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The Will to Secede: Why It's Not Just a Right-Wing Fantasy

Conversations about secession highlight a hidden, but not absent, existential aspect of the American nation-state: that union is no less a choice than disunion.

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Such possibilities are literally endless because, on the ground, the fissures and centrifugal forces in American life are nearly infinite. Just as the Communist Party officially endorsed the creation of a single state for African Americans in the 1930s, might not gays and lesbians seek their own state? Could not bicycle enthusiasts, eager to smite global warming through the refusal to drive automobiles, welcome their own territory? And of course, the rise of religious polities would be unstoppable. The Baptists could have a state. The Catholics. The Mormons—wait, they already have one. And on and on.

Arise ye secessionists of the earth!

The Right does not have a monopoly on secessionist spirit. Enthusiasm for quixotic campaigns around the independence of states or regions has long fascinated progressives, an enthusiasm animated by a straightforward “small is beautiful” perspective. Just as cities can become bastions of reform and even instruments of liberation, compact smaller nation-states, by virtue of their size alone, can afford to embrace aspects of direct democracy and participatory deliberation that routinely elude large nations. This secessionist impulse often captivates progressives during periods of national retrenchment, such as the 1980s Reagan presidency and the dark years of George W. Bush. When achieving national power seems a forlorn hope, understandably the idea
of new political arrangements, which would allow the Left to mount experiments without the impediment of conservative interests, ignites enthusiasm.

However, expediency does not entirely explain the Left’s openness to secessionist ideas and to the revolutionary impulse full stop. There have always been progressives who saw in the very size and scale of the United States the sources of its awesome military and destructive might. By literally downsizing the “Pentagon of power,” to paraphrase the cultural critic Lewis Mumford, the U.S. capacity to do harm in the world would be reduced. For some resisters of total militarization of U.S. life—from the President and assassin-in-chief to the special domestic programs for military veterans only—the sharpest blow struck for peace would be to dismantle the political structure of the United States.

The fantasy of disunion does hold out the possibility of a progressive, social democratic and peace-mongering nation-state—a political destination long sought by the Left. In Ernest Callenbach’s visionary 1975 novel,  Ecotopia, this sort of wishful alternative reality is laid out in its full glory. In clunky prose, Callenbach creates a speculative world centered around the political independence of the North- west—an area that today covers the coastal parts of three states, California, Oregon and Washington. The country of Ecotopia resembles Holland in its respect for social freedom; Switzerland in avoiding foreign-policy entanglements; and Germany in its embrace of an environmentally aware, Protestant lifestyle.


In the novel, a journalist from what remains of the United States visits Ecotopia 20 years after secession “not so much to oppose Ecotopia as to understand it.” The narrator, “an international affairs reporter” named William Weston, concludes, after a six-week reporting trip, that “the risky social experiments undertaken here have worked on a biological level.”

Weston continued: “Ecotopian air and water are everywhere crystal clear. … Food is plentiful, wholesome and recognizable. All life-systems are operating on a stable-state basis, and can go on doing so indefinitely. The health and general well-being of the people are undeniable.”

But the narrator, who is after all a citizen of the United States, admits that realizing green dreams has come at an enormous cost in material living standards.“Consumption [is] markedly below ours [in the United States] to a degree that would never be tolerated by Americans generally,” he writes. Yet the very survival of Ecotopia lends credence to an argument that “the era of great nation-states” is fading away and that “separatism is desirable on ecological as well as cultural grounds.”

 
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