Aspects of Secessionism
by Kirkpatrick Sale

I. Breakdown of Nations

I have just returned from a meeting in Salzburg, Austria, of the "Academic Inn," an institution of drinking and talking in various pubs and taverns that was initiated more than 30 years ago by a man born just outside that city, a great thinker and luminary, Leopold Kohr.

This particular version of the Inn was not as productive as some I have attended in the past, but I did have a chance to present the audience of some 150 Austrians with an idea of the sentiment for succession boiling up in the U.S. and I did read the Micclebury Declaration, all of which was greeted by apparent enthusiasm. Salzburgers already have some sense of being independent, for the state of Salzburg has always been a powerful regional organization within Austria and in many ways it is roughly self-sufficient. They understand the underlying motives for separatism and autonomy.

Leopold Kohr's most important achievement was a brilliantly argued 250-page book that came out first in 1947, The Breakdown of Nations. It proved that the reasons things either don't work or are out of control is that they are too big-and this is true of everything, from oversized teeth to global empires. And it showed that, as Aristotle once said, there is a right size to everything, based on the limited capacities of the human body and human brain, and that the restoration of health and serenity everywhere was a return to the human scale-through the breakdown of nations into smaller units where individuals and communities were empowered and invigorated.

The book did not get much attention at first because it ran directly against the tide of the age, which was all for global this and that, and the creation of things like the United Nations. It had a following among a few-the British philosopher Herbert Read, the economist E. F. Schumacher (who called Kohr "a teacher from whom I have learned more than from anyone else"), and a number of academics in Salzburg, who were later to start a Leopold Kohr Akademie-but it did not become popular and was pretty much forgotten, though Kohr continued to write and lecture with the same message.

When I first read the book in 1978 I was so taken with it I got E. P. Dutton to issue a paperback that year and it had a modest sale, though not as great as Schumacher' Small is Beautiful, published three years before. Again it ran against a tide of bigness in the land, yet there were many who could see by that time the futility of the UN, the danger and corruption of big corporations, the evils inherent in a country out of control in Vietnam and Watergate. And Kohr, by then teaching in Wales, was invited several times to give lectures in this country, to enthusiastic audiences who recognized that his was the lonely voice of the truth-teller.

Let me give an example of the Kohrian philosophy (and, jealous though I am of his command of English, the Kohrian style), pertinent to the place where the Academic Inn was held:

"The rural population that built this capital city of barely more than 30,000 for its own enjoyment never numbered more than 120,000. Yet, single=handedly they managed to adorn it with more than 30 magnificent churches, castles, and palaces standing in lilied ponds, and an amplitude of fountains, cafes, and inns. And such was their sophisticated taste that they required a dozen theaters, a choir for every church , and an array of composers for every choir, so that it is not surprising that one of the local boys should have been Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

"All this was the result of smallness, achieved with not an iota of foreign. And what a rich city they made it into."

It should be obvious by now that Kohr's message is more vital than ever. It should be obvious that the solution to virtually all the world's political conflicts and trials is dissolution, devolution, decentralization. I cannot think of one place on earth where a dose of that would not solve, in a permanent way, the difficulties that large-statism and the centralizers have created.

It has been glaringly clear for a long time, for example, that the first step to peace and stability in Iraq was exactly the breakdown of the artificial nation a few British imperialists cobbled together some 70 years ago out of a bunch of tribes and ethnic groups. I think a careful analysis would show that there are more than half-a-dozen social and political divisions that could stand autonomously, but even without such a study the reality of daily goings-on there shows that there are three major divisions in the country at the moment, the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shiites. Instead of trying to force them to have a state altogether, with the aid of a continuing mad war, why not let them each go its own way?

The Kurds have already achieved a degree of autonomy, with an independent parliament, separate ministries, and a regional army. They have a strong identity as a separate ethnic population, and have had for generations. With control of some of the northern oil reserves, they could easily be a viable and independent nation.

And now it seems there is a new and growing movement for autonomy in the south of Iraq, among the Shiites. The leaders argue that the south never got its fair share of oil revenues under Saddam Hussein, even though the bulk of reserves lie near Basra, at the head of the Persian Gulf, and they see no reason to have to have it all go to some centralized source.

"We want to destroy the central system that connects the entire country to the capital," one leader, Bakr al-Yasseen, was quoted by The New York Times as saying. He argued that "there's no democracy in Iraq" and won't be in any future state, so southern interests would continue to be disregarded.

This movement is demanding the same status as the Kurdish north, with separate institutions and armies. And it is naturally gaining support from the Kurds themselves, who want to see a loose national regime with powerful constituent regions. (A number of Kurds would like to go all the way and have an independent Kurdistan, but this would surely upset powers in Turkey, Syria, and Iran, with Kurdish populations they want to keep control of, so such talk is kept muted.)

The American powers in Iraq are dead set against any move to make a federated state with autonomous regions, because that would be hard for them to control and would risk oil reserves being exploited for the regions rather than a pliant nation. Centralizers of the neo-con kind have always found independence and autonomy an anathema, since it threatens their ability to dominate.

But a three-part Iraq simply makes most sense. It would be relatively easy to achieve, it would give each ethnic group its own power and end the insurgency, it would allow US troops to withdraw immediately, and it would make Iraq a viable nation. And at some point it could even lead to creation of three independent nations, on the pattern of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the states of the old Yugoslavia, and the breakdown of the Soviet Union.

Separatism is not only the tide of this era, it is a true global force. It should be allowed to flow in Iraq and let us end this ugly and debasing war, and then it should be applied at home and let us end this ugly and debasing government.

"Bigness, or oversize," wrote Kohr, "is really much more than just a social problem. It appears to be the one and only problem permeating all creation. Wherever something is wrong, something is too big."

No question about something is wrong with this nation. It is too big.

[Vermont Commons August 2005]

II. The Lessons of 9/11

What is most striking about the various conspiracy theories that have emerged to explain 9/11 is that so many of them seem plausible. It is hard not to feel that the Bush government could well have been not merely incompetent but actually to some extent complicit-actively or passively-in the hijackings and crashes.

To begin with, there are a great many holes in the official version of things. The fact that the passenger lists, as published by the AP and CNN, have no Arabic names. That the FBI released 19 names within 76 hours of the four crashes, though it did not explain how it got these particular names. That at least six of the people mentioned on that list turned out within weeks to be alive and well, on the authority of the British press and the Saudi government, but the FBI has never emended the list. That there is no real evidence-"no paper trail" is how FBI director Robert Mueller put it-that these men actually did the hijacking.

And take the errors of omission. The failure of the various intelligence agencies to coordinate information on Al Quaida and know its agents were living in this country.

The failure of the government to take steps to avert planes being hijacked to attack buildings in the U.S. despite being clearly warned by at least four foreign governments that picked up intelligence on this in the summer of 2001. (As is made clear by the memo agent Catherine Rowley sent to the FBI about Moussoui that summer.) The failure of the FBI to pay any attention to the field reports from at least two offices that some Arabs in their areas were taking flight lessons, though the idea that Al Quaida planned to use airplanes as weapons was known back in the Clinton era. The failure of NORAD to scramble any jets in time to intercept the hijacked planes, though the first indication of a hijack in action came at 8:25 that morning and the last two planes were in the air until 9:45 and 10:10. (NORAD claimed that it couldn't locate the planes because the hijackers had removed the identifying transponders-for which there's no proof-but the fact is, as they admitted, they didn't have any jets scrambled up until around 10.)

All of that argues that the Bush administration at a minimum was certainly inept in not stopping the hijackings, evidence that the government is both too big and too complex to be able to function capably. It's not just the intelligence agencies that are too bureaucratically overgrown-though that's where the attention has been focused-but at all levels of a bloated government we find incompetence and incoherence. And it is typical that the solutions advanced-the Department of Homeland Security and the new intelligence czar-only add levels of bureaucracy and complexity to the central government. (I have a N.Y. Times chart of the chain of command of Homeland Security, so crisscrossed with lines of responsibility that it looks like the drawing of the wiring of a superjet.)

But the failures of the government were so egregious, and in such a vitally important area, that it opens up the possibility that there was something beyond ineptitude at work. That, in fact, it knew of the threat and didn't try to stop it. This idea-the Pearl Harbor line-seems perfectly plausible to many people (49.3 per cent of New Yorkers in a 2004 Zogby poll) for two obvious reasons.

First, we know the Bush neocons wanted to have a war to gain public support for an extension of the American empire in central Asia and the Middle East, both to protect and secure oil fields and existing (and future) pipelines and to protect and secure Israel. And a war on terror is the most advantageous of all, since it is global and it is never-ending, allowing the government to put all its resources behind it and for a good time into the future.

Second, we know the Bush neocons manufactured reasons for the Iraq invasion, and if they fabricated that they certainly could have fabricated 9/11-or, more charitably, allowed 9/11 to happen and fabricated the reasons it happened and wasn't stopped. That does suggest a true corruption at the heart of the Bush administration, but the fact is that this does not seem farfetched since it was the same kind of corruption that allowed them to decide shortly after taking office that they were going to war with Iraq and lets them take upwards of 100,000 Iraqi and American lives for their project.

So what does all this mean for the rest of us?

Well, as I have suggested, it proves that we have a central government either too inefficient or too corrupt, and possibly both. One of the central virtues of the idea of secession is that it inevitably means a smaller government, one more in the control of the citizens, and thus not as bungling and not as easily corruptible. The small size of a nation does not guarantee that it is efficient and virtuous, but all history has shown that it is small states with some measure of democracy that are most successful in the long run.

I remember Leopold Kohr once telling me of his visit to the principality of Liechtenstein. He said he went to the prince's castle and knocked on the door. It was opened by a man in a suit and Leopold asked to see the prince. "I am the prince," the man replied. "Please come in." They went into an office where they talked for a while and then the phone rang. The prince picked it up and said, "Government."

Well, that was a bit of an exaggeration, since Liechtenstein has a separate head of government and the prince is nominally head of state, and there are 11 communes where most of the day-to-day governing takes place. But it was true that any ordinary citizen could ring the prince (or knock on his door) and immediately make known a grievance or advance a request, and the person who heard it was in a position to do something about it. That's the virtue of a state with only 33,000 people in it.

Another virtue of secession is that it ends the entanglement of law-abiding populations with imperial law-benders and adventurers, whether they are corrupt or not. There is no reason in the world why certain good citizens of Vermont, who happen to be in the Army Reserves as a patriotic duty, should be sent half a world away to kill and torture people in a senseless, ugly, and insane war whose outcome will have no practical effect on Vermont other than raising its taxes and dishonoring it in the eyes of the world as part of a rogue nation.

But that war is only an egregious example of policies that are taken by a government far away over whose actions the people of Vermont have no control. The votes and influence of a couple of Senators and a Representative, even if those politicians knew what their constituents wanted, are insignificant in the political process of this nation. But even if they were powerful, they would have to work through a Congressional system that is far too complex and far too undemocratic to have any influence and that operates in ways that are basically corrupt and beholden to corporate interests, as the passing of any law or budget makes glaringly clear.

Besides, the influence of Congress, even if it were really "the people's voice," is almost negligible on the actual administration in power, at least when it doesn't mesh with the administration's plans and programs. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al. don't do what they do because they are following some Congressional mandate but because they are carrying out a neocon vision of their own making. What's worse, a great deal of that is done in secret, with off-the-books "black budgets," and no one on the outside has a chance to have an influence on it, not even favored Congressional committee heads who may sometimes be told what is already going on.

The Bush administration and its series of misguided and dangerous actions is a clear and powerful argument for secession. But the virtues would be true under any government that tries to tend to 280 million people. The only way to have true democracy, real efficiency, and just governance is on a small scale-a population, say, of a little over 600,000.

[Vermont Commons September 2005]

III. The State of American Secession

In conjunction with the launch of The Middlebury Institute, I thought it might prove interesting if I laid out some of the places where information about secession and separatism can be found.

One of the best places is the American Secessionist Project (secession.us), which is sort of mamby-pamby in its goals-secession is only third, after "restoration of a Representative Constitutional Republic" and "state autonomy" and nullification power-but has useful links (including the Second Vermont Republic) and several interesting archives, including "Secessionist Papers," a history of secession, and various articles. The slant of most of the papers is what I would call Southern libertarian, but they do confront the problems of secession straight on. It has a kind of blog, last updated in August, and not nearly comprehensive enough. (Another site, secession.blogspot.com was very energetic for awhile, though mostly about the U.S. South, but ended in June 2004, and there is no really good source for up-to-date secession news.)

Another useful site is Secession.net, attempting to create a worldwide secessionist network and promoting the idea of "community-based secession" rather than state-based or wider. It lists as it goals "Legitimatize Secession of Small Political Entities," "Influence Existing Secessionist Movements," and Promote New Secession Movements," and among its strategies are "Work within the System," "Use a Diversity of Nonviolent Action Strategies," and "Respect Rights of Non-Secessionists." It has archives on "Nonviolence and Decentralization" and Leopold Kohr's Breakdown of Nations [see Vermont Commons, August 2005], but its section on "pro-secession articles" is not working-a failing that I find on quite a number of secession sites that are not kept up to date and regularly tuned.

One of the oldest websites is for the Alaskan Independence Party (akip.org), one of the oldest movements. It seems to operate only during state-wide election times-the party is a legitimate political party and had a member elected governor in 1991-and hasn't been updated since January 2004. But it has an excellent account of Alaskan history (it's what you get when you click on a line that promises a piece by Thomas Naylor) and a page of links to other secessionist organizations that is quite extensive, although it has not been updated in ages and includes a number of defunct organizations (like the New England Confederation and Green Mountain Republic-where are they, now that we need them?).

And one of the newest websites is for the New California Republic (newcaliforniarepublic.org), which started last fall as Move On California. It makes an excellent case for California secession, including the fact that the state has the fifth largest economy in the world and a great deal of its wealth is now siphoned off to politicians and pork projects in the red states. (It does not point out that in 2004 Californians paid approximately $88 million to the Federal government beyond what it got back-and what a nice nest egg that would make for an independent California.)

The California site has a long list of links to articles about blue-state secession that have been published in the last year, including Christopher Ketcham's excellent piece in Slate ("Long live secession") and Fortune's striking "This land is red land, paid for by blue land."

Then there's the remarkable site of "Secession Issues" (cbel.com/secession_issues), which has no less than 409 links to secessionist activities and groups around the world-there are 13 sites for Abkhazia, for example (they want to separate from Georgia, in case you forgot), and Inner Mongolia, Sardinians in Italy, Kashmir, Faroe Islands, Mindanao, Nagorno-Karabakh, the Manx Nationalist Party, Oromyia, Ladakh, and on and on. It also includes a number of Canadian links (Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, Quebec, and Western Canada all have secession movements), 5 for Texas, and a hefty 44 for the American South (not all of which are functional, though the page claims to have been updated in June of this year).

The question of how the South fits into all of this is interesting in itself. The three major organizations seem to be the League of the South, with its affiliated Institute where a number of Southern scholars publish, reached at dixienet.org, an excellent site with many links and archives; the Southern Party (south-art.com/Southern_Party), which attempts to act as an electoral party in all Southern states (though it foresees possible independence as well) but has an organization in only four, and seems to inspire a lot of bickering and apostasy within its ranks; and the New Confederacy (newconfederacy.org), which has its own constitution. Each of these is explicitly against racism and slavery, each has a strong Christian slant to it, and each seems to want the same sort of future for the South, making me wonder why there are three separate organizations in the first place.

Finally, I should mention Newenglandsecession.blogspot.com, which is active and up to date, though it seems to be the musings of one Gray Locke rather than the voice of any organization. And of course I don't have to tell you about vtcommons.org and vermontrepublic.org.

It's difficult to assess how active and energetic the secessionist movements are in the U.S., but there's no question that a great many secessionist organizations exist and some are clearly building a following for the cause. In any case, they have produced a great deal of information, available at the sites above, and if you went to them all and read what they have to offer, you'd qualify as a Ph.D in Secessionism. Not such a bad idea.

-Kirkpatrick Sale

"Whenever any form of government is destructive of these ends [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness] it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." Declaration of Independence





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