Or perhaps better: the time is ripe for the discovery of Leopold Kohr, since few have any idea who he was. A select group of readers might connect him with E. Globalization promised universal prosperity, but instead has made the rich richer, slowly and painfully begun wiping out the American middle class, and created legions of unemployed or underemployed poor people — precariat is the term some writers are now using for this new class. The precariat consists of the army of adjunct faculty, temps, short-term contract workers, etc.
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Or perhaps better: the time is ripe for the discovery of Leopold Kohr, since few have any idea who he was. A select group of readers might connect him with E. Globalization promised universal prosperity, but instead has made the rich richer, slowly and painfully begun wiping out the American middle class, and created legions of unemployed or underemployed poor people — precariat is the term some writers are now using for this new class.
The precariat consists of the army of adjunct faculty, temps, short-term contract workers, etc. Does anyone really think this is good, whether for workers or the economy at large? The above article cited Leopold Kohr, on the grounds that he had predicted central aspects of the present situation over half a century ago in his magnum opus The Breakdown of Nations It is not light reading.
Works that raise fundamental issues in political philosophy as well as economics never are. He was not part of the academic one percent. Kohr had spent ten years, moreover, trying to find a publisher for Breakdown.
Fascination with bigness gripped the social sciences. Large nation states were the primary visible actors on the global scene, and taken for granted as most were known quantities. Large corporations, likewise, were using new telecommunications technology to extend their reach. With the founding of the UN and the establishing of Bretton Woods, financial power had begun to migrate quietly to transnational organizations e.
The idea was not necessarily malicious in intent. It was presented as the culmination of a natural progression. Many of its advocates saw global unity as the best means of ending the dangers of high-level war, especially in light of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in light of the fact that newer nuclear weapons promised even more destructive force.
Breakdown was finally published in , but was ignored completely and sank without a trace. It went out of print and remained out of print until In , we saw a repeat. The book was again out of print until Green Books reissued it in Its author had died in Today, the situation is somewhat different. Widening wage gaps all over the world are one of the more conspicuous features of our times.
Even globalist elites have expressed worry about them. High-level war is no longer perceived as the biggest danger civilization faces; the danger, now, is from populist groups and decentralized terror networks. Not to mention man-made climate change; if it is happening, it just illustrates the idea that systems in this case, industrial civilization which burns fossil fuels for energy cannot grow indefinitely without eventually disrupting surrounding systems and forcing them to reconfigure, very likely to our detriment.
Thus we are seeing slightly less unanimity among thinking people on the fundamental benevolence of globalization and the possibility of endless economic growth. There are independence stirrings all over the world, from the Catalans wanting freedom from Spain, the Kurds wanting out of Iraq, the Chechens wanting freedom from Russia, Tibetans wanting independence from Beijing, and so on.
Move to the U. In a sense, Leopold Kohr was their prophet. Who was Kohr; and what, precisely, was his message? Leopold Kohr was born in in the small town of Oberndorf bei Salzberg, in Austria, where he grew up. He would retain fond memories of his hometown, which he came to see as governed efficiently and effectively. Oberndorf remained his regulative ideal for the proper size and reach of a political unit.
An exceedingly bright youth, Kohr studied law at the University of Innsbruck and political science at the University of Vienna, obtaining doctorates in both subjects. Then he studied economics at the London School of Economics. By now it was the s. He observed with great interest the mostly self-contained separatist movements of Aragon and Catalonia within Spain, before returning to his native Austria.
As a Jew, his stay there was short lived. He fled to the U. His philosophical ideas forming rapidly, he began intensive work on what would become his major achievement: The Breakdown of Nations. From the early s until the mids Kohr taught economics and political philosophy at Rutgers University. During this period he struggled unsuccessfully to find a publisher for Breakdown. The manuscript — a treatise devoid of the charts, graphs, and equations that filled books and technical journals of mainstream social science — probably bewildered academic acquisitions editors.
Was this economics or sociology? Or political philosophy? It was interdisciplinary, during an era when micro-specialization completely ruled academia unless you were famous, like Schumpeter. Moreover, as we noted, with its attack on the cult of bigness during a period of fascination with incipient global governance, Breakdown was swimming against a very strong tide.
In the s, almost no one knew what to make of Leopold Kohr. Without the assistance of British philosophical anarchist Herbert Read, the manuscript might not have found a publisher for many more years, if at all. As we also noted, it met with complete indifference. Kohr had accepted a position teaching economics at the University of Puerto Rico, and also advised local planners. It also disappeared. In , now 64, he moved to rural Wales, taught for a while at the University College of Wales Aberystwyth, lent his support to a Welsh independence movement, and published Development Without Aid: The Translucent Society He finally retired from teaching and began to divide his time between his Welsh residence and one near his beloved Austrian hometown.
Meanwhile, E. This won them a small but significant audience. We have stated part of it. It came to be expressed it in a few succinct phrases. Nor is the problem this or that economic system. But either public or market-driven systems can be rendered workable under the right circumstances. These involve the human scale: the scale at which everyone in the community has a say in the choices and policies that affect them. Those at the top do not see those at the bottom, or even in the middle, as persons like themselves.
States must therefore be kept small, so those voices can be heard — and, in particular, so that aggressive impulses can be contained. Kohr called his key idea the power theory of aggression. Social brutality and cruelty appear and worsen to the extent the perpetrators realize they can get away with it.
The problem is not their ideology but their becoming immune to retaliation. Those atop empires command vast authority structures including military might, along with the necessary resources, so that their victims have no realistic hope of mounting a response.
These include breaking their own laws if there is no greater power to hold them in check. That greater power can only be the aggregate will of the people, which can only operate as a kind of feedback loop if the human scale is maintained. When it is not maintained, those at the top, or in the middle, become ciphers. Bigness thus corrupts nation states. Those at its center tend to accumulate more and more power, and to play faster and looser with whatever rules they began with, such as a Constitution.
Eventually they will invade weaker neighbors, as Germany had done with Austria under the Nazis and the Soviets had done when they acquired Eastern Europe later. Then they become empires, whose rules know only aggression and force, whether against other nations or against their own people. But under very large regimes, lines of authority become bureaucratic and unwieldy. They grow in complexity, often to correct for the unwieldiness.
Bureaucracies tend to operate in ways that justify their own existence and expansion first, moreover. This frequently sends them not in search of solutions but manufactured problems that did not exist before.
The entire system becomes less and less accountable, and there is a growing sense — even or especially under an immense totalitarian regime like the Soviet Union — that those in power literally do not know what they are doing. Ordinary Russians learned early in life not to depend on agents of the Soviet state; today, many U. Every kind of system, Kohr seemed to be saying, has an optimal size.
If it exceeds that size, it experiences increasing dysfunction, be this turning against other systems or against its own. Why, for example, would a foot tall man as in that cheesy s sci-fi film The Amazing Colossal Man be impossible? Because such a person would be crushed by the immense weight of his own skeletal structure, and a muscular system strong enough to hold him upright would just add to his enormous weight.
Or consider cancer. While cancers differ, all are abnormal, chaotic, cell growths that disrupt their surroundings and eventually destroy the life of their host. What is true of biological systems is true of political and economic ones. They have an optimal growth potential and size. If they get too big, problems grow and multiply. They attack their surroundings; and they start to self-destruct. Following the Second World War, this seemed to be true, at least superficially.
By the time Breakdown appeared, the U. But America seemed benevolent. Americans wore the white hats. We had been the good guys, and were viewed as such in Western Europe at least, where we had taken the lead in vanquishing Hitler. Kohr was undeterred by this. Military might required a powerful central state to oversee it.
The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr
During his life-time, this teasing leprechaun was recognized by very few as a man ahead of his time. Even today, few have caught up with him; there is still no school of thought that carries on his social morphology. I want to be precise: To place him among the champions of alternative economics would be a posthumous betrayal. He identified conditions under which the Good became mired down in things that are scarce.
He earned doctorate degrees in law, at the University of Innsbruck , Austria, and political science, at the University of Vienna. He later became an American citizen. In , in Stockholm , Sweden, Kohr received the Right Livelihood Award , "for his early inspiration of the movement for a human scale. His ashes were buried in Oberndorf.