Secession for Me and for Thee

It’s been repeated ad nauseum to the point of drively cliché: we’re a fractured nation, filled with a fractious people. We’re hopelessly divided. A Fort Sumter-like black-swan event is upon us. We can’t agree on anything: the legitimacy of elected officials, the latest ballot count in Altoona, Pa., whether Donald Trump is a fascist or blue-eyed, red-blooded patriot, whether the latest headline-splashing governor is a wannabe tyrant or a twinkle-eyed statesman, whether the local school board is seated by woke Marxists or responsible adults, whether the gender split in sports should be based on biology or emotional caprice, whether blue cheese or ranch is the proper side for buffalo wings, and if “Die Hard” is, in fact, a Christmas movie. (Thanks for nothing, Obama, it is.)

The failure of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to successfully contest Joe Biden’s election win at the Supreme Court has only added to the acrimony. Scores of online conservative personalities threatened secession after the high court—to the shock of nobody moderately familiar with constitutional norms—declined to invalidate swing-state votes. Modern-day George Walker Crawfords, including Texas G.O.P. chair Allen West, Rush Limbaugh, and the Madams of MAGA and Trumpian heirs to Plato and Aristotle, Diamond and Silk, caterwauled for a break in the union.

Along what lines, what states, what cities, what terms, was never articulated. It was crackup or clap up.

Meanwhile, a jaunty batch of anarcho-leftists isn’t threatening secession: they’re putting it in praxis. Or, they were until armed officers, given ex officio license by the state, sent them scurrying like unwashed rodents from their Les Halles-style barricade. In the city of (where else?) Portland, Oregon, where the Antifa and Black Bloc roam free, a gaggle of enterprising héros de la résistance established an “autonomous” zone to protest the eviction of a black and indigenous (intersectional twofer!) family.

The two-block encampment was styled after the C.H.A.Z. (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) in Seattle, which sprang up last summer in reaction to perceived over-policing. Like Portland’s no-cops zone, the C.H.A.Z. was cordoned off with a mix of jerry-built palisades and boobytraps to keep out meddling outsiders. (Nota bene: walls are good when the left wants forceful exclusion.)

These defensive kludges didn’t stop the long rifle butt of the law. After nearly a month of the leftist experiment in self-government, which resulted in two murders, Emerald City police cleared the area, sending the brave resisters skittering home to their parents’ basements. So it was with the short-lived attempt at autonomy in Portland.

You have to admire the moxy of these manqué separatists. Instead of toiling away by writing throwaway treatises and white papers, the play-acting revolutionaries established their own counter-hegemony. To paraphrase Nino Brown, action talks, ordure runs a marathon.

But they failed in the end, like many early American communes that fervently dreamt “of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”

What should libertarians take away from all this recent secession business? In the pursuit of subsidiarity, that practical lessons, if any, can be gleaned from these failures?

First, despite its ideological perversion, the left is superior at putting its ideas in place. The right puts a lot of weight on metaphysics, debate, the “Good Books,” the entire Western canon. Those are all well and good and necessary for intellectual formation. But the left has a propensity for action and organization.

There’s also the flipside to the romantic impatience of not waiting to solve every syllogism before having a workable model of society. The progressive essays at utopia creation floundered. Why? Because they were never truly separate from the state. These encampments were still on the grid, using local electricity to power their iPhones and Netflix. Uber Eats was still delivering. Dollars—not kombucha bottle caps—were still being exchanged as currency. This was playing house with secession.

When the municipal government decided to press its hard-soled boot down, the autonomous zone lost its autos. The resistance, it turned out, was futile.

So why didn’t they hold out? Why didn’t the peach-fuzzed, man-bunned, skinny-jeaned, soy-soaked warriors of secular Eden mount an effective defense? It can’t all be chalked up to tofu diets and missing leg, arm, and chest day at Orangetheory.

Communities need purpose, an overarching vision of virtue. These ersatz breakaway collectives lacked a real lebensphilosophie. They were based on single-issue grievances: unjust evictions, police brutality. Their depth only went as far as the lone issue. They weren’t designed, in Peter Maurin’s words, as the kinds of “society where it is easier for men to be good.” So they fall away like the evanescent interests of toddlers.

Despite their attenuated lifetime, should libertarians encourage secession, even in incomplete form, when it’s invoked by liberals? In a country founded on self-government, the answer is exceedingly “yes.” But they should keep in mind Murray Rothbard’s quip about the seceding soixante-huitards of yesteryear: “Scratch a left-wing ‘anarchist’ and you will find a coercive egalitarian despot who makes the true lover of freedom yearn even for Richard Nixon (Arghh!) in contrast.”

Embrace the particularity in principle of lefty communes; not necessarily their bylaws.

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