Reflecting on the quote from well-known anarchist and purveyor of ‘maybe logic’ Robert Anton Wilson: “The Right’s view of government and the Left’s view of big business are both correct”, it seems self-evident that what they have in common is that they are hierarchical bureaucracies that have grown so big that the majority of the effort that should be being expended in furthering their supposed goals in fact is spent simply propping them up as organisational structures in a fight against an inevitable natural entropy which would otherwise destroy them.

On the same theme, Paul Kingsnorth writes in The Guardian about the Austrian author Leopold Kohr, a major influence on E. F. Schumacher, and his criticisms of large unwieldy systems: “Wherever something is wrong, something is too big.”

Drawing from history, Kohr demonstrated that when people have too much power, under any system or none, they abuse it. The task, therefore, was to limit the amount of power that any individual, organisation or government could get its hands on. The solution to the world’s problems was not more unity but more division. The world should be broken up into small states, roughly equivalent in size and power, which would be able to limit the growth and thus domination of any one unit. Small states and small economies were more flexible, more able to weather economic storms, less capable of waging serious wars, and more accountable to their people. Not only that, but they were more creative. On a whistlestop tour of medieval and early modern Europe, The Breakdown of Nations does a brilliant job of persuading the reader that many of the glories of western culture, from cathedrals to great art to scientific innovations, were the product of small states.

To understand the sparky, prophetic power of Kohr’s vision, you need to read The Breakdown of Nations. Some if it will create shivers of recognition. Bigness, predicted Kohr, could only lead to more bigness, for “whatever outgrows certain limits begins to suffer from the irrepressible problem of unmanageable proportions”. Beyond those limits it was forced to accumulate more power in order to manage the power it already had. Growth would become cancerous and unstoppable, until there was only one possible endpoint: collapse.

We have now reached the point that Kohr warned about over half a century ago: the point where “instead of growth serving life, life must now serve growth, perverting the very purpose of existence”. Kohr’s “crisis of bigness” is upon us and, true to form, we are scrabbling to tackle it with more of the same: closer fiscal unions, tighter global governance, geoengineering schemes, more economic growth. Big, it seems, is as beautiful as ever to those who have the unenviable task of keeping the growth machine going.

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3 Comments A ‘crisis of bigness’

  1. AvatarSteven Palmer

    The book created the nation and the individual, electricity decentralizes those, and with it the public. So I’m not so much worried about weakening the power of nations, as I am about finding ways to strengthen collective power and individual rights. So I don’t think we can afford to be power-shy, as Nietzsche and Martin Luther King Jr said, that is a mistake, one private power systems feed upon. We must learn to love power, or to put it another way, be conscious of our natural will to power in accordance with love.

    So the question becomes, how can individuals of diffuse personal identity collectivise and augment their power minus a public?.. while P2P infrastructure provides critical decentralisation to enable collaboration, and P2P systems and commons allow them to come together and collectivise somewhat, this coming together is no substitute for the energy, agility, responsibility, responsiveness and ability to focus that national civic identity once had. I fear its closer to the free market atomisation that enables oppression and control.

    In a nutshell, we must create collective civic power rather than just destroy it. We should not be afraid to democratically re-centralize and embrace tribal institutions as necessary guile and muscle for protecting and empowering commons and people against both government and its sanctioned bandits. Just some thoughts, would be happy to know your thoughts.

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