Sunday, June 10, 2012

Size matters

"Kohr principles" is an interesting article (from the NYT's equally interesting "Borderlines" series) about the ideas of Leopold Kohr.  Kohr was a 20th-century academic interested in how the size of countries determines their interaction with other countries.  He proposed various new maps for Europe and North America which he figured would be closer to an ideal setup than what he saw before him.  Wrong or right, it's worth checking out.

Wikipedia sez:

Kohr described himself as a "philosophical anarchist." Kohr protested the "cult of bigness" and economic growth and promoted the concept of human scale and small community life....His vision called for a dissolution of centralized political and economic structures in favor of local control.

From Leopold Kohr's most popular work The Breakdown of Nations:
[...] there seems to be only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness. Oversimplified as this may seem, we shall find the idea more easily acceptable if we consider that bigness, or oversize, is really much more than just a social problem. It appears to be the one and only problem permeating all creation. Whenever something is wrong, something is too big. [...] And if the body of a people becomes diseased with the fever of aggression, brutality, collectivism, or massive idiocy, it is not because it has fallen victim to bad leadership or mental derangement. It is because human beings, so charming as individuals or in small aggregations, have been welded into overconcentrated social units.
Personally, I found a lot of merit in these least insofar as I can see here.  Not having read the man, I can't endorse him wholeheartedly, but he seems to articulate things which I have been thinking about quite a bit over the last few years.

I think Kohr would agree that "bigness" is an obsession of Imperialist, Fascists....and the kind of Predatory Capitalists that have recently run the global economy into the ground.

Growth is the key to survival, according to these businessman gamblers....making a profit is no longer good enough.  I can't tell you the number of times over the years that students of mine in management positions have repeated this mantra.  A small company can stay small and survive, but once it gets to a certain size it must grow even more....or die.  And it cannot simply be profitable, it must make more profit every year.  And even more the next, and the next, etc.  It seems self-evident that unemployment, inflation and environmental destruction are the inevitable outgrowths of such a position.

This article from The Guardian puts it nicely:

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. 

It's all about the coin....European Union had a common currency before a political constitution....a constitution, btw, rejected by the French people in a referendum but then later rammed through parliament.

Ask Spain, Ireland and Greece how it's all working out for them.

Too big to fail you say?  Where've we heard that one?  Bigness is not the key to survival.  Whither the dinosaurs whilst the insects live on?


  1. Thanks for this. I'll have to spend some time reading the links before having any meaningful comments, but an immediate thought is that this would seem to collude with "frontier theory" -- if you are big enough to have frontier to explore, you have room to explore and you have the basis for insisting that individuals can strike out and make something of themselves. If you are not big enough for a frontier, you have to make do with what you have, work together--collectivism (or, of course, make war, i.e., develop a frontier via invasion).

  2. In other words, the presence of a frontier encourages individualism.

    On the other hand, it seems to me that the experience of the U.S. (with the western frontier) and the Soviet Union (with the eastern frontier, Siberia) would seem to show that fate is not determined by the presence of a frontier?

    Or maybe frontier theory neatly accounts for similarities b/t the two countries (e.g., both military leaders in the world, etc.).

    1. Perhaps what we'll see is the US fall apart just as the USSR did....problem is the US doesn't have the ethnic concentrations around which the new states could coalesce. In the US it might just be all against all. A theme which will reappear in my "Zombie" post.

      I don't think I did a good enough job with explaining my thoughts on how the "growth imperative" will lead to the problems I describe (unemployment, higher prices).....but it does seem self-evident that when one is driven to increase profit on a yearly basis, costs must be cut and new areas for which to charge must be found....which in turn takes economic activity out of local hands. In France once upon a recent time you could slaughter a pig at home and make eau de vie on the farm. Now, in the name of hygiene, it's illegal, but everyone believes that it's merely a way to drive economic activity towards corporate distillers and abattoirs. People used to exercise both activities for millennia!

      It semms that in France anyway, when people learn a new way to do things for free, the government makes it illegal. For example, we hear all the time about the energy crisis and the need to conserve fuel, but it's illegal to use recycled cooking oil in your diesel car: no taxes and no profit for Total and BP. This is just one small example.

      I think I'm going to develop the "decroissance" theme over a series of's an idea whose merit, or perhaps lack thereof, I'd like to learn more about. I'll start with Kohr! I could be totally wrong and naiive, I readily admit it. I'm not going to occupy anything just yet!


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