The rule of philosopher-kings remains a distant ideal that periodically resurfaces from the time it was first given voice by Socrates and Plato in the fifth century BCE. It found some expression in the Chakravartin king Ashoka who renounced war and conquest while at the height of his powers in third century BCE India. And it was thwarted in the attempts of the noble-hearted Boethius to reform the decadent politics of a corroded Roman empire during the sixth century CE.
Regardless, we are where we are, and it is probably useful to continue to actively seek out those rare and occasional carriers of the wisdom that would guide us towards a more equitable world, a more peaceful world, and a more sustainable world than that which we presently inhabit.
Leopold Kohr was professor of economics and public administration at a number of universities in North America, Puerto Rico, and the United Kingdom from the early 1940s to the 1970s. As a younger man, he spent time in Spain as a journalist, sharing an office with Ernest Hemingway, and a friendship and many conversations with Eric Blair, who was later to publish his own writings under the pen name of George Orwell. Even then, Kohr's sharp pen thrust at the Fascism of Franco, the Nazism of Hitler, and the Communism of Stalin.
Shocked by the destruction occurring in Europe at the hands of the great powers of the time, he began to focus his thoughts and marshal his powers of concentration in 1941. Over the next ten years, he gave them form in a manuscript entitled The Breakdown of Nations, which was completed in 1951. Throughout that time, Kohr lectured in economics at the University of Toronto and contributed occasional editorials to the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.
After forwarding The Breakdown of Nations to numerous publishers and receiving numerous letters of rejection in return, he decided to take on the task of laboriously transcribing the text onto parchment in illuminated medieval script rather than suffering the indignity of further rejection slips.
Just as he was inquiring after sources of quality vellum, a very excited Sir Herbert Read, who was later described by Kohr as "the gentle anarchist of Routledge and Kegan Paul", contacted him and offered a contract for the publication of The Breakdown of Nations. It was eventually printed in 1957. Kohr was thereby spared the task of curling and gliding his ink-dipped nib through hundreds of pages destined for gilded ignominy or eventual discovery by future generations.
One of the few who chanced upon that first edition was E.F. Schumacher. They eventually developed a strong friendship. Schumacher was later to describe Kohr as "a teacher from whom I have learned more than from anyone else." Inspired by Kohr's ideas, Schumacher went on to write and publish his own Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered in 1974 and three years later, A Guide For the Perplexed, which was was published just a few weeks before he died in 1977.
Leopold Kohr early identified the relationship between the size of states and their potential for destructiveness. In his introduction to The Breakdown of Nations, he writes:
"The solution of the problems confronting the world as a whole . . . seems to lie in the elimination of those overgrown organisms that go by the name of great powers, and in the restoration of a healthy system of small and easily manageable states such as characterized earlier ages."Kohr understood that wars are not the result of the activities of inherently war-like nations, but tend to irrupt - seemingly inevitably - once a certain threshold of power has been crossed. Regardless of language, culture or circumstance, all nations seem equally capable of performing abominable actions. Kohr reflects:
"Mass executions and related monstrosities were perpetrated in Germany under the Nazis, in India under the British, in France under the Catholics, in Russia under the most savage, and in Italy under the most enlightened, princes."Searching for a common denominator led him to similar conclusions to those reached a decade earlier by Simone Weil in what Kohr called a "power theory of social misery."
This was clearly the case in the occupation of Tibet by China. It was also manifest in the policies and actions of the Bush Administration once it came into power. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq was largely driven by a small group that included many of the so-called neo-conservatives who during the 1990s charted the militarist agenda later pursued by their so-called Commander-in-chief.
The ebullition of colossalism welded to power is not restricted to the theatre of war. Great size and unrestrained power provide the opportunity to "misbehave with impunity" as we have seen in recent years in the financial dealings of Wall Street. Laissez faire principles might be useful in the conduct of small operations and concerns where dishonest practices or the rank exploitation of others become counter-productive once people wise up to what is going on. But laissez faire is a dangerous principle on which to base large scale operations and global enterprises because, as Kohr repeatedly emphasises, power corrupts, and power emboldens, and power invites its own exercise.
Leopold Kohr holds that internal social miseries, those social pathologies that underlie criminality, family violence and social alienation, are the consequences of the overgrowth of cities and urban environments, while external social miseries that can cause the oppression and loss of freedom of entire populations, result from the overgrowth of states and of state power. Kohr is decidedly against the grain when he advises against the uniting or amalgamation of national groups into larger ones. He calls, rather, for "the dismemberment of the vast united national complexes commonly called the great powers." Only in this way can "power . . . be pushed back to dimensions where it can do no spectacular harm, at least in its external effects." Kohr continues: "The problem of war in modern times is not its occurrences, but its scale, its devastating magnitude."
From Border Skirmishes to Total Devastation
Kohr wrote at a time when the world began to realise the true extent of destruction caused by new ways of waging war. In 1940, a report in the New York Times had estimated that during World War I, between 25 and 35 million lives had been lost as a direct consequence of hostilities. About half of those killed died as a result of battle wounds and injuries. The other half died as a result of starvation and disease, notably, the pandemic of influenza that erupted into the wasted ruins of war-torn cities and countrysides.
By the end of 1945, over 20 million soldiers had been killed in battle in World War II. An additional 47 million civilians were estimated to have been killed during the war, with 20 million perishing as a result of famine and war-related disease.
Kohr repeatedly reminds us that the great powers are not necessarily possessed of great wisdom. Their activities over the past two centuries have transformed the small and manageable hostilities of earlier times into events of unbearable scale and consequence. Kohr cites the example of Central and South American states where wars and revolutions occurred regularly, but "would come and go like spring showers."
Kohr is a realist. He acknowledges that neither the problems of war nor of internal criminality disappear in small states. He observes:
"In a small state world, there is a constant breathing and sneezing and changing that never permits the development of gigantic sub-surface forces. These can arise only in a large power arrangement which provides longer periods of peace and allows powers to inhale with their formidable chests for entire decades, only to blow down everything in front of them when, at last, they begin to exhale their hurricanes."Neither collective submissiveness nor tyrannical disposition can be attributed to nations as a whole. Neither one nor the other are the consequence of "tradition, national character, or the mode of production." People become submissive when they are collectively oppressed by big power. This happened in many of the Jewish communities in Europe at the hands of Hitler's SS troops. This has also been seen in the wake of the brutality of Chinese forces both in the occupation of Tibet and in dealing with pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The governments of both Burma and North Korea continue to hold their own people in subjection. Such submission on the part of entire populations represents a near-instinctive way of coping with the threat of power that can be brutally exercised. Kohr presciently noted:
"The seemingly most freedom-loving peoples have accepted tyranny as submissively as the seemingly most submissive ones . . . It is safe to say that Americans would submit if our federal structure permitted the accumulation of the necessary volume of governmental power."
The Pathology of Bigness
Small autonomous systems are self-regulatory by their very nature. Social colossalism, whether it be in the form of totalitarianism or the globalisation of trade represents a deeply flawed attempt to "consciously hold together what previously arranged itself automatically." The imposition of large-scale agriculture practices in developing counties by the International Monetary Fund, and the insistence by the World Trade Organisation that wealthy nations be free to conduct global trade, have had devastating effects on the lives of hundreds of millions of individuals and on the economies of struggling nations while benefiting the back-pockets of big players in the already-wealthy nations.
At another level, partisan politics suffers from the same pathology. All individuality must be subsumed where the party line is concerned. Differing viewpoints are forcibly curbed. Earlier expressed ideals are muzzled and suppressed in order to present a "unified front." We have seen this in Australian politics in the silence of a former environment minister who, before entering the political theatre was a fiery protagonist of change, environmental awareness and the dangers of military gigantism, yet who underwent a peculiar emasculation of both intention and expression once elected to office. Some small possibility of hope remains in the growing influence of independent politicians associated with smaller and more socially and environmentally conscious parties who carry at least a shadow of the nearly-lost ideal of participatory democracy.
Leopold Kohr extends his understanding of gigantism to the failures of capitalism. He holds that both the successes and the satisfactions enjoyed by capitalism in its early stages were due to its essential smallness and its capacity to support and encourage numerous small competitive enterprises working intensively and concurrently alongside each other. Early capitalism was characterised by the breadth, the ingenuity and the diversity of the enterprises that were created. Relationships at every level were intensely personal, from the workplace itself to the marketplaces where products were bought and sold. Problems began to appear at much the same time as monopoly capitalism began to appear with its penchant for massive-scale enterprises and exploitation of both workers and the market place.
Our cities have now grown beyond humanly manageable levels and are spread over vast areas that require complex and massive roadway systems capable of carrying legions of commuters to and from their place of work at great cost in terms of energy use, air quality and lost time.
Small-scale local agricultures have been replaced by obligatory industrial scale broad-acre methods that denature vast tracts of land and destroy ecosystems while producing foodstuffs that slowly and progressively poison entire populations through the chemicals routinely used in their production.
Kohr's call to reconsider the wisdom of valuing smallness in human affairs has failed to gain any effective ground in this behemothic time. Yet he offers a vision of how things can be done in a way that could carry us safely through centuries and perhaps millennia of satisfying human presence upon the earth. Being a realist, he carries no illusions regarding the fate of his ideas:
"To believe in the willingness of the great powers to preside over their own liquidation for the purpose of creating a world free of the terrors which they alone are able to produce, would not be a sign of faith in the first place, but of lunacy, as it is the sign of lunacy, and not of faith, to believe that atom bombs can be produced but need not necessarily be detonated."The wisdom of Leopold Kohr is the wisdom of one who has realised the essential perplexity of many aspects of human reality and of one who has sought to communicate his insights and offer an alternative, albeit unrealisable vision. But that is the nature of visionary transmission. Kohr understands that his ideas will never become the guiding principles of the-world-as-it-is. Kohr's ideas are located in community, in proportion, in adequacy, in forbearance, and in mutually enhancing presence. He offers a view of what could become.
The drive to colossalism that has become the signature of industrial civilisation will not abate of its own accord. Simply look around at how things are done by most governments on the planet at present. Other perspectives, however, remain available to us, marginalised though they may be. These perspectives acknowledge the wisdom of restraint, the madness of continuing business as usual, and the folly of endlessly pursuing economic growth.
We are all presently facing conditions that will impose their own necessity upon us all. Kohr comments:
"Whatever comes, the ultimate world state will go the road of all other ultimate world states of history. After a period of dazzling vitality, it will spend itself. There will be no war to bring about its end. It will not explode like the ageing colossi of the stellar universe. It will gradually collapse internally, leaving as its principle contribution to posterity its fragments, its little states. . . . History will in all likelihood repeat itself and the world, little and free once more, will experience another of those spells of cultural greatness which characterized the small-state worlds of the Middle Ages and Ancient Greece."Kohr concludes that we should learn to enjoy what we have, even in the knowledge that there are better ways of doing things. He laconically reflects: "If we have measles, we can just as well enjoy them. For if we do not, we shall still have measles."
Leopold Kohr was a seminal influence in the work of E.F. Schumacher and remains a potent source of inspiration for all who would direct their energies towards finding ways of living with each other and with the earth in, to use the phrase of Thomas Berry, "a mutually enhancing manner."
Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
Readers who would like to know more about the style and content of Kohr's "The Breakdown of Nations" will find a review and substantive excerpts from the book on the Book Reviews page of The Healing Project website. Scroll down to "Cultural and Historical Studies" where you will find a link to the review.