Since the reelection of President Barack Obama, United States “citizens” from over 30 states have filed petitions to formally secede from the Union, and more than 10 have reached the signature requirements that necessitate a response from the Federal government.
While the secessionist movement is not a new social phenomenon, in fact many of its modern roots go back to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, its present mass resurgence should be something that gives pause to progressive forces. Not because the secessionist movement will likely succeed (at least in short-term), but because it is a reflection of deep white reaction to various demographic and political transformations in the United States empire that will have multiple expressions, many of them likely to be rather deadly. When we put the secessionist movement in the broader context of the ideology and historic social system of white supremacy then we see that is much more than just a fringe movement.
As Obama’s reelection in part demonstrated, the 500 + year nexus between the systems of capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy is fracturing beyond repair. There are now ruling class elements and a broad social base in the United States that are willing to jettison many of the social manifestations of white supremacy in order to preserve the capitalist-imperialist world system and the material benefits they reap from it. The secessionist movement reflects in part the interests of the forces of white supremacy who are materially dependent on the old-systems of production that require the unity of this historic nexus for their material well-being or are socially and ideologically committed to its perpetuation.
For much of the 20th century the far right forces of white supremacy were generally satisfied with the post-Reconstruction reinterpretation of the “states rights” doctrine, which was the result of a set of compromises established at the founding of the United Sates empire between the states that wanted to expand chattel slavery and those that were transitioning to a fully articulated system of wage labor. This reinterpretation rested on the notion that the Southern ruling class interests could continue subjugating the colonized (New) African and Indigenous nations contained in the region for the purposes of having a super-cheap labor force to exploit so long as they accepted the hegemony of the Federal government, which was rooted primarily in the controlling hands of monopoly industrial and finance capitalists based along the Northeastern seaboard. This reinterpretation contained secessionist aspirations for nearly a century, but it never completely vanquished them. The Black Liberation movement of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s weakened the post-Reconstruction “states rights” compromise, and breathed new life into the secessionist movement.
Playing up “states rights” as code for the perpetuation of white supremacy was at the heart of the “Southern Strategy” developed by the Nixon regime to defeat the “New Deal” alliance of the Democratic Party that was forged in the 1930’s and 40’s (the alliance that gave birth to the political ideologies and social forces now breaking with white supremacy). The reactionary “Southern Strategy” worked brilliantly until the 1990’s, when it was appropriated by elements of the Democratic Party (particularly the Democratic Leadership Council) to regain political legitimacy and power. This appropriation heightened contradictions amongst the forces of white supremacy, which in turn have opened space for more far right movements like the secessionist movement, to operate and compete within for ideological hegemony. For these far right forces the reelection of a Black man to conduct the affairs of the White House over what was supposed to be a white man’s country is just too much to bear. In this context, secession is not so much fringe, but in fact is rather logical.
It may also turn out to be brilliant strategy. The “right to secede” is a democratic right and one technically enshrined in the United States constitution. If this right is denied without sufficient political struggle to clarify the issues, particularly by a Black man who is deemed and demonized as a dictator due to his different interpretation of the Constitution and management of the capitalist-imperialist system, it can and will become a rallying cry for the far right that could potentially mobilize millions of white settlers, particularly as there are strong preexisting settler narratives to support and justify their cause (from “don’t tread on me” to “no taxation without representation”), and give life to the civil strife, if not all out war, that many Republican and Tea Party commentators spoke to leading up to the November 6th elections.
So, this movement is something that progressive forces should pay attention to and think strategically about. And not because progressive forces should be aiming to preserve the political or structural integrity of the United States as it is presently constituted. We have to remember that there is nothing sacred or sacrosanct about the present borders of the settler states that comprise the so-called Union. This government and these borders have not always existed, are not inherently legitimate, and definitely have not served the interests of Indigenous, African, Xicano, Puerto Rican, and other colonized and oppressed peoples who live on the Great Turtle island (one of the Indigenous names of the North America continent). Rather, our primary interest should be protecting our people, exploring solutions that will advance our total liberation, and combating the repression these reactionary forces are and will direct against us. As the contradictions of this imperial society become more acute, we need to be as aware and prepared as possible to address them with sufficient organization in the pursuit of our own interests – least we be caught unaware and used as pawns once again to preserve the “white man’s systems”.