Why do things fall apart?- an answer from Leopold Kohr’s “The Breakdown of Nations”

As the political events of 2016 unfold , Leopold Kohr’s introduction to his classic book,  The Breakdown of Nations, provides us with a fresh perspective on current affairs.

As the physicists of our time have tried to elaborate an integrated single theory, capable of explaining not only some but all phenomena of the physical universe, so I have tried on a different plane to develop a single theory through which not only some but all phenomena of the social universe can be reduced to a common denominator. The result is a new and unified political philosophy centering in the theory of size. It suggests that there seems 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. Wherever something is wrong, something is too big. If the stars in the sky or the atoms of uranium disintegrate in spontaneous explosion, it is not because their substance has lost its balance. It is because matter has attempted to expand beyond the impassable barriers set to every accumulation. Their mass has become too big. If the human body becomes diseased, it is, as in cancer, because a cell, or a group of cells, has begun to outgrow its allotted narrow limits. 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 such as mobs, unions, cartels, or great powers. That is when they begin to slide into uncontrollable catastrophe. For social problems, to paraphrase the population doctrine of Thomas Malthus, have the unfortunate tendency to grow at a geometric ratio with the growth of the organism of which they are part, while the ability of man to cope with them, if it can be extended at all, grows only at an arithmetic ratio. Which means that, if a society grows beyond its optimum size, its problems must eventually outrun the growth of those human faculties which are necessary for dealing with them.

Hence it is always bigness, and only bigness, which is the problem of existence, social as well as physical, and all I have done in fusing apparently disjointed and unrelated bits of evidence into an integrated theory of size is to demonstrate first that what applies everywhere applies also in the field of social relations; and secondly that, if moral, physical, or political misery is nothing but a function of size, if the only problem is one of bigness, the only solution must lie in the cutting down of the substances and organisms which have outgrown their natural limits. The problem is not to grow but to stop growing; the answer: not union but division.

(…)

The solution of the problems confronting the world as a whole does not seem to lie in the creation of still bigger social units and still vaster governments whose formation is now attempted with such unimaginative fanaticism by our statesmen. It 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.

This is the proposal advanced in this book, and I have no doubt that many will call it contrary to all our concepts of progress. Which is quite true, of course. All I can do is to answer with Professor Frank Tannenbaum of Columbia University: ‘Let them, let the other people have the slogans. Let them progress themselves off the face of the earth and then they’ll have infinite progress.’

(…)

Whenever a new attempt is made to bring about international union, we are filled less with hope than with despair. A creeping presentiment seems to tell us that we are pushing into the wrong direction; that, the more united we become, the closer we get to the critical mass and density at which, as in a uranium bomb, our very compactness will lead to the explosion we try to avert.

This is why in the past few years an increasing number of authors have begun to reverse the direction of their search and to look for solutions to our social problems in small rather than large organizations, and in harmony rather than unity. Arnold Toynbee, linking the downfall of civilizations not to the fight amongst nations but the rise of universal states, suggests in the place of macropolitical solutions a return to a form of Homonoia, the Greek ideal of a self-regulatory balance of small units. Kathleen Freeman has shown in a study of Greek city-states that nearly all Western culture is the product of the disunited small states of ancient Greece, and that the same states produced almost nothing after they had become united under the wings of Rome. In the field of economics, Justice Brandeis devoted a lifetime to exposing the ‘curse of bigness’ by showing that, beyond relatively narrow limits, additional growth of plant or organizational size no longer adds to, but detracts from, the efficiency and productivity of firms. In Sociology, Frank Tannenbaum, who challengingly calls himself a parochialist, has come out in defence of small labour unions rather than their giant offspring. For only small unions seem still able to give the worker what modern vast-scale development has taken away from him: a sense of belonging and individuality. In the political field, Henry Simons has pursued the idea that the obstacles to world peace do not lie in the alleged anachronism of little states but in the great powers, those ‘monsters of nationalism and mercantilism’, in whose dismantlement he sees the only chance of survival. Finally, André Gide, to end this sketchy list with a poet, has expressed a similar thought when he wrote as possibly his last words: ‘I believe in the virtue of small nations. I believe in the virtue of small numbers. The world will be saved by the few.’

All this indicates that the idea and ideal of littleness as the only antidote to the cancerous disease of oversize—in which the bulk of contemporary theorists still insist in seeing not a deadly malady but a perverse hope of salvation—seems at last ripe for new recognition and comprehensive formulation. If my own speculations do not carry weight in this respect, perhaps Aristotle’s or St. Augustine’s will. Though I have used neither them nor the other authors just quoted in developing my theories, I find it naturally highly pleasing to find myself in so respectable a company. But I shall not hide behind their testimony or the authority of their names in an effort to obtain immunity from criticism on the part of those who think that all our time needs in order to solve its problems is to submerge itself in an all-embracing world community. The analysis as well as the conclusions are strictly my own.

In The Breakdown of Nations Leopold Kohr shows that, throughout history, people living in small states are happier, more peaceful, more creative and more prosperous. Virtually all our political and social problems would be greatly diminished if the world’s major countries were to dissolve back into the small states from which they sprang. Rather than making ever-larger political unions, in the belief that this will bring peace and security, we should minimize the aggregation of power by returning to a patchwork of small, relatively powerless states, where leaders are accessible to and responsive to the people.

“This is the most important book written by the most original political thinker of the late 20th century” Neal Acherson

“To understand the sparky, prophetic power of Kohr’s vision, you need to read The Breakdown of Nations… We have now reached the point that Kohr warned about…  the point where ‘instead of growth serving life, life must now serve growth, perverting the very purpose of existence” Paul Kingsnorth, The Guardian

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