2012: Leopold Kohr and the Limits of Complexity

NEW EUROPEAN, London, • autumn 2012:


Leopold Kohr and the Limits to Complexity

Michael Breisky


Many people think the financial crisis, Fukushima and the many Wutbürger(angry citizens) movements spreading all over the world are symptoms of a deep systemic problem. Protestors who also reject the too-big-to-fail argument might be glad to remember Leopold Kohr (born 1909 near Salzburg – died 1994 in Gloucester, England), Austrian philosopher, professor of economics, and winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize in 1983. Kohr was founder of the small-is-beautiful movement and his views on life and society are remarkably well-suited for the 21st Century.

Always crystal clear and full of up-beat humour, Kohr’s advocacy of human scale can be summed up in three axioms:

  1. If man is free, he will always surprise us
  2. When something gets bigger, it will soon get over-complicated
  3. When something gets over-complicated, the surprises will be nasty ones

Human beings are always able to surprise us and, as long as they are free, they would rather build than destroy, says Kohr. These traits are the source of human individuality and dignity, a safeguard against manipulation, and they arc also the basis for democracy. Thus Kohr may have an optimistic view of humanity, but one built on strict prerequisites: the open exchange of ideas with friends (in the informal- but-academic atmosphere he preferred, so our endless propensity to err can be mitigated), and his call for small and transparent environments that prevent people from hiding in the anonymity of the masses. After all, the ability to hide from accountability while comfortable is also dangerous: we must always be challenged to act as individuals.

A faceless mass can offer the individual intoxicating emotionality and a brief feeling of belonging, but the absence of comprehension and manageability of the whole on the individual level (Überschaubarkeit) comes at a high cost, namely the loss of freedom, and ultimately can endin disaster. In conclusion, Kohr sees a strained relationship between two extremes: on the one hand, a utopian but desirable romantic anarchism, with individuals liberated from violence and hierarchy, and at the other extreme, the lowest point, domination by others, where human beings become totally anonymous and predictable.

Kohr’s warning against large-scale complexity is fundamental to his theory of society. It is derived from his observation that while growth can often be advantageous it bears a cost of coordination that increases disproportionately on such a scale that, once a ”critical point” is reached, an impossible burden is added. At that point, as with living cells, this will lead to spontaneous division and new organisms will emerge or else the whole will perish. As a consequence, Kohr proposed that politicians should divide up states and overextended social entities into several small units of sub-critical size. Where the threshold actually lies depends mainly on the purpose of the group, but also on the quality of its organization, the population density, and its economic sustainability.

The nasty surprises that arise in units that are too big or too complex and thus impossible to understand must be seen within the context of Kohr’s ideas on life and society. These surprises are ’nasty’ because the consequences of excessive size will be totally unexpected; this also applies to abstractions: when we press complex matters into simple models, and project them onto other different and more complex scenarios, often relying on ideologies or ’great ideas’ to do so. According to Kohr, Paracelsus’s adage ”The dose makes the poison” is valid here too. Ideologies built around nations, classes or markets may initially have a high explanatory value, but when applied wholesale they give rise to negative outcomes. Two current examples of such grand ideas running into trouble are cost-reduction by outsourcing and monetary union in Europe.


Kohr’s ideal political entity:

This is the city state, as it existed in ancient Greece, medieval northern Italy, and the German mini-states of the Holy Roman Empire. Here, culture and civil society prospered because things were small, transparent and understandable, and fewer resources had to be spent on military power (less power means much less mistrust: another aspect close to Kohr’s heart). Consequently, he repeatedly praised Liechtenstein, and Switzerland for its cantonal constitution. Looking to the future, Kohr advocated the subsidiarity principle and strengthening of the historical and small regions of Europe: thus anticipating a de facto disempowerment of large nation states. Only in this way could Europe achieve the necessary harmonization of supra-regional needs withoutmarginalizing the minnows. Today, Kohr would criticize the EU above all for its fixation on standardization: as the expressway to large-scale failure.


Human scale as a guideline

Kohr does not see smallness as an end in itself: after all, at the heart of his philosophy is the welfare of the individual, not the collective or great idea. In aphorisms and striking comparisons he may blame large-scale growth as the root of most troubles in the world, but what he really criticizes is not size itself, but rather mankind’s inability to understand the complexity that usually (but not always) goes with it. Human scale implies an ability to at least roughly understand the causal relationships. As already implied in the three axioms, Kohr’s warnings not to cross the ”critical point” are built on three different arguments:

socio-political, based on the hard facts of cost-benefit analysis

philosophical, based on empirical psychological knowledge of the necessary social framework for individual human development,

rational, by keeping on challenging the abstractions behind great ideas (this approach is quite revolutionary, countering the methodology of the enlightenment: where simple models are developed from abstractions, as in laboratory experiments, and then applied by linear projection onto more complex scenarios).

The financial crisis that began in 2008 seems to confirm Kohr’s warning; even the financial industry itself did not fully understand derivatives, and the unbridled greed of neo-liberalism drove us like reckless motorists at full-speed into a fog bank. However, it is not only the financial sector which failed due to its own complexity; it is the whole philosophy behind globalization that must now be reappraised.


Support from others

Prince Hans-Adam II von Liechtenstein describes in Der Staat im dritten Jahrtausend (The State in the Third Millennium) a triumvirate as old as human history: monarchs (hereditary or elected), oligarchs (formerly nobility: now party bosses and doubtless bankers) and the common people. Today, it is the all-powerful oligarchs who must be checked in favour of the people and monarchs. If these oligarchs are so powerful because, as they claim, they are better able to handlecomplexity, then the best way to keep a check on them is by reducing this complexity.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues in his book The Black Swan how the probability of rare events is non-computable and how supposedly extremely unlikely risks very often have drastic consequences. ] The theory of evolutionary epistemology (R. Riedl, H. v. Ditfurth, G. Vollmer, also A. Dijksterhuis and myself) explains why for biological reasons our ability to understand complexity is limited. It is especially dangerous when rational people fail to recognize their own limitations as well as the grave risks that exist beyond focused awareness. Biological evolution means we can recognize these risks only with the help of irrational means: firstly by instinctive information-analysis that spontaneously informs us, through our senses, of all remarkable events in the outside world, and secondly by consulting irrational but holistic sources of cognition such as religion, desire for harmony, sustained customs and traditions. Today in our apparently enlightened world, to have abandoned these holistic means of protecting our flanks and instead to rely solely on rational thought is worn as a badge of honour, and yet this presents us with an awful dilemma around the globe, as, due to globalization and new technologies, we project ever-wider webs of purely rational abstractions.


Time to reverse globalization!

Sometimes things work out, even when driving into a fog bank, and globalization could yet have other benefits: the unlimited exchange of information, universal recognition of human rights, a new awareness of the global causality needed to protect the world’s climate. But insofar as globalization is a rational project, with Kohr’s nasty surprises still lying in ambush, we need to be particularly careful when stepping outside familiar territory. We must first try to establish that our actions have no catastrophic consequences and check the corresponding burden of proof, before we speed into the next fog bank.

The need for a paradigm change is clearly felt today. In many fields, from religion to national security, from energy policy to democratic legitimacy in the financial sector, there are contemporary trends that clearly relate to Kohr’s ideas. While none of these separate trends have been widely adopted so far – after all, they emerged and developed independently – it is only a matter of time before they will be linked politically and a new dynamic of regionalism develops.


Recommended course of action

I have great confidence in the internet and new social media such as Facebook. This is where new networks are being created with thesame holistic quality as the city-states that Kohr so admired. The real potential of these networks has yet to be seen, but they could give birth to completely new models of political interaction: over and above the utopian cosmos of mini-states and the failing reality of large and increasingly impotent nation states.

A tip for angry citizens: use Facebook, read Kohr, support liquid democracy and study at how holistic resilience trumps complex efficiency. The soft landing of the economy and politics might depend on it!




Dr. Michael Breisky, former Austrian ambassador (www.breisky.at)  publishedGross ist ungeschickt, Leopold Kohr im Zeitalter der Post-Globalisierung(Big is Clumsy. Leopold Kohr in the Age of Post-Globalization.)






Mission statement:

Small may not always be so beautiful, but “too big to fail” is a recipe for disaster in everything human, including “great ideas”. This new group is a networking alliance for Human Scale. It supports the elaboration of models – economic, political and social – that have individual man at their centre and respect differentiation of ideas, such as balancing efficiency with resilience, globalization with regionalism, market- supply with cooperative practices, tolerance with identity.


Introductory document:

Human Scale is viable – and needed right now!

Old and new Enlightenment:

Enlightenment brought us the use of Reason. After a long success- story, Reason now tells us that Enlightenment also requires something else: consideration for what is unreasonable in man. And so we learn that reason works best where it stays within Human Scale – i.e. in an environment where individuals have the maximum holistic understanding for their situation as well as the consequences of their actions. All technological progress was not able to extend this environment much beyond our sense’s reach. Outside this area we must heavily rely on assumptions and linear projections, where theever more complex risks of failure are today becoming unreasonably high.

Old Enlightenment projected a few great ideas into sky-high cathedrals, dreaming of a better world. New Enlightenment shares these ideas, too, but asks why the better world would never dawn; and sticks to the ancient system used by nature and masons: cells and bricks. Building with many small, independent and versatile units gives the system flexibility so that the whole will not be affected if one or the other unit fails to function; and the result – material or virtual – will not exceed Human Scale. Its cathedrals may not reach to the sky, however, but they can be at least as beautiful – because more often than not, “small is beautiful”.


Kohr and Schumacher

Small is Beautiful is the title of a book by E. F. Schumacher (1911-1977), published in 1973; it is also known as the motto of his friend and teacher Leopold Kohr (1909 -1994), who had developed his philosophy 20 years earlier (published 1957 in The Breakdown of Nations (see p.25)

The two authors were the first to stand for the Human Scale in society. Kohr was the socio-political “philosopher-in-general”, while Schumacher dealt more with economic issues. What they said about Human Scale half a century ago survived great social revolutions, but it is as valid today as it was then. And it helps that both authors were particularly charismatic, their writing crystal-clear and witty. This bodes well for the next 50 years!

Both authors agreed that small is beautiful where size and complexity of things will not exceed comprehension and manageability – the pre-condition of responsibility. Ideas may also be great and beautiful, but they are easily projected into excess; the best way to keep ideas (and values) within Human Scale is to differentiate and in particular to balance them with equally good counter- ideas or values, like bravery and caution, or direct democracy and representative democracy. Today it may be imperative to balance efficiency with resilience, globalization with regionalism, market- supply with co-operative practices, tolerance with identity.



Of course, there were – and there are also today – many other great minds objecting to the outcome of Old Enlightenment and arriving at conclusions close to Human Scale. Their followers should rally and co-operate in several layers of networks!

For the need for a paradigm change is clearly felt today. In many fields, from religion to national security, from ecology and energypolicy to democratic legitimacy in the financial sector, there are contemporary trends that clearly relate to the issue of Human Scale. These trends appear to have surfaced separately and continue to be handled separately, but they should urgently be linked politically under the auspices of Human Scale.

Very little falls from heaven; if today’s man wants to be free, he needs to network with the right people and institutions or work for a network of like-minded. Internet and the new social media such as Linkedin and Facebook will play a decisive role – and joining the “Alliance for Human Scale” with Linkedin is certainly a right move.

As the Alliance grows, it will set up a reference basis and an on- line journal.

Human Scale has so many aspects that it may be advisable to establish sub-groups to this Linkedin-group; one of the first sub- groups should deal with models to solve the crisis of European integration.

Most important: Optimism should prevail; just as Kohr brought the essence of Human Scale to the point:

Adjusted in size to the small stature that God had given us, their problems could therefore by nature never outgrow the genius of local their leaders, or the resources of their natural endownment

Finally, I leave the floor to the German poet Erich Kästner; he managed to express the truly revolutionary power of the Human Scale in two brief lines:

Who dares to stand against roaring trains? Small flowers, blooming between the rails!


Dr. MICHAEL BREISKY is a retired Austrian diplomat and writer

„Alliance for Human Scale“ – opening of a new group in Linkedin, 20 September 2012