from a fourth grader about the changes in the school lunch menu “who said that the changes were forced by the White House and that made the child determined to ‘get rid of President Obama.'” It turns out that the complainant was the politician’s grandson and we both know how kids tailor their words to reflect the wishes of their elders, don’t we? What I’d love to ask the politician is this: would you rather your grandson eat fast food from McDonalds and Burger King or healthy fresh, locally grown food? What bugs me about conservatives is that they get so wrapped up in their hatred for Obama (or whomever) that their emotions over-power common sense.

  10. Well, alcuin, where is the logic in supporting localism in regards to produce & foods but supporting political rule from an office thousands of miles away? It goes without saying citizens of this state have effectively no impact on the Executive branch with our meagre three electoral votes, & we’ve certainly no impact on the House. Even if anti-Govt rhetoric is misguided, it should be seized upon & co-opted to suit the purposes of

    Regarding my prior post; I mean ecologists have to ditch not just leftist/red vocabulary but ideology as well. There’s too much intellectual laziness which conflates greater egalitarianism with more ecologically sound practices.

    The serious ecologist must be a polyglot in a vulgar sense; one must be able to speak in Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian, etc. If you overspecialize you breed in weakness; hence, we must avoid the epistemic closures which have hitherto resigned ecologists to the Far Left Ghetto.

    • James, you are very badly mistaken if you think I support “political rule from an office thousands of miles away.” I don’t. Not at all. But realism compels me to assert that secession is a reactionary movement, not a proactive one. Would I love to see a couple of dozen smaller entities in the continental United States? You betcha! But it won’t happen – the elite in this country is far too entrenched to allow that to happen. Such a scenario did happen in the case of the Soviet Union but that country endured an economic collapse that Americans can’t even imagine. Absent economic collapse, what makes you think that secession is a realistic possibility in this country? Wishes and dreams are far different than reality.

    • After I replied to your comment, I discovered that thousands of people in 30 states have filed petitions at Change.gov demanding peaceful secession. This action proves my assertion that secession is reactive and not pro-active. I would bet that the people filing these petitions voted for Gary Johnson or Mitt Romney and supported Ron Paul. If Obama had not been elected, the petitions wouldn’t have been filed. Reaction, not pro-action. These petitioners are deluded – neither Romney nor Johnson support secession. Oh, they support “states’ rights”, all right, as long as those rights have nothing to do with rent-seeking. States rights for voting, abortion, etc., but you’ll never see independent State banks or stock markets. As I wrote in my other reply, the elite will not permit secession. They have a great system in place where they can steal the labor of the working class easily. Why would they want to permit secession, which would result in all kinds of different laws that would make the elite work harder to get their loot?

      • Yes, there are a lot of “casual” voters and petitioners out there. They don’t know exactly what they are supporting. I used to be a casual petition signer. I’ve learned. You are right that these casual signers might probably support independent state banks and even state healthcare plans, but their masters won’t. Have you read The Archdruid’s 5 part series on the end of Empire? It’s a fun break from real politics.
        Now off to that luncheon. Hope I have much to report.

      • MM – I don’t have the time to read JMG’s series in depth and give them the thought that they deserve. Nor do I have the time to read all of the comments. I did read the series quickly and was struck by how truly difficult it is to write about such a scenario. I also found myself thinking about a book that is soon to be published by PM Press, Catastrophism: the Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth. You might want to go to PM Press’ website and read the description of the book. I was struck by the parallels between JMG’s series of posts and other apocalyptic predictions in the past. What is it about the re-election of a Wall Street puppet that gives birth to these speculations?

  11. Ooops, “to suit the purpose of ecology”. Or whatever movement, really. Entryism is useful & should be used when possible.

  12. Since there was no big difference between the bankster puppets, people who see the status quo as dangerous have to put their imaginations somewhere. The creative write stories; the defensive store three years of canned goods and ammunition in pits in their back yards. I found JMG’s stories very short and easy to read and unlike shows like “Revolution” are quite uplifting and hopeful, in an odd way. So it was a relief from all the doom and gloom, liberal triumphalism, and the goofy Petraeus Matter. I’ll check out that book too. Am waiting for “Becoming Animal” to arrive. Quite enjoying Arthur Silber lately and Chris Lloyd for reminding me of what is really scary and immoral.

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