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Metropolitan secession

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 16 years ago, in 2008, on the World Wide Web.

(Via Serf City 2008-01-31.)

Here’s something I mentioned some time back during a conversation about secession, decentralism, and decoupling the revolutionary doctrine of secession from the noxious notion of states’ rights:

I mean, one kind of decentralist politics that you might endorse would be to advocate the secession of urban centers from the surrounding states and a decentralist order that's partly based on people forming a network of poleis around these urban centers. Certainly there are a number of cities (New York, San Francisco, Detroit, Austin, Atlanta ...) where enough people are disgusted enough with their state governments that this kind of idea might have some real traction. After all, the power of suburban and exurban and rural counties to lord it over cities through majoritarian control of the state government is, or at least ought to be, just as much a concern for decentralists as the reverse.

So it’s interesting to read that Peter Vallone, a City Council rep from Queens, was proposing something like that earlier this year–stressing, in particular, the way that Albany’s tax-eaters parasitically exploit the wealth that the City produces, and the futility of trying to make your voice heard in a majoritarian regime where you’re outnumbered and have no right of exit:

Emboldened by Mayor Bloomberg’s testimony in Albany this week that the city’s taxpayers pay the state $11 billion a year more than they get back, a City Council member is offering legislation that would begin the process of having New York City secede from New York State.

Peter Vallone Jr., a Democrat who represents Queens, is pushing the idea, and the Council plans to hold a hearing on the possibility of making New York City the 51st state.

I think secession’s time has definitely come again, Mr. Vallone, who spearheaded a similar push in 2003, told The New York Sun yesterday. If not secession, somebody please tell me what other options we have if the state is going to continue to take billions from us and give us back pennies. Should we raise taxes some more? Should we cut services some more? Or should we consider seriously going out on our own?

During a visit to Albany this week, Mr. Bloomberg called on lawmakers to give the city its fair share of tax revenue and said that the state took in $11 billion more from New York City than was returned in the state budget. Mr. Vallone says that the state’s demands on the city in worsening economic times now make it necessary to dissolve the political bands, which have connected them.

Not only is it about self-determination and self-rule, but it’s about fairness, Mr. Vallone said. It’s something we see every year in the budget. They take $11 billion from us and give us back a mere pittance and they make it seem like they’re doing us a favor to give that pittance back. Somehow they missed the point that that is New York City’s own tax money and we deserve it.

— Benjamin Sarlin, The New York Sun (2008-01-30): A Secession Plan Is Floated for New York City

Of course, Vallone is an elected Democrat, and like any politician, he takes a perfectly good radical idea and waters it down with stupid concessions to power: immediately after decrying the way majoritarian state government swindles people in New York City and denies them control over the fruits of their own labor, he goes on to propose that New York City ought to fix it by seceding from New York State, and then subordinating itself directly to the majoritarian rule of the United States federal government as the 51st state. I suppose there’s something to be said for cutting out the middle-man, but if you think that’s going to stop you from having billions taken from you and getting a pittance back, well, I have a fine bridge in the autonomous city-state of Brooklyn that you might be interested in buying.

And, like a politician, he proposes a stupid means to his stated ends:

Mr. Vallone’s legislation would create a commission to study the issue and then recommend whether to put it to a referendum. Since secession would have to be approved by the Albany legislators, its passage would be unlikely.

— Benjamin Sarlin, The New York Sun (2008-01-30): A Secession Plan Is Floated for New York City

The idea of holding a direct referendum is fine; but making that referendum contingent on a politically-appointed council of Experts is a waste of time and energy. If you want New York City to be free, begging Albany to let your people go isn’t about to work. You’ve got to just start talking with your people about getting up and leaving, whether Albany likes it or not. I mean, Christ. Supposing that you talked it up and got it organized and actually had enough people in New York City behind you, what are they going to do about it? Boycott Manhattan? Invade the South Bronx? Why wait on their permission?

The answer, of course, is that this is most likely half-sincere at best, and in large part an act of pointless political grandstanding by Vallone, which he would not be attempting but for the fact hat he can be sure it won’t go anywhere. But even if his plan won’t, it’s very interesting, and worth the attention of genuine secessionists and real revolutionaries, that a party hack from Queens figures there’s enough of that kind of sentiment in his neighborhood that he can exploit it for an applause line. And that other dissident city council members would be willing to endorse the same logic in the course of public political debate:

Another to council member, Simcha Felder, who chairs the Governmental Operations committee, said the bill will be considered this year.

It certainly has merit, Mr. Felder said of the proposal. Why in the world should New York City be held hostage to the state? It just doesn’t make sense.

Mr. Felder acknowledged that the bill would face many hurdles, but said it deserved a debate.

I think the people in New York City are very interested for the most part in it. The question is the people outside New York City in New York State who have been eating the fruits of our labor for all this time. They aren’t going to be ready to just say forget about it.

— Benjamin Sarlin, The New York Sun (2008-01-30): A Secession Plan Is Floated for New York City

So don’t give them the opportunity. Why choose a strategy that requires you to wait on them to get ready for your freedom? If the people in New York City really are very interested, then do what every successful independence movement in history has done: stop worrying about what the people who oppress and exploit you will say about it. Get talking, get organized, declare independence and then, if the state keeps trying to issue you orders, act like you mean it — by ignoring those orders and treating the people who issue them the same way you’d treat any other lunatic who thinks he’s Napoleon. Of course, a strategy like that is hard. Of course, it’s likely to fail. (Lots of independence movements have.) Of course, it will take years to organize and win even if it doesn’t fail. But it is a strategy that might possibly succeed, which puts it ahead of plans for having the city government petition the state legislature. And it’s also a strategy we can start talking about now. And talking about that may start a lot of other conversations that are worth having, about taxes, war, empire, and the rest.

New York City ALLies: how many people do you know who are very interested in the idea of an independent New York City, which is no longer held hostage to the state? Remember that interest and sympathy and idle wishes are enough to start with: conviction and solidarity and organization are things that you can build by getting people to take the idea seriously, by educating them about it, by dispelling their ars, and by showing them that another City is possible. So, are there possibilities in doing anti-imperialist education, outreach, and, ultimately, organizing to free Occupied New York from the Empire State?

If so, let’s talk about how to do it. Maybe we can start in the comments here. Free the New York 8,274,527, and all political prisoners!

See also:

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  1. LadyVetinari

    Keeping in mind that I’m not an anarchist…

    One reason for why Vallone wouldn’t just advocate succession with or without Albany’s permission is that, in this day and age, Albany might well invade the South Bronx, possibly with the aid of the federal government.

    There are huge upstate-downstate tensions in NY, something I like to point out to conservatives who think the basic unit of freedom is the state. And New Yorkers (of which I am one, being a Queens native) love to joke-except-not-really about how NYC should be its own state, or even its own country. It is the only city for which the mayoral candidates have to have a foreign policy. New Yorkers have a strong awareness of the fact that they’re getting milked for billions and screwed for it. Whether that translates into a serious willingness to secede, well, I’d say that’s pretty far-fetched–barring some further disaster leading to the collapse of federal and state governments.

  2. Rad Geek


    One reason for why Vallone wouldn’t just advocate succession with or without Albany’s permission is that, in this day and age, Albany might well invade the South Bronx, possibly with the aid of the federal government.

    Well, I think it’s only the latter that would pose any real danger. Without the backing of the federal military, New York State has nothing like the resources that would be necessary to take control of New York City away from an independence movement with broad popular support. (If you want a form of secession that preserves the City government intact and disassociates it from Albany, then keep in mind that you’d be talking about a city government more armed personnel under it’s command than many European countries. If you want a form of secession like what I want, which would either unseat or at least strategically bypass the city government, then there are other means of resistance at hand — for example, working through industrial action by some of the best organized labor unions in the world in one of the most important transportation, communication, and financial centers in the world.) Even if it were possible for Albany to seize the City by force, there’s also the frankly catastrophic economic consequences of trashing the joint to consider. I doubt that any serious response by the governor would even be conceivable except with the full backing of the federal government.

    Of course, there is that to worry about, given the historical record and all. But I’m not sure how much the Feds would really care, honestly, about whether NYC is or is not a part of New York State. (At most, it might cause a partisan political fight which mainly boils down to concerns about the Democrat-to-Republican balance in the U.S. Senate.) In any case, if they did care, it’s not clear how much in the way of resources they really have to devote to yet another invasion, occupation, and counter-insurgency, let alone one so potentially ruinous for their own economic position.

    People have this idea nowadays that secession is just inconceivable, and sure to be followed by massive reprisal, in light of the Civil War. But it’s easy to forget how close a call the Civil War was — there was an awful lot of Northern opposition to it, especially prior to the battle at Fort Sumter. Even those who profoundly disagreed with secessionism as a matter of legal principle were often very uncomfortable with the idea of suppressing it by force. And all of this was for quite natural reasons, many of which still persist — bayonet-point Unionism is really a hard thing to defend, when put to it, and it’s also really hard to blind people to the ruinous and murderous nature of war when the war would be happening without the numbing distance of geographical, cultural, linguistic, racial, or religious differences. Let alone when it would be happening without that distance, in the media capital of the world.

    So, I don’t know. While I think it’s perfectly reasonable to be glib about an invasion from Albany, I agree one shouldn’t be glib about an invasion from Washington. But the likelihood and the likely outcome of such an invasion are nowhere near as certain as I think most people have been taught (by government schools and popular history) to conclude it would be.

    New Yorkers have a strong awareness of the fact that they’re getting milked for billions and screwed for it. Whether that translates into a serious willingness to secede, well, I’d say that’s pretty far-fetched—barring some further disaster leading to the collapse of federal and state governments.

    Sure, obviously. Like I said, I’m interested in the interest; I don’t want to seem like I’m mistaking interest and joking-but-not-really sympathy for any kind of conviction on the matter. What I’m interested in is whether that interest and joking-but-not-really sympathy would provide a foot in the door for serious conversation, education, dispelling of confusions and fears, radicalization, etc. The idea’s not to encourage people to run around declaring independence on behalf of their committee of 4 as of next Tuesday, but rather to start with a program of education and organization that would certainly take years to succeed, if it succeeds at all, and which doesn’t presuppose that there’s some kind of radicalized mass sentiment in favor of independence *now*, but rather uses what diffuse and passive frustration there *is* now to work *towards* a radicalized mass movement for independence (which would be the final step, not the first, towards independence).

    Most revolutions start out as crazy wouldn’t-it-be-great-if ideas that nobody had any hope for at first; the idea is to take people’s wishes seriously, and encourage them to take them seriously, by showing that how those wishes can become hopes, and how those hopes can become plans, if people get together and make use of the tremendous potential strength that they have.

    Does that make sense?

  3. Rafael Hotz

    and how about some panarchy?

    a possible cenario would be the following one:

    some willing NY citzens separate themselves from the state, do not pay taxes, and the state denies them acess to some services (i am supposing that the streets will not be statist, freedom of movement within NY)

    some willing NY citzens keep tied to state order, and by some “contract” keep paying taxes and using state services

    the US/Albany state cannot impose anything on the secessionists, and vice versa

    the main problem would be: would the US/Albany state let this happen?

  4. LadyVetinari

    Yes, thank you, that makes sense.

    I suppose part of what I’m wondering in response is what immediate goals you have for society as an anarchist. Do you think it’s always immoral to use the state as a tool?

  5. LadyVetinari

    To clarify: I’m certainly not expecting you to explain everything to me about your political ideology or whatever! It just seems to me that from within an anarchist framework the only two political solutions are total revolution or quietism. Perhaps I’m wrong about that, but that’s the view from my corner. I’m not asking a question you need to answer, it’s just something that intrigues and puzzles me about that worldview.

  6. Rad Geek


    Well. Whether or not it’s always immoral to use the state as a tool, on my view, depends on what you’re using it as a tool for. I think that there are a very strictly limited set of concerns where the State, although illegitimate as an institution, can legitimately be enlisted to act on your behalf. (Basically, these have to do with defense against, or compensation for, violations of one’s rights by violent or fraudulent crime — so, e.g., while I generally try to stay as far away from government cops as possible for practical reasons, I don’t think it’s immoral for someone to call in the cops in response to, say, an attempted assault or murder or, say, to try and recover a stolen car.) I don’t think that it’s ever legitimate to use the State as a tool to accomplish social goals that aren’t immediately related to halting violence or fraud against identifiable individual victims, even if I believe that the social goals themselves are worthwhile. (So, for example, I completely oppose any use of government antidiscrimination laws like Title VII or Title IX or the ADA in order to respond to invidious discrimination or sexual harassment or what have you in the workplace, in housing, or in educational institutions. While I think these are all serious social evils, and really scummy things for bosses or landlords or school authorities to do, I think that they should be responded to by other, non-governmental means, like strikes, slow-downs, sit-ins, open-mouth sabotage, economic boycotts, building up counter-institutions, rent strikes, public ridicule, social ostracism, etc. (That’s a very general overview, and I realize that some of these methods are not widely recognized as necessarily being all that effective; I think that’s because they can be very effective, but the trap of working through official, i.e. governmental, channels has lured a lot of people away from seriously and persistently using them, and so kept many of them from being developed to their full potential. If you want to talk about some tactical specifics on, e.g., how you might use social ostracism as a hardball tactic against rotten practices, I’d be happy to discuss at more length.)

    It just seems to me that from within an anarchist framework the only two political solutions are total revolution or quietism.

    I don’t think that’s really it; anarchism allows for incremental politics, and in fact much more incremental politics than working through government does. Governmental politics often require you to be able to win just about everything before you can win anything. You need 50%+1 to win the election or get the bill passed, and if you have 50%-1, you don’t get 50%-1 of what you wanted; you get nothing at all. You need 5 of the Nine on your side to win the case, and if you have 4, again, you don’t get 4/9 of what you want; you get nothing but a few kind words written on behalf of your side. Operating through counter-economics, direct action and mutual aid operate through methods where you can make real social changes on the margin even without being where you can get the big prize. So if you aim at evading or defying unjust laws, rather than aiming at changing them through electioneering or lobbying, then you can make concrete progress as long as you’re successful at doing so. (On which, see GT 2008-01-26: In which I fail to be reassured….) If you try to help people get access to resources by pushing the government to create new welfare programs, then until you’ve mustered up a strong enough force to get the new program through the legislature, you get nothing, and if you never reach that threshhold, nobody will ever get access to what you’re trying to help them get access to. But if, instead, you and your comrades just get out tere and start working together to provide these things to people directly, as a form of voluntary mutual aid, then even if you’re too small to help everybody, you won’t be too small to help somebody, and the benefits to the people you do help won’t just evaporate because you never went over the top. (On which, see GT 2005-06-25: Shut up and put up and GT 2006-06-16: And around we go….)

    Now, it’s true that I am an ultra-immediatist about anarchism, meaning that I think it’s both strategically and morally very important for anarchists to insist, philosophically, rhetorically, and strategically, on the principle that it’s all got to go, and if it went right now that would be the best outcome of all. So I certainly call for total revolution at just about every occasion, and act on the principle that total revolution right now is the ideal outcome. But I think that one of the important things about anarchism is that it gives you a way to combine ultra-immediatism with incrementalism — to work for total revolution to the extent that you can, but through means that allow you to get something of what you want, even if you fall short of that.

    Does that make sense?

  7. LadyVetinari

    Yes, it does. Thanks. I would be VERY interested in reading a post about non-governmental ways to fight things like discrimination. I’m pretty skeptical about social ostracism’s power to stop enormously powerful corporations, for instance.

  8. Rocco

    I think I’m the only NYer I know whose “very interested” in secession. There has been some bluster about secession raised in some of the small local rags during the reign of Bush II. I think a lot of NYers like the sound of secession hypothetically but there isn’t much serious support for it.

    I grew up on Staten Island and there was periodically talk of secession from the city throughout the existence of the landfill there. The state legislature even approved a bill back in 1989 to allow Staten Islanders to vote on whether to secede from NYC. In 1993, Staten Islanders voted with 65% in favor. This then somehow got stalled to death in the state assembly or something, I forget. Whatever the case, asking for permission didn’t work.

    I think, over some long period of time, an education campaign could generate some serious support for secession.

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