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Secession’s Opponents Embrace Colonialism and “Enlightened” Central Governments

The idea of secession for some regions of the United States—sometimes simplistically called “national divorce”—has increasingly been mentioned as a way to deal with the apparent growing divide between what are crudely called “red states” and “blue states.” Polls suggest that perhaps a third of the American population “indicated a ‘willingness to secede'” 

Vehement opposition to the idea remains plentiful, however. Among the writers of the pundit class, any number of arguments are used to claim that secession is not desirable or moral, nor even feasible. Many conservatives, for example, rely on the standard conservative jingoism, arguing that secession is unconstitutional and “treasonous.” Conservative nationalists and moralists insist that all US residents have some sort of duty to support a unified state. 

Social democratic supporters of the regime often use a different strategy. They insist that secession cannot be tolerated because the people who advocate for secession are racists and fascist barbarians and cannot be trusted with self-government. Here’s a representative example of this line of thinking from MSNBC’s Joy Reid

Today, roughly half of African Americans still live in the 11 Southern states that comprised the Confederacy, and so if this national divorce happened, they would be trapped in an apartheid hellscape of a new country with zero health care, crappy public schools, barely a right to vote, and a full return to ownership by someone else of their bodies — except this time it wouldn’t just be Black women, it would be all women. 

Social democrats aren’t the only ones who embrace this line of thinking, however. This same rhetoric is employed by some libertarians. For example, Zach Weissmueller writes:

In post-divorce America, California would have freer rein to confiscate guns. Florida lawmakers could shrug off the First Amendment and ban “offensive” speech. Cops everywhere wouldn’t need to concern themselves about violating citizens’ constitutional rights.

In both the social-democratic and the libertarian views shown here, the argument is essentially that if any region of the country is allowed to separate from Washington’s control, then the breakaway region will immediately set to work violating human rights. The conclusion we are supposed to draw is that support for secession amounts to support for slavery, guns bans, censorship, and a police state. 

The leftists and the libertarians differ in which human rights are put at risk by secession, but in both cases the arguments amount to this: without oversight from the central government, state and local governments in the United States are simply too prone to tyranny and mismanagement. If allowed independent and  localized government, those people over there might adopt policies I disagree with. Therefore, they must be subjugated to a central government with policies I prefer.” 

We have words for this sort of thinking: imperialism and colonialism. Indeed, the assumption that potential separatists must be forced to submit to more “enlightened” government from the center—for the locals’ own good—is standard colonialist propaganda. It is essentially what European and American imperialists were saying 200 years ago to justify continuation of their respective governments’ efforts as conquerors and imperial metropoles. After all, most people living in the conquered colonial territories had their own ideas about government, culture, and natural rights. Many of these ideas were objectionable to the sensibilities of the elites back in the capital cities such as London, Paris, Moscow, and Washington, DC.  Thus, the American regime regarded the Indian tribes as barbarians. The British regime treated the Irish as racial inferiors. The Russian regime sought to stamp out Siberian shamanism. The French regime regarded the Algerians as ignorant and lazy, requiring “domination” by colonizers. Only the paternalistic hand of the ruling central government could provide the tools necessary to “civilize” the locals. 

Why It’s Critical to Define Aspiring Separatists as Inferiors Unfit for Self-Government

Justifying empire, conquest, and colonialism on humanitarianism grounds has historically depended on the success of a key tactic: portraying the conquered population as unfit for self-rule and self-determination.  By the late nineteenth century, the American Revolution, the Hungarian Revolution, and other wars of “national liberation” had prompted many in European governments and the public at large to sympathize with the idea of self-determination as a universal right. Thus, in order to deny this right, it became necessary for colonizing and conquering regimes to establish that the conquered populations were not capable of enlightened self-government in any case. Moreover, by illustrating that these local colonized populations did not understand or respect universal rights, the regime could more easily excuse the coercive, violent, and thoroughly non-humanitarian measures that were necessary to put down local secession movements and preserve the prerogatives of the central state.  

[Read More: “‘Humanitarianism’ as an Excuse for Colonialism and Imperialism” by Ryan McMaken]

Philosopher Uma Narayan has identified these tactics as core to the effort to centralize and enhance political power over populations deemed unfit for political independence. To consolidate the metropole’s rule, it becomes necessary, Narayan notes, to employ “stereotypes about the negative and inferior status” of the people in the conquered provinces and to “construct the colonized as childish and inferior subjects…”1 Thus, imperialists employed words like “savage,” “barbarian,” “backward,” and “patriarchal” to describe the conquered populations and support the claim that the colonial territories required enlightened rule from the central state. In more recent decades, new terms are employed including “undemocratic” and “misogynist.” Such terms have been used, for example, in support of the US’s 20-year occupation in Afghanistan and its 10-year war of conquest in Iraq

An additional tactic is to insist that any attempt at self-government by the conquered population would not just be unenlightened, but downright illegitimate. For instance, as Lea Ypi has shown, imperial states have employed a “legitimate-state theory” under which local claims to territorial rights are made “conditional upon the satisfaction of a number of internal and external conditions.”2 That is, the metropole insists it cannot allow self-determination unless it is satisfied that the population seeking self-determination will set up political institutions that are to the liking of the central state. Similarly, colonialists might employ what John Ladd calls the “doctrine of moral disqualification.”3 This doctrine is employed when the in-group—in this case the central state’s ruling class—defines “the other” or out-group as moral inferiors, and whose backward ways disqualify them from “full membership in the moral community.”4 More importantly, as Eric Reitan puts it, those deemed to be outside the moral community “may thus be treated in ways that would never be permitted” to members of the moral in-group.5 Clearly,  under these conditions, morally defective separatists can hardly expect to gain much respect for their right to self-determination.

Other more mundane and practical considerations may play into the denial of self-determination as well. Supporters of empire tend to describe the colonized as incapable of self-rule on economic grounds. John Stuart Mill, a faux liberal and supporter of colonialism, described the colonies in this way: 

These [outlying possessions of ours] are hardly to be looked upon as countries, but more properly as outlying agricultural or manufacturing estates…. Our West Indian colonies, for example, cannot be regarded as countries with a productive capital of their own,… [but are rather] the place where England finds it convenient to carry on the production of sugar, coffee and a few other tropical commodities. All the capital employed is English capital.6 

Mill’s point was that the colonies function as mere frontiers of metropolitan Britain, and therefore not qualify for political independence. The maintenance of empire could thus be interpreted as a charitable act toward the locals who would presumably be impoverished without the capital and benevolence of the metropole. 

How American Anti-Secessionists Use Colonialist Tactics 

Notably, these same tactics are frequently used in a domestic political setting in the United States to oppose secession and self-determination for residents who speak in favor of “national divorce.”

For instance, opponents of so-called “red state” secession claim that any red state that breaks away from the central government will be impoverished and economically backward. Just as John Stuart Mill dismissed the conquered provinces as devoid of any productive capability of their own, many American anti-secessionists insist that breakaway red states would be, in the words of journalist Molly Knight, “a third world country” if the federal government “cut off that gravy train” of tax subsidies. Or as self-described “critical race theorist” Tim Wise puts it, red-state separatists would presumably end up “entirely broke,” adding “We subsidize y’all’s country asses.”

The math employed in this “analysis” is debatable and depends on how one counts up tax revenues and subsidies. In any case, a relatively lower level of productivity or income for a separatist region doesn’t render the residents’ rights of self-determination null and void. The rhetorical purpose of the comparison between rich and poor is nonetheless clear:  to portray the residents of the “red states” as economically backward and inferior. 

Moreover, as we can see in the quotations above from Reid and Weissmueller, modern anti-secessionists employ the “legitimate-state theory” and the “doctrine or moral disqualification” theory as used by imperialists to discredit secession and self-determination. By employing these arguments, the anti-secessionists are telling us separatists are incapable of legitimate self-government because the separatists would presumably either support or tacitly accept the abolition of countless freedoms and generally overturn the “enlightened” governance of the de facto metropole in Washington. Reid even claims—rather ridiculously—that separatist regions are likely to impose slavery within their new borders. 

No matter how exactly it is phrased, the message from opponents of secession and national divorce is clear: separatists must not be allowed to leave peacefully because they are either unwilling or incapable of legitimate or moral self-government. Rather, these separatists require the central regime to ensures the administration of enlightened and orderly government. It’s an old claim with a long pedigree among the imperial metropoles of old. Apparently, many people still fall for it. 

  • 1. Uma Narayan, “Colonialism and Its Others: Considerations on Rights and Care Discourses,” Hypatia 10, No. 2, (Spring, 1995): 133
  • 2. Lea Ypi, “What’s Wrong with Colonialism,”  Philosophy & Public Affairs, 41, No. 2 (Spring 2013): 168
  • 3. Karen Slawner, “Violence, Law, and Justice,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 20, No. 4 (Oct-Dec 1995):  474
  • 4. Eric Reitan, “Defining Terrorism for Public Policy Purposes: The Group-Target Definition,” in Global Justice and International Affairs, Thom Brooks, ed. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2012) p. 296
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, (London, UK: The Colonial Press, 1900) p. 200

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