In Favor of Small States – Are Meganations too Big to Succeed?

by Bill Benzon

One of the most interesting effects of the Trump presidency has been the response various cities and states have had to the Trump administration’s blindness to global warming: They have decided to bypass the federal government and go their own way on climate policy, even to the point of dealing with other nations. Thus Bill McKibben states, in “The New Nation-States”:

The real test will come in September next year, when “subnational” governments from around the world gather in California to sign the “Under2 MOU,” an agreement committing them to uphold the Paris targets. Launched in 2015 by California and the German state of Baden-Württemberg, the movement now includes everyone from Alsace to Abruzzo to the Australian Capital Territory; from Sichuan to Scotland to South Sumatra; from Manchester City to Madeira to Michoacán. Altogether: a billion people, responsible for more than a third of the world’s economic output. And every promise they make, sincere or not, provides climate activists with ammunition to hold each government accountable.

Moreover, the number of articles reporting on the weakening of the nation-state as a form of government seems on the rise – I link to a number of them at my home blog, New Savanna.


Thomas H. Naylor, September 14, 2012

This would not be surprising to the late Thomas Naylor, a scholar and activist who taught economics at Duke University, Middlebury College, and the University of Vermont and who, as a consultant, advised major corporations and governments in over 30 countries. Naylor believed that nations such as the United States were too large to govern effectively and so should devolve into several smaller states. I am presently working with his estate to edit a selection of his papers and am reprinting one of them below. He completed it on December 3, 2012, a few days before he died from a stroke.

Secession Fever Spreads Globally

We should devote our efforts to the creation of numerous small principalities throughout the world, where people can live in happiness and freedom. The large states… must be convinced of the need to decentralize politically in order to bring democracy and self-determination into the smallest political units, namely local communities, be they villages or cities.
–Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein, The State in the Third Millennium

Since the re-election of Barack Obama on November 6, 2012, over one million Americans have signed petitions on a White House website known as “We the People” calling for the secession of their respective states from the Union. Contrary to the view expressed by many politically correct liberals, this is not merely a knee-jerk, racist reaction of some Tea Party types to the re-election of Obama, but rather it is part of a well-defined trend. Today there are, in fact, 250 self-determination, political independence movements in play worldwide including nearly 100 in Europe alone, over 70 in Asia, 40 in Africa, 30 or so in North America, and 15 to 20 scattered on various islands scattered around the world. We could be on the brink of a global secession pandemic!

We live in a meganation world under the cloud of Empire, the American Empire. Fifty-nine percent of the people on the planet now live in one of the eleven nations with a population of over one hundred million people. These meganations in descending order of population size include China, India, USA, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia, Japan, and Mexico. Extending the argument one step farther, we note that twenty-five nations have populations in excess of 50 million and that seventy-three percent of us live in one of those countries.

Most of these meganations have highly centralized relatively undemocratic governments such as is the case with the United States, China, and Russia. The United States is an autocracy disguised as a democracy but controlled by Wall Street, Corporate America, and various foreign interests. While pretending to be a democracy, the U.S. engages in the rendition of terrorist suspects, prisoner abuse and torture, the suppression of civil liberties, citizen surveillance, full spectrum dominance, and imperial overstretch. Its president has even granted himself the authority to order the assassination of anyone, anywhere, anytime, with no questions asked, no trial, no due process – just pure law of the jungle.

In addition, since the end of World War II a plethora of highly centralized, undemocratic international megainstitutions have evolved to deal with such issues as national security, peacekeeping, international finance, economic development, and international trade. They include the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and NATO. What these institutions have in common is not that they are too big to fail, rather they are too big to fix.

No doubt the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the breakup of Yugoslavia have contributed to the self-determination dynamic in Europe. Active separatist movements can now be found in Bavaria, Belgium, Bulgaria, England, Italy, Lapland, Poland, Romania, Scotland, and Spain. The situation has been exacerbated by the stagnant European economy, the fall of the euro, and increasing doubts about the European Union itself.

Scotland (U.K.), Flanders (Belgium), and Catalonia (Spain) are the most high-profile self-determination movements in Europe. The Scottish National Party has called for a 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Recent elections in Catalonia provided additional momentum for a near-term referendum on Catalan self-determination. Last year Belgium went 535 days without a properly elected leader because of the toxicity in the relationship between the wealthier Dutch-speaking Flanders majority and the poorer French-speaking Flemish minority.

In Asia Bangladesh, China, Myanmar (twelve), India, Indonesia, Japan, and Pakistan all have political independence movements. Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang are the best known self-determination movements in China. Kurdish separatists can be found in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. Indonesia granted East Timor its independence several years ago and also reached an agreement with Aceh which led to its dropping its claim for self-determination and eventually resulted in its dissolution. India is also awash with separatist movements even though secession is illegal there.

Hundreds of African tribes are trying to shake off artificial boundaries imposed on them by nineteenth-century European colonialism. Igbo, Ijaw, Ogani, and Yoruba are all separatist movements located in Nigeria. Sudan recently split into two parts.

For reasons which are not entirely clear, there seems to be less interest in Latin America in self-determination and political independence than in any other part of the world. Although there are a half dozen or so separatist movements in Brazil such as the City of São Paulo, the United States of Northeast, and Rio Grande do Sul, one does not have the impression that any of these groups are going anywhere. The one exception to the rule in Latin America is the Zapatista movement in the State of Chiapas in Mexico, the poorest state in the country. Since the 1990s, under the leadership of subcommandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), the Zapatistas have sought to transform Chiapas into an autonomous self-governing region which supports the political rights of Mexico’s native Indian population.

After a near-miss in its 1995 referendum to achieve independence from Canada, the Quebec separatist movement fell into the doldrums for over 15 years. However, in September 2012 the Parti Québécois won a victory of sorts in the Quebec provincial election and was able to put together a weak coalition government. The stability of the new government remains somewhat in doubt. There are also self-determination movements in Alberta and British Columbia.

As for the United States, for over twenty years I have argued that it was too big to manage and should be broken up. On October 9, 1990, three years before I moved to Vermont, the Bennington Banner published my piece entitled “Should the U.S. Be Downsized?” In 1997 William H. Willimon and I published Downsizing the U.S.A., which called for Vermont independence, and the peaceful dissolution of the American Empire. We argued that not only was the U.S. government too big, but that it had become too centralized, too powerful, too undemocratic, too militaristic, too imperialistic, too materialistic, and too unresponsive to the needs of individual citizens and small communities. However, since we were in the midst of the greatest economic boom in history, few Americans were interested in downsizing anything. The name of the game was “up, up, and away.” Only bigger and faster were thought to be better.

Prior to September 11, 2001, my call for Vermont self-determination and dissolution of the Empire fell mostly on deaf ears. It was as though I were speaking to an audience of one, namely myself. But George W. Bush’s ill-conceived, myopic, militaristic response to 9/11 created a window of opportunity to broach the subject of Vermont independence with left-leaning libertarians who might be receptive to the idea. Against the backdrop of the 2003 war with Iraq, we launched the Second Vermont Republic on October 11, 2003.

The Second Vermont Republic is a nonviolent citizens’ network and think tank committed to (1) the peaceful breakup of meganations such as the United States, Russia, and China; (2) the political independence of breakaway states such as Quebec, Scotland, and Vermont; and (3) a strategic alliance with other small, democratic, nonviolent, affluent, socially responsible, cooperative, egalitarian, sustainable, ecofriendly nations such as Austria, Finland, and Switzerland which share a high degree of environmental integrity and a strong sense of community.

There are four reasons why supporters of SVR want to secede: First, the U.S. Government has lost its moral authority. It is owned, operated, and controlled by Wall Street, Corporate America, and the Likud Government of Israel. Second, the U.S. is unsustainable economically, environmentally, socially, morally, and politically. Third, it is too big to govern as is illustrated by Congressional gridlock. Fourth, it is, therefore, unfixable. Few Vermonters are enthralled by a White House that is obsessed with drones, death squads, F-35s, and kill lists.

By the time George W. Bush left office in 2009, there were at least 30 separatist movements in the United States. No doubt the secession petition drive has injected new life into all of these self-determination movements. The secession petition for Texas alone contains over 120,000 signatures. A dozen or so of the state petitions have over 25,000 signatures, the number required to trigger a White House response.

Could it be that Americans have not only rediscovered the right of self-determination but also the American Declaration of Independence as well? “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive…it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government.” Alteration and abolishment include the right to disband, or subdivide, or withdraw, or create a new government.

So how is it possible that on the one hand there are nearly a dozen highly centralized meganations whose populations are spiraling upwards, while simultaneously over 250 self-determination movements worldwide aspire to split off from megastates such as China, India, Russia, and the United States?

Strange as it may seem, the field of thermodynamics may shed some light on the issue, notwithstanding the fact that I considered it to be the most obscure subject I ever studied when I was a student in the Columbia University School of Engineering back in the late 1950s.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, heat will always flow only from a hotter object to a colder object. More generally, the direction of spontaneous change in isolated systems of all sorts is always toward maximum disorder. This concept is known as entropy. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that large, highly centralized, undemocratic nations such as the United States, China, Russia, and India are starting to come unglued at the seams and will eventually descend into chaos.

The economic, financial, social, and political implications of all of this disorder could prove to be staggering. It could also unleash an unprecedented burst of freedom, energy, creativity, and productivity.

We are truly entering unchartered waters. Past trends are meaningless. There are no books or articles available to tell one how to navigate one’s ship through the turbulence created by a sea of secession movements.