Our final and in some ways most hopeful example is the small, snowy state of Vermont. Beyond the purchase of a pint Ben and Jerry’s (now owned by Unilever), Vermont isn’t on many people’s minds. It’s remote and sparsely populated, with 625,000 citizens. It’s also breeding a progressive populism organizing into a serious secession movement. Welcome to the Second Vermont Republic.
Vermont should be getting a lot more attention amongst the Transition Town movement and the left in general. As progressives seem content to swap seeds or wring their hands over the collapse of hope and change, the Second Vermont Republic is building a viable movement to withdraw from the United States and create “a moral, sovereign, and sustainable commonwealth of Vermont towns.”90
They’re quite clear as to the reasons. “The United States leadership is no longer amenable to change through representational democracy. It is bent to the task of preservation of a doomed idea. Our elites are committed to full spectrum dominance on the world stage, to a zero-sum game they’re determined to ‘win’ at any cost, a cost of millions of lives and trillions of dollars, in order to preserve for themselves a moribund ‘American way of life.’ ”91 Both their founding documents and their newspaper, Vermont Commons, lay out the problem in plain Yankee talk. The US is too big, ruled by corporations, and bent on global domination through imperialist wars, while peak oil looms and the planet strains under the demands of a growth economy. Frank Bryan calls the time of the industrial revolution “the two most vicious centuries the world has ever known, ending with the hierarchical, totalitarian industrial horrors of Hitler and Stalin.”92 Thomas Naylor, the originator of the movement, writes of “technofascism” and its “affluenza, technomania, e-mania, megalomania, robotism, globalization, and imperialism.”93
They are equally clear that a sovereign state of Vermont could be won. They point repeatedly to the breakup of the Soviet Union, which was almost entirely nonviolent. The balance sheet is on the side of the benefits, with democracy, sustainability, and human rights at stake. All that is required is the belief in the possibility: at last poll, 13 percent of Vermonters supported secession.
They have their own currency, a silver token stamped with the face of Scott Nearing, he of the Good Life. They have a foreign minister, already establishing relationships abroad. They have a solid statement of principles, ranging from Human Scale to Entrusting the Commons to Food Sovereignty.94 They currently have a slate of candidates running for governor, lieutenant governor (“It’s all about profit and getting the last drops of oil on earth and trampling people’s rights”), and seven state senators on a secession platform. They have an A to B plan, and they intend to win, one town meeting at a time.
Town meetings were the original direct democracy by which New Englanders governed themselves. This political form has its origins in the Puritan movement. The Puritans practiced a system of church governance in which each congregation was sovereign and hence governed itself. This was in stark relief to other forms of hierarchical Christianity that were governed by Episcopal or Presbyterian polities. Towns across New England were founded by Puritans and their practice of direct democracy carried over into all local decision-making. Like Sweden and Switzerland, New England’s foundations in direct democracy have helped form a regional culture that’s tolerant and civic-minded. Unlike Sweden and Switzerland, though, New England town-level decision-making has no structural power and indeed is not even mentioned in the federal system as it was created in 1787.
Town meetings are what Frank Bryant and John McClaughry call human-scale democracy. Past a certain number of participants, the process breaks down. Kirkpatrick Sale, the original defender of the human scale, and a stalwart critic of technology, posits that somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 works as a district size for direct democratic voting. Larger than that, the political process must revert to representative democracy. Representatives of fifty to one hundred districts are workable for nations, which means an upper limit of one million citizens.95 Vermont’s 625,000 people is perfect.
Town meetings are an annual event where residents gather to make decisions about operating budgets, elect municipal officers, and legislate policy. In Vermont, Town Meeting Day, the first Tuesday in March, is a state holiday—that’s what people do when they take their democracy seriously. (And election day in the US isn’t a federal holiday. Why?) For the skeptical, 90 percent of Swiss municipalities are run by town meetings. Switzerland is serving as a model for the Second Vermont Republic, and it’s a model the aboveground wing of DGR—the Transitioners and the permaculturists—could also emulate.
Switzerland is essentially a federation of small towns, with unique supports for direct democracy. Switzerland is not a homogenous society; indeed, the Swiss have four national languages, all with distinct cultures. Yet they have managed to meld themselves into peaceable coexistence and a single political entity. The last bloodshed was in 1847, when civil war broke out. The conflict was over in a month with fewer than one hundred dead, and most of those through friendly fire. This level of conflict, when compared to the vast bloodletting that would continue to soak Europe, seems almost quaint, like hobbits killing hobbits. But their civil war had a huge impact on Swiss psychology and culture. It brought all parties to the table and resulted in a federal constitution that empowered local self-government. The constitution included the provision that the entire document could be scrapped and rewritten if it wasn’t working, which the Swiss have done twice. Not everything the Swiss have done is perfect (though their chocolate comes close)—placating the Nazis with financing, for instance, falls rather short of anyone’s moral mark—but they do provide a living, breathing model of a peaceful, multicultural society. Such models are not, in fact, in short supply. All that we are missing is people willing to believe in the possibilities and to fight for them.
Besides its living tradition of direct democracy, Vermont has a few other historical currents on its side. Robert Putnam ranks Vermont number one on his scale of “tolerance for gender, racial, and civil liberties.”96 Vermont also ranks first on measures of a civil society. Frank Bryan calls this combination “a living nexus between liberty and community.”97 The Vermont Constitution was the first to outlaw slavery and to remove property ownership as a barrier to voting. Vermont held onto its human-scale democracy in large part because of its location and climate. As the rest of the country embraced urban industrialism, Vermont was “left behind,” as Bryan puts it. “This turned out to be a blessing.” He explains, “The concentration of socio-economic life, which was necessary to sustain the urban-industrial era, relied on hierarchy—the classic 20th-century pyramid of roles and duties arranged to control organizational activity from the top down. Hierarchy requires authority, which promotes symmetry, which causes rigidity. The result is awkward, reactionary and (most important) insensitive—and thus inhumane.”98
Young people left Vermont in record numbers for jobs in industrial areas, leaving it the most rural state in America by 1950. Then Helen and Scott Nearing called up a movement to reject mass society, with its militarism and materialism, and embrace self- and local sufficiency, mutual aid, and radical anti-imperialism. Their 1954 book, Living the Good Life, was the foundation of the back-to-the-land movement. Between 1967 and 1973, as many as 100,000 people heeded the call and headed for Vermont. The cold, rocky soil would never grow much, but the leftist embrace of the rural found fertile ground in Vermont. Like so many cultures of resistance, this one took time to put down roots and begin to branch, but fifty years later the tree is bearing fruit. Its challenge to empire, to corporate capitalism, and even to industrialization is a serious one.
Like everywhere else, Vermont has been gutted.
Vermont resembles an economic colony more than a sovereign state. Our major minerals are owned by foreign corporations (Omya), our ground water is exported by out-of-state bottling companies (Coca-Cola and Nestle), our hydropower resources are owned by TransCanada, and 88% of surface-water withdrawals in Vermont are used by Vermont Yankee [nuclear power plant] for cooling water at no charge. The federal government, meanwhile, has given away 98 percent of our “public airwaves” for free, and allows private banks to create 93 percent bid of the currency with interest attached. Citizens and businesses are subject to taxation of earned income, which impact job creation and economic productivity, while resource owners collect massive amounts of unearned income.99
And that’s not including the Connecticut River, which should be 400 miles solid with Atlantic salmon, absent since 1798 because of the dams of industrialization.
But there are people in Vermont—citizens first and foremost of the Green Mountains they named themselves after, and second of a community of neighbors—who are not standing by bewildered or hopeless. This is no anemic walking away into psychological withdrawal. This is a gauntlet of withdrawal, thrown down by a tiny David of patriots—true patriots, defending their land and their community from a Goliath of power that will not stop and cannot be reformed. The Second Vermont Republic “rationalizes our instincts, electrifies our commitment, and sustains our courage.”100
It also stands as a challenge to the permaculture wing and the Transitioners who want to do something to save the world, but have yet to understand the nature of power. Don’t just swap seeds: swap the US Constitution for local direct democracies confederated across your bioregion. Swap capitalism and its sociopathic corporate personhood for local economies based on human needs and human morality. Swap the rapacious drawdown of civilization for a culture nestled inside a repaired community of forests and grasses, filling once more with species with whom we must share this home.
This will require a resistance movement, which is always greater than the sum of personal actions, no matter how noble or restorative those actions. The Second Vermont Republic takes its place in a long line of movements for justice that were willing to face the nature of power and then to face it down. This planet does not simply need more great gardens: it needs resistance against the forces that have been plundering our collective garden for 10,000 years.
Perhaps one day the people of Vermont will speak in a dialect that can identify one sugar maple out of a thousand, one hesitant salmon restored to a river bereft of her kin for 200 years, one decision wellmade on a snowy Tuesday in March.