Escape Philosophies: A Journey into the Mind of the Outsider

Separatists, secessionists, and independence movements: Such longings have brought about monumental and frequently unpredictable changes in world history. From the American Revolution to the break-up of the Soviet Union, it’s difficult to ignore the importance of the will of small groups of people to achieve political independence from a greater power. These historical moments have, however, been frequently deeply grim, harsh, and bloody. It’s easy to understand why this would seem like a promising option for societies for which times are tough, and many people face difficulty in just scraping by. It’s much more difficult to understand why anyone living in a modern rich country would want to risk their relative security and safety for such a risky adventure. Well-off countries tend to bring access to many opportunities and possibilities not present in times of intense social strife or conflict.

Nevertheless, hundreds of movements for independence, national separation, and regional autonomy are presently active worldwide. More than a hundred of these occur in rich countries. Let’s explore just a few of the reasons why such movements arise. To better understand these movements, I’m going to need your participation. What follows is an exercise in imagining yourself as someone else. Perhaps this person is someone very similar to yourself, but maybe not. Regardless, I’d like you to take a deep breath, and take a moment to imagine the following:

First, let’s imagine that you are a member of a large cultural minority group. Your family and neighbors have a shared identity that is easily noticed in clearly visible and audible ways. You can even recognize it in the food you eat. Also, imagine that your cultural, linguistic, or ethnic traditions are under threat. Your community is at risk of becoming assimilated and erased, as well as occasional threats of violence. Perhaps the government has banned the use of your first language or taken its children away from home to receive cultural education from outside the community. Maybe someone outside your community is stirring up attacks or even killings of people in your neighborhood or your extended family. Day by day and year by year, your culture is being destroyed. Those within the dominant culture – a culture that is not yours – constantly remind you of this condition in various ways. Some participate in erasing your culture through supporting political leadership, who actively seek to repress you. Some treat this repression like something that has nothing to do with them, opting instead merely to expect you to behave as they do. The anger, fear, and anxiety that this causes you is gradually becoming intolerable. There doesn’t seem to be any way for this process to reverse itself. Indeed, working within a system created by and for the dominant culture does not seem to be the answer. Maybe the only solution is to do something else.

For people from thousands of lived communities throughout the rich world, this is a fairly straightforward experience to imagine. This is the experience of Black American separatists seeking to form a “New Afrika” in the American South. It is experienced by indigenous resistance groups seeking to establish autonomy and “decolonization” in North America. It’s the rough contour of the impetus toward Palestinian Arab resistance to the State of Israel. From Puerto Rico to Ryukyu, militant resistance to cultural assimilation and erasure is a major driving force for many minority communities seeking freedom from dominance and repression. The social traditions, histories, and cultural practices that we share give virtually all people our sense of identity. Sometimes this leads people to want to start something new.

Now, let’s take a second journey. Again, I want you to take a deep breath, and take a moment to imagine this:

Now, let’s imagine that you come from a minority culture that either used to be independent or somehow separate from the present-day country in which you live. Maybe you come from a long line of an ethnic community who settled in your region hundreds or thousands of years ago. In the intervening time, your community has been encircled and taken in by a country that your community had little to no part in creating. Maybe, you come from a community that was once a subject, but independent people, now expected to forget your separateness for the good of the nation you inhabit today. Rather than facing much present-day violence and repression, you and your community are largely ignored by the majority culture. Nobody is coming to harm you or your neighbors from outside. Still, the expectation of you is that you do your part to contribute to the advancement of an identity you’ve never historically seen as your own. All that is expected is your participation in and assimilation into the broader culture. Whether this serves any sense of loyalty to your community is never asked. You know that you and many like you are historically different. This history is at risk of being erased by those in power who have no interest in its memory. Your resentment of this state grows by the year. Seeking an escape from the deep indignation of having your historical uniqueness forgotten, you wish to revive a piece of your lost past. You hope to rebuild the glory of your community of memory.

For many cultures, memory of the past brings with it a sense of shared rootedness and security about the future. For some cultures, however, this essential component of shared social identity brings with it uncertainty. Such cultures on the brink of collapse may fight for the political autonomy of their community in its territory. Many movements today, from Scotland to Quebec, from Catalonia to Kashubia fit this mold. For these movements, the right of recognition is less about the fight for immediate survival than about the long-term maintenance of cultural, historical, and political uniqueness.

Let’s take a third and final exploration into the imagination. This time, I want you to imagine a way of imagining. So, take a deep breath and imagine:

Imagine this time that you are, by all outward appearances, part of the dominant culture in the place where you live. There’s no significant difference between you and the rest of the country in which you live. But when you think of your country or your region within it, something feels different. You think differently. You wake up, get out of bed, turn on the news on your way to work, or while eating breakfast. You don’t understand why or how you – and maybe the people in the surrounding community – are still part of the rest of the country. It’s difficult to identify why you’re different in concrete terms. Nevertheless, you have an idea of what this difference is and the community you could create. You think it might be possible to find enough like-minded people to make it happen. You might not know where to start, but you have a few ideas. Maybe you could run candidates for legislative office to pass laws that put the whole process in motion. Perhaps you need only to spread awareness of the idea to enough people to make the dream feel more like a possibility in the minds of many of those around you. Your sense of wonder grows expansive the more you dream of it. You imagine the endless potential of this new community identity and the new stories that could arise from it. Could they bring you fulfillment and happiness? Could this community bring you that sense of peace that seems to exist nowhere else in this world? There’s only one way to find out.

Such are the aspirations of imagined communities, as they seek to make their abstract visions manifest. Whether the regional North American movements like Cascadia, or Florida’s Conch Republic, these movements primarily exist as projects to create real-world traction around unifying abstract ideas and complex ideological concepts. Extraterritorial movements like the internet-based Wirtland, and the NSK State – inspired by Slovenian art collective, Neue Slowenische Kunst – also inhabit this realm. As do extraterrestrial projects like the Nation of Celestial Space and the Space Kingdom of Asgardia. These movements can seem a little “out there.” This is largely down to the double-work they must do to create a social consciousness around the community identity they are seeking to foster while also working to build a political consciousness around that community. To many, breaking free from the orbit of preexisting cultural and national identities is about creating the world they’d like to see in at least one small part of this one.

Coming back to the here and now, feel free to stand up, and move around. Return to your surroundings. Consider these three foundational forces: lived, remembered, and imagined communities. The next time you hear stories and narratives of break-away movements in the rich world, think about how they fit into this framework. In the coming months on Secessio Populi, There will be many such stories to think about. I hope you enjoy them.

Administrative Note: For the moment, I will be sticking mainly to those movements most geographically close to me: The movements of the North American Pacific Coast. I hope to be branching out into the rest of North America by next year, focusing more broadly and extending to movements across Europe, the richer Middle East, and East Asia. My limiting of the project right now is primarily due to my limited capacities. At present, this is a one-man project, and I’m learning my limitations when it comes to time. I mention this because I would love to increase the capacity of this project. So, if this is something you might be interested in contributing to, feel free to hit me up at secessio.populi@protonmail.com. We can figure out how that might work from there.

Leave a Reply