Is Californian Independence Possible?
One of the big questions people ask me when I talk about independence is whether it’s even possible and how it could be accomplished. People also often ask about the impact on people in the United States and elsewhere. I’ve written in depth about why independence is desireable elsewhere, so for this essay I will just focus on those two questions.
The first answer is the most obvious: yes. It is possible. All human institutions can be changed. All empires fall. There is no such thing as a permanent human institution.
We Live in Capitalism, it’s power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.– Ursula LeGuin
Compared to the abolition of Capitalism, Californian independence is downright easy. There are a number of ways it could happen.
Scenario 1: A peaceful electoral path
A grassroots movement coalesces into a second party within California, starting out by only contesting local elections and building capacity over time. Once they have a significant minority in the California Assembly and California’s Congressional delegation, they introduce legislation laying out a path to independence and requesting a vote on the topic.
The Supreme Court ruled in Texas vs White that secession is illegal “except with the consent of the other States,” which implicitly means it is legal with that consent. An Act of Congress could therefore open the path for Californian independence via completely peaceful legislative means, and many Republicans would jump at the chance to vote for such a bill and be rid of us. The odds get even better if independence movements in other regions follow a similar path and are also represented in Congress.
This party would need to be a left-liberal alliance and champion broadly popular policies like MediCal For All that the Democrats have failed to achieve or even fight for. The California National Party is pursuing this path and has just started running candidates after several years spent putting together their core organization. I’m a registered member. If you believe in independence, you should be too. The Californian Libertarian party also supports the right to secession.
As of 2016, more than a third of Californians supported independence – significantly more than the ~25% of Californians that still support the Republicans. That number varies a bit depending on who controls the federal government, but the complete failure of the Democrats to effectively combat the Republican agenda has created a huge opportunity for a pro-independence party to become California’s second party.
Scenario 2: A reaction to American Fascism
The United States is in a dangerous place right now. The Conservative majority on the Supreme Court is pursuing a nakedly partisan and ideologically driven agenda designed to dismantle the few relatively progressive components of federal law – from ruling that the EPA cannot regulate carbon emissions to overturning Roe vs Wade. Meanwhile, a coalition of low-population states committed to that same agenda are using the structural inequalities of the United States Senate and Electoral College to hold the rest of the US hostage. Within the bounds of existing institutions, the majority will always be disenfranchised and forced to subsidize them.
Politicians virtually never lead. All positive change in American history has come from working class people organizing at the grassroots level and demanding change. Pollution controls were put in place in the US because of such a mass movement. So were civil rights for people of color, voting rights for women, and every other victory. In every case, elites were forced to make concessions.
In the same way, a mass movement for the withdrawal of California and other systematically disenfranchised states – sparked in reaction to someone like Trump or DeSantis winning the white house after losing the popular vote – could force the issue.
Such a movement is already in its infancy – it is far more common to hear people talk about the breakup of the US now than it was 20 years ago when I first started talking about it. More and more people are realizing that the maintenance of the American empire directly harms them and that that empire does not and never can reflect their values. And while the electoral approach in scenario one makes this second scenario easier, it is not required for success.
The moment people realize independence is really possible, it will become inevitable.
Scenario 3: Better to be a President
The key moment in the breakup of the USSR was the moment that the local elites in each of the nations Russia had conquered realized that they had the opportunity to escape the empire, and formed a coalition against the center. When it became clear that the USSR was failing, they decided it was better to be presidents and prime ministers of smaller nations than remain tied to a system that was falling to pieces around them.
Increasing numbers of Californians and Americans both are wondering if we are in a similar place.
One of the biggest barriers to a national divorce is the American ambitions of politicians in all of the future nations of North America. Gavin Newsom refers to California as a “nation state” regularly, but he still has ambitions towards the American presidency. But at some point – as the US becomes increasingly dysfunctional and the far right continues using the Senate, Electoral College, and SCOTUS to impose unpopular policies that the vast majority oppose – it may become clear to our local elites that their best interests lay with independence. California’s knowledge based economy cannot function under the theocratic fascism that American republicans are advocating. If and when local elites realize where their bread is buttered, they will get onboard. This is far more likely if the events from scenarios 1 and 2 are also playing out, and the stronger the popular movements are the less we need elites.
As an anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian, I would find such a transition distasteful to say the least. I would strongly prefer either or both of the first two scenarios. That said, necessity makes strange bedfellows. Once we have independence the class war will continue unabated – but the elites will no longer have the American military backing them up. If it gets us independence, a temporary left-center alliance would be worth it. James Connolly made a similar calculation when he convinced the Labor-based Irish Citizens Army to make an alliance with more business-oriented Irish Republicans against British colonial rule. The South African anti-apartheid movement also made a similar deal, and it was key to eliminating business support for apartheid and toppling that regime.
Impacts on the Remaining US
Once the door is open for California to exit, other regions would likely secede as well in short order. Cascadia, New England + New York, Texas, and others would head for the door immediately once we were gone. The remaining states might stay together for a while, but I doubt it.
It is possible that several of the resulting nations, particularly in the south, will be deeply unpleasant places to live. But even in that worst case scenario, a theocratic Dixie is far less of a threat to the world than a theocratic United States; and Californians are far better positioned to be a refuge for people fleeing such a regime as an independent nation.
It is also entirely possible – and I believe much more likely – that without the massive subsidies paid every year by the west and northeast to the bible belt those power structures will collapse. The Republicans control those states through a system of patronage that is largely funded through federal subsidies. Depriving them of that patronage could undermine their control. Those subsidies mostly do not go to help working class people, they go to enrich the local ruling class. Absent the military terror of the United States military and the subsidies, those local elites would be dramatically weakened and local activists and movements that are struggling for human liberation would be proportionately strengthened.
If that is so, staying part of the United States is not an act of solidarity – it is propping up their oppression. It’s no accident that (with a few notable exceptions) smaller States are statistically also more democratic and have stronger social movements. They’re also far more likely to experience revolution when elites push the people too far – which is one of the biggest reasons elites have always sought to build empires.
As for what an independent California looks like, well that’s up to us. Which is the point. I’m not naïve enough to believe that it will instantly become a libertarian socialist paradise, but we would at least be able to much more easily win critical reforms like proportional representation and rebuild our labor movement and other independent working class institutions.
We also stand a far better chance of surviving apocalyptic climate change if we have control over our own country and can spend our money on the critical infrastructure we will need to survive the coming changes. As long as we are paying for America’s wars and corporate welfare, we do not have the money to restore our forests and rivers, build clean and efficient mass transportation and desal, and deal with the very real challenges that we are facing. In very real terms, the choice Californians are facing is independence or oblivion.