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If at First You Don’t Secede …

Progressive eyes rightly have been transfixed on Wisconsin of late, with the en masse display of “people power” directly confronting attempts to erode public infrastructure and eviscerate the leverage of collective bargaining that so many have struggled for over the decades.

Progressive eyes rightly have been transfixed on Wisconsin of late, with the en masse display of “people power” directly confronting attempts to erode public infrastructure and eviscerate the leverage of collective bargaining that so many have struggled for over the decades. Coming on the heels of popular uprisings in Egypt and across the region, and with the potential for an ensuing general strike in the offing if austerity measures persist, the “Whisky Rebellion” has captured the imagination of workers and activists, spawning solidarity actions around America and inspiring people in other states to push back against comparable right-wing machinations.

Arizona has been no exception, as hundreds gathered in Phoenix recently to show their support for protesters in Wisconsin and to voice their displeasure at similar policies in their midst. If there’s another state in the union with a competing claim to be the frontline of reactionary politics gone haywire, it is surely Arizona. Beset by invidious legislation and a decimated economy, among other issues, the nascent “failed state” ethos that has taken hold in the desert is escalating even as the leading edge of a people’s movement begins to push back half a continent away. While Phoenix bears little overt resemblance to Madison, either geographically or politically, the national assault on sane governance compels us to explore the linkage.

For sheer temerity, the Grand Canyon State remains unparalleled in its monumental ruination. Following the international debacle that was SB 1070 and the national tragedy of the Tucson massacre, the state legislature has been hard at work to eliminate the vestiges of the public health care system, deny organ transplants to dying patients, cut educational spending to the bone and pass titanic corporate tax cuts at the same time. Perhaps even more shockingly, with the Safeway shootings still fresh in the populace’s mind, the legislature is now advancing a bill to adopt an official state gun, namely, the Colt Single Action Army revolver. Nero may have famously fiddled while Rome burned, but Arizona is close to one-upping him.

As if to reinforce the audacity of hopelessness that has become the state’s nouveau calling card, Arizona’s right-wing supermajority is poised to pass Senate Bill 1433, which essentially allows the state legislature to choose which federal laws it will follow. The measure reads like a convoluted law school exam response to a question about constitutional arcana, and contains a number of thinly-veiled secessionist provisions that hark back to antebellum days – perhaps unsurprising, since Arizona was the only western territory to support the slaveholding states and, obviously, has its own sordid, racialized history to grapple with in the present as well. Following a failed attempt to pass it through the state Senate, the measure was resurrected and passed when three Republicans switched their votes; it is now before the state House and then potentially on to the governor. The bill would create a 12-person Joint Legislative Committee on Nullification of Federal Laws to “recommend, propose and call for a vote by simple majority to nullify in its entirety a specific federal law or regulation that is outside the scope of the powers delegated by the People to the federal government in the United States Constitution.”

In addition to the power to effectively nullify federal laws, among SB 1433’s problematic provisions are the notion that Arizona “specifically rejects and denies any expanded authority that the federal government may attempt to enforce”; that “the Congress and the federal government are denied the power to establish laws within this state that are repugnant and obtrusive to state law and to the people in this state”; that “Congress and the federal government are denied the power to bind the states under foreign statute or case law other than those provisions duly ratified by the Congress as a treaty”; that “no authority has ever been given to the legislative branch, the executive branch or the judicial branch of the federal government to preempt state legislation”; and that “this act serves as a notice and demand to the Congress and the federal government to cease and desist all activities outside the scope of their constitutionally designated powers.”

This is all driven in part by the federal government’s lawsuit to block implementation of SB 1070, which was enjoined in large measure by a federal judge last summer, as well as hyperbolic reactions to the new health care law as reflected in State Senate President Russell Pearce’s recent remarks: “If we don’t take back our sovereign ability for the states to control the federal government, I guess we have no right to complain. I guess ‘Obamacare’ is OK for you.” The archconservative cadre that has been ruling Arizona like a feudal fiefdom in recent years is likewise bound up with a national effort to promote “divide and conquer” policies, anti-public and anti-worker austerity measures and odious laws aimed at marginalized populations. What we’ve been waking up to coming out of Wisconsin is perhaps the first large-scale salvo in confronting this neofascist narrative and invigorating a popular uprising against its worst abuses – many of which continue to be plied in the trial-balloon case study that is Arizona.

In an attempt to expose the disingenuousness and stem the tide of nativist separatism, an amendment to SB 1433 was offered (and, of course, defeated) that would have taken secession to its next logical level by allowing localities to absent themselves from being ruled by the state legislature itself, as described by the Arizona Republic:

“Some southern Arizonans have had enough of the state Legislature’s efforts this year to assert its state sovereignty. Sen. Paula Aboud, D-Tucson, proposed an amendment Thursday that would have allowed Pima County to secede from the state. The amendment was attached to a Republican state sovereignty bill that would allow the Legislature to pick and choose which federal laws it will follow…. Aboud said her amendment was intended to be as ridiculous as she believes the underlying bill to be. ‘But while this is tongue-in-cheek, I can’t tell you the overwhelming support I’m getting from southern Arizona to secede,’ Aboud said. ‘We don’t want to be part of a state that continues to embarrass Arizona.'”

A recent article in the Arizona Daily Star soberly reports that a group has formed specifically to promote the notion of establishing a 51st state, to be called “Baja Arizona,” comprised of over a million people within territorial boundaries larger than seven existing US states:

“A political committee made up of attorneys, including the former chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party, has been formed to try to get Southern Arizona to secede from the rest of the state. Start Our State, which is asking other like-minded counties to join the effort, hopes to put the question before Pima County voters in 2012…. Paul Eckerstrom, co-chair of Start Our State, said it’s not a ploy and not merely a political statement. He said the state Legislature has gone too far to the right. In particular, a round of legislative measures challenging federal supremacy ‘really does border on them saying they don’t want to be part of the Union any longer,’ he said.”

Against the backdrop of this political theater, we might also consider the concrete implications. Secession may have its virtues, and there are locales in America (both left and right) that resemble de facto “micro-republics” in terms of cultural, legal or other forms of normative resistance. From the nonviolent, anti-corporate Second Vermont Republic movement to the Bay Area’s Oaksterdam district that flouts federal marijuana laws, there are a plethora of nascent initiatives aimed at reasserting more localized governance in the face of a perceived creeping authoritarianism. Many such efforts originate on the political right and not a few are bound up with militia-type movements that promote a literal call to arms, among other aims.

While the seductive logic of “local control” may have an appeal across the political spectrum, it is equally the case that recent history has not been particularly kind to “breakaway republics,” from Chechnya to Quebec. Nation-states are notoriously territorial and often seek to expand their domains rather than contract them. The fall of the former Soviet Union and the demise of Yugoslavia opened up the prospect of new states being created, and secessionist movements can be found on every continent and within the borders of most nations. A 2008 Zogby poll found that one-fifth of Americans surveyed were in support of the right of state secession from the federal union, but no such formal declaration has been proffered since the Civil War. Arizona’s implicit statement via SB 1433 may serve to change that in the days ahead.

A primary issue with the Arizona-style attempt to secede is its blatant hypocrisy, as the rejected Baja Arizona amendment illustrates. When SB 1070 was due to take effect, a number of cities around the state (including Tucson) voted to support lawsuits against the measure and to resist implementing its most draconian provisions. Ironically, SB 1070 contained language requiring municipalities and individuals to fully enforce the law, including among its leverage points the potential to be sued by any citizen if a given locale’s anti-immigration enforcement was deemed to be less than robust. The prospective “slippery slope” of secession – in which continually smaller units of affiliation declare their independence from larger ones – is forestalled by the apparent desire of a faction at the state level simply to consolidate their power and enjoy a “free hand” to impose apartheid policies and severe austerity measures that are immunized against contestation either from above or below.

In this sense, the real problem with secession is its ready cooptation as a tool of tyranny, akin to the “we don’t need no stinkin’ badges” rationalization of justice blithely denied. A better conception would be to shift the terms of the discussion to “autonomy” instead, indicating the essential notion of individuals and communities retaining the inherent power to adopt measures of self-governance particular to their scalar needs. Whereas secession can be perverted as a clandestine attempt to impose authoritarian rule on a homegrown level, autonomy as a political concept is more often associated with grassroots governance, local production, self-sufficiency and the celebration of diversity. In essence, it is a communitarian ethic that validates the capacity of individuals to determine the conditions of their lives.

As America wakes up to the possibility of a popular uprising moving to meet the steady interposition of autocratic rule, we would do well to revisit the larger implications and burgeoning aims of such a movement as it struggles to take hold. Arizona provides us (yet again) with a cautionary tale, even as Wisconsin offers a ray of optimism and a potential blueprint for meaningful contestation. If we can manage to go one step further and view all of this through the lens of a widening global referendum on the right of “the people” to define the future – rather than swallowing the prepackaged version delivered by militarists and industrialists around the globe – we may someday look back on this as the pivotal moment when Americans were finally impelled to join the rest of the world in confronting a harsh reality from which we are often well-shielded in our relative abundance and willing pacification.

It’s morning again in America, and the alarm bell is sounding. From Madison to Phoenix, may we heed its call and rise to meet the challenge of deciding for ourselves what the new day will bring.

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