Part Three: Decentralism and the Vermont Tradition

Up to this point, the contributors to this volume have reviewed the multiple social, economic, and environmental problems they believe are caused or aggravated by the concentration of power and the activities of global empire. They have suggested that the deconcentration or decentralization of power offers possible solutions to these issues. At the very least, they argue that a more locally and regionally rooted democratic society will clear space for experimentation, innovation, and the diversity of responses that ecology shows is essential to the long-term resilience of species, including humans.

In this section, we explore the specific political philosophy of decentralism more deeply. In publishing these articles, Vermont Commons featured the views of two of Vermont’s own leading political theorists—John McClaughry and Frank Bryan—as well as the seminal work of author Kirkpatrick Sale and the provocative historical analysis of Adrian Kuzminski. They show us that “decentralism” is not a momentary or quixotic response to specific realities such as George Bush’s wars and constitutional abuses, but a long-established tradition in the United States and an essential component of Vermont’s democratic heritage. Furthermore, these ideas have been cogently expressed by thoughtful European critics of excessive nationalism and militarism for well over a century. These thinkers are largely unknown in mainstream political discourse today but surely it is time to discover them.

Decentralism does not fit neatly on the left-right continuum; in fact it transcends conventional political labels. Some Vermont Commons contributors, such as McClaughry, are well-known conservatives, while others are distinctly progressive, even radical, in their orientation. What we hold in common, significantly, is a view that political and social values should be determined by communities and by polities intimate enough for people to discuss their experiences and beliefs in democratic forums. Some localities and regions will tend to prefer more “conservative” values, others will tend to the “liberal,” while many will maintain a more or less fluid balance. What these writers generally loathe about the modern political system is the blanket imposition of policies by distant, powerful institutions that leaves little or no room for authentic democratic dialogue.

Vermont is widely seen as a quirky little enclave in the United States—one, for example, where an avowed socialist is enthusiastically elected to the U.S. Senate. It is no accident that the ideas explored in Vermont Commons are circulating here, inside Vermont. Democratic decentralism is strongly rooted in Vermont’s unique history, and, as the nation has lurched toward imperialism over the last century, the contrast between its—and more particularly Vermont’s—founding vision and present reality has grown evermore glaring. If the expansion of empire continues, it may even be necessary for democratic enclaves like Vermont to withdraw from it—that is, to secede—in order to preserve the well-being of their own citizens and communities. The founders of Vermont Commons and many of its contributors believe that that time has already arrived, and we will present their arguments later. First, it is important to fully understand the philosophy of decentralism that gives rise to such a dramatic position. In this section, then, we call attention to the vision of participatory democracy that presumably inspired the revolution of 1776 and the founding of the original Republic of Vermont one year later.

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