Secession or Divestment? Or Both?

Further to Orin’s secession post below.  For reasons I won’t try to go into now, I don’t think there is a right to secede as a matter of US Constitutional law; I think Lincoln’s arguments in the First Inaugural are persuasive and, moreover, endorsed in blood by the Civil War, and even if one can reconstruct an alternative history based around antebellum thought, it is just that, alternative history.

Anderson, in the comments to Orin’s post, refers to the secession discussion in Dan Farber’s book on Lincoln, and is right to do so – it is an excellent discussion.  My views on that can be found in my review of that and a bunch of early 2000s books on Lincoln and the Civil War in the TLS, at SSRN.  The most interesting part of all that to me remains the transition from the First Inaugural to the Second Inaugural, and the understanding of war and the ethics of war that shape the transition from one to the other.  (Sometime when the current 200th anniversary glut of Lincoln books is past, I’d like to take up that theme, having done most of the work already.)

The part of the Second Inaugural that seems to me the ethically deepest and most understudied is not the issue of slavery as such.  It is instead how Lincoln seeks to thread a path between the moral relativism that might be implied by the remark that each side prays to the same God and reads the same Bible, on the one hand, but his insistence we will “finish the work we are in,” including the prospect of more bloody battles on the way to victory, and the implication of a moral absolutism justifying whatever winning, Union, and the expiation of slavery might require, on the other.  Threading between moral relativism and moral absolutism in the Second Inaugural has always seemed to me the most contemporary and ethically profound moral issue of the Second Inaugural.

The thought I would add to Orin’s secession post below, however, is quite different.  It is that when I look back over the various civil wars and internal armed conflicts I have observed relatively closely, as a human rights monitor, what is framed as secession would, in important instances, probably be better understand as a wish for divestment that turns into secession.

The Yugoslav war of succession, as it were, in no small part got going from a general, widespread, pronounced, and ever-deepening dissatisfaction within Slovenia and Croatia that they were subsidizing both Albanian Kosovo and a deepening internal conflict as Yugoslavia (effectively Serbia) sought to maintain control over Kosovo and, to a lesser extent, Macedonia.  In the mid to late 1980s, covering the place for Human Rights Watch, I had many, many, many conversations with Slovenes in the civil society organizations for whom their “anti-militarism” and “new social movements” were really a rejection of sending their young men to serve in what they already understood as an army of occupation in Kosovo.  They also resented bitterly the idea that they were economically supporting the much, much poorer ethnically Albanian regions of Yugoslavia – and were increasingly unhappy at the idea of taking in the ethnic Albanians who both sought political asylum but also sought the better (welfare) conditions in Slovenia.

Slovenes and later Croats were blunt with me in saying that they weren’t so much interested in “seceding” as in “divesting” themselves of regions that, between poverty and ethnic conflict, were dragging them down.  They just wanted to be good Europeans, and didn’t want to be caught up in the ethnic conflicts between Serbs and Albanians.  It turned into wars of secession in the cases of both Slovenia and Croatia – but I would say the most accurate description was that they started out wanting to divest themselves of the economic drags on their societies.  The tone of those conversations with all those then-young civil society activists, feminists, environmentalists, anti-nukers, peaceniks – they wanted to be involved in every Western social movement that did not involve anything concerning the deep conflicts that would shortly ripen into war in their own Yugoslav society.

A hug for every tree on the planet, that is, but scarcely a word in 1988 about how to defuse an incipient civil war – in part because, well, maybe there wasn’t a way to do it, and in any case, they did not think of themselves as part of that society any longer.  One of the last of the pan-Yugoslav intellectuals, an anti-Titoist human rights loving universalist democrat, expressed his frustration to me by saying that he doubted very much that the great moralistes of the European post-war period would think it such an admirable thing to embrace the political causes of everywhere except those of your own society.

I quoted this to one of the secessionists of Ljublana – already planning for economic merger with Austria and Italy and, really, even I would say, why not, much closer culturally and socially anyway – who snorted and said, “Post-war moralistes of Europe?  Does S. mean Camus on Algeria?”  To which S., when I recounted this to him, said, “In Ljublana, do they really think of Kosovo as our Algeria?”  This was in 1988.

This is a contemporary phenomenon in the sense that, in the past, much empire was based around the idea that bigger was better, more people and territory and resources and all that meant more wealth and power.  But today we measure societies and countries far more by their rates of return.  Bigger is not necessarily better, and conglomerates might well be a bad thing in nation-state terms as in corporate terms.  There are no doubt limits in the national society realm that are have no equivalent in corporate terms.  Meaning, a national society might specialize and specialize in pursuit of high rates of return on human capital – and discover that it has too narrow a base when things change.  If it were a corporation, its shareholders were have diversified financially rather than wanting to have a physical conglomerate – but that is not really the option for citizens, who live and work and have families and all that in a particular place and economy – hence the analogy of not just suspect, but dangerous.

Yes, in other words, you can model it as a spinoff; in political reality, it rarely turns out to be that.  What is relevant from the business model, however, is that bigger is not always economically better; what matters is rate of return on human capital.

However, imperfect though the analogy is, there is still an important feature of contemporary politics here.  Which is that if you are Slovenia, you might well want to cut Serbia and Kosovo loose – you can’t do anything about their entrenched enmity or their lack of economic competitiveness, and you don’t really think of it as “your” problem, anyway.  If you are the Czech Republic, you breathe a sigh of relief when Slovakia wants to go its own way peacefully.  But in some of these situations, it turns into an argument over secession, even though it would have been better understood – and often was understood by the parties involved – as the richer regions wanting to divest themslves of the poorer, and oftentimes more conflict prone, ones.

(I tried to explain all this in a remarkably unsuccessful – too complicated – law review article a long time ago, Illiberal Tolerance: An Essay on the Fall of Yugoslavia and the Rise of Multiculturalism in the United States.)

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