Tag Archives: Vermont Commons

Book Review: Back to the Land by Dona Brown

When most people think of the “Back to the Land” movement, the image that generally comes to mind is of hippies retreating to rural communes in the early 1970s. However, in her new book entitled Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America, Dona Brown effectively shows how those back-to-the-landers were simply the latest manifestation of a very old American cultural tradition. As she powerfully demonstrates, the impulse to return to the land can be traced to the era when Americans first began to leave it for life in industrial cities.

A professor of history at the University of Vermont, Dr. Brown buttresses her narrative with numerous examples drawn from her extensive knowledge of the primary sources, beginning with the very first back to the land book. Published in response to the economic crisis of 1857, Ten Acres is Enough initiated a pattern that would continue for more than a century. In moments of crisis when unemployment became rife in the cities, many people came to see owning a farm as a powerful buffer against the vagaries of the market economy (in particular, the movement seems to have appealed to the higher echelons of blue collar workers and the lower middle class). In the time from the panic of 1893 to the First World War, the back to the land impulse became an actual movement, with powerful backers, several magazines, and an extensive number of published books.

The War and the prosperity of the 1920s moderated the movement’s goals and vision, but its radical side reemerged with a vengeance in the 1930s, when some aspects of it were incorporated into the New Deal. Partially in response to that institutionalization, a decentralist, alternative back to the land movement, which was very suspicious of the central government, also emerged during this period, centering in Vermont. This, in turn, laid the groundwork for Vermont to be one of the main stops for the subsequent generation’s own back to the landers.

Outlining in great detail the projects and personalities that characterized the back to the land movement over the course of the past century and a half, Dr. Brown’s book is not only a rich source of information about the past, but also casts many of the projects of the present in a new light. As her work demonstrates, things like food sovereignty and the local food movement exist are not wholly new developments, but descend from a long and venerable lineage. Even Vermont secession, which most contemporary advocates trace back to Frank Bryan’s work in the late 1980s, is shown to have reared its head in previous iterations (Vrest Orton, the founder of the still extant Vermont Country Store, was advocating a second Vermont republic as early as 1928). As such, this book is not only of great interest to those with an affinity for the history of social movements or of Vermont, but it is also essential reading for anyone involved in contemporary projects inspired by the back to the land spirit. Understanding the motivations and experiences of one’s intellectual ancestors is essential to fully comprehending the meaning of one’s own work, and Dr. Brown’s book is the best tool I’ve encountered for cultivating that consciousness. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Back to the Land!

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Political Decentralism, the Civil War, and the Significance of John Brown

In my time engaged in politically decentralist activism in general, and my work on Vermont independence in particular, I’ve noticed that it is very difficult to escape the long historical shadow cast by the Civil War. When considering the idea of using state sovereignty as a legitimate tool for resisting Federal abuses, the claim is often made that the issue was settled by the Civil War. The North (and thus centralized sovereignty) prevailed over the South (and distributed sovereignty) in 1865, and the question is thus closed.

Generally, this attitude is characterized by two key elements. The first is the concrete opinion that the Civil War functioned to cement America as “One Nation, Indivisible,” which is true, as far as it goes. In the years after the Civil War, the term “United States” morphed grammatically from plural to singular, and the balance of power between the Federal Government and the States has shifted continuously towards the former. However, though the aforementioned attitude is certainly descriptive of historical phenomena and trends, it is not, from a legal or moral standpoint, a valid argument against the legitimacy of the reassertion of a state’s sovereignty, up to and including its secession from the union. Rather, as has been argued persuasively and in great detail elsewhere, such principles as that of self-determination and the legitimacy of government being derived from the consent of the governed mean that subsidiary political units have the inalienable right to independence. Continue reading

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The Structure of Collapse

I came across this amazing article on the Vermont Commons blog, and was quite impressed.  It’s by Dmitry Orlov, the author of Reinventing Collapse (a book that, using the Soviet collapse as a model, develops a framework through which to understand the contemporary decline of the American Empire).  Aside from being quite insightful from both an economic and sociological perspective, it also has some absolutely fabulous quotes.  A few especially delicious excerpts:

The breakdown of public order would be particularly dangerous in the US, because of the large number of social problems that have been swept under the carpet over the years. Americans, more than most other people, need to be defended from each other at all times. I think that I would prefer martial law over complete and utter mayhem and lawlessness, though I admit that both are very poor choices.

 

The market mechanism works well in some cases, but it doesn’t work at all when key commodities become scarce. It leads to profiteering, hoarding, looting, and other pernicious effects. There is usually a knee-jerk reaction to regulate the markets, by imposing price controls, or by introducing rationing. I found it quite funny that the recent clamoring for re-regulating the financial markets was greeted with cries of “Socialists!” Failing at capitalism doesn’t make you a socialist, any more than getting a divorce automatically make you gay.

 

One thing that makes political collapse particularly hard to spot is that the worse things get, the more noise the politicians emit. The substance to noise ratio in political discourse is pretty low even in good times, making it hard to spot the transition when it actually drops to zero. The variable that’s easier to monitor is the level of political embarrassment. For instance, when Mr. Nazdratenko, the governor of the far-east Russian region of Primorye, stole large amounts of coal, made strides in the direction of establishing an independent foreign policy toward China, and yet Moscow could do nothing to reign him in, you could be sure that Russia’s political system was pretty much defunct.

 

In the US, there is a gradual surrender of sovereignty, as sovereign wealth funds buy up more and more US assets. That sort of thing used to be considered akin to an act of war, but these are desperate times, and they are allowed to do so without so much as a nasty comment. Eventually, they may start making political demands, to extract the most value out of their investments. For instance, they could start vetting candidates for public office, to make sure that we remain friendly to their interests.

 

the existence of finance and credit, of consumer society, and of government-imposed law and order has allowed society, in the sense of direct, mutual help and of freely accepting responsibility for each others’ welfare, to atrophy. This process of social decay may be less advanced in groups that have survived recent adversity: immigrant and minority groups, or people who served together in the armed forces. The instincts that underlie this behavior are strong, and they are what helped us survive as a species, but they need to be reactivated in time to create groups that are cohesive enough to be viable.

Ant there’s plenty more; check it out.

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Vermont Independence: What Binds Us Together

The movement for Vermont’s political independence draws support from across the political spectrum.  There are those on the left for whom Cuba and Venezuela provide their ideal models for an independent Vermont, and there are also those whose ideal post-independence scenario would put New Hampshire’s Free State Project to shame.  Between those two poles fall the vast majority of independence-minded Vermonters, but secession is not, fundamentally, a beast made purely of the left or the right.

Rather, the concept of secession is a screen upon which disenchanted Vermonters can project their political desires.  One may want a variant of state socialism while another desires a return to tight-knit communitarianism, but they share the belief that their hopes for a better future cannot be realized as citizens of the United States.  The reality is that our current political system precludes either individual from meaningful engagement within the political system.  It’s not merely that their visions might be rejected after a fair hearing; rather, in the modern American political system, they simply don’t exist.

Now, if that were the case for only Vermonters with the most extreme political views, the prospects for secession would be dim.  However, the vast majority of Americans actually have no political agency.  They’re led to believe they do through symbolic initiatives and issues that capture the public’s imagination by being given the focus of the mass media, but the serious decisions (how much should the currency be worth, should a war be pursued) are decided first in private.  If the nominal consent of the public is necessary, it is generated through a sustained public relations campaign (e.g. Colin Powell giving a slide-show before the invasion of Iraq), but for the most part people remain “blissfully” unaware that decisions that will profoundly effect their lives have been made at all.

As long as they believe their interests are being fairly represented through the American political system, most Vermonters won’t give secession a second thought.  However, we’re currently going through a crisis of enormous magnitude, and fissures in the comfortably authoritarian American national narrative are beginning to show.  The progressives who believed that the election of Barack Obama would create a just economic system and end American imperialism are beginning to see that, between the escalating war in Central Asia and the continuation of the “bailout the rich” regime, even the most “liberal” President will not create the society they desire.  Similarly, many conservatives who watched in horror as “their” President destroyed the remainders of free-market competition in the banking sector are getting the feeling that their Federal representatives aren’t, in fact, representing them at all.

It is for this concern that Vermont independence provides an answer, regardless of one’s political affiliation.  We’re citizens: we deserve a say.  The simple fact is that one individual cannot realistically represent 650,000 people (as the average Congressional Representative does).  Some smaller issues are decided by State legislatures that are far closer to the people, but the life and death decisions of war and monetary policy are made by people who generally feel more at home in Washington, DC than in the state they supposedly represent.  I grew up in DC, and went to high-school with the children of politicians and bureaucrats; their sense of home and community was among the Washington elites, not the places of origin of their parents.  This insularity of our national political elites does not bode well for the health of a representative republic.

In an independent Vermont, all important decisions would be made by people who actually represent their communities.  The size of Vermont’s legislative districts are small enough that legislators can be personally known by the people in their own communities, and can take their opinions into account when making laws.  It also means that if a fellow community member objects to the conduct of a legislator, he or she can mount an electoral challenge without having to prostitute himself for the hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars that are necessary to wage a state-wide political campaign.  In this way, all citizens, no matter their beliefs, can have a true say in the most vital national decisions.  Imagine if the Vermont legislature had to approve whether or not to send troops to Iraq in 2003; I’m sure the real consequences of that decision would have been more thoroughly debated.

This is the ultimate vision that can bind together the diverse supporters of Vermont independence.  It’s easy to fall into squabbling over what a post-independence Vermont would look like (ecotopia, libertarian republic, traditional agrarian community, socialist paradise), but we must remember that none of us can have any real influence in the current system.  Only by asserting our sovereignty and creating a human-scale republic can we begin the serious discussions and debates about the sort of world we want to live in, and by doing so finally don the mantle of Citizen.  Until then, ideological squabble amongst independence advocates amount to spitting in the wind as our futures are mapped out by nihilistic elites (from across the political spectrum) who don’t give a damn about us.  Free Vermont!

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An older essay.

A really excellent discussion on the Green Mountain Daily reminded me that I’d written this essay a while ago when I was thinking a lot about the role of history (and listening to a lot of Utah Phillips) in peoples’ identities.

*NOTE: This essay reflects my thinking a few months ago, and my own present beliefs are likely slightly different than those expressed by the self who wrote this essay.  It’s mostly me, though ;)*

*Fixed some typos and changed a bit of wording on 7/27/2009*

The Long Memory and the Philadelphia System

By Matthew Cropp

The late Wobbly folk musician U. Utah Phillips often commented that “the long memory is the most radical idea in America.” If, according to Phillips, we view history as one long stream rather than a series of independent crises, the way the world of the present appears profoundly shifts. The atrocities, movements, and swindles of the past cease to be isolated events to learn the “facts” of, and instead become integral pieces of our perception of the world we live in today. This view of our past fosters in people a sense of agency, as history becomes what is happening now rather than just what was happening then. History becomes something that people make happen, rather than something that happens to people.

However, this view of history is not embraced by modern American culture. Rather, as Phillips put it in a 2004 interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, “that long memory has been taken away from us…You haven’t got it in you schools. You’re not getting it on your television. You’re not getting it anywhere. You’re being leapfrogged from one crisis to the next…you can’t remember what happened last week, because you’re locked into this week’s crisis.”

One result of this process is that many people in our society have lost touch with the meaning of our political traditions. In today’s history classrooms, the objective lies in students’ ability to regurgitate predetermined rote facts, rather than in constructing ideas and forming insights. Thus, when our kids learn about the American government in school (a process that I experienced in the not too distant past), it becomes simply one more structure about which they must learn a list of facts. Just as this mindset applied universally alienates people from the historical process as a whole, applied specifically to our political traditions it alienates people from our government and civic institutions. It allows people to lose sight of the fact that they are structures which were created by real actors making profoundly historically impactful choices, whose intentions must be investigated and understood if we are to fully grasp the meaning of the world our ancestors built and we inhabit.

The American system (ultimately codified in the U.S. Constitution) was not crafted in a vacuum, but was profoundly influenced by the experiences and beliefs of its makers. These were worldly men who, looking to Europe, were profoundly aware of the many forms tyranny could take, and had put their lives on the line to gain independence in the Revolutionary War. It has become fashionable recently in “radical” historical circles to emphasize the conservative sides of the Revolution, including the retention of slavery, the restriction of the franchise, and the fortunes made by the founders. All these critiques are valid, but they do not negate the incredibly radical parts of the Revolution. In Emma Goldman’s early 20th century magazine Mother Earth, Voltarine de Cleyre described this radical side: “the real Revolution was a change in political institutions which should make government not a thing apart…but a serviceable agent, responsible, economical, and trustworthy (but never so much trusted as not to be continuously watched), for the transaction of such business as was the common concern, and to set the limits of the common concern at the line where one man’s liberty would encroach upon another’s.”

The founders had seen tyranny and wanted to craft a system that would preserve liberty. Not grant liberty, which they believed was inherent to the very nature of the human being, but prevent the development of tyrannical systems that would restrict peoples’ natural state of freedom. The Constitution and the American system must be interpreted with that intention in mind, and when it is, the call for Vermont’s independence transforms from a seemingly radical departure from the “American Way” into a rare gesture of deep respect to the intentions of America’s founders that have been increasingly forgotten as our people have been “leapfrogged from one crisis to the next.”

My own understanding of the intentions of the founders of the United States has been profoundly deepened by my recent chance encounter with an article entitled, “The Philadelphian system: sovereignty, arms control, and balance of power in the American states-union, circa 1787-1861”, by Daniel H. Deudney, while visiting a friend in New Haven, Connecticut. The article is as dense as its title is wordy, but after wading through it I emerged clutching a vital new concept, “negarchy”. Deudney defines negarchy as “the arrangement of institutions necessary to prevent simultaneously the emergence of hierarchy and anarchy”, and if this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. That’s because we were taught about this concept in American Government all those years ago, albeit with an incredibly important omission and a different name. It was termed “checks and balances”, and we learned of it as a horizontal division of power between the three branches of the Federal Government. Because of this, we were told, no one branch could gain supremacy over the other two, and as a result America was safe from tyranny.

Alas, that’s only half the story, according to Deudney: the intended checks and balances were not only horizontal but vertical. In addition to the tension between the branches of the Federal government, a system of tension was implemented between the Federal Government, the sovereign States, and the armed people. This network of vertically and horizontally distributed power was intended to create a system that could draw upon the whole network to defend itself from external threats, but would become horribly snarled up should any piece of it try to become internally hegemonic and tyrannical.

Deudney’s study ends appropriately in 1861; the year the Civil War began. The Civil War spelled the beginning of the end of the American experiment in negarchy as the sovereignty of the States was nullified by the Federal government through force of arms. By expropriating the States’ right the leave the Union, the Federal Government transformed the status of the State from equal to subservient to the Federal Government, and power and responsibility have been continuously flowing from State capitals to Washington ever since.

Many Americans justify their pride in our country by claiming that we have the best, freest system in the world. However, when looking at that system through the lens of the “long memory”, we must acknowledge that it has been slowly degenerating and is now far from what its founders intended. While people quarrel over whether or not the checks and balances within the Federal Government are deteriorating, they are usually blind to the very existence of the vertical checks, which have degraded to the point where any assertion of State sovereignty to counter Federal tyranny is considered either treasonous or absurd.

The degeneration of the American system is both discouraging and tragic, but for those of us with long memories, I believe working to help others to “remember” its intended role is a vital task. To do so would revive peoples’ sense of themselves as actors in the stream of history, and would bring legitimacy to the cause of utilizing Vermont’s state sovereignty as a method with which to resist our government’s economic and foreign policy shortsightedness and irrationality. A population with long memories would transform the independence movement from a fringe of the disaffected into a political and social force to be reckoned with. To accomplish this, I see a few ways forward. These tactics are by no means exhaustive, and many more can be found in the pages of the Vermont Commons.

In journalism and politics, we should endeavor to frame State/Federal relations as oppositional. When questioning candidates for State office, we should ask them what important powers the State of Vermont has and what they will do in their prospective roles as elected officials to prevent the Federal Government from encroaching upon them. If independence minded Vermonters decide to run for office, they should make the preservation and reclamation of State power from the Federal Government a cornerstone of their campaigns. At the moment people have been trained to view the relationship between the Federal Government and the States as that of master to servant; the Federal Government gives block grants to the States and the States administer them, changing their laws to conform to the various strings attached. The result is that all most people hear about is the two entities working together, and thus perceive that relationship to be the natural order of things. If an oppositional rather than cooperative relationship is regularly introduced into public discourse, the question of State versus Federal power might be reopened in many minds.

Such strategies might bring somewhat greater legitimacy to the independence platform in the short term by helping people to identify an erstwhile forgotten dynamic of the American system, but it will not, in and of itself, lay the foundation for a long-term shift in attitudes. What is needed to effect that is a wholesale revival of the Long Memory in the people of Vermont. The immediate gratification of working towards this might not be apparent for independence activists, as it will not instantly create roving bands of hard-line secessionists. Instead, it will foster individuals who can engage meaningfully with our past and see themselves as actors rather than as passive objects within the stream of history. As the number of people seeing history as a forward- rather than backward-looking process grows into a critical mass, the number of people willing to engage with the idea of secession within both the contexts past and present will expand concurrently. The task of convincing them that independence is the right answer for the present circumstances would remain, but folks with long memories would be able to listen to and consider the arguments rather than simply regurgitating the “fact” that the Civil War answered the question of secession and calling anyone who disputes that crazy. Until we can overcome the (all too common) latter mindset, the secession movement can never grow beyond a fringe because only a fringe of people are willing to honestly engage with the subject.

It’s easy to abstractly call for a revival of historical consciousness in the whole population of a State, but how might we accomplish it? Most people don’t have the time or resources to become professional historians, and those who identify as historians seem to spend far more time uncovering esoteric historical minutiae and debating amongst themselves than they do spreading an appreciation of history to the larger society. As such, people who want to see a revival of the long memory shouldn’t look for much guidance from on high in the ivory tower, but should instead begin the process of reconstructing the pasts of the institutions of their daily lives.

A brief example of what I mean can be found in my workplace, which was unionized at some point in the 1980s. Our contract came up for negotiation this year, and we realized that, as a group, we couldn’t even remember the nature of our proposals to management from when the previous contract was negotiated a mere three years ago. We did a bit of digging and talked to the old representative, and gradually got a sense for what has transpired in previous negotiations. In the process, we as a group got a feel for where the organization has been, what how it has changed over time, and what sorts of struggles have emerged again and again. As a result of this process, our perception of our union deepened, and our negotiations were re-framed from a wrangle over the conditions of the moment to one more event in a long historical continuum that has many past parallels. The difference between this mindset and the mindset which can engage with the call for independence is merely one of scale; the processes are virtually identical.

I therefore call upon all independence minded Vermonters to begin the process of reclaiming the past in their own lives. Start remembering where your work, union, church, school, and family have come from, and share that process with those with whom you share those institutions. In the short term, the benefits are great, as knowing the origins of the things in your life can profoundly deepen your understanding of both those things themselves, as well as your relationship to them. In the long term, however, the benefits are even greater. In the process of providing the opportunity for those around you to understand their history, you’ll be helping to rebuild a responsible, thoughtful citizenry who can honestly and competently engage with the deep crises facing our crumbling Republic.

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My letter to the editor published in Vermont Commons

Vermont Commons, our state’s independent-minded state-wide newpaper, has just published a letter to the editor that I wrote in support of the Bank Users Strike.  The next month should be an exciting month for the bank users strike, as we gear up to really get the word out over the course of the summer.  In the next few weeks we will likely be having some actions against TARP and AIG bailout beneficiaries, and will be announcing a meeting soon to plan out some strategies for the next few months.  In the meantime, please sign the bank users strike pledge if you havn’t already.  Every person who joins is one less person whose hard-earned savings are subsidizing the banks that have been blackmailing our political leaders and undermining the sustainability of our economy.

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9/28/2008 ASftR – Thomas Naylor Interview

The whole interview:

Naylor on Bush and the price of gold:

Naylor on Vermont secession and the ways it could be used to shield Vermonters from the National Debt:

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