A Synopsis Of Leopold Kohr’s Book
The Breakdown of Nations (1957)
WHY SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL, NATURAL, IMPERATIVE, AND GENERALLY UNOBTAINABLE
Every human life has its seasons. And so does every human society, organization, and culture. There are times for growth and times for pruning back. There are times for acquiring, and times for letting go. However, as with so much in life, growth and acquisitions, pruning and simplifying, also need to occur in stately moderation. Too much growth is rather more dangerous and far more common than is generally acknowledged. Too little pruning invariably creates increasing problems later on. Sooner or later, growing size and increasing organizational complexities will overreach any human ability to recognize and respond adequately to the many problems they bring with them. These are just a few of the key insights of Leopold Kohr, “the most important political thinker you have never heard of.” [Leopold Kohr (1909 – 1994): economist, jurist, historian, political scientist, wry wit, and self-described “philosophical anarchist.” The accolade in quotes here appeared in a column about the man, written by Paul Kingsnorth, and printed in the Guardian Weekly late in September, 2011.]
Kohr’s major work, The Breakdown of Nations (first published in 1957) makes a detailed and compelling case that, in almost every realm, size matters. Scale matters. When things don’t work anymore, when bubbles burst, or organizations fail, or societies fall apart, something has gotten too big. Big size is a form of malignancy, yet the urge for bigger size is latent in every type of social and commercial organization. Kohr sees the temptation to keep growing, to keep expanding the sphere of one’s reach and control, pervading every type of political organization and form of governance. That temptation is part and parcel of the foundations underlying monarchies, dictatorships, socialistic democracies, and capitalistic democracies. Kohr sees the same urges toward expansive growth in businesses of every type, be these state run or privately run, be they profit-driven or non-profit. If something is perceived to be good, then more of that something appears to be even better. Exposing the fallacy behind this characteristic of human nature, and teaching us its lessons, was part of Kohr’s life’s work.
Drives for expansive growth and acquisitions are related to personal drives for greater control, wider control, increasing powers and prestige. They are related to our drives for more security, for increasing assurances of continued comfort and unobstructed access to resources. These drives infect every aspect of human life. Like other types of infection, we have evolved to be able to live with them in peace and health, so long as they remain “low grade,” manageable, and familiar.
So it isn’t growth per se that Kohr identifies as a problem. It is growth that has exceeded its safe scale and “human” proportion. Kohr points out that for all things there are proportions that facilitate good function just as there are proportions that forbid good function. This appears to be true whether we are talking about civic function, or economic function, bodily function or interpersonal function. It is true of wholes as well as each of their constituent parts. It is true of nations, and states, and even of neighbourhoods. It is true of corporations, and the divisions within them, and the components of each division, as well as each of the markets served by them. When an organization exceeds a critical size, its components often spontaneously fission into smaller units, each at a more workable scale. When a city exceeds a critical size, it too may fission into neighbourhood districts, if not officially, then unofficially.
The proportions that facilitate “good function,” i.e. stability, long-term survival and efficiency, Kohr often calls “human proportions.” They work at a “human scale.” They have a modest complexity that one human being can grasp and keep track of over time. Unfortunately however, in certain respects, and particularly in certain cultures, human nature is predisposed to create very large social units, and with them is created a malignant complexity, which sooner or later brings on its own collapse.
Insofar as human nature seeks control over its environments, both natural and social, insofar as it tends to seek power over others and the resources they possess, so human nature seeks wider influence, greater reach and scope, and the very large social organization that this often appears to require. Regions want to become nations. Nations want to become empires. Empires want to become world governments. A small electric utility seeks to become a large corporation. A large corporation seeks to become a globalized multi-national conglomerate.
Larger organizations are claimed to be better because they are more diversified and supposedly they have greater resources (literal, and figurative) on which to draw in times of need. But Kohr’s analysis demonstrates that these perceived advantages are illusory. They are limited in scope and availability. More particularly, Kohr points out that larger organizations increasingly develop points of unrecognized vulnerability and danger for others. But we are getting ahead of his story, his “theory of size,” his view about the causes of miseries and human dis-ease, as set out in his seminal book The Breakdown of Nations.
* * *
Kohr begins his book by discussing the problems with theories that attribute social ills to particular major causes, e.g. “attributing war and other forms of social evil to the expansive urge of profit-seeking capitalism” or to certain privations, or to “the design of evil men such as Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin,” or to “evil ideologies such as Nazism or Communism.” [These and all future excerpts (in italics) of Kohr’s own wording come, from the May 2001 edition of Kohr’s book, published in paperback by Green Books Ltd. in the U.K. Only page citations will appear in footnotes that follow future italicized quotations here. The above topic and quotations appear starting on page 27 of The Breakdown of Nations.] But every such causal explanation suffers from the same fatal problem: it cannot explain the many exceptions to its assumed law. As Kohr notes, a theory may explain the brutality of Moslems but not that of Christians, the poverty seen in American slums but not that in Russian slums, the wars of Hitler but not those of Nehru or Napoleon. Continuing the theme, examining critiques of Capitalism and arguments advocating Socialism, Kohr notes that workers in many socialist countries are no better off than are workers in many capitalist countries. While it is true that some of the most aggressive countries have included capitalistic America and France, there are socialist countries such as Russia and China that have been equally aggressive. Meanwhile, the capitalistic countries of Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland are noted as being among the most peaceable, just as are socialistic Sweden and Norway. Such inevitable major exceptions always falsify simple causal theories explaining social or economic ills or virtues.
Next, Kohr examines the development of cultures and civilizations that are said to cause social misery (i.e. wars, exploitation, famines, etc) because they are as yet “primitive,” “uncivilized,” or “barbarous.” These cultures supposedly have yet to evolve, and so to become humanistic, civilized, and devoted to justice. But here too, Kohr lists dozens of contradictions and exceptions to every example of a culture or civilization that is said to be wicked or is said to have become virtuous. In every case the wicked examples also exhibit multiple episodes of virtue and the virtuous examples are still found to exhibit multiple episodes of wickedness. Thus, the historical exceptions to every theory of cultural primitiveness or cultural virtue are legion. Kohr goes on to argue that no culture even appears to develop higher proportions of virtue over time. He gives many examples to support his later argument that with technological advances and increasing powers of destruction, modern civilizations actually tend to act with more barbarism than did so-called primitive cultures.
And finally, Kohr examines the evidence surrounding a third variation on these themes: that certain races of men are evil incarnate, predisposed to spread misery around the world, either for genetic reasons or historic reasons. But here again, Kohr shows the multiple exceptions and counterexamples to every argument of this type. People of every type and every era have celebrated war. People of every historic background have contributed to social misery, and also to social harmony.
Kohr concludes his first chapter with these words:
As we have seen, the greatest aggressions and the most monstrous crimes have been committed by nations at the peak periods of their civilization. Lack of education? Hardly. The most devilish designs of barbarism have not been conceived by illiterates, but by the most educated brains. Ideology? Economic system? Nationality? The phenomenon is too universal. The cause explaining it all must clearly still lie hidden. [Pg. 45.]
* * *
In his second chapter, “The Power Theory of Aggression,” Kohr focuses on the causes of wars in his search for what might prove to be a more general theory of the causes of all social miseries. After reviewing the mass executions and atrocities perpetrated across the ages and across the globe, he is led to this conclusion:
If similar excesses occurred everywhere and in all phases and periods of historic development, there must apparently be a common element transcending these differences. This common denominator, as we shall see, seems to be the simple ability, the power, to commit monstrosities. As a result we arrive at what we might call a power theory of social misery.
Since those without the ability to commit atrocities clearly don’t commit them, this conclusion seems trivial. Kohr recognizes this, and he responds saying:
But this is not the point. The point is that the proposition operates also in the reverse. Everyone having the power will in the end commit the appropriate atrocities. …[Here too,] clearly not everybody holding power must make evil use of it. …Just as not any mass of fissionable material will produce an atomic explosion, but only a critical mass, so not just any quantity of power will lead to brutal abuse, but only the critical quantity. …Once the critical [degree of] power is reached, abuse will result spontaneously. [Pg. 47.]
And what then is this critical degree of power? Kohr says the answer is simple: it is the degree of power that appears to insure immunity from retaliation. But that perceived degree of power will be different for different criminals and despots, with their differing situations, their different oppositions, and their personal blind spots. In each case it will be the perceived immunity from retaliation that matters. Kohr goes on to anticipate another conclusion saying that if the critical degree of power depends on the amount of available power, that amount depends in turn on the size of the social group that can create such power. And so Kohr will call his new theory “the size theory of social misery.”
One of the variables that often help to insure immunity from retaliation is anonymity. Mob violence is often ignited when sudden anonymity is achieved, as occurs after masking of one’s face and body. We see this with vigilante groups, and the Ku Klux Klan. But Kohr also points out that the sheer size of any large mob confers both a certain level of new power on its members and also a form of temporary anonymity.
Immunity from retaliation is frequently given to certain professions too, including prison guards and policemen and soldiers, particularly in circumstances where there will be no witnesses, and where anonymity is further facilitated by uniforms that all look very similar. Brutality by such authorities is well known, just as it is known to occur in teachers and coaches and priests who may hold considerable authority and power over their underlings. The “spontaneous” eruption of such abuse, every time that critical amounts of power are amassed, may not be quite as universal as Kohr implies, but there can be no denying that, given the existence of some modest number of such power relationships, including the freedom from any fear of retaliation, then episodes of abuse become all but certain to occur.
Kohr argues that internal stresses associated with the sheer size of a society that grows too big, one that becomes too crowded, with too much anonymity, also creates the conditions leading to more criminal behaviour. This in turn creates the need and opportunity for creating more powerful authorities (police and soldiers) to deal with the criminals. And that is another of many related factors that help to destabilize those societies that get bigger and bigger. Kohr discusses additional factors that lead to further stresses within such societies, including a growing tendency to condone criminal acts as being necessary, or “fair,” and inevitable. As brutality becomes more frequent in a society, it becomes less personal, less shocking and easier to perpetuate. More people become willing to do more and more hurtful things.
Reviewing what he has argued so far, Kohr then stresses again that the misuse of power depends on the opportunity to use it without fear of punishment for so doing. In his next section, entitled “Lead us not into Temptation,” he recounts a German slogan that says: “Opportunity creates Thieves.” Kohr writes:
Opportunity is, of course, nothing but another word for the seemingly critical volume of power. Even a confirmed thief will not steal if he has no chance of getting away with it. On the other hand, even an honest man will misbehave if he has the opportunity, the power, to do so. This explains why all of us, the good even more so than the bad, pray to the Lord not to lead us into temptation. For we know better than many a political theorist that our only safeguard from falling is not moral stature or threat of punishment, but the absence of opportunity. [pp. 58-59.]
Kohr goes on to point out how much personal willpower and moral effort is required to resist the temptations that opportunity can sometimes place in our paths. He concludes that neither personal virtue nor vice are intrinsic to human nature and social development. Moreover, the temptation to exploit opportunities for acts of selfishness, or for acts that will cause harm to others, are nearly universal temptations in the absence of likely retaliation. It is our faulty and unrealistic assumptions about human psychology and willpower, including our assumptions that “normal” compassion or empathy will cause “good people” to resist immoral temptations and acts of cruelty, that prevents political theorists, economic theorists, and social theorists from successfully designing a more peaceful and safer world.
Kohr then reviews the wars of the twentieth century, and the cold war following them, noting that in every case peace was accompanied either by power stalemates among various nations, or by the lack of critical power advantages for any one nation. Moreover, in every case, wars began when one side perceived itself to have a major power superiority and negligible risk of unacceptable retaliation or unacceptable costs for invading a particular neighbour.
Kohr then returns to the matter of the “size” of a social entity, and the powers that a social entity acquires as a consequence of its size. The “critical” amount of power that leads to aggression requires a “critical” social size to achieve it. Kohr observes that the physical size of the social entity, i.e. its absolute population is the major, but not the only aspect of “size” that matters. The “density” of a population, i.e. the concentration of its members can augment or dilute the power it can wield. (E.g. an army far from home has less power than an army close to home.) Similarly, a population’s “size” and “power” are sensitive to other variables including the degree to which that population is organized, mobile, developed, cohesive, and inter-coordinated.
* * *
At this point in chapter two, Kohr turns to consider some objections to his power theory. [Pages 65 through 72.] Interestingly, these objections primarily emphasize that his arguments are flawed because they are materialistic, Marxian, and atheistic. He begins by pointing out that his theory does not affect moral or religious considerations as to how we ought to behave. Nor is it inconsistent with a world created by God. Kohr’s theory may be right or wrong, he says, but if it must fail then it must do so on the basis of historic evidence. (At the end of his chapter he will consider one such major piece of apparently contradictory evidence existing at the time of his writing, i.e. the apparent “peacefulness” of the United States super-power.)
Kohr notes that the materialistic nature of his theory, which he acknowledges, does not imply an inevitability for wars and social miseries any more than physical laws of current geography and climate mean that a given valley town is always doomed to suffer floods, For it is always possible to devise flood control measures that will protect that town. Similarly, Kohr points out that if the size theory of social misery happens to be true, nothing prevents steps from being taken that may keep the sizes of social groups sub-critical. Just as Odysseus knew he must avoid the catastrophic temptations of the Sirens as his ship passed by their islands, and was able to do so by deafening his sailors and having himself tied to the mast of his ship, so society can surely devise ways of avoiding the siren calls for creating dangerous national sizes with unanswerable powers. Kohr writes:
There is nothing in a materialistic interpretation of history that could be construed as an excuse for man’s failure to apply his wit, and change a corrupting socio-physical environment in such a manner that unwelcome human responses will automatically cease, and more appropriate responses automatically arise. [Pg. 66.]
Kohr then deals directly, and at some length, to distinguish his theory and his approach from Marxian philosophy. Marx gives central importance to the role of changing modes of production as these affect history and the behaviour of class populations. Kohr assigns central importance to changing sizes, of populations and of nation-states. Marxian analysis is fundamentally economic in nature. Kohr’s analysis is fundamentally socio-political. Kohr agrees that modes of production do have profound affects on changes within given historical periods, but he argues that Marxian analysis has never been able to give a satisfactory explanation for emerging changes between historical periods. Kohr then goes on to give a number of examples of how social-size theory can give a clearer and fuller account of historic developments than can Marxian theory.
And then, at the end of chapter two, Kohr turns to consider the United States, the apparent great exception to his theory about the size of nations and their mis-used critical-powers. Kohr recognizes the signs that the U.S. has (in the mid-1950s) emerged as a proto-empire, and he predicts it will soon become the irresistible military fixer that it has since become, garnering many enemies in the process. He notes the already developing signs of America’s flirting with pre-emptive war, a war that “advocates aggression for the solemnly declared purpose of avoiding it. It is as if someone would kill a man to save him the trouble of dying.” [Pg. 72.] (Korea and Vietnam were soon to accompany the publishing of Kohr’s book. And the “menace” of communism was about to justify vigilante paranoia among many Americans.) But despite its post-war size and power, and except in neighbouring Central America and the Caribbean, America was not yet anything like a bully. Kohr explains this situation by suggesting that America’s geographical size and richness, its scattered populations and its isolationist heritage combined to prevent most Americans from acknowledging and exploiting in their great common power. Though Kohr doesn’t mention it, the newly created United Nations (headquartered in New York) had been given the task of World Policeman. The United States had yet to feel that there was much need for it to take over that role, and/or to protect itself from being “policed” by other UN nations.
* * *
Kohr titles his third chapter: “Disunion Now.” (A clever additional defense perhaps against remaining charges that he is a secret Marxist or Communist.) The chapter begins with an epigraph from André Gide, declaring “I believe in the virtue of small nations.” Kohr will go on here to argue for the wisdom and feasibility of allowing regional secessions and political separations to rid the world of dangerously large nations, but he begins his discussion by recognizing that the twentieth century has long been persuaded that the road to peace lies only in creating fewer numbers of nations, i.e. in the unification of all the world. What once were “the Big Eight” nations, before World War Two, afterward became “The Big Five,” and then “the Big Four,” and then “the Big Three.” Kohr prophesied that soon enough there would be just a “Big Two” but he didn’t name which two he was anticipating. Kohr continues, saying:
[But] unification, far from reducing the dangers of war, seems [to be] the very thing that increases them. For the larger a power becomes, the more it is in a position to build up its strength to the point where it becomes spontaneously explosive. …Not only does unification breed wars by creating war potentials, it needs war in the very process of its establishment. [Pg. 73 – 74.]
Even with a powerful United Nations, Kohr points out that “…whatever form the United Nations take, there will still be the great powers, and there is no reason to believe they would behave differently united than they do disunited.” And then, in one of his rare quotations from others, Kohr quotes Professor Henry C. Simons as follows:
War is a collectivizing process, and a large-scale collectivism is inherently warlike. If not militaristic by national tradition, highly centralized states must become so by the very necessity of sustaining at home an inordinate, ‘unnatural’ power concentration, by the threat of their governmental mobilization as felt by other nations, and by their almost inevitable transformation of commercial intercourse into organized economic warfare among great economic-political blocs. There can be no real peace or solid world order in a world of a few great centralized powers. [Kohr pg. 74, from Simons’ book Economic Policy for a Free Society. U. Chicago Press, 1948, pg. 21.]
And so Kohr turns to the task of how we might create and maintain “small” workable nations. Firstly, he looks at how the European political landscape might appear after large and medium-sized nations had all been reduced in size. To prevent any remaining nation from having a marked advantage in power, population, or control of key resources, Kohr suggests a Europe that might need 50 or more nation states. He names very many of these small countries, including Bohemia, Castile, Cornwall, Macedonia, Naples, Normandy, and Scotland. Moreover, every name he uses applies to a region and culture that had existed before, under the same name. He calls this “Europe’s natural and original Landscape.” [Pg. 75.] Each nation would be, and is, recognizable to those who live there and who share a common language and local cultural traditions.
Kohr then addresses the question of whether such nations would in fact be more peaceful than are today’s larger nations that currently include them. He points out that in the past . . .
nearly all wars have been fought for unification, and unification has always been represented as pacification. So, paradoxically, nearly all wars have been, and in fact still are, fought for unity and peace, which means that if we were not such determined unionists and pacifists, we might have considerably fewer wars. [Pg. 76.]
Kohr asserts too that smaller states can solve the problem of minorities and minority rights within a nation. He holds that “each minority, however little, and on whatever ground it wishes to be separate, could be the sovereign master of its own house….” [Pg. 77. Quebecers in Canada would agree. They use the same phrase: Maîtres chez nous.] Kohr points to the marked success and survival of Switzerland that has created minority nation-like states rather than national minority rights. Centuries ago three Swiss cantons were subdivided into two completely independent sovereign halves, after minority dissatisfactions could not be reconciled in other ways. The most recent of these divisions occurred in 1833 in Basel when rural districts revolted against undemocratic control by urban trade guilds, to form the half-cantons of Basel-City and Basel-Land. There has been peace there ever since.
Kohr points out that national rivalries have been created and maintained by mutual antagonism over territories and resources. For centuries the English have been encouraged to hate the Spanish, and vice versa. But no Scot hated a Basque and no Catalan hated a Welshman. Small states sharing no borders have no national rivalries to feed. With small states, each has less to fear from the other, and, less incentive to join a fight against the other.
It will be objected, however, that long ago in the Middle Ages, when there were many small states, nearly uninterrupted warfare prevailed. Kohr agrees that this sometimes appeared to be the case, but he says:
The purpose of this analysis is not to furnish another of those fantastic plans for eternal peace so peculiar to our time. It is to find a solution to our worst social evils, not a way to eliminate them. The problem of war in modern times is not its occurrence, but its scale, its devastating magnitude. [Pg. 78.]
(Kohr might also have added here the additional problems created by the much longer and widespread aftereffects following modern wars.) Kohr acknowledges that small states do not change basic human nature, including temptations to aggression, greed, jealousy and revenge. The point of ensuring that no states become too large is simply to make rogue states less effective and more easily controlled by those they might wish to harm.
Kohr concludes this topic saying: “The paradoxical result of the constant occurrence of warfare during the Middle Ages was the simultaneous prevalence of peace. We fail to realize this because history records primarily disturbances of peace rather than the existence of peace.” [Pg. 80.] During every battle between a Bavaria and a Tyrol there was peace throughout many dozens of other regions. Never was the entire continent pulled into war in the Middle Ages. Moreover, this was a period of overall accomplishment, development, and building of infrastructure beyond any that would have been possible in a time of constant warfare.
During the Middle Ages even the smaller wars were more peaceful than wars have become in the centuries since, thanks to the very widespread observance at the time of the Treuga Dei, i.e. the Truce of God. Fighting was strictly limited to certain times of the week and the year. Warfare was not permitted between Saturday noon and Monday morning to allow for observance of the Sabbath and tending to the dead and wounded. In some places other religious holidays were added each week to the times of mandated truce. Churches and churchyards, and fields ready for harvest were also off-limits to fighting. Entire groups of people, including all women, children, and old people were often given special protection and exemption from harm. In such a manner, war in the Middle Ages was carefully limited in scope.
Unfortunately, the great peacemaker, Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire, decided to outlaw all war, anywhere and any time, by declaring his Eternal Truce of God. This, of course, proved impossible to enforce. Total peace may have been declared in a unified Empire, but it had the side-effect of ending the Treuga Dei, opening the doors leading to modern Total War. True, the time between wars grew longer, but the wars gradually became more destructive and extensive. Small nations began to unify, shrinking in number, but growing in size. The generally peaceful Middle Ages slipped into history.
* * *
In Chapter four Kohr turns to consider tyrants, and their fates in small nations versus large. He has already argued that there is nothing in the design of education, or society, or nation-states that can prevent all abuses, all wars, all crimes. There will still be tyrants in a world composed entirely of small nations. But Kohr points out that in a small nation tyranny can be contained more easily, and its duration can be more easily shortened. The limited amounts of power available to a small country make it less dangerous for its neighbours, and less difficult for its own citizens to change. Kohr makes these points in a number of ways, using the examples of Hitler in Bavaria (where he failed) vs. Hitler in Germany (where he prevailed), and, Huey Long of Louisiana, who prevailed for a time but did little damage to neighbouring American states.
* * *
In chapter five Kohr develops an argument that small unit sizes are the basis of all physics and all biology. They are the basis of the whole natural world. Thus it should be no surprise that small size would be the secret of sustainable economics and social orders. In physics, as in life, Kohr notes that “Below a certain size, everything fuses, joins, or accumulates. But beyond a certain size, everything collapses or explodes.” [Pg. 98.] When things are too small to be sustainable (physically or biologically) they tend to grow until they become sustainable. But when things become too big to remain sustainable, they try to compensate by further growth, thereby becoming even more unsustainable. Eventually they fracture and decompose, becoming either too small again, or, potentially, becoming sustainable again.
For Kohr, the key principle holding molecules, or healthy cells or societies in a state of long-term equilibrium is a principle of “balance”. The special meaning of “balance” for Kohr involves the mutual tendencies of amalgamated individual units (e.g. of molecules, cells, persons, etc.) to limit the natural but unworkable individual excesses inherent in the behaviour of each of their sub-units. If democracies have evolved a system of checks and balances to prevent excesses of self-interest from destabilizing those societies, this is but a natural extension of the principle of “balance” underlying all evolved matter. Kohr spends some time examining what constitutes a “good” balance (i.e. one that endures) from a “bad” balance (i.e. one that might be said to be “over-balanced” and liable to shatter.) Kohr argues that in every case the “good” balance involves grouping together of a large number of small units, and avoiding the grouping of a small number of large units. These “bad” groupings may be temporarily stable, but soon enough they will meet stresses they cannot survive.
So it has been with the United Nations; Kohr tells us: “The chief symptom of a bad balance is…that it needs a conscious regulating authority.” [Pg. 105.] He points out that the UN is too large to be regulated from outside, while attempts at self-regulation are continually thwarted by big powers within it that remain larger than the powers of all its small units combined.
Kohr then returns to his theme of achieving political and economic progress by dividing large units back into smaller and sustainable units. In my view, Kohr goes astray here, conflating particularization of the parts of some wholes, and specialization in some parts of wholes, as if each of these constituted natural acts of “division”. He claims division is beneficial and natural because we distinguish helpful sub-units inside the units of interest to us. But these haven’t been “divided” in the same sense that Kohr is advocating for the severing of large nations and large businesses into smaller self-contained units.
Kohr concludes chapter five by saying:
The evidence of science thus indicates that not only cultural and mechanical but also biological improvement is achieved through an unending process of division which sees to it that nothing ever becomes to big. It also reveals that in the entire universe there seems to be no problem of significance which is not basically a problem of size or, …a problem of oversize, of bigness…. [Pg. 109]
He concludes that the problems presented by smallness are automatically solved by tendencies to grow, and, in one sense, the problems of bigness are similarly “solved” by tendencies toward increasing expansion, tendencies that help assure “spontaneous destruction.”
* * *
In chapter six Kohr marshals evidence for considerably greater degrees of individual power and freedom for those who live in small towns and small nations when contrasted to those living in large cities and large nations. Whether a nation happens to be the principality of Liechtenstein, (technically a monarchy) or the republic of France, Kohr argues that there is more real Democracy, i.e. considerably more shared power, among those citizen/neighbours who reside in a small state than in a large one.
Individuals count for more in small settings, and for Kohr that is the most important value to be honoured in any political structure. Kohr notes:
The chief danger to the spirit of democracy in a large power stems from the technical impossibility of asserting itself informally. In mass states, personal influences can make themselves felt only if channelled through forms, formulas, and organizations. …We should [then] speak of a group or party democracy rather than an individualistic democracy. [Pg. 114.]
Party politics, or interest-group politics, claim to serve the “Average Man,” but Kohr argues that there is almost no such person. In too many large “democracies,” the minority who are left out of power because they are “not average” (i.e. not members of the largest minority) all too soon becomes a silenced majority.
For large governments to work, a society must become “organized” and “collectivized.” For Kohr, these are dangerous trends that are anathema to personal freedoms. And without personal freedoms, no comfort and no sustainable social future can be expected. So Kohr concludes this part of his discussion arguing again for the creation of small states. And how “small” is small? Small enough so that each state “can be taken in at a single view.” [Pg. 121; here Kohr is quoting from Aristotle.] Small enough so that each state retains its human scale. (And today we might say, small enough so there are at most two degrees of separation between any two people in the state.) Kohr notes that Andorra, with a population below 10,000, has endured unmolested and healthy since the time of Charlemagne. Endurance and sustainability do not require unification into large states.
Another advantage for small states, in Kohr’s view, is that they are more cohesive and thus have fewer “issues” to divide them. He believes that small states are spared most of the stressful conflicts between factions and “isms” that bring religious or economic or social doctrines into fierce battle with one-another. Moreover, in small states such battles are localized and limited, whereas contentious “issues” dividing populations in large nations end up affecting half the rest of the world as neighbours are drawn to take sides or to try to keep the combatants from exporting their conflict to other states.
Kohr ends chapter six persuaded that all people naturally prefer democratic freedoms to living under multiple dictates from institutions and from others. They are willing to give up these freedoms in wartime only because it seems necessary for survival. But in the absence of that necessity they “naturally” prefer and devolve back to “naturally” small administrative units of government, and, in particular to local governments. The propagandistic urgings of power-blocs to unify and to cede power to central authority is, in Kohr’s view, the chief cause of the evils of the modern world.
* * *
In Chapter seven, Kohr takes up the cultural contrasts between large and small states. He marshals evidence attempting to persuade us that in small states individuals, and their intellectual and cultural creative works, do better than they do in large states. Part of the reason this is true, says Kohr, is that “energies” that tend toward aggression, and toward the wielding of power, have very limited outlets in small states, leaving much more “energy” available for creative work. Kohr writes:
The citizen of a small state is not by nature either better or wiser than his counterpart in a large power. He too is a man full of imperfections, ambitions, and social vices. But he lacks the power with which he could gratify them in a dangerous manner…. While the wings of his imagination remain untouched, the wings of his vicious deeds are clipped.” [Pg. 129.]
If hiring a conquering army is unavailable to the incipient tyrant in a small state, he can at least hire craftsman to create great works to perpetuate his memory. Kohr argues that little states have produced a large and disproportionate share of the world’s technical and cultural treasures. He believes this is in part because small states offer much more leisure time and freedom to create. Crowds require increased coping time, and the strictures of large governments do too, as does the work needed for grand empire building. But small states provide little distraction, and they offer more solitude and access to needed help in accomplishing creative work.
Kohr holds that in a small state it is easier to directly encounter a diversity of personal skills, viewpoints, ideas, and social resources In a large state specialization and compartmentalization narrow individual world views and limit individual experiences. Simple access to social diversity is, in Kohr’s view, the most significant reason why small states have produced so many innovations and cultural treasures.
Kohr then presents considerable historical evidence to support his views about cultural richness in small states but not large. He reviews the histories of Germany and Italy when they were small powers versus when they were large. He cites supporting testimony from the writings of Toynbee, Saint Augustine, and Aristotle. He concludes chapter seven saying that social size again appears to be at the root of things, both good and bad; at the root of cultural productivity and human wisdom, when size is limited, and at the root of “specialized ignorance and meaningless excellence in social utilitarianism” when size is too big. [Paraphrasing Kohr’s conclusion on pg. 142.]
* * *
Kohr begins chapter eight saying: “There is, however, one field in which our arguments in favour of a return to a system of small states seem to lose their validity. This [field] is economics. Would not such a return mean economic chaos?” [Pg. 143.] Recreating smaller states would appear to bring the danger of a return to countless barriers to trade and competition, pervasive unemployment, and the undoing of economic progress generally. We might then anticipate the loss of mass-production efficiencies, with concomitant higher prices, and with more frequent scarcities. In short, we might anticipate a return to our impression of life in the Middle Ages.
Kohr answers that one might well believe these dire predictions, given modern economic propaganda, but he intends to show that in fact smaller states produce more economic efficiencies and far more effective systems for the production and distribution of goods and services. He notes:
As everywhere else, it is not a system that is at fault, be it capitalist or socialist, but its application [on] too vast a scale. If capitalism had such stunning success in its earlier stages…it was because of its embodiment of the competitive principle whose most fundamental prerequisite is the side-by-side existence not of a few large, but of many small facilities, requiring not the waste of extensive but the economy of intensive operation. [Pg. 144.]
Kohr asserts that competition and diversity, and the under-appreciated advantages of local production and distribution, were all key to the early successes of capitalism. The loss of these advantages came when they were eroded by the increasing size and reach achieved by fewer and fewer producers.
Most of us believe that today’s standard of living is much higher than formerly it was. Kohr begins his economic discourse by drawing a distinction, however, between “needs” and “luxuries.” The availability of the things that meet our needs, permitting our health and survival, food and shelter and basic comfort, were widely available even before the Middle Ages. Kohr points out that furniture, for instance, and items of clothing in the Middle Ages were generally of higher quality, and were serviceable for much longer than are today’s mass-produced counterparts. These goods were available widely, to “poor” farmers and to workers and to comfortable burgers alike. Antiques, still found in the possession of today’s descendents of yesterday’s “poor,” command high prices partly in recognition of their superior craftsmanship and design.
But today much of modern mass-production continues to be devoted to these same goods meant to satisfy basic needs. Most factories don’t bring us new luxuries, illustrative of our imagined higher standard of living. True, they help to bring us more choice in shoes and shingles and ciders and sweaters, but that excessive choice is artificially made to appear a luxury, the hidden new costs of which include a loss of overall leisure and personal security compared with what was more often available in pre-industrial states. Furthermore, much of today’s manufacturing is devoted to the production of factories, and the machines inside them, and the infrastructure necessary to transport to consumers the basic and necessary goods they produce. These products too are not new luxuries.
Kohr acknowledges that today there are some new luxuries. Costly ones, in terms of the side-effects that many of them bring with them, even if not too costly in terms of their affordability. Automobiles, for instance. But the “luxury” of mobility that cars once gave to us has since disappeared. Cars have become a new necessity of life, degrading our standard of living from what it was when life could be enjoyed on foot or bicycle or horse or boat or train, in that earlier time when making our living did not first require a long and stressful daily commute.
In large nations today the number of state “necessities,” seen as requirements for a secure life in a large nation, has also greatly increased, primarily due to the escalating costs of a non-stop military arms race. Ever greater portions of economic production are going not to goods directly increasing the standard of living for individuals, but to provide “necessary” protection from aggression and crime.
Kohr provides many detailed examples to suggest that life in smaller states has long been, and continues to be, richer in pleasures, comfort, and personal security, than is life in the largest nations on earth today. The standard of living is thus noticeably “higher” in Denmark or Switzerland or Sweden than it is in America or Russia or China. Very recently a number of scientific studies, using a wide variety of indices for a state’s quality of life, such as measures of health and disease, wages and benefits, crime statistics, etc., have all pointed to certain small nations as having noticeably superior living conditions than do today’s large nations. These studies lend strong support to many of the arguments in Kohr’s book, showing why economic fears should not dissuade us from attempting to divide large nations into many smaller nations.
Next Kohr argues that the quality of life in societies today has become no better than it was long ago for individuals at every level of society: for kings and presidents, for professors and students, and for housewives and maids, among others. (Because I find those arguments weak, tangential, and incomplete, I will not detail them here.)
Kohr then turns to consider modern business cycles, with their unavoidable periods of expansion and contraction, their booms and busts. He notes that any improvements in living conditions that society may enjoy while the economy does well are all but totally reversed, for a considerable time, by the depressions to which excessive expansion always lead. Kohr points out that these cycles are not confined to capitalist economies, they are experienced just as often in socialist economies, most spectacularly in communist Russia. Kohr argues that “a better name for them would therefore be growth cycles, since their destructive nature and scale depend not on business, but on growing business, and not only on growing business, but on growing industrialization and [economic] integration.” [Pg. 157.]
The difficulty with the increasing size and reach of big businesses is the increasingly frequent and complex problems that these organizations then face, problems beyond the ability of management and employees and governments to limit and solve. Kohr suggests that no amount of education or training, no organizational changes or new management techniques, and no governmental regulations can compensate for the pace with which the problems of excessive size outdistance any efforts to catch up with them. Only organizational or governmental controls that limit the size and reach of business organizations can prevent the economic problems created by excessive growth. In small nations, market forces and governmental policies can successfully restrain the excessive growth of business organizations, and thereby depressions can be avoided, as can excesses of poverty, ill health, and social unrest. Kohr uses the examples of Denmark, Norway and Sweden to support this conclusion.
Kohr acknowledges that the overall GDP of large nations has increased dramatically in the twentieth century. But the great bulk of these overall monetary increases have come from the production of the “essentials” serving military requirements, security requirements, the new and long-distance transportation requirements for items of food and shelter, etc. Some new products (Kohr’s new “luxuries”) do exist, somewhat increasing the general living standards of the whole population, but they are the first products that disappear again when there is a war, a depression, a financial crisis, or a period of severe inflation. The growth of nations, of global conglomerates and multinational corporations, has perpetuated a cyclic economic instability that small nations, with their many modest-sized producers, have largely avoided.
Where then has the illusion of modern economic progress come from in this world that, nominally at least, demands scientific facts and full examinations of all the evidence for both sides of every theory? Firstly, Kohr believes that opposition to “gigantomania” has been very effectively rendered politically incorrect by a kind of economic fundamentalism actively promulgated by those whose wealth and power require monopolistic control of their particular markets. Naysayers are understandably timid in the face of potential social and professional ostracism if they suggest there are insoluble problems caused by growth without limits. Secondly, analysts and economic historians usually compare the wrong things: they compare mature large economies with immature small economies instead of with mature small economies. They compare the modern U.S.A with modern Haiti or with (immature) medieval England rather than with modern Switzerland or (mature) medieval Florence. Thirdly, immature capitalism, in its earliest phases, when many competing producers and small-scale markets still existed, did produce an improved standard of living for a considerable portion of the population. But unacknowledged are the increases in social costs like slums, pollution, declining health, and child labour abuses that soon were brought on with industrialization.
Kohr next introduces the economic “law of diminishing productivity,” and its implications for his economic argument. This law describes how total production can be increased by increasing one or two key input variables, but only up to a point. Unfortunately the “efficiency” of producing each additional unit of product begins to decline well before the total amount of production itself declines and then stops altogether. However, introducing proportional increases in all of the input variables, allows total production to increase almost without limit, and the “efficiency” of producing each unit can be kept at its optimum level. In effect, this latter procedure amounts to creating duplicate production lines (companies), each in the same business. Many small efficient businesses can thus produce more, at less cost, than can a few large businesses turning out the same amount of product. If companies are limited to modest size, providing healthy competition, both businesses and consumers can share in the “profit.”
Kohr summarizes this argument saying:
In other words, [an] increase in quantity, mass, size, power, or whatever physical element we use, does not produce a corresponding increase in [the production] of satisfactions. Up to a certain point, yes! But beyond a certain point, no! There is a limit. And the ideal limit is always relatively narrow. [Pg. 166.]
There is a similar truth applying to the sizes of business organizations. Kohr argues that the same law of diminishing productivity applies. He says:
As a result, the wise business man will not extend his production to maximum capacity but to optimum capacity. Whatever that may be, it is at all times considerably lower than the maximum. [Pg. 167.]
There are data to support this conclusion even during times of booming economies. Kohr cites studies of corporate revenue in the period before the Great Depression in the USA showing that the sub-set of large corporations earned less on average (not more) than the average earned by all the corporations studied. Moreover, corporations with the least capitalization (less than half a million dollars) enjoyed a return on investment that averaged twice as high as the average return for the group with the greatest capitalization (of more than fifty million dollars.) Nor did the largest corporations invent new labour-saving products. Kohr quotes T.K. Quinn, a former vice-president of the General Electric Company, who wrote:
Not a single distinctively new electric home appliance has ever been created by one of the giant concerns—not the first washing machine, electric stove, [this list continues at considerable length, finally ending with…] vacuum cleaner, dishwasher, or grill. The record of the giants is one of moving in, buying out, and absorbing after the fact.” [Quoted from T.K. Quinn, in The Nation, March 1953. Kohr quotes him on pages 170 and 248.]
Quinn also observed that corporate research departments need to assure their corporate directors of the likely success of producing a profitable new device or technique, and so they dare not give their scientists the freedom to pursue their own ideas in their own ways, wherever those may lead. But creative inventors and scientists need exactly these latter freedoms to discover new principles and useful new devices.
Kohr concludes his review of the economic arguments for encouraging the division of large states and large organizations into many smaller independent units, starting with a quote from Henry Simons, who wrote:
No one and no group can be trusted with much power; and it is merely silly to complain because groups exercise power selfishly. The mistake is simply in permitting them to have it. Monopoly power must be abused. It has no use save abuse.” [Pg. 171]
So economic power is like political power, it is helpful in manageable doses but it will be abused in doses that become too large.
Kohr stresses that in a world returned to many small nations these nations need not create “artificial” economic barriers to trade or to the movement of goods and people. Boundaries are not of themselves barriers. We all of us have our personal boundaries. They are natural. And we all relax them as makes sense. It is not economic folly to prefer a world of small and varied nations. It would mean greater economic equality for all if we had it.
* * *
The remainder of Kohr’s book is devoted first to a general (and expanded) review, then to a plan for achieving the more just and peaceful world that he is convinced would follow from the division of big states into many smaller states, and finally to a look at what can be expected when his plan for division is never implemented.
Yes, Kohr is very clear: while his plan would not be too difficult to implement, it will never be allowed to be implemented, except, says he, following the inevitable world unification that would occur after a terrible war between the last two remaining great powers, a war that leaves just one of them dominant. He writes:
As a result [of this great war], the surviving empire, confronted with the task of administering the entire globe from a single control tower and without the balancing and containing effect of a great rival, will have to do what every other world power has done, from the Persians, the Romans, and the Catholic Church, to Charlemagne, Napoleon, and Hitler. It will have to apply the principle of division to its great remaining national blocs, and cut them into units small enough to be governed without the necessity of a ruinously expensive executive instrument. In other words, the world state of total unity, if it wants to survive longer than the decade of its bloody act of birth, will have to recreate the very thing it may have imagined it had destroyed forever—a world of small units, a world of little states.” [Pg. 218.]
For Leopold Kohr, small is beautiful, natural, imperative, and essentially unobtainable. In the political realm it has only rarely been approached. And in the economic realm, as in the organizational realm, sadly, it has become far less common than once it was.
* * *
For a very long time mankind has unconsciously taken for granted the blessings bestowed on it by a planet filled with rich ecosystems and overflowing biodiversity. Recently, however, it has become strikingly clear how much we must depend on those ecosystems and that diversity. Redundancy and variability are of key importance, not only for evolution, but also for long-term survival. Small is beautiful because small is part of what is necessary to preserve generous redundancies and bountiful variability. Size matters in part because large size restricts general access to the resources that are necessary for the preservation of both redundancy and variability.
It is sadly ironic then (but hardly surprising) that the advantages to be gained from facilitating more and smaller farms, more and smaller towns, more and smaller states, governments, and businesses, are precisely the advantages that have become less and less recognized and respected in our globalized world. Instead, the democratic and ecological virtues of small size are being increasingly denied and eroded by celebrations of bigness, of ballooning monocultures, and of inhumane concentrations of economic and political power.
Our world is not getting smaller at all. Human population is already much too large. As is the quantity of human hubris.
© J. Barnard Gilmore Kaslo, British Columbia November, 2012