Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Posted: September 20, 2014 in Culture, History, Politics, Socialism
Tags: , ,

The failed Scottish referendum on independence from Old Blighty caught me off guard. I thought perhaps it would be the first secessionist movement in the 21st century to succeed. But alas, breaking up is hard to do, as the song lyric goes. A cursory survey of geopolitical hotspots reveals that there may be a quiet movement afoot, something in the air perhaps. For example, Québec also failed in its latest attempt to establish sovereignty from Canada in 1995, whereas the Free State Project in New Hampshire has yet to test the waters. Texas always has someone beating the drum about secession, but it appears to be mostly rhetoric. More sympathetically, the Republic of Lakota declared sovereignty in 2007, which is yet to be recognized by the U.S. government. There must certainly be other secessionist movements on other continents besides N. America of which I’m unaware.

Secession is only one way nation-states break apart. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) and Czechoslovakia both dissolved bloodlessly, while Yugoslavia broke apart following a civil war. Nations located in the Middle East have had on-and-off civil wars over the past 100 years, abetted recently by destabilization efforts spearheaded outside those countries, frequently under the false humanitarian guise of “regime change.” More pointedly, high-profile calls for straightforward revolution made the news last fall, notably those of Chris Hedges and Russell Brand. Changing out a government is not quite the same as a country breaking up, but there is some overlap.

Aside: Hedges has long established himself as possessing unique erudition and perspective on the world. Brand was a surprise to me, partly because he came almost out of nowhere (as a political commentator) and partly because he insists that there is no reason in particular the pundits should pay him any attention. The obvious rejoinder is that he clearly has something to say, though he admits he can never be a voice of the people because of his fame and fortune. This contrasts with the commonplace mistake of celebrity entertainers lending their names to political causes, as though it’s somehow important that, say, Robert Redford, Eva Longoria, or Alec Baldwin have anything to add to political discussion that isn’t overshadowed and thus made worthless by their celebrity. Withholding might be one of the sacrifices necessitated by celebrity.

It’s a mistake to pretend to penetrate too deeply into the cultural moment and divine a grassroots movement of the people against big government, but I find it plausible at least to observe that the spirit of collectivism has been invalidated in our time. Communism survives only a few places on the globe, and socialism, though still widespread, has suffered a serious public relations setback — especially in the United States. People(s) organize themselves more meaningfully according to smaller social units than nation-states. Thus, the tribalism of sports fans, religions, or political parties is more rabid and motivating than nationalities. I would suggest that average people are even more atomized than that, considering the failure and breakdown of an even more granular sense of community that used to operate in parishes, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and families. More people see themselves today as disconnected and adrift from wider context and expect to go it alone when difficulty strikes hard. Recent history has reinforced the growing awareness that institutions that ought to serve us have instead abandoned us or become openly hostile. And yet this is occurring at the same time that economic flows — a poor but ubiquitous measure of wellbeing — are aggregating and leaving behind average folks. That’s globalization at work. However, even the very few who reap outrageous wealth from exploitation of the masses recognize they, too, have no community around them and indeed seek to become sovereign or supranational citizens, which filters down in a hobbled form to the rancher or anarchist who thumbs his nose at government. One wonders whether current political unrest in Syria, Ukraine, and of course Iraq, aren’t prime examples of conflicting motivations between the individual and society.

Update: This post at Stratfor Global Intelligence appears to argue the same main point I made. Naturally, the arguments are a lot beefier, as befits a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm that trades in such analyses. It even has a world map showing significant separatist movements. I knew they were out there.

  1. Brian says:

    I was likewise a bit surprised by the outcome. But I was more surprised by the general opinion of the “yes” voters. They voted yes, anecdotally, so that Scotland could achieve some sort of Scandinavian type social democracy. In other words a form of government that is based on a growth economy that is able to hand out largesse. That seemed so out of touch with the current trajectory as to boggle my brain, at least.

    • Brutus says:

      I heard similar things about Scotland, namely, that those who voted for independence wanted to keep more of the oil wealth coming out of the North Sea for themselves. However, I really don’t know what specific motivations spurred Scotland in particular. The larger issue of secession, or getting small, is of interest to me because it goes against prevailing growth trends and ambitions. I suspect we agree that (feigned) economic growth cannot continue for much longer, the point at which contraction becomes undeniable still lying sometime in the future yet to be determined.

      • Brian Miller says:

        Indeed. Cultures are often changing for reasons and connections that are misunderstood. So this rebirth of secession movements may have articulated manifestos that profess a vision of growth, albeit with a local focus. But the reasons for the movement to a smaller political entity may have more to do with an unconscious awareness of an unstable trajectory due to climate change and peak resources and growth.
        When we moved to our farm in 1999 I could have articulated some very specific and personal reasons why we made the move. But a decade and half later I realize we were part of a larger cultural trend.

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