Speaking at one of many “tea party” anti-Washington protests held throughout the country on April 15, Texas Gov. Rick Perry touched on a theme that could, I believe, prefigure a growing trend in American politics – and, indeed, throughout the world. He hit all the partisan talking points that are so familiar to my readers that I won’t bother reiterating them, and then remarked that Texas is doing relatively better than some other states, in spite of the “federal budget mess.” According to the Dallas Morning News, at this point “some in his U.S. flag-waving audience shouted, ‘Secede!'” The Governor took up this theme in remarks to reporters afterward:
“There’s a lot of different scenarios. We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot.”
I can just hear the Obamaites railing on about the “extremism” and “paranoia” of the “wingnuts” – it’s the characteristic way these people deal with ideas, in spite of the pretensions to transcendence of Obama’s beyond-red-state-and-blue-state credo. In spite of the fact that “right” and “left” are about as relevant to the current situation as the seating arrangements of the French parliament in the 1800’s — from whence the terminology derives — if it comes from the “right,” the “left” is honor-bound to take up position on the other side of the barricades. That’s too bad, because a major public figure like Perry raising such an idea is more than just a partisan ploy: it’s a harbinger of things to come.
Regardless of whether one endorses or disdains the Governor’s particular complaints against the federal government, the point is that bigness – in the world of nation-states, as well as finance – is out, and smallness is in.
It’s no accident that the world’s biggest financial combines, along with the giant producers like GM, are in trouble: like the dinosaurs, their bigness – once an advantage – evolved into a fatal gigantism. In the economic realm, this condition distanced management from the market it was supposedly serving and set up these companies for the big crash. They are now claiming that they’re “too big to fail,” and therefore deserve government bailouts — yet their very size (and the hubris that went with it) is what caused them to fail in the first place.
A similar trend is evident in the realm of nation-states. Remember when no one imagined that the mighty Soviet Union was about to fall flat on its face and shatter into several dozen pieces? A few years before the Berlin Wall was toppled, the USSR, to all outward appearances, was a colossus firmly rooted in Eurasian soil, an empire that was all but unchallengeable given its formidable nuclear arsenal and world-spanning apparatus. Even as the Communist regime was rapidly rotting from within, the sense that history was on its side – that inexorable forces were pushing it forward – was reflected in the rhetoric not only of Communist officials, but in the mindset of their Western adversaries.
In the 1980s, less than a decade away from Communism’s final collapse, we were told that the Soviets were on the march, not only in Afghanistan but throughout what we used to call the “third world.” In Africa, as well as Central and South America, leftist insurgents aided by Moscow were rising up and challenging Western-backed governments, and anti-Communists here in the US were raising the alarm. The neocons, at that time, were howling that Reagan, in negotiating the INF treaty with the Russians, had sold us down the river. The Soviets, they averred, had for the first time a huge military advantage, which they were about to use to seal our doom – and then, with an abruptness that caught our own CIA, not to mention the neocons, quite by surprise, the Soviet Union was no more.
In a series of near-bloodless overturns, starting in Germany and winding up in Moscow, the signatories to the Warsaw Pact fell, one by one, in dizzyingly rapid succession, until the last domino to fall – the Kremlin itself – made an earth-shattering but strangely hollow sound as it crashed, like a tree that’s rotted all the way through.
The Russians aren’t the only ones who have felt the consequences of the new decentralism: China, too, is experiencing problems, not only in Tibet but also in its fractious and relatively wild Western region, where various non-Han minorities chafe under Beijing’s rule. Iraq is another example, of a different sort: a country that had its borders created by Western fiat, and is now faced with the problem of keeping an entirely artificial state entity in charge of a territory housing several separate (and often mutually antagonistic) “nations.” This is the case throughout Africa, as well, where a series of bloody secessionist wars and outright massacres have taken place.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent creation of dozens of independent “countries” based on the borders of the old “autonomous” Soviet “republics” — as drawn by Stalin and his successors — has created a host of conflicts: the Caucasus is teeming with groups who, for a number of historical and practical reasons, want to break away from the central state, and establish their own independent enclaves. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so? Ask our State Department, which still refuses to recognize or deal in any way with the South Ossetians, the Abkhazians, or the representatives of the Transdniester Republic, all of whom resent being forced into an arbitrary “union” with people who have historically oppressed them.
In the United States, the idea of secession is considered beyond the pale, and Gov. Perry will no doubt catch a lot of flack for his comments, but the reality is that big countries – and bigness, per se – are on the wane. The future belongs to smaller, more manageable and efficient units, whether political or economic, which can better navigate the troubled waters of the world economy.
As much as the know-it-all pundits will mock Perry’s raising of the Texas flag, a serious secession movement in the US, based on regionalist sentiment, is not all that hard to imagine. A nation is, after all, more than a state: it derives its identity from a common culture, one that is largely shared by all citizens, including not only language but a certain mindset rooted in custom and economic convenience. However, when this cohesion is lacking – when tax-eating states, say, are arrayed against tax-producing states; or, to put it another way, when red states come up against blue states – longstanding allegiances are called into question and old bonds begin to dissolve.
Is this how the American empire will end – an implosion on the home front, even as its armies advance across the face of Central Asia and take up their positions in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Given the history of the world since 1989, and especially in the context of the current economic meltdown, what happened to the old Soviet Union is not such an implausible scenario for us.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I have a new article in The American Conservative on the apparent collapse of the antiwar movement in the age of Obama: please do check it out.