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New New Holland?

The print shows several building engulfed in flames during a fire on September 19, 1776, citizen being beaten by Redcoats, and looting by African slaves. Created by Chez Basset in approximately 1778. Courtesy of The Library of Congress.
The print shows several building engulfed in flames during a fire on September 19, 1776, citizen being beaten by Redcoats, and looting by African slaves. Created by Chez Basset in approximately 1778. Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

Not for the first time in New York City’s history, a buzz about Secession has begun to be heard—or perhaps a serpentine hiss, depending on your point of view. Several local papers (including NY Press, the Nation, and the Rail), have recently run articles boosting secession and independence for NYC. People seem to be thinking: “Secession … hmm … What a good idea!”

Why just the city? Why not the whole state? Well, they don’t call us the “Empire State” for nothing. On the whole New York is conservative; if it weren’t for the city’s teeming “blue” millions the whole state might be 90 percent “red,” or so the journalists assume. Tongues only half in cheeks, they ask why not go the whole hog—or double-dip secession from New York State and the U.S.A. simultaneously?

Contrary to the usual consensus historical 20/20 hindsight, in 1789 the U.S. Constitution was not a very popular proposition. Real revolutionaries considered it a plutocratic coup d’etat engineered by the likes of Alexander Hamilton and the big bankers of New York. Eventually the so-called Anti-Federalists were outmaneuvered, and sufficient votes mustered (or bought) to assure ratification. The radicals were dragged in kicking and screaming. Among the last states to accede were Virginia (where Patrick Henry and R.H. Lee opposed entry), Rhode Island (in the grip of the Debtors’ Party), and surprisingly, New York, where a coalition of urban mechanics and rural yeomanry kept re-electing Gov. George “Cato” Clinton, leading Revolutionary hero and Anti-Federalist ideologue. When these three states at last joined the U.S.A. they included clauses in their protocols of ratification reserving the right to secede. (From a Jeffersonian p.o.v., the “Social Contract” must be reconsidered by each generation, otherwise it would be unjust.)

These protocols have never been rescinded, even after the Civil War. An argument can be made that if only one state reserved this right unchallenged, then—by the logic of the Constitution itself—the right must accrue to all other states as well.

This argument is championed by the Second Vermont Republic (SVR), a lively secessionist group founded recently by Professor Thomas Naylor and now boasting its own journal, website, think tank, and recent conference—held right after the national elections last November—where activist/historian Kirkpatrick Sale gave the keynote address. Other “legalist” secession movements seem to be gathering steam in New Hampshire, Maine, Texas, Alaska, and Hawaii. But I particularly admire the SVR for its “Vermont socialism,” Green Populism, and geo-local panache (one of their leaders likes to dress up as Ethan Allen).

Vermont seceded in 1777 simultaneously from the British Empire and the State of New York, and continued as an independent republic till 1791. If Vermont did a double secession, why shouldn’t NYC secede from the Empire State as well as the New American Empire? West Virginia seceded simultaneously from Virginia and the Confederate States of America (CSA) during the Civil War. Even a few Southern counties seceded from the CSA and set up as “Free States,” although sadly these proved ephemeral. There’s a legal argument complete with precedents for NYC independence. But why should anyone take it seriously? Or care?

Some of my fellow anarchists have already criticized me for expressing an interest in such a “statist” or even “nationalist” notion as secession. I answer that the founder of American Anarchism, Lysander Spooner, advocated both the abolition of slavery and the right of secession. J.P. Proudhon advocated secession and anarcho-federalism. Gustav Landauer advocated the secession of the Bavarian Council Republic from Germany after World War I. Emma Goldman advocated secession of Catalonia from Spain. And so on.

The Second Vermont Republic is based on the anti-authoritarian “Small is Beautiful” philosophy of Leopold Kohr (The Breakdown of Nations), E. F. Schumacher, and the British-based Fourth World Movement. Secession appeals to certain anarchists not as an end in itself but as a good first step toward regional autonomy and eventually real Mutualism.

Before joining any Free NYC movement, however, I’d have to ask some vital questions. First and most important: the real power here belongs to Wall Street. I can imagine situations in which Wall St. might actually favor independence (Capitalist Rats Desert Sinking US Economy, Seek “Off-Shore” Haven). Certain rich and powerful people might even now be willing to fund such a movement, just in case…

What if George Soros offered a grant to the Independence movement? Or how about some cartel or cabal of coke-addled techno-geek dot-commies? What if the Mob wanted a piece of the action? The mind boggles.

Why should we work to turn NYC into a free and independent predator-Capitalist mini-state, like some New Economic Zone or neo-Hong Kong or Caribbean bank dump? Should we (assuming there is a “we”) deal with the fat top-hatted Devil now, hoping to outmaneuver and in effect betray him at the last moment? Can we envision a social revolution hidden inside the secession movement and waiting to come out the day after Independence is declared? A bit too baroque, eh?

In my guess-opinion, any NYC secession movement would appeal mostly to “progressive” types (I mean this in a social rather than strictly political sense): ultra-Blues, Greens, disgusted Democrats, people with vague Soc.-Dem. tendencies, leftist remnants, the “new class” of data workers, labor, minorities, and the poor. Secessionists should make clear from the very start that their model is “Northern European” and social, not capital-L Libertarian or predatory-capitalist. (Libertarians could be drawn into the movement on social-freedom issues rather than “Austrian” economics.)

In short: Wall St. would be expected to pay the people for the privilege of doing business here; i.e., a Scandinavian tax structure for corporations would be imposed. On this basis, any billionaire who wanted to bankroll us would be welcome—including the Devil.

I don’t insist on an orthodox anarchist or socialist secession movement. I’d refuse to join a pure capitalist one—but almost anything else would do. Scotland achieved independence through an alliance of Soc.-Dem. types and left-liberal Scots Nationalists, or so I’ve been told. I’m perfectly willing to back a similar combo in NYC.

My second question concerns the issue of bioregionalism. As an isolated megalopolis NYC would be ecologically non-viable—not to mention economically impossible. Up here in Hudsonia where I moved some years ago we know that aquapolitics is everything, that NYC is a “hydraulic civilization.” The real political unit is always the real eco-economic unit. The Free State of NYC would have to include at least Greene and Columbia counties to the north, Delaware and Sullivan to the west, the whole Connecticut border to the east, and everything bounded by these marches. This area would have to be protected as the watershed and agricultural region of the new republic, since an independent NYC would need not only its own water but also more local food resources than the old NYC. This brute material truth would demand a policy of severely limited development, especially the vampiric bedroom-community Wal-Mart variety, leading to an almost militant agrarianism. Forest and farmland would have to take precedence over “property rights.” The Commons must be considered more than a nice sentiment—it must be a minimal political demand. No commons—no food and water.

Again, I’m not proposing anarcho-communism here. Just the bare minimum of tilt in favor of the social—something a bit more like Canada or Holland and less like the bloody U.S. empire.

After all, the area we’re talking about coincides almost exactly with historical New Netherland—and New York City with New Amsterdam. The NYC secession movement—if it’s to exist at all—should at least strive toward something vaguely along the lines of the contemporary “Dutch model.” I don’t begrudge our Netherlandish cousins their weather or cuisine, but I admit to real sin of envy when it comes to their social net, tolerance (e.g., the “Amsterdam model” for drugs), and the sheer smallness of their political unit.

Holland is certainly not Utopia. But I have to admit that as age approaches I occasionally dream of pursuing my cultural and political goals in peace and minimal comfort, rather than as a constant struggle against raptor-capitalism and its incredibly loud and offensive McImperalist bloated malign stupidity. Sometimes I fantasize escape to some Scando-monarcho-socialist gemütlich Welfare (“Nanny”) State, where I could be a dissident anarchist and cultural radical with health care as well as freedom of speech (plus decriminalized hemp).

A secession movement for (let’s call it) New Holland may never provide everything I dream of even in this modest dream. But who cares? We’re looking for political games to play … adventures, perhaps. Possibly we should’ve moved to Canada in 1968, tant pis, but we’re here now. We’re totally without power to change one iota of political or economic reality. People without power have nothing to lose from the “politics of the very worst.” We’re basically sitting around waiting for the Empire to collapse. Under such conditions, what the hell? Why shouldn’t we make a little Pascalian side-wager on the New Secessionism?

Peter Lamborn Wilson lived in New York City for 40 years, then moved upstate. He’s a poet, non-academic scholar, author of some 25 books translated into (at last count) 13 languages, most recently Turkish and Serbo-Croat. This past December he spoke to the NY Anarchist Forum on Secession. His interview in the Rail (see July/August 2004 issue) was picked up and quoted by (among others) Utne and Le Monde.


Peter Lamborn Wilson

Peter Lamborn Wilson is an American anarchist author, primarily known for advocating the concept of Temporary Autonomous Zones.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2005

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