Publication by Fourth World Review, a Transition Journal, London, No 151 Nov/Dec 2009
Over fifty years sjnce Kohr’s Breakdown of Nations was first published, former Austrian Ambassador Michael Breisky hails his theory of scale as being more relevant than ever.
David’s fight against Goliath is a wonderful story every century loves to reenact. For me, the 20th century’s fight was between David Leopold Kohr and Globoliath, crown-prince of the Philistine empire of Globalisation. The fight began in the mid-1950s, when David Leopold, the Austrian born philosopher, wrote his „Breakdown of Nations“. Using this book like a slingshot, he hurled three simple ideas against Globoliath:
- One: At any time, every man and every woman is good for a big surprise (and not to speak of children!).
- Two: The complexity of things increases with the square of their size.
- Three: Man’s capacity to understand complexity is limited. If complexity rises beyond this limit, surprises are likely to get nasty and nastier.
Globoliath laughed at these ideas and would not stop ridiculing David Leopold, calling him an obscure social romantic. And indeed, for many, many
years there was no indication that these three ideas had made any impact at all. After claiming victory over the Soviet prince, his equally Philistine rival, Globoliath had even become emperor of Globalization (in fact, most people believe now it were David Leopold’s ideas that caused the Soviet’s demise). But David Leopold always knew his fight would be in slow motion. His ideas were as hard as a diamonds, but had also other qualities: taken together, they develop into a germ, forcing everything bigger or more complex than Human Scale recommends either to perish or to split up. So David Leopold continued to drink at his various “Academic Inns” in Puerto Rico, Wales and Austria, had a lot of fun with the ladies and friends and passed away peacefully in 1994.
In 2008, however, just one year before David Leopold would have turned one hundred, something strange happened: In the wake of a global financial crisis,
many people began to feel and act like the fairy tale’s orphaned child and started to shout: “Emperor Globoliath is naked!” And indeed, now everybody could see and admit freely that David Leopold’s germ had not only destroyed the emperor’s shiny cloths, but had also cut deep wounds into his body.
I am not a prophet and don’t know whether Globoliath’s wounds are fatal, but I doubt that an empire as big as Globalisation can endure for long, if its people believe that their ruler is naked, with nothing to hide his gigantic ugliness.
In a nutshell, that is what even fourth-graders should know and remember about Leopold Kohr. Of course, the philosopher of the Human Scale had much more to say, and he elaborated his theories with the greatest wit and clarity. Some of his quotes tell us also in all briefness how he loved to argue tongue-in-cheek:
“I am a romantic anarchist”
“The greatest stupidity becomes a solemn hymn, if sung by masses in a choir”
“Governmental concern, like marital fidelity or gravitational pull, tends to diminish with the square of the distance”
“Man comes from dust and shall return to dust. In-between, for the materialist there are only expenses – but for the romantic there is the rainbow between beginning and end.”
The stated three ideas of Human Scale are obviously the bare bones of Leopold’s philosophy only. With some flesh on it they would look like this:
Idea No. One tells at the one hand of his deep concern with the well-being of individual man, as opposed to all sorts of collectivism, be it society, state, nation or even mankind; and at the other how he believed in the unfathomable creativity of man, but also how susceptible man is to all kinds of errors and mistakes.
Idea No. Two explains why the costs of growth of a living system are at some point certain to exceed its benefits; and why nature handles this issue by splitting up cells, organs, herds and similar organic entities into smaller units, once their upkeep becomes too expensive. By applying this insight to human society, Leopold gave history and politics a new understanding: “There seems only one cause behind all forms of social misery: Wherever something is wrong, something is too big.“ With other words, for every animal, institution or system, there is an optimal limit beyond which it ought not grow.
Needless to say that the optimal size of human societies cannot be expressed by one figure alone, but depends on various aspects, in particular the society’s tasks. As an economist, Leopold elaborated this view by an analogy with inflation theory: According to his Velocity Theory of Population, the physical mass of a population increases not only numerically by birth and immigration; but also by the velocity with which it moves people and goods – not only „Small is Beautiful“, but also “Slow”!
Similarly, Leopold demonstrated that the quality of life deteriorates in economies that have grown beyond the critical point: the share of GNP for individual expenses spent on luxury will go down, while expenses for collective costs
(„density goods“) will go up.)
Idea No. Three has an optimistic backside: if complexity is kept at bay, man’s surprises are likely to be more creative than destructive. To that end he should always try to be in good social company, where his acts and intentions are discussed in all fairness – ideally in a pub or an Academic inn. But besides staying away from masses, he should avoid anonymity (where too many people love to hide themselves and others) and avoid all positions of unrivalled power, as this would destroy his ability to give and receive the most valuable gift of human trust.
This notion holds another truth: If man’s talent to deal with complexity is limited, then one should be particularly careful with efforts to simplify complexity by means of abstraction; after all, where one looks only at the pure “essence” of things, every abstraction deliberately excludes part of the entire reality. And how long can one continue to ignore parts of the reality?
Of course, abstractions are necessary in life; even animals use them, when they recognise “patterns” of the outside world as basis for their actions. But experience tells us that deliberate neglect of parts of a (admittedly complex) reality bears high risks. Leopold had this in mind when he quoted Paracelsus, the great Swiss doctor of the 16th century: “All medicine is poison- what matters is the dosage”.
He applied this experience to nationalism, socialism, capitalism or similarly demanding “great ideas”, denying these abstractions all claims to absolute authority, while conceding them a limited value “in relation” to a specific context.
The Second Enlightenment
Unfortunately, Leopold said much less about the limits of “great ideas” than about the issue of size and growth in society. So we can assume – while still staying perfectly in line with his thinking – that something like the “critical point” of growth in living systems (biological or social) should also apply to all “great ideas”; i.e. that applying such ideas and abstractions to ever larger areas or issues will always produce “at some point” more disadvantages than benefits. In my view, the admission of such a “critical point” of ideas yields the greatest revolutionary dynamics the world has seen since the early days of Enlightenment. Leopold’s interpretation of the Paracelsus-quote reduces all the (much too often violent) arguments and counter-arguments about the absolute authority of abstractions into Byzantine squabble; instead, our intellectual energies can now be spent on the question, whether an idea or abstraction is still helpful for a specific issue and context – or whether things have already developed beyond its critical point.
So instead of arguing whether competition and international division of labour is good or bad for the planet, one should ask whether it is good for a
specific people. Likewise, one should not argue about an absolute right to immigration or even asylum, but whether the cry “the boat is full!” is justified for this country and not for the other; whether there are categories of strangers that should be admitted even into a rather full boat; and what people in a truly “full boat” could do to ease the fate of the strangers that they have to turn away.
One issue remains, however: there must be rules for when to start discussions about the critical point of “great ideas”, even if it were for practical reasons only (all social life were to collapse, if such a discussion could be initiated by everybody at any time and on any subject). Such a debate must be reasonable, but reason alone will hardly find the right moment to begin this discussion; with other words, we must consult also more holistic sources of cognition, be it religion and spirituality, aesthetics and the arts, consistent traditions or just “common sense”.
The relevance of this issue can be illustrated by the current financial and economic crisis, occasioned by the subprime mortgage crisis: while “rational” projections of well-established financial ideas spoke in favour of separating loans from their respective subprime mortgages (and selling them to others), at least one or two of the
“irrational” means of cognition mentioned spoke in good time against it, as they articulated many more arguments against market- fundamentalism, Globoliath’s pet toy.
In summing up the issue of “great ideas”, it is only fair to state that Leopold’s understanding of the Paracelsus-quote became the first step in a new phase of Enlightenment: While its first phase was ruled by rational intelligence and science alone, the new and second phase will have to admit also the “secondary” means of holistic cognition I have mentioned before; in most instances it is up to the latter to ask the questions and to rational intelligence to find the answers. If this revolution succeeds, one will with all likelihood see one sequence of events reversed, which Leopold seems to have envisaged: Instead of the breakdown of nations leading to the demise of “great central ideas”, it will be the end of such ideas that will enable small political entities to take up more and more responsibilities.
Believe in the rainbow
I hope Leopold forgives me for forcing his philosophy into the three ideas thrown at Globoliath. I have tried to take up Leopold’s torch in my own way and put his ideas in my book “Welcome to Post-Globalisation” – published in London on the occasion of Leopold’s 100th birthday – into the context of our times. Hence my own concept of an Economy of the Mind deals with the physiological problems of data overflow in an advanced information society while supporting Leopold’s Human Scale theories.
Naturally, I had to shift the emphasis on some of Leopold’s points: if he said little about religion and spirituality, I suggest some practical measures to overcome the increasing spiritual void in Western societies. While he hoped for the break-up of nations into a multitude of small states, I favor a way for the many NGOs to take up much of their roles. We differ also with regard to Europe.) But we both believe in the