Review of Most Likely to Secede, Edited by Ron Miller and Rob Williams
It’s a fascinating thought experiment, and for many of the Vermonters whose essays are collected in Most Likely to Secede, it’s a viable and urgent project: Why, how, and with what beneficial impact could Vermont secede from the United States, and become a radically local, largely self-sustaining democracy?
This book consists mainly of essays from the Vermont Commons, the newsletter where secession is debated and post-separation arrangements proposed. And although the editors admirably did not produce Most Likely to Secede with the intent to “convert readers to the program of succession, but invite [them] to ask hard questions about the institutions that govern us and the effects they are having on the planet,” the collective impact of this book is a compelling argument to reclaim some form of Jeffersonian democracy and local economy as part of our shared national heritage, and every community’s future advantage.
Why independence? Many of the essayists point to localism as the place beyond the traditional right/left divisions, where libertarians and liberals can find common ground. And there is evidence to support this view. Certainly, many of the examples cited in this book will warm the hearts of classic Republicans as well Resilience.org readers: local economies producing local food and energy, guided by local wisdom, for example. The Ron Paul strand of the Right many even agree with the “rage against empire” current that runs through many of the essays.
The emphasis on living well with less, decoupling from the globalized economy and monoculture, and stewarding the commons sets Most Likely to Secede apart from both the mainstream Right and Left, and its claim to Vermont heritage gives it a unique flavor.
Why Vermont? Vermont was, in fact, an independent entity for 13 years, before joining the US as the 14th state in 1791. And it was as progressive (banning slavery in 1777) and intensely local (think town meetings) as it is today (having freedom to marry, a Socialist US Senator, and an ongoing practice of town meetings). Yet despite the pastoral image of popular imagination, Vermont was once largely deforested (before the “opening” of the Northwest Territory made available more easily subdued land), and had considerable industry along its rivers.
Today, of course, Vermont has virtually no extractive industries (or many industries of any type), an abundance of natural advantages, and one of the smallest, least diverse, and highest educated populations in the US—which is barely even majority native Vermonters (just under half of residents were born outside the state).
If it did break away, then, Vermont might not be a model for other peaceful secession efforts. Vermont might serve as a model, however, if states faced the kind of unwinding some Most Likely to Secede essayists forecast: when the federal government—weakened by a collapsing economy, rotting legitimacy, or other cause of demise—can no longer maintain control.
Not surprisingly, Most Likely to Secede focuses on the arguments against empire, for radical relocalization, and toward a future of greater self-reliance (whether by succession or devolution). It offers an admirable and, as the Introduction states, “provocative way to awaken Americans from our complacency—a potent conversation starter, although [perhaps not] the centerpiece of our political strategy.”
This rich collection of essays explores four themes: the rationale, the practices, the theory, and the methods behind a relocalized Vermont and a decentralized nation. From healthcare to wheat production to energy to political structures to cultural traditions, Most Likely to Secede offers a compelling and conversational overview of the fundamentals necessary for a reasonably self-sufficient Vermont.
Although the "Afterword" considers briefly the consequences for the rest of “us” (in the rest of the US) should these Vermonters succeed and secede, a strong question lingers: What would an independent Vermont mean for Alabamans, for example? A quick Internet search pulls up more than a dozen secession/political takeover movements in other states, from the Christian Exodus of South Carolina, to native reclamation in Hawai’i , to the Free Staters right next door to Vermont in New Hampshire…not to mention the Texas secession movement that entangled GOP Presidential hopeful Rick Perry.
It’s not hard to sympathize with the attitude of the Vermont Republic supporters toward the US government, agree with their analysis of the globalized economic system, or cheer their vision of a radically relocalized, human-scaled commons, achieved by nonviolent, consensus-based means.
But it’s more than a little frightening to imagine if another state wanted to break away and found an exclusively faith-based, white-dominated, heavily militarized, independent nation. What then? To paraphrase Lincoln, have our passions become so strained that we must break our bonds of affection?(John Michael Greer covers this topic and related issues elsewhere on this site, in posts on the unraveling of the American Experiment.)
Some of the essayists in Most Likely to Secede argue that the breakup of the American Empire is inevitable, whether brought on by overshoot, internal rot, or some combination of triggers. Indeed, some of them welcome the inevitable, and argue for achieving it rapidly, by any nonviolent means necessary. James Howard Kunstler even celebrates the relatively favorable natural advantages and “collective character traits” of Vermont, in comparison with the “dreadful” fates Kunstler (plausibly but a bit coldly) predicts for Phoenix and Las Vegas, along with the “awful ethnic conflict in California.”
Here again, the inclusion of a more diverse collection of voices might have offered an enlarged sense of perspective, delving, perhaps, into feminist theory, or the reflections of ethnic minorities, perhaps even the insights of the Iroquois, whose renowned confederation included parts of what is now Vermont.
Quibbles aside about what Most Likely to Secede is not, the book succeeds at what it is: a bracing call for reclaiming the heritage of liberty and community that defines New England (and Vermont, in particular). Part Tom Paine, part Tom Jefferson, with a sprinkling of Poor Richard’s practical wisdom, Most Likely to Secede frames a challenge that every state (and every community) would do well to consider: Should we go it alone…and could we go it alone if we had to?
Ken White is Associate Director of Post Carbon Institute, which hosts Resilience.org. He worked for a couple of decades on political and social change in New England, and has a Masters from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Disclosure: One of the editors of Most Likely to Secede, as well as one of the contributors, is a donor to Post Carbon Institute. Another of the contributors is an advisor to PCI. The writings of several of the contributors have appeared on resilience.org. Most Likely to Secede is distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing, which also publishes PCI’s Community Resilience Guide series. In other words, this review is part of an ongoing dialogue amongst colleagues and friends…including you, dear reader.