Secession: The Instrument of Dividing Authority

Back in June, I first mentioned a referendum that would put the question of Scottish sovereignty squarely to the country’s people. Six months later, MSNBC reports, “The Scottish and British governments [are] playing a cat-and-mouse game over the future of the 300-year-old union between Scotland and England.”

The government of the United Kingdom, of which Scotland is a part, challenges the idea of a referendum on Scotland splitting from the U.K. Although Scotland enjoys many traditional powers of an independent, sovereign state, it remains linked to London, and many in the British corner argue that it has no legal right to secede.

As novel and thorny as the legal question may be, there is another, far more crucial question at play, one that goes to the very meaning of self-determination; it inquires as to the foundations of control and compelled relationships.

“Political order,” Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said, “rests fundamentally on two contrary principles: authority and liberty.” Contrasting the two, Proudhon observed that authority is at all times “tending to hierarchy, centralization, [and] absorption,” while liberty, a principle “supplied by the mind,” he described as “personal, individualist, critical, the instrument of dividing” (emphasis added).

Proudhon was a master of language, finding understanding and insight in the interaction of opposites. The first self-styled anarchist, he saw the lack of a state not as an avenue to chaos, but as coextensive with a different and better governing system — that of self-government based upon a continuing “division of power.”

Such indeed was the Principle of Federation that Proudhon so spellbindingly suggested, a radical partitioning of political power, on and on until each individual deals with every other on equal terms — secession pushed to its limit.

Now, as in Proudhon’s time, political authority remains the source of societal problems ranging from starvation and exploitation to war. The state’s coercive powers, the concrete instruments of authority in practice, hold resources and productive capacity out of reach, protecting the manufactured “rights” of powerful elites.

The false prophets of “free enterprise,” those revered as innovators and captains of industry, strategically position themselves alongside legislators and bureaucrats, suborning them for legally ensconced privileges. Market anarchists, with Proudhon and others as our antecedents, embrace a distinctive view that understands the relationship between consolidated decision-making power in both social and economic spheres. We advocate what is essentially a peaceful, revolutionary secessionism.

A comprehensive treatment of society and the political takes labor and economic reward together with broader questions about justice, personal freedom and autonomy. If centralized power leads to trespass against civil liberties, then so too does it pervert the discretely economic element of human life.

A genuine free market is poles apart from the power- and authority-based relationships that define today’s global economy. The dissolution of today’s political entities and their separation into ever-smaller communities of voluntarily participating citizens would mean the end of all ruling classes. The story in Scotland provides an opportunity to consider in turn what that might mean.

Anarchists, therefore, present a vision for a more authentic “public sphere,” a space for free and consensual associations to accomplish the kinds of goals that the state purports to both more justly and more efficiently.

Society and the state are no more synonymous than are true free markets and corporate capitalism. Networks of independent individuals and groups can provide for their own needs, quite apart from the raptorial domination of the state.

Our consideration of secession as a practical idea needn’t stop at dividing states into smaller states. There is another way, a stateless way. It replaces authority with liberty and in so doing disbands the needless state.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory