Goodbye, Cascadia: A Retrospective on a Political Mistake

Cascadia, Cascadia. What is there to say about this complicated movement?

I suppose I should start by explaining what it is, and what it isn’t. After all, there are quite a lot misconceptions out there. Bioregionalism is not, on paper, nationalism in a green hat. Cascadia was originally largely an anarchist project, coming out of anarchist ideals and an anarchist worldview, and was not intended to become secessionist social democracy, or secessionist libertarianism. Further, despite its co-option by small groups of fascists, it is overwhelmingly (though not entirely) an anti-fascist movement.

The project comes out of a philosophy called ‘bioregionalism’. I won’t evangelize that here, or at least I’ll try not to. But I do have to explain bioregionalism, to explain Cascadia. Bioregionalism builds on the observation that human communities have to coordinate around non-localizable resources — things that we need that are also inevitably things that we share. The biggest one of these is water. If someone upstream takes more of the river than their fair share, or dumps into it in any noticeable quantity, then those downstream are going to have problems. But, those problems —if there is any justice— won’t stay downstream. Those downstream will walk upstream, and stop those upstream by any means necessary. They have to. It’s a matter of life or death. It’s a matter of water.

Water isn’t the only resource like this, though. Just the most precious, and the widest ranging. Wildlife, too, doesn’t obey the strictures of property lines, county lines, state lines, or even the U.S.-Canadian border. Despite this, of course, we want to hunt them — and we can, in moderation. This, too, requires coordination over large areas defined by ecological features. The forests, that help to maintain our climate, must also be managed on a cross-county, cross-state, and cross-border manner. None of these, though, is as important as water.

Thus, you get these sort-of pseudo-borders (many people in the Cascadia movement, even the libertarians and the social democrats, advocate for open borders as a matter of principle) that are based around collected watersheds throughout what’s called an ecoregion. Don’t pay too much attention to it. It doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is that this always seems to go towards talking about flags, anthems, national character, and regional identity. I’ve heard some justifications — oh, it’s not nationalism because it doesn’t gesture at the state — oh, it’s not nationalism because it’s about where your feet currently are rather than where you were born or who you were descended from; after all you, by definition, can’t have a Cascadian diaspora.

I think that it’s still nationalism. It’s a rather strange form of nationalism that is, actually, mostly harmless — but it’s still nationalism. If I had to come up with an explanation for why an idea about how to share water rights seems to, through some strange alchemy,  produce nationalism… well, there are a couple of theories I could advance. Maybe it’s because the idea of even porous borders, of ins and outs, is inherently nationalistic. Maybe it’s because nationalist ideas infect most people at some level.

For a while, I thought the claims that the Cascadia movement was nationalistic were based on fundamental misunderstandings of bioregionalism. I used to be pretty into Cascadia. I actually still own a large blanket with the pattern of the Doug Fir flag. I got into the idea in my mid-teens. At the time, my politics basically reflected those of reddit (basically, social democrat) because I more or less got my political opinions from Reddit. In my defense, I was literally fifteen.

The romance of the idea is a fairly obvious one, if you grew up around here. Every time one heard about ‘America’ or ‘American-ness’, it’s always in justification for doing something obviously against my values and interests — unity with homophobes and racists, compromise with political enemies, subsidies for farmland. The ‘real America’ (blue-collar, white, rural, etc.) is only about a fifth of the American population. At least growing up, I thought of them as, essentially, welfare queens — people engaged in inherently unprofitable pursuits, subsidized on the dollar of people like me, voting against everything I stood for, and hating me for being unlike them.

So, if one can only conceptualize nationalism (and no exposure to anti-nationalism), one must conclude that one needs a different nationalism to fight American nationalism. I had no conception of a critique of nationalism, I saw it as natural — instead of as a way for elites to control the masses. Thus, when I heard of Cascadia, I leapt upon it. I had no idea of its anarchist roots at the time — I saw it as an essentially social-democratic idea. It was more of a comforting fantasy than anything else, really. Just a flag to wave, little more. I wasn’t going to rallies or meetings or what-have-you. I would say that in all this I am not unusual in the PNW — such sentiments are common enough among younger liberals who were born in, and have spent their lives in, the urban parts of the region.

When I became an anarchist, I found that there were pro-Cascadia anarchists, and so I delightedly concluded that Cascadia had been an anarchist idea all along — I told myself that, though there were similarities, this was really about water rights — not nationalism. I created, and –for a time– actually ran the (as far as I know, only) Discord server for it. Last time I checked, they’re actually still using the graphic I came up with for ‘the cascadia free territory’.

Eventually, my relationship with that project was ended though. What precipitated my fall from grace was that people wanted me to add a channel to the Discord for the purposes of learning Chinook Jargon — a trade pigdin native to the region, composed of Chinook, Nootka, Hawaiian, various more minor Indigenous languages, English, and French. It was invented, spoken, and went extinct in the 1800s.

The people in the Discord almost all agreed (if I recall correctly, there were one or two people on my side, but the vast majority disagreed with me) that there should be a channel for the purpose of learning the language, so that they could all speak a ‘uniquely Cascadian language’, and perhaps one day forget English. They also (almost) all insisted that there was nothing remotely nationalist about wanting to intentionally induce ethnogenesis by adopting a dead language to supplement a pre-existing vaguely defined regional identity, thereby allowing that identity to be more clearly and binarily established.

It was at this point that I realized that the critics of Cascadia were at least partially right. Language reconstruction is always an inherently nationalistic project. There’s no reason not to speak English (or Latin, French, Russian, German, Chinese, Japanese, etc.) if you don’t care about ‘preserving’ your culture and establishing a boundary between insiders and outsiders. If those things aren’t priorities, then there’s really very little benefit to being the only speakers of a marginal language, rather than one of billions of speakers of a world-wide trade-language.

I had seen signs before this — people saying that bioregionalism meant that geography culturally shaped people, and so every progressive tendency in the PNW was geographically determined — people saying that the culture of the region made it uniquely prone towards left-libertarian though — so on and so forth. But I hadn’t wanted to see it. This, though, I had to see. It was a line-crossing act that I couldn’t ignore. So, I shrugged, and decided that if this lot wanted to LARP together, I wasn’t going to stand in the way — but I had better things to do. I handed off the whole business.

I’ve distanced myself from the movement since then. Still, though, the dismissive critiques of it as mere settler nationalism miss a certain amount of subtlety.

After all, it’s not an all-white movement, and the idea that it is one seems to smack of defaultism — online, without a clear show of non-white faces, people simply assume that something not explicitly non-white must be completely white. It’s as false as right-wingers assuming that anti-fascist work is exclusively done by white dudes — after all, to them, who else could be under all that identity obscuring clothing? According to their prejudices, anyone not clearly a woman must be a man, anyone not clearly non-white must be white, etc.. A similar sort of racist logic seems at play with people assuming that Cascadia is an all-white project.

Further, it should be noted, such claims clearly have some amount of empirical invalidity to them. Every time I have seen the fascists and the anti-fascists clash in Portland, it is our side that has people flying the Cascadian flag — not the fash. And when the fash does try to co-opt the name and message of Cascadia (as they end up trying to do with so much else in leftism) they find it necessary to adopt clear variations of the flag. For all my criticisms of the movement, I will say that I don’t denounce it as evil. Most of the people involved in the Cascadia movement are basically good sorts, or at least useful sorts. They’re just deeply misguided.

That, I suppose, is the best practical summary of Cascadia as a movement: ‘basically good sorts… just deeply misguided’. The simple fact of the matter is that Cascadian sentiment is common among much of the left of the PNW. Nationalism is a pervasive enough idea that anything close enough to it gets sucked in and becomes it — nationalism is the black hole of ideas. We live in such a nationalistic era and place that even the anti-nationalists become nationalists — merely of a different, stranger, and perhaps less dangerous sort.

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