Brexit: Dividing the Indivisible

The EU and the Union flags fly outside The European Commission Representation in the United Kingdom in central London January 23, 2013. Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron promised on Wednesday to give Britons a referendum choice on whether to stay in the European Union or leave if he wins an election in 2015, placing a question mark over Britain's membership for years. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3CU5J

REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

In his first Inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln explained his moral justification for invading the Southern States. Plainly, he said, “the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.” He reasoned that if a State can lawfully secede from the Union, so can a part of that part and a part of that part, on down to one individual and the dissolution of all political authority. This was a stock argument deduced from what philosopher Michael Oakeshott called the idea of a modern European state. In this kind of state political order requires a central authority conceived of as an artificial corporation vested with plenary power over individuals in a territory. Thomas Hobbes (1651) was the first to describe the modern state as an artificial man.

What is peculiar about this sort of state, whether liberal, socialist, communist, or fascist, is that it frowns on independent social authorities within its borders such as an independent church, an order of nobility, tribes, free cities, provinces, independent educational institutions, independent banking, an independent currency, and the like. As a practical matter, the modern state must tolerate some of these, but its disposition is to eliminate them if possible, or more likely to draw their teeth by incorporating (and co-opting) them as agencies of central power.

This disposition to total control by hollowing out independent social authorities is a feature of all modern states whether liberal, socialist, communist, or fascist. Although people enjoy considerable liberty in modern liberal states, those states have a political infrastructure that is potentially totalitarian and which can be activated quickly should the occasion arise and the right ruling class is in power.

What binds the modern state together and what endows it with a potentially totalitarian power is the myth that it is indivisible,” which means secession of any of the independent social authorities within its borders must be absolutely forbidden. The opposite of the modern state is the ancient Greek republic and the federative polities of the middle ages. Greek civilization was made up of some 1,500 tiny republics strung out along the Aegean Sea, as Plato said, like frogs around a pond. The largest polity of any of these republics was perhaps 200 thousand people but most were much smaller.

The medieval world was composed of thousands of independent political units: kings, principalities, free cities, dukedoms, the papacy, bishoprics, republics. One of the largest cities in1490 was London with only about 70,000. The great cathedrals were built in cities often with less than 10 thousand people. We owe a great debt to both the civilization of ancient Greece and that of Christendom. Yet in neither civilization was there an authority having plenary power over individuals. The Renaissance was also a period of hundreds of small independent political units. Florence was a leader in the Renaissance with around 60,000 people.

This highly decentralized world of small polities, held together in larger kingdoms by compacts, was destroyed by the spread of the modern state idea. Germany, which as late as 1700 was composed of over 200 small free cities and principalities, would be crushed by the time of Hitler into a highly centralized state of 70 million. These centralized monster states were justified on the grounds that they provided peace and economic prosperity. That is an illusion. Small states through international trade are usually in the top ten of the most prosperous states. Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek thought that liberty in the future would best flourish in small states.

It is true that small states often had wars with each other. But these were generally limited affairs compared to the global wars and totalitarian tyrannies of modern monster states such as Germany, Russia, Italy, France, Britain and the United States. Prior to the modern state, which emerged with the French Revolution, princes were hedged in by a mosaic of powerful independent social authorities who could resist. The prince could not, for example, order universal conscription nor impose an income tax. The modern state has gradually hollowed out most of those independent social authorities. It is endowed with a population in the tens and even hundreds of millions. It can order universal conscription, impose an income tax, and controls the money supply. The result has been war on an unprecedented scale and intensity. The French Republic that emerged from the French Revolution was the first to declare itself a republic, one and “indivisible.”

In 1793, it was the first to order universal military conscription. As a result the French armies were larger and could be more aggressive because they could take more casualties. A new conscription could always be ordered to replenish the ranks. The centralized modern French state rolled over the outdated monarchs of Europe. By the time Napoleon was stopped, the French had run through some 3 million men. The age of the republican citizen as cannon fodder had begun.

European states resisted by imitating the worst features of French centralization, as did Lincoln and the Republican Party. Lincoln’s invasion of the South is judged by some historians to be the first modern war; that is the first in which, as a matter of policy, war turned on civilians. The French philosopher Bertrand De Jouvenel called it a war such as Europe had never yet seen.

Monster European states, with their massive centralization of resources and power, took to conquering the world. But they proved allergic to each other. And so came World Wars I and II, and the Cold War. The legacy of the modern state has not been peace and prosperity but war and totalitarian regimes. It is true that prosperity has existed in modern states, but that is, for the most part, in spite of the modern state not because of it.

This massive concentration of power was possible because each state was “indivisible;” that is, no independent social authority which happened to survive within it was capable of limiting its power by leaving. Yet there was no limit to the modern state’s size. It could expand but could not be divided. It could acquire new territory and rule new people within it, but no people within could leave and take their territory with them. The state is “one and indivisible.”

The sacred bonds of marriage can be broken and the parties separate, but not the sacred bond of state “indivisibility.” But to say the state is “indivisible” is to treat it as an end in itself and not as a fallible instrument for human flourishing. Or to say the state is” indivisible” is to treat it as a divinity because nothing made by mortal man is “indivisible,” and most especially nothing political.

But the twilight of the modern state seems to be setting. Although there were intimations of the modern state in seventeenth century monarchs, it first appears in the French Revolution. It was theorized at a time when people thought in terms of absolute time and space and the indivisible atom. These are archaic terms. People no longer think space and time are absolute, nor that the atom is indivisible, nor that the state is “indivisible.” These terms today put one in mind of the powdered wigs and stockings of those who framed them.

For two centuries the people of modern states have had to say a prayer to the indivisibility of the state. The American pledge of allegiance to the “flag” of “one nation, indivisible” is such a prayer. Good people will disagree with me and say it is merely a patriotic gesture, and one we owe to our country. But I fear they miss its real meaning. It is a prayer to the idol of the modern state, for there is nothing unpatriotic in acknowledging that a regime of continental scale composed of 50 sovereign states could be, and under certain conditions, ought to be divided in some fashion. To deny this is to pledge allegiance to a self-centralizing regime that can define the limits of its own power and which rules some 320 million people.

Whether, and in what way, it should ever be divided is a question of political prudence. But that thought is ruled out absolutely in the pledge (or rather prayer) to the idol of state indivisibility. It is significant that the pledge began in Massachusetts to revive Northern nationalism which was flagging after the War of 1861-65. It was first instituted in New England schools and gradually worked itself into all the States. Significantly, it was not approved by Congress until 1942 after the United States had plunged into the largest war in history.

But after two centuries of dominance around the world as the state religion, allegiance to the modern state has diminished. In 1991 the” indivisible” Soviet Union dissolved by the relatively peaceful secession of fifteen states. East Germany seceded from the Warsaw Pact and joined Germany. Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Serbia divided by secession of the polities that had been bound by the chains of indivisibility.  The Lega Nord is a secession party that has flourished for decades in Lombardy, Italy. Venice recently voted, by a large margin, to secede from Italy. Catalonia voted to secede from Spain and the Basque region has long sought independence. The Flemings and Waloons in Belgium debate secession. A party in Corsica has floated the idea of seceding from France and becoming a canton of Switzerland. Scotland came within a hair’s width of seceding from Britain in 2014. And Britain itself just seceded from the European Union. Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland might well secede and join the European Union or remain independent.

There came a time when people were no longer cowed by talk of the divine right of kings. Today they are no longer cowed by the mantra of state indivisibility. The Soviet Union’s anthem sang of the indestructibility of the Soviet Union, but in 1991 it vanished like morning mist. Fortunately for the Soviet people they were ruled by the Gorbachev’s Communist Party and not Lincoln’s Republican Party. Otherwise there would have been a bloodbath to prevent the “anarchy” of secession.

But there was no anarchy. Nor did anarchy break out when the American colonies seceded from Britain (something the British predicted), nor when Norway seceded from Sweden in 1905; nor when Singapore seceded from the Malaysian Federation in 1965; nor when Belgium seceded from the Netherlands in the 1830s.

Of course anarchy could follow secession, but it rarely does. Indeed, secession usually invigorates the seceding party as well as the regime from which it withdrew. America secession taught Britain some good lessons and strengthened its identity and place in the world. In the history of modern states, it is the violence needed to suppress secession that yields anarchy, the anarchy of civil war. In most cases the people have given their consent to secede; so a war to prevent secession will be especially bloody because violence must be exercised against the people themselves which is what Lincoln had to do to preserve “indivisibility” and save America from anarchy.

But the paradigm of “indivisibility” no longer has the grip on the minds of people it once had, and this cannot but force on us a rethinking of Lincoln’s war to suppress secession. That war resulted in the deaths of around a million people if civilians and uprooted and displaced slaves are counted. The invasion of the South was launched, as Lincoln and Congress repeatedly said, not to free slaves but to prevent secession, the “essence” of which, Lincoln said, is “anarchy.” This was and is absurd. There is no reason to think that a negotiated separation of the Confederate States of America from and the United States would lead to anarchy in either federation.

Once free of the archaic philosophic superstition of “indivisibility,” we can view the South’s secession in a new light. Southern States called conventions of their sovereign people to vote up or down an ordinance of secession, the same convention that authorized entrance into the Union. As Nobel Laureate James Buchanan once said, “ease of entrance legitimates ease of exit.” The Southern States recalled their senators and representatives and sent commissioners to Washington to negotiate the terms of a peaceful separation.

Lincoln refused to see them, wrapping himself in the modern myth of state “indivisibility.” Lord Acton, at the time, called Lincoln’s invasion “an awful crime.” Americans have yet to confront the unpleasant truth of Acton’s judgment. The reason they have not is that for over a century our nationalist historians have written history in such a way as to make it difficult to confront it. They have written history this way because the structure of their inquiry and research is constrained and guided by the control belief of “indivisibility.”

That belief today is no longer credible, not because it has been refuted—it was refuted in its first appearance by such philosophers as Johannes Althusius (1563-1638) and David Hume (1711-1176)—but for the more devastating reason that it is becoming boring.

About Donald Livingston

Donald Livingston is the founder of the Abbeville Institute and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Emory University. Livingston received his doctorate at Washington University in 1965. He has been a National Endowment Independent Studies fellow and a fellow for the Institute of Advanced Studies in the humanities at the University of Edinborough. He has been on the editorial board of Hume Studies and Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. Livingston's books include Hume's Philosophy of Common Life and Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. More from Donald Livingston

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