Not long after the end of the First World War Germans, now able to cross the border with Switzerland freely, began showing up at the office of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. They described dreams that he believed foretold a great social and political upheaval in Germany. He later wrote of his frustrations whenever he related this information to others since for them there seemed to be not a cloud in the sky.
Fast forward to today. We recently heard the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, speak openly of the possibility of secession from the United States, something that might be classified as a waking dream or fantasy. History records the woeful consequences last time anyone took that idea to its logical conclusion in the United States, and so, not surprisingly, few people are taking it seriously for the moment. The immediate reason behind the mention--made while addressing a group participating in the recent April 15th tax protests--was probably that Perry faces a primary next year against fellow Republican, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
As it turns out, Perry may be doing more than positioning himself further to the political right in preparation for a primary battle; he may be channeling a sentiment that is more widespread than people believe. Texas has a long history of secession movements. One was active there in the early 1980s when I lived in the state. The beef then was that Texas's oil wealth was being expropriated through the windfall profits tax and sent to Washington. But the rest of the country is not immune. Wikipedia lists 17 groups working for some sort of secession across the United States.
The Rachel Maddow Show reported that besides Texas, legislators in six other states have introduced bills meant to affirm their states' "sovereignty." Oklahoma has already passed its resolution. Just in case you wondered, the other states are Arizona, Montana, Michigan, Missouri and Washington.
All of this might be regarded as so much posturing among politicians eager to draw attention to themselves--or simply tin-foil-hat thinking among members of the secessionist movements. But once you push aside the racially-tinged states' rights arguments and realize that 1) the movement has a foothold (however tenuous) beyond the South and 2) that at least one group, the Second Vermont Republic, can be considered progressive in its principles, the idea of secession yields to a more nuanced interpretation.
The social and political upheaval which the dreams of Jung's German patients presaged eventually expressed itself in the rise of the Nazi Party. Secession, however, is a more fitting kind of upheaval in the United States, a society for whom rebellion is a more dominant trait. I am reminded of a class of American college juniors and seniors to whom I showed Adolf Hitler's speech to the Nazi youth during the Nuremberg rally of 1934. Remember, I told them, this is before World War II, before the concentration camps, and before the Kristallnacht. No one knows anything about these things because they haven't yet happened. The speech did come after the Reichstag fire and the granting by the German legislature to Hitler the right to rule by decree. While controversial and outspokenly anti-Semitic, Hitler in the fall of 1934 was still widely seen as more and less just another politician who, in this case, was making just another speech to the nation's youth.
Hitler covered the usual shibboleths: be thrifty, stay physically fit, study hard, get involved in your community and work for the betterment of the nation. Nothing remarkable here. Was there anything he said, I asked the class, that any American politician wouldn't say to American youth today? A flurry of hands went up. The students said it almost in unison: "Be obedient." No American politician would invoke such a sentiment whether he believed it important or not.
Many of my acquaintances kept telling me during the Bush Administration that America was on the verge of becoming a fascist state and that (according to a few) President George W. Bush would not step down when his term ended. I, on the other hand, have long feared the anarchical tendencies in American life: the states' rights ideology, the vigilantism often seen in the pre-civil rights South, the secessionist movements and every kind of centrifugal political force pursued in the name of localism, but really a pretext for 1) undermining the rights of unionized workers, women, ethnic and racial minorities, and gays and lesbians and 2) destroying the environment in contravention of federal law.
The need for relocalization of the economy in the wake of peak oil and climate change is forcing me to re-examine my views. I am of the belief, however, that should relocalization become a widespread adaptation strategy or simply be forced upon us, the locale where one lives in the United States will become of increasing importance--not only because the availability of basic resources needed for human survival differs from place to place, but also because retrograde notions of human rights, governance and education are likely to be reinstituted (probably gradually) in some areas of the country, particularly the South and West.
It is no surprise, then, that relocalization of economic activity implies relocalization of governmental power. In fact, a kind of precursor to secession, nullification, has already appeared in the form of city councils resolving not to cooperate with federal officials in enforcing the so-called Patriot Act. It has also manifested itself in cities and states proceeding with climate change initiatives when the federal government's official policy was that climate change was not a problem. My previous piece, "The New Nullification," details several other examples.
My sense is that the United States will not undergo a sudden, sharp devolution of power to states and municipalities. In fact, for now with the money flowing freely from the federal government--borrowed and printed though it may be--states and cities are unlikely to pull away from the central government in any meaningful way. Even the Texas legislature, controlled by Gov. Rick Perry's party, the Republicans, thinks it's a bad idea to refuse federal aid and go it alone.
But as it becomes impractical or impossible to provide such massive federal aid on a continuous basis--and I believe this will prove difficult during what I expect to be a lengthy economic downturn similar to the 1930s--the necessity to find local solutions to a persistent crisis may become more acute. For this reason an ongoing economic slump may end up feeding continued calls for secession as well as create receptivity to genuinely useful relocalization efforts.