Virtues of Smallness
by Butler Shaffer
Recently by Butler
Does History 'Prove'?
something is wrong, something is too big.
in Japan bring to mind Leopold Kohr’s book, The
Breakdown of Nations, wherein he develops the "size
theory of social misery." In words that help to explain the
processes of decentralization that are transforming vertically-structured
organizations into horizontal networks, Kohr tells us that
"only relatively small bodies – though not the smallest, as
we shall see – have stability. . . .Beyond a certain size, everything
collapses or explodes." He adds that "the instability
of the too large . . . is a destructive one. Instead of being
stabilized by growth, its instability is emphasized by
it." [Emphasis in original.] An economist of Austrian birth,
and with a strong anarchist bent, Kohr was a great influence on
E.F. Schumacher, best known for his book, Small
confront, head-on, the alleged virtue of "bigness" in
which our institutionally-directed culture has been thoroughly indoctrinated.
The benefits that derive from "economies of scale;" the
"bottom-line" authority of "power" to resolve
difficulties; the ego-gratification that some people find in being
part of a world-dominating "empire;" are just some of
the attractions that seduce us into embracing the cult of size.
What sound is more prevalent at sporting events than the chant "we’re
But a principle
that was not sufficient to sustain the dinosaurs into the present,
is being challenged in the nature of the systems by which we humans
organize with one another. While giant nation-states, and sprawling
multi-national corporations, express – in the minds of many – an
article of faith, there is a growing sense that our vertically-structured
world no longer meets our expectations for both liberty and order.
Decentralized technologies are causing us to rethink and redefine
what we mean by "society."
Some of the
unforeseen consequences of the recent 9.0 earthquake in Japan are
providing empirical support for Kohr’s warnings. There are lessons
waiting to be learned from the literal "fallout" of radiation
from this damaged facility.
problems produced at this site by the quake should cause thoughtful
minds to question not nuclear power per se, but the practice
of centralizing the production and distribution of electrical energy.
There are more considerations involved than just calculating the
scale economies associated with huge power generators connected
into national grids. Not only are such structures subject to the
same unpredictabilities and uncertainties of other complex systems
- periodic regional power blackouts will be recalled – but the same
implications that attend political centralization are present.
I read a wonderful quotation from Jacques Ellul – neither the origins
nor the exact wording I recall – which said, in essence, "show
me how electrical power is distributed in a society, and
I will show you how political power is distributed."
It is no idle coincidence that political authority and electrical
energy are each spoken of in terms of "power."
I don’t know
whether the aftermath of the nuclear-power-plant meltdown in Japan
will prove harmful or neutral to those outside the immediate area.
I do suspect that those in the higher echelons of the corporate-state
establishment are busy formulating an "official" prognosis
that will best serve its interests. If establishment interests in
protecting nuclear power predominate, we will be told that there
will be no adverse radiation consequences for Americans. On the
other hand, if it will further promote government interests in regulating
the production, transportation, and sale of foods, I can imagine
our being told that such radiation poses too much danger to Americans
– particularly "the children" – to allow independent farmers
to avoid detailed regulation of their produce. Keeping in mind George
Carlin’s comment that "I never believe anything the government
tells me," each of us will bear the burden that we have heretofore
ignored, namely, to bore deeply into the question "how do we
know what we know?"
There is a
cryptic message in this disaster which, predictably, will not be
addressed by institutional voices, but whose decipherment may be
aided by a synthesis of Kohr’s and Ellul’s insights. At a time when
the decentralization of social systems has taken on great importance,
it is timely to consider the advantages that could arise from a
more localized – perhaps even individualized – source of electrical
power. A principal benefit arising from both a free market system
and the private ownership of property – concepts that are corollary
expressions of each other – is that both individual liberty and
social order are maximized when decision-making authority diverges
into independent persons, rather than converging into centralized
elites. A major problem with institutionalized systems – particularly
the state – is that the adverse consequences of their actions are
multiplied, exponentially, as the range of their activities is increased.
If, for example,
electrical power is produced and generated centrally, problems that
arise will have a much wider range of consequences (e.g., might
affect an entire region of the country) than if it is produced locally.
The same dynamics are at work in other areas of economic activity:
if an individual businessman makes an error in judgment, he and
those with whom he associates will suffer the loss. If a governmental
agency (e.g., the Federal Reserve) makes such an error, the entire
country may suffer the effects.
So, too, if
an individual, a neighborhood, or a small community, operating its
own electric power system, makes a mistake, the consequences will
be experienced more locally than when the power source is centralized.
What better illustration of this than the Japanese incident: the
meltdown of a nuclear-power plant could send radiation over many
thousands of miles, adversely affecting people on other continents.
This contrast is made even greater by the realization that only
in large, centralized systems is electricity going to be produced
by nuclear energy. An individual or neighborhood system is not likely
to employ a power source requiring so much investment and involving
such potential for external harm.
I have no particular
case to make either for or against nuclear power, other than of
my concern for the institutionalization of the system, and the likelihood
that, as with other large corporate undertakings and their propensity
for employing the coercive powers of the state, there will be a
more widespread socialization of costs. It may be that the very
nature of nuclear power necessitates largeness and concentration
in its generation. In the same way that only powerful nation-states
– and not your next-door neighbor – would desire to own nuclear
weapons, there is a life-threatening quality that inheres in the
marriage of power and massive size. Leopold Kohr’s admonitions must
be given serious attention, as humanity continues to get crushed
by the weight of institutional monoliths. Jacques Ellul gets to
the essence of my objections when he sees the connection between
electrical and political power.
I watched television reports that warned of the possibilities of
nuclear radiation flowing from Japan to the United States, I could
not avoid the allegorical symmetry in which Japan – the victim of
intentional nuclear attacks by America in 1945 – might, unintentionally,
be providing a literal form of "blowback" (i.e., Newton’s
Third Law of Motion) to the country whose government unleashed the
atomic secrets that would have been best kept from the destructive
hands of state power.
As I witness
our world giving in to the "dark side" forces of our humanity,
I am reminded of the film Koyaanisqatsi.
Produced in 1982, the film is an unspoken collection of photographic
images – many in exaggerated slow motion – and Philip Glass music.
The film takes its title from a Hopi Indian word meaning "life
out of balance," and provides a strong visual and emotional
sense of the insanity of how we live. While watching news reports
from Japan, my unconscious mind kept reminding me of the Hopi phrase
that appears in this film: "a container of ashes might one
day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the
I was reminded,
as well, that two of the people to whom this film was dedicated
were Leopold Kohr and Jacques Ellul!
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