Monday, February 12, 2007

Virginia's Natural Commonwealth

by Bernie Quigley - for Raising Kaine, 2/12/07

There was a remarkable op-ed in The New York Times over the weekend by Gar Alperovitz, a progressive historian and scholar at the University of Maryland, whose name I often find on-line these days associated with Jim Webb. Alperovitz looks to California and its fascinating Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and asks if the country has not reached the point where it is ungovernable as a single unit.

He writes: SOMETHING interesting is happening in California. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to have grasped the essential truth that no nation — not even the United States — can be managed successfully from the center once it reaches a certain scale. Moreover, the bold proposals that Mr. Schwarzenegger is now making for everything from universal health care to global warming point to the kind of decentralization of power which, once started, could easily shake up America’s fundamental political structure.

“Governor Schwarzenegger is quite clear that California is not simply another state. “We are the modern equivalent of the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta,” he recently declared. “We have the economic strength, we have the population and the technological force of a nation-state.” In his inaugural address, Mr. Schwarzenegger proclaimed, “We are a good and global commonwealth.”

I wanted to point out to Virginians how this idea of regional commonwealth and independent city-state has partially evolved in the public mind in recent years. At the very beginning of the war on Iraq an ad hoc group called The Acadian Alliance, consisting of a very small number of citizens from the three northernmost New England states, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, made the claim that under Jefferson’s view of the Constitution, the states had the Constitutional right not to participate in the invasion. Furthermore, we claimed that if the United States no longer wanted to be part of the United Nations, then we would like to send our own observer to the UN.

In an article in The Nation this last year Alperovitz included an idea somewhat along these lines in an article on “bold new ideas” for the new century.

From my point of view (and I was the one who started The Acadian Alliance), I’d been writing about Jefferson’s view of a republic compared with Hamilton’s. Here in New England, I’d been trying to convince New Englanders that we have political advantages through the Jefferson view that are our birth right and that when we abandoned the Jefferson view (and it became outlawed during the Civil Law) we lost our identity as New Englanders. We also lost our ability to resist the federal government, as the state is our natural package of rights in a republic and groupings of states form our identity. The states and the natural cultural regions they form over time are our natural defense against federalist wrong doing.

The idea began to catch on, but not in New England, as we have largely become since 1865 a provincial extension of New York. But it began to catch on in California and the Pacific Northwest.

My own thinking was based on Tolstoy’s ideas of a “natural state” or a natural commonwealth. New England formed a natural commonwealth before 1865. California, as Schwarzenegger points out here, forms a natural commonwealth today.

The South – or the upper states in the South – formed a natural commonwealth under colonial conditions as did New York and the middle states around Pennsylvania. And recent economic patterns advancing wealth in the North Carolina region express a new reemergence of a natural commonwealth in the North Carolina/Virginia region.

When I lived and worked in Virginia and North Carolina I felt that the states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and South Carolina formed a natural Appalachian Commonwealth. In Tolstoy’s view, much like Jefferson’s, a natural commonwealth is a place not held together by doctrine or a set of dominating ideas, but which organically evolves through the natural relationship of people to each other in their natural surroundings.

Alperovitz’s articles here are helpful in understanding this. The “community tier” of business he speaks of should be advanced. All countries in the world except our own have “community tiers” within their borders – they are customs and ways of doing things locally that don’t necessarily transport globally, but which make us what we are as a people.

Community economies stabilize people and culture over a long period of time. A farmer in Sweden, for example, has been running a farm which has been in his family for a thousand years. Families together like this is the Jeffersonian vision; they build communities that last and nurture generation upon generation, after hedge funds, mutual funds, Wall St., stock options and globalization are long gone with the wind.

Community economies form within federations and in no way challenge federalism. But Governor Schwarzenegger’s declaring California “a good and global commonwealth” directly challenges the kind of federalism we have practiced in this country since the early 1800s.

To review, there are two approaches to American federalism, Alexander Hamilton’s and Thomas Jefferson’s. Historian Frank Owsley explains the difference in his 1930 essay, “The Irrepressible Conflict.”

Owsley writes: “In the beginning of Washington’s administration two men defined the fundamental principles of the political philosophy of the two societies, Alexander Hamilton for the North and Jefferson for the South. The one was extreme centralization, the other was extreme decentralization; the one was nationalistic and the other provincial; the first was called Federalism, the other States Rights, but in truth the first should have been called Unitarianism and the second Federalism.”

Being raised here in New England we were taught that the Civil War was about slavery, period. The states rights component is never explained to us and is always denied by historians. But in denying the issue of states right we New Englanders have lost our own protections against federalism gone amok - as we see it’s free-form arc light random in the world today - granted to us by Jefferson. We have also lost the abilities to build and form our own communities. Instead, we watch them yield invariably to the forces of the info-entertainment industry and Madison Ave. – the way of the corporation aided and advanced by a dominating central government, as per Hamilton’s instruction.

It was this breach between Hamilton and Jefferson, writes Owsley, that formed a “war of intellectual and spiritual conquest” in early America and forced contention between North and South. It continues to do so today in “red state” and “blue state” cultural warfare.

But now the season is changing. And now, the very same issue which divided us for centuries North and South, begins to divide us East and West.

Now, for the first time since Jay’s Treaty in 1794, when Washington teamed up with the New Yorker, Hamilton, in opposition to his fellow Virginians Jefferson and Madison, putting us on Hamilton’s corporate path for more than 200 years, we are beginning to see awaken again Jefferson’s vision of a federation in Arnold’s “good and global commonwealth”; a federation of commonwealths and free and varied peoples. And in the long and conspicuous absence of Ulysses S. Grant and Tecumseh Sherman, who do they think they are going to send up against the Governator to stop him in this new wave of contention? Dick Cheney?

Alperovitz NYTs essay at

Other A;perovtiz articles at

Article from John Parker at "Good Works" in North Carolina on rising "red state" economy at