By Spencer Pearson
One of the major objections to the idea of pan secessionism deployed by critics is that it is “unrealistic”. Which is to suggest that there is no way such a society could be brought about and that further if it could it would be hopelessly unstable. It is some considerable testament to the power of the idea of the state, and particularly nation-state, that for most people any other political arrangement is literally inconceivable. Yet the fact is that the history books are full of examples of societies which if not explicitly “pan secessionist” bear a good deal of resemblance to what is proposed by pan secessionism. That such societies have existed in the past in strong evidence that extreme political decentralisation is a viable societal arrangement.
Perhaps the most obvious historical example of something akin to a “pan secessionist” society is that of Ancient Greece. Ancient Greece was divided into hundreds of fully autonomous “Poleis”; city states, each with its own constitution (Aristotle catalogued over one hundred and fifty). Unlike, for example, the states of the USA these state constitutions were not mere carbon copies of each other, Greek Polis exhibited a wild diversity of political systems; monarchies, oligarchies, aristocracies, limited democracies and outright dictatorships were common. Weird hybrid systems developed such as the bizarre twin monarchy of Sparta. These political arrangements reflected an equally diverse cultural world making Classical Greece into a kind of socio-political laboratory in which thousands of experiments in societal organisation were conducted. The result was a social and intellectual dynamism which has few, if any, comparisons in recorded history.
Historians have generally taken a dim view of this extreme decentralisation, lamenting that a Greece was exposed to unacceptable risk when faced with aggression by other states. This view is typical of the modern mindset of the nation-state, and is somewhat undermined by the fact that, for all the habitual in-fighting of the Greek poleis, the society endured for over a thousand years despite the attempts by several vast centralised imperial states to add Greece to their dominions. Moreover the achievements of Hellenic culture in this period are universally regarded as staggering, the contribution made by Classical Greece to fields as diverse as mathematics, engineering, politics, philosophy, literature and astronomy is difficult to overstate.
Of particular interest to advocates of pan secessionism is the organic nature of this societal arrangement. The poleis of Ancient Greece were not held in place by a constitution guaranteed by a centralised state, nor even by a cultural respect for the concept of community autonomy. Simple real politik maintained the system since no one of the poleis was ever able to “unify” the others under its control. This was not for the want of trying, or for lack of imperialist ambition on the part of individual polis. Repeated attempts were made by some of the more powerful micro states to create internal empires, or their precursors in the form of permanent alliances, federations and leagues. However such was the value placed on their sovereignty by the Polis every such effort was thwarted. Even Alexander the Great, operating in the environment of the twilight of the culture of Classical Greece and with an apparently incontestable military supremacy, failed to create a stable centralised state in the Greek world.
Of course the world of the Ancient Greeks was vastly different to that we find ourselves in today. Technological and cultural differences are immense and also the Greek Polis micro states were tiny by comparison with modern cities. And for all its achievements such a system of radical decentralisation could only exist in the simple world of the ancients? Well…….
The Holy Roman Empire
The period following the decline and eventual absorption of Greece into the Roman Empire is a pretty thin one for fans of decentralisation in the historical record. Centralisation was what Rome was all about, and according to conventional thinking was the source of its phenomenal success. A theory somewhat undermined by its utter collapse over the fifth century. Historians, ever keen to get to where we are, have taken a dim view of what replaced it; a Europe of effectively autonomous communities who appear to have been highly reluctant to reorganise themselves into a new Roman Empire. The attitude of historians to this sad state of affairs is pretty much summed by the label they traditionally apply to it; “the Dark Ages”. The triumphalism with which they describe the rise of the new centralised states of the Atlantic seaboard, the forerunners and prototypes the world of nation states of today, some five hundred years later is universal. Except for one slight problem.
The fact is that the “rising” centralised nation states of Europe; England, Spain and France, were inconveniently not the most “advanced” or even “wealthy” on the continent despite the supposed manifest advantages of centralisation. It was in the areas now known as Germany and Italy which were on the leading edge of commercial, economic, scientific, artistic and technological innovation. These areas were a patchwork of micro states of which none were powerful enough to form the nucleus of a Western European style “nation state”.
It was in the Italian city state of Florence that the European “Renaissance” began and in Italy in general where the greater part of it took place. The huge success of Italian city states and micro kingdoms in economic activities allowed them to finance the artistic and architectural enterprises for which they have become legendary. During the same period, and by contrast, the centralisation process in Italy’s near neighbor Spain produced a rather dull culture which expended its resources in Imperialistic wars and expansionist projects leaving the nation broke and sterile by the start of the modern period.
The loose confederation of micro states known as the Holy Roman Empire, which Voltaire famously observed was “neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire” held a similarly dominant position in the North of Europe as Italy did South of the Alps; at least in economic terms. The great merchant cities of Hamburg and Lubeck competed not predominantly with London or Paris, both of which were relatively primitive in commercial terms, but with Antwerp and Bruges; themselves not part of any of the supposed “rising” nation states. As in the case of Italy, it was in Germany where the greatest intellectual vitality was to be found in the region; which is why it was in Germany, not England or France, where the Reformation began and why when we talk about modern philosophy, we generally mean German philosophy.
As with Ancient Greece historians are usually contemptuous of both Italy and Germany’s “failure” to form “proper” nation states, which they didn’t “achieve” until the incredibly late date of 1870 and 1871 respectively. The Italian states, it is noted, were constantly attempting to resist the influence and armies of more centralised states. Meanwhile the horrific Thirty Years War (in which it is estimated a third of Germans were killed) is invariably attributed to the lack of a centralised German state capable of defending itself against, in this case, all of its immediate neighbours. (It’s worth noting that the centralised German state which came into existence in 1871 doesn’t have exactly a brilliant record on dealing with that situation either). This historical attitude is reflected in a common objection to the concept of pan secessionism, that decentralised nations are incapable of resisting the encroachments of centralised nation states. However the actual reality of the historical record does not bear out this assumption. While the Italian states did struggle to maintain their independence and while Germany was devastated by the Thirty Years War their centralised nation state contemporaries faired little, if at all, better. Civil wars, of various extents, were common, inter-state warfare more common still with many of the “ideal” nation states of Western Europe engaging in conflict between themselves almost constantly. Indeed it could be argued that the decentralised states were at least largely spared the dynastic wars fought for control of nascent nation states which were a regular feature of the latter’s politics. The terrible Thirty Years War was in fact more a consequence of Germany’s geography than its politics with it simply being the obvious and most convenient strategic venue for the contending factions in the wars provoked by the Reformation. Nor is it clear how centralisation would have prevented the “civil war” or the intervention of foreign powers in it. At the same time as the Thirty Years War raged across Central Europe England, supposedly one of the most advanced nation states, was itself rent by a civil war estimated to have cost the lives of 5% of its population.
Of particular interest when considering the pan secessionist nature of the Holy Roman Empire is the weird precedent of the Hanseatic League. The wild success of this “international” association of autonomous and semi autonomous trading communities might well have become the basis of political thought in the West rather than that of the nation state. The heartlands of the League lay in the HRE however communities as far apart as Russia and England were members. The power of the League became such that at its height it could and did challenge the supposedly more “advanced” nation states. At one point inflicting a humiliating military defeat on the entire Kingdom of Denmark and on another occasion forcing the English state to accede to its demands after a victorious naval campaign in the North Sea. It is quite a testament to the power of voluntary association based on mutual interest that the League did not merely have sufficient organisational ability and authority to wage war but could defeat states which at the time had little or no other business.
Even so, the HRE, the Hanseatic League and the micro-states of Medieval Europe could only survive exactly because they did not face competition from fully fledged centralised modern nation states such as exist today? Well…..
The United Provinces
There is a school of historical thought which argues that the modern state is the largely the product of a single institution; the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom. As far back as the fourteenth century the Royal Navy had effectively established the system of continuous production, centralised manufacture and the subdivision of labour into narrow specialisations which are the critical characteristics of the phenomena we call “industrialisation”. It is argued by some that by the end of the seventeenth century the entire British state had become largely a sort of department of the Navy tasked with collecting revenues for it and running its PR campaigns. This argument is based on the simple fact that the navy was what the British state spent most of its money on accounting for more half of government expenditure. Moreover that it was the effective “navalisation” of the state, by which it adopted the kind of ruthless bureaucracy and single minded mentality of His Majesty’s navy, which made it into the first modern state.
This argument, that the British state’s “success” was a result of its adoption the practices and ethos of the Royal Navy which produced a similarly successful organisation in its own field is somewhat challenged by the events of the June 1667. In that month the Royal Navy suffered perhaps it’s most humiliating defeat when the forces of the United Provinces penetrated into the River Medway, no great distance from London itself, and destroyed a significant fraction of the entire British Navy. The United Provinces fleet actually managed to tow the captured flagship of the Royal Navy home where they made it into a tourist attraction.
What is particularly of interest here is the nature of the United Provinces and its own navy, or rather navies. The United Provinces occupied roughly the area currently known as the Netherlands. In 1581 most of the Low Countries (modern day Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands) were under the control of the Hapsburg Empire, that year a”war of independence” broke out with the rebels aiming to create an independent state. That war went on for around eighty years. The final result was that seven provinces of what had been called the Spanish Netherlands did manage to secede from the Hapsburg’s rule. However, they did not succeed in creating a centralised kingdom on the usual model because no one faction of the rebels managed to sufficiently dominate the independence movement. Moreover well developed commercial class in cities like Amsterdam were not particularly keen to surrender their own autonomy to a monarch. So the ships which took part in the Medway Raid were not part of a single centralised organisation like that of their adversaries, rather they were drawn from the fully independent navies of each of the seven effectively autonomous provinces (in practice only five had any significant naval power).
The decentralised nature of the United Provinces continued below state level with individual communities maintaining a high degree of autonomy. Yet once again the result was not some kind of Hobbesian “war of all against all” but rather a society which excelled in the fields of commerce, technology and arts. The United Provinces was surrounded by centralised states far larger in terms of area and population than itself, in particular the French state long maintained an ambition to annex the entire Low Countries. However the United Provinces did not merely manage to avoid, at least for a period of several centuries, the imperialist tendencies of its larger neighbours but became a powerful force in its own right. Amsterdam in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries became the principle trading hub and financial centre of all Europe as the Dutch built a trading empire which spanned the globe.
Perhaps more surprising still is the outcome of the struggle of which the Medway raid was a part. The English/British state fought three wars against the United Provinces over a period of about forty years as the two nations struggled for economic supremacy. This conflict came to an end not because centralised Britain was able to subdue the Dutch by force, none of the wars resulted in any significant Dutch concessions and Britain was never able to defeat the United Provinces on the battlefield. In 1688, during an internal political crisis in Britain, the United Provinces’ Navy landed what amounted to an invasion force on the British coast at the invitation of some members of the House of Commons. Since Great Britain was conveniently without a monarch at the time, the current king (James II) having fled to France, the Dutch Stadtholder (a sort of semi elected ceremonial monarch) was selected as his replacement. The fact that said Stadtholder happened to be on hand with a considerable army in his capacity as general of the invading Dutch was, apparently, less of a consideration than the fact he was married to the outgoing king’s daughter. Britain’s path to Imperial and economic greatness was then not cleared by its navy or navalised state, but by the fact both failed to contend with a decentralised small collection of renegade provinces to the extent it was effectively defeated by them.
None of these societies were “pan secessionist” in the explicit terms used by “pan anarchists” today, their decentralised natures would probably have simply been described as “free” by their members as opposed to the centralised states they were familiar with. Since none of these societies had suffered the experience of being part of a modern centralised state they failed to develop the ideological framework to justify and describe their condition. However it is interesting to note that while these societies existed at different times and/or different places all of them share certain characteristics. For most of the time these decentralised nations were able to maintain their independence, although having to fight against centralised states to do so. All of them were economically successful by the standards of their age, usually far more so than their centralised contemporaries. Most of them exhibited an artistic dynamism, even the tiny United Provinces which was the home of the “Dutch masters” who revolutionised the visual arts. They often outstripped their centralised rivals in the development of technology and in intellectual pursuits of all types. In short these examples of “proto pan secessionist” nations refute just about every objection to the concept advanced by its detractors.