There’s lots of talk of localization or re-localization in the Transition movement and among environmentalists and economic justice advocates generally. And for good reason. Today’s global economy where big corporations, with security provided by the United States military, ship plastic crap from Chinese sweatshops thousands of miles to consumers around the world who don’t need most of it anyway, is wrong in so many ways.
This hungry economy spawns never-ending wars to secure resources, protect shipping lanes and make good the threat of gunboat diplomacy that’s required to bully small countries into signing free-trade agreements. Globalization impoverishes workers and shackles consumers with credit card debt while enriching the top 1%. It depletes non-renewable resources like oil and metals while felling forests faster than they can regrow. It speeds climate change by spewing greenhouse gases and fills our landfills and oceans with garbage that will last for hundreds of years. It robs citizens in towns and cities around the world of the chance to make an honest living making their own stuff, the way they did for centuries until big manufacturers drove local makers out of business.
But the warm-fuzzy solutions provided by Transition and other sustainability advocates seldom seem up to the massive task of extracting modern communities from a global economy and oppressive political system with two centuries of momentum on its side.
Fortunately, an industrial-strength solution, with a record of success to help local areas break the grip of outside control, is available. Since this approach carries some distasteful political baggage, Transitioners and localizers on the political Left will have to be open-minded enough to consider it. But given the dark age in which American empire and global capital threatens to hurl this country and the rest of the world, it’s high time for localizers to put all options on the table.
Buy Local and Act Local not enough
First let’s consider the usual solutions of localizers and why they’re helpful, but don’t go far enough.
The main solution to strengthen their local economies for many Transition activists seems to be to encourage people to spend as much of their money locally as possible to support local small businesses and circulate dollars more often, creating jobs and helping wean the area off the global economy.
My wife and I try to Buy Local every week. Food is the obvious place to start. We get about half our produce, meat and dairy from local farmers and we’re lucky enough to buy meat from uber-local farmer Joel Salatin’s world-famous Polyface Farms. We get some of our clothes and most of our furniture locally from thrift shops and (inexpensive) antique stores. Honestly, we could be better about getting more of our culture locally. We spend too much time online and don’t take advantage of the numerous music, theater and art events held every week in walking distance from our house.
There are other things we could do to buy more locally. But even if we did them all, 90% or more of our monthly budget would still go outside the area.
First, there are the big ticket items: our mortgage from a national bank, our electricity and gas from regional utility companies and our transportation from global auto and oil companies. After that, any new clothes, electronics or appliances will come from the global economy. If we don’t mind paying a much higher price, we can buy some of these global manufactures from local stores so they can enjoy a few pennies on the dollar profit on each purchase. But usually, to save up to 50%, we buy global goods from a global retailer — usually, Amazon.com.
Even if everyone in our town did the same thing, and managed to do 10% of their monthly spending locally, it wouldn’t make much impact on the global economy anytime soon.
In two or three decades, with a lot of luck and after some hard lobbying against wealthy and entrenched special interests in our state capital and in Washington, we could change state and federal regulations that currently prevent our city from providing our own energy or our own lifetime mortgage calculator services to allow for local mortgages. Then we’d still have to find some way to raise the millions of dollars in capital required to do these things locally. Maybe then we could start to eat into that 90% of spending that goes outside the area. And maybe every community in America could join us. Now that would make a real difference.
Of course, that’s a very long game that would take tens of millions of people changing the way they think and live and then deciding to become political activists. Without a major disruption in the economy or culture, I don’t expect to see much of this in my lifetime.
The need for activism brings us to the other main Transition solution to free a local community from the global economy: to act locally, by volunteering or even getting involved with local government.
Again, to use my wife and myself as examples, we do both. For the last three years, our Transition group has run the biggest community garden in our city, spreading not just gardening but education on local food and resilience as well. Then, a couple years ago, I successfully ran for our local city council. Serving on that body has been often gratifying. But it’s also been a reality check on the power of communities to make change on their own. It turns out that, under such legal doctrines as Dillon’s Rule, the Interstate Commerce Clause and federal and state pre-emption of local laws, local government in the United States has very little power.
On the other side, you may hear stories of cities such as New York, Chicago or Berkeley, California declaring themselves a nuclear-free zone, outlawing fracking inside city limits or passing a resolution against some action of the federal government.
But the fact is, such actions are largely for PR and have little impact on their cities’ residents — and even less impact on actions of state or federal governments. No city, however influential on the national level, is going to stop Obama from bombing Syria or make Congress cut federal subsidies for oil, coal and nuclear power.
So, acting locally is nice. I’ll continue to do it and I’ll continue to urge my neighbors to join me. But global capitalism and militarism are run out of the White House and Congress, not from my City Hall or yours. Washington is where you’ll find the seat of American empire.
One nation, indivisible — Or not
The federal government may be the agent of many of the ills that beset America and the world today. But the Obama presidency should have shown activists once and for all that changing the occupant of the White House isn’t going to have much impact on America’s role in exacerbating the world’s biggest problems.
On the plus side, we can thank Obama for legalizing gay marriage. And providing Obamacare.
On the minus side, we also still have a military-industrial complex pushing for war and spending on ever more high-tech and expensive munitions. We still have oil companies running energy policy for America and thus, for much of the world. We still have runaway climate change and rapid species extinction. And despite a temporary dip in prices for crude oil, we still face peak oil and depletion of natural resources that will cause shortages sooner or later and represent a permanent loss for future generations.
To be fair, it appears that Obama genuinely wanted to extricate America from both Iraq and Afghanistan, and ultimately, he was at least nominally successful in ending formal U.S. combat operations in George W. Bush’s two wars.
But armed conflict in those two troubled nations continue with American involvement from the sidelines. Meanwhile, Syria, Iran and Ukraine are only a sampling of the places that Washington hawks in both parties have their eyes on for America’s next war to fight terrorism/spread democracy/stop dictators/secure oil.
Half a century after Eisenhower warned of the power of the military-industrial complex, today the war party is stronger than ever, with a sophisticated media propaganda machine ensuring widespread public support. Whoever’s in the White House, the American eagle will continue to spread its wings over the earth, fed by the Deep State alliance of big business and defense hawks much more entrenched than in Ike’s day. Democrats and Republicans who fight each other hard in public on such issues as Obamacare, climate change and abortion will cooperate smoothly in private when it comes to projecting American force overseas — the one issue on which anyone with any power in Washington can agree.
With Washington’s world domination bolstered by more than 1000 military bases in more than 60 nations worldwide, if you want peace abroad and prosperity at home, it makes more sense than ever to declare your independence from the global economy or the American political system. If enough of us opted out in some meaningful way, the war machine would run out of budget and personnel while the global economy would run out of customers and workers and would have to either adapt or collapse.
But to get real autonomy, it’s probably better to move to an off-grid survivalist compound in Idaho than to join a Transition group in a big city or rural town. Transition groups are just too nice and friendly. And the stuff they try to do is just too wimpy.
And maybe that’s because many Transitioners tend to come from the political Left, where at least in the U.S., there’s lots of talk of revolution, but hardly any political and legal solutions more specific than “getting involved.” Yet, American history is full of examples of local areas asserting their own political and economic rights in a forceful way. Perhaps now, after the collapse of the Occupy movement, people on the Left need people from the Right to remind us that political solutions for local autonomy worked in the past and that these same political solutions might work in the future in a way that starting community gardens and shopping at farmers markets will never work.
According to Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century, since the American Revolution, the main political unit of American society was the individual state. And for the first 80 years of the republic, the main way that states asserted local control was to nullify federal laws or to threaten to secede from the United States.
Well, we all know how that turned out. And ever since the Civil War, about the only place you’ll hear about secession and nullification is in a chapter-end vocabulary list in an American history textbook. Most people on the Left seem to think this is all as it should be. After all, that same history textbook taught us that secession is inextricably linked to retrograde Southern plantation owners who cried “states rights” and sought to leave the Union in a stubborn attempt to hold onto their slaves in a world that was moving on unstoppably to free labor.
To people on the Left committed to fighting racism as much they are to fighting as fossil fuels or consumerism, arguing that their local area or state should consider seceding from the United States is the last thing that would ever come to mind. Secession sounds too Jeff Davis for Lefties who want more Gandhi and nullification sounds too George Wallace for those of us who want more MLK.
No need for Stars and Bars
But Rethinking the American Union offers a few surprises to anyone who thinks that secession, the oldest of American remedies for plutocracy and oligarchy, is just a hobby-horse for Tea Partiers, neo-Confederates and white supremacists.
First, this book of essays carries the stamp of approval of very lefty Vermont activist Rob Williams, co-author of Most Likely to Secede: What the Vermont Independence Movement Can Teach Us about Reclaiming Community and Creating a Human Scale Vision for the 21st Century. And Williams understands how hard it is to talk about this once-commonplace idea today.
These days, the concept of secession is now deemed too “radical,” even “treasonous,” to be discussed in mainstream political, media, and news circles — until now. Secession, the s word, the dirtiest word in U.S. politics, is ready to reenter U.S. political conversation as an old idea, rediscovered, the next big thing, which is funny because secession is about smallness, decentralization, devolution not revolution.
More than 30 U.S. states currently host secession movements, according to Williams. He thinks that interest in breaking off from Washington’s rule will only grow as resource wars, PATRIOT Acts, NSA spying, torture revelations and a growing gap between super-rich and poor makes it clear that a union dominated by corporate oligarchs and Wall Street isn’t working for the 99%.
Second, none of the book’s contributors is advocating a second Civil War. Williams’s contribution to this volume, inspired by his book, joins the other essays in arguing for a movement to separate states from Washington’s control through peaceful and legal means.
All the authors here, some of them legal scholars, start from the premise that it’s always been legal since the signing of the Constitution for a state to secede, despite Abraham Lincoln’s view that this was treason against the Union. “If the United States has grown too large for the purposes of self-government, how could it be downsized within the framework of the Constitution?” asks editor Donald Livingston.
The answers all boil down to seeing the Constitution as a “compact” or contract. Any contract freely entered into can be freely broken under generally accepted principles of Anglo-American law. The Civil War may have decided the issue to the contrary at bayonet-point, but that doesn’t change the law.
There’s also good precedent in American history for secession as the ultimate remedy for protecting local rights against a tyrannical central government. Start with the American Revolution, a successful secession of thirteen colonies from the British Empire. But even after these states decided to team up with each other under the 1789 Constitution — a loose confederation more like the European Union than today’s unitary American federal nation-state — states continued to threaten to secede from the new Union.
Before the Civil War, the most famous example came in December 1814 when five New England States held the Hartford Convention to consider seceding from the U.S. over opposition to the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812. Even during the Civil War, secession was not the exclusive franchise of the South. New York City, for example, considered a proposal by Mayor Fernando Wood in 1861 to declare itself a sovereign city-state free to allow Manhattan merchants to resume their lucrative trade with the Cotton States.
And the third surprise for a skeptical liberal reader in Rethinking the American Union is the total lack of even a tinge of racism. It is true that all too many contemporary discussions of secession in the U.S. come from white Southerners who are clearly not yet reconciled to the necessity of the Civil Rights movement. But there’s none of that in this volume. Instead, the book’s essays are filled with thoughtful consideration of the twin remedies of secession and nullification as actions of last resort to restore the democratic freedoms that citizens have lost under today’s seemingly unstoppable American Empire.
Is America really a monarchy?
The authors’ expertise in the law allows them to come up with insights that are original yet grounded in tradition. For example, in his own contribution to the volume, editor David Livingston argues that today’s American union of 50 states with 322 million people is just too big to run as a republic but must by necessity become an empire.
Livingston goes even further, to ask “Is the American ‘Republic’ Really a Monarchy?” He poses the provocative theory that, just because we dumped George III in 1776 and replaced him with an elected president and Congress, it doesn’t mean that the nation couldn’t slide back into a type of monarchical state. As de Tocqueville said of France, so Livingston argues of the U.S., that its revolution got rid of the physical body of the king but left his symbolic and legal body in place, “merely changing its name from Crown to Republic.”
That artificial corporation with a would-be monopoly on coercion over individuals created by the king was now said to represent not the flesh-and-blood king but the French people. The revolution merely replaced the person of the king with a fictitious “nation-person.” The administration of coercion not only remained but was vastly expanded beyond anything the monarchs could have imagined.
It’s no accident that the Founding Fathers regularly accused each other of policies that would lead to monarchy. Such arguments continued throughout the early American republic until the Civil War decided these arguments on the side of centralized rule. This being America, of course that centralized rule came under the name of “freedom.”
Some of the volume’s authors show a way to the future. Kirkpatrick Sale argues that, for freedom and democracy, the ideal size of a nation seems to be about 3-5 million people. And small states can be quite prosperous, as many are today, for example, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Iceland, New Zealand.
How could today’s American Empire peacefully break up into more manageable countries? Under Sale’s guideline of human-scale, some U.S. larger states could split to form a couple of separate nations (California, New York, Michigan) while mid-sized states might make reasonable size nations in their current boundaries and the smallest states might choose to join a confederation with their neighbors (New England seems the most likely place for this).
Contributor Yuri Maltsev reminds us how the Soviet Union broke up as an example of what could happen here, once the bonds of compulsion that hold our union together weaken or fail. And Kent Masterson Brown argues that states need to stand up for their citizens against Washington and ultimately, consider secession: “to stand up to actions that invade the liberties of citizens and the reserved powers of the States by, first, nullifying the unconstitutional acts and then, if the federal government persists, seceding.”
A roadmap for untying the states
While Rethinking the American Union is short on specifics about how this could happen, John Michael Greer wrote a whole novel about it.
In Twilight’s Last Gleaming Greer presents a plausible scenario of a peaceful breakup of the United States: the states simply exercise their right under the Constitution to call a national convention to amend the Constitution with a two-thirds vote of all state legislatures. Then, once at this convention, they pass a resolution to dissolve the Union, to transfer federal property located within each state to that state and to divide up other federal property based on an agreement among the states.
In an example of how reality is sometimes stranger than fiction, as of December 2014, six U.S. states had already voted on two separate initiatives to hold a so-called Article V Convention to amend the Constitution.
While today’s states are hardly hotbeds of Athenian-style democracy — statehouses from Albany to Honolulu are dominated by monied special interests no less than Washington is — a state of several million people would be easier for its citizens to reform since a state government is more accessible than the Washington megaplex of the White House, U.S. Congress, federal courts and alphabet soup of regulatory agencies.
And no state or combination of states would be able to support the $700 billion military budget required each year to run today’s expensive global American empire. Scale alone would make smaller American nations more peace-loving than the U.S federal state.
Local rule is not without risk. State independence means that, without a federal government to enforce uniform laws on everything from environmental protection to campaign finance to abortion and civil rights, there could arise a very different type of government in Alabama than in Massachusetts. People who don’t like how their independent state government might change might just have to move somewhere more congenial.
But if you really believe in localization, then some other state doing something you don’t like is a risk you must be willing to take in order to enjoy the benefits of autonomy and home rule in your own state.
And it doesn’t hurt to be prepared for the future, either. It’s an iron law of history that all empires eventually collapse. At some time, whether centuries or decades hence, America will go the way of ancient Rome. Advocates of secession think it’s better to plan for that eventuality in advance than to let it catch local communities unawares.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice