This excellent piece from the American Conservative reminded me of another take on secession from the other end of the ideological spectrum. In 2006, Rebecca Solnit penned a hopeful article envisioning the peaceful dissolution of United States:
. . . mainstream journalists spent the first decade of this century debating the meaning of the obvious binaries–the Democrats versus the Republicans, McWorld versus global jihad–much as political debate of the early 1770s might have focused on whether the French or English monarch would have supremacy in North America, not long before the former was to be beheaded and the latter evicted. The monarchs in all their splashy scale were the dinosaurs of their day, and the eighteenth-century mammal no one noticed at first was named “revolution”; the early twenty-first-century version might have been called “localism” or maybe “anarchism,” or even “civil society regnant.” In some strange way, it turned out that windmill-builders were more important than the US Senate. They were certainly better at preparing for the future, anyway.
It’s an interesting (and goofy) article, and it contains some passages that could have easily found their way into the pages of The American Conservative:
That mammal clinging to the stalk had crawled up from the grassroots, where the choices were so much more basic and significant than, for instance, the one between fundamentalism and consumerism that was on everyone’s lips in the years of the Younger George Bush. If the twentieth century was the age of dinosaurs–of General Motors and the Soviet Union, of McDonald’s, globalized entertainment networks and information superhighways–the twenty-first has increasingly turned out to be the age of the small.
You can see it in the countless local-economy projects–wind-power stations, farmers’ markets, local enviro organizations, food co-ops–that were already proliferating, hardly noticed, by the time the Saudi Oil Wars swept the whole Middle East, damaging major oilfields and bringing on the Great Gasoline Crisis of 2009. That was the one that didn’t just send prices skyrocketing but actually becalmed the globe-roaming container ships with their great steel-box-loads of bottled water, sweatshop garments and other gratuitous commodities.
Incidentally, the author tips her hat to the potential for left-right collaboration:
In hindsight, we all see that the left-right divide so harped upon in that era was but another dinosaur binary. After all, small government had long been (at least theoretically) a conservative mantra, as was (at least theoretically) left-wing support for the most localized forms of “people power”–and yet neither group ever pictured government or people power truly getting small enough to exist as it does today, at its most gigantic in bioregional groups about the size of the former states of Oregon or Georgia–but, of course, deeply enmeshed in complex global webs of alliances. All this was unimagined in, for instance, the dismal year of 2006.
Solnit also indulges in a few annoying left-wing tropes – Hugo Chavez gets an inevitable shout-out; genetically-modified crops are pilloried; corporations are fielding Olympic teams and taking over entire countries by 2012 – and her breezy take on massive famines and epidemics leaves a lot to be desired (a tendency that rears its ugly ahead among certain quarters on the Right, as well).
However, one of the article’s core assumptions is that robust transnational institutions like the International Criminal Court are a necessary precondition for decentralization and localism. The author doesn’t go into much detail – the closest we get to a blueprint for multinational criminal enforcement is Bush sentenced to laundry duty in Fallujah – and the piece is obviously more speculative than serious, but it’s an interesting point nonetheless.
It also seems to be born out by recent events. The European Union, for example, has encouraged decentralization by adopting certain functions – defense, trade policy, and diplomacy, for example – that would otherwise be the exclusive preserve powerful national governments. And while England isn’t going to re-invade Scotland if the latter declares independence, I think the EU’s diplomatic framework provides something of a check on aggressive centralization at the national level.
Of course, this approach entails certain downsides. As any good Euro-skeptic will tell you, an unaccountable bureaucracy in Brussels is not too different from an unaccountable bureaucracy in London or Paris. Deferring to the EU on issues related to trade and diplomacy is also a high price to pay for a certain amount of regional leeway. But international institutions are somewhat removed from national prejudices and rivalries, so perhaps they’ll always be more sympathetic to the aspirations and grievances of local communities. For what’s its worth, the EU’s enthusiasm for preserving regional culture and language is a hopeful sign.
So, do conservative advocates of localism accept a role for international institutions in our decentralized future? Does the coming North American Union presage independence for Vermont? Or are international elites as bad as their predecessors in Washington? Inquiring minds want to know.