Part Four: Sovereignty and Secession

Finally, let us consider the radical strategy that many in the Vermont Commons circle believe is needed to escape from the grip of global empire—peaceful secession from the United States. This idea is of course highly controversial; even readers who otherwise agree with much of our critical analysis have difficulty accepting political secession as a remedy. Yet our critique of the imperial corporate state logically leads to a conclusion that if the system is beyond reform, our only recourse, if we wish to preserve democratic values and viable, human-scale communities, is to withdraw from it. We have argued that our most pressing problems result from the concentration of power in political and economic institutions, and secession is the most direct way to detach ourselves from the exercise of that power.

Secession is proposed as a nonviolent protest against the intrinsic violence of the imperial nation-state. Empires grow and assert their domination through coercive force. We abhor the concentration of power for many reasons, as we have explained throughout the book, but perhaps the most elemental reason for resisting imperial institutions is the violence they characteristically employ. This section, then, begins with two articles about the use of military force. Philosopher Donald Livingston, who contributed several extensive historical analyses of secession movements to Vermont Commons, here describes how the modern nation-state is an inherently violent institution, using force even against its own citizens to maintain its hold on power. And Vermonter Ben Scotch argues that this nation’s founding ideals were lost as the United States became a “hegemon”—that is, an imperial power dominating the world through military might. All of the critics contemplating secession sincerely love the ideals that the United States claims to represent. They have regretfully turned to secession because they believe the United States has forfeited those ideals.

But isn’t secession itself a violation of our founding principles? Doesn’t the Constitution represent an enduring commitment, however inadequately accomplished, to ideals of justice, equality, human rights, and so on? Haven’t previous American secessionists been motivated solely by racist ideology or narrow self-interest? These are important questions, and Livingston provided detailed responses in the journal. Here we present an abridged version of one of his articles, where he argues that until the Civil War (the name of which is itself open to question) it was considered legitimately American to resist the concentration of power in the national government. The Declaration of Independence was a manifesto for secession, not “revolution.” Calls to secede from the newly formed United States did not begin in the south but right here in New England, with even some of the Constitution’s framers questioning the political forces it unleashed.

Livingston calls this anticentralist streak Jeffersonian, and, indeed, many contemporary writers on secession invoke Thomas Jefferson’s name in support of this perspective. Although Jefferson’s own political career entailed a mass of contradictions (for example, the New Englanders contemplated secession in protest against his nationalist policies as president!), he has come to symbolize radical democratic opposition to concentrated power, and he famously proclaimed that governments ought to be altered or replaced as each new generation encounters a changing world. If secession violates America’s founding ideals, then we’ll need to count Thomas Jefferson as un-American.
Indeed, in Bye Bye Miss American Empire, a provocative and well-researched study of past and contemporary secession movements in the United States, Bill Kauffman argued that “We are a nation born in secession, after all, and of rebellion against faraway rulers.” Secession “is radicalism deep-dyed in the American grain.” It arises “from the belief that ordinary people, living in cohesive communities, can govern themselves, without the heavy-hand of distant experts and tank-and-bomb-wielding statesmen to guide their way.” In essence, Kauffman shows that the principle of secession has much deeper roots than the “states’ rights” justification for slavery: it is an integral ingredient of the democratic vision upon which the nation was presumably founded.

The articles in this section explain why and how Vermont should secede from the United States and suggest that this effort would not be an isolated incident because it reflects an active worldwide trend toward the devolution of the modern nation-state. We believe that this decentralization of power is a reasonable proposal, yet we also recognize that in the context of American history, secession remains controversial. Attempts by the Second Vermont Republic to network with other secession groups in the United States sparked a ferocious backlash among Vermont progressives. I will address these concerns in the Afterword.

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