what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

a bible for our times


The outage lasted all day and allowed me therefore to read the entire Kohr book ("The Breakdown of Nations") - without the distractions of the internet! And what a book!! It pulsates with clarity, originality ...and wit.
Part of his argument is that – just as companies grow large and inefficient and have to be broken up by Monopoly Commissions – so have States grown to a size that makes them dangerous.

Remember he was an economist – and drafted the book in the early 1950s! He quotes the evidence there was even then that innovation came from small companies – and that decreasing returns of scale sets in early (evidence continues to accumulate that few company mergers are successful – and yet they continue).

In similar vein, he shows that cultural excellence was produced in small states – who may not have always been peaceful but whose wars with one another were short and limited in their damage. His early chapters are powerful statements that, when an organisation reaches the point of domination, it will always succumb to the temptation of aggression.

And he anticipates the contemporary arguments of writers such as Fridjof Capra and Margaret Wheatley about what students of organisations can learn from physics and the new insights into “chaos” – by a simple observation about “atoms”.

His main challenge, however, is to the principle of specialisation and you will find in chapter 6 – “The Efficiency of the Small”. There he is merciless in his critique of the “wealth” of the “modern” world – daring to suggest that most of is useless and counter-productive and that people were happier in medieval times! “The more powerful a society becomes, the more of its increasing product – instead of increasing individual consumption – is devoured by the task of coping with the problems caused by the rise of its very size and power

I always have pencilled underlines, ringed sections and exclamation marks in the good books I read – and my copy of this book is almost disfigured! Two insights I found particularly relevant – one which he produces as one of the reasons for the intense cultural productivity of the small state –
 “in a large state, we are forced to live in tightly specialised compartments since populous societies not only make large-scale specialisation possible – but necessary. As a result, our life’s experience is confined to a narrow segment whose borders we almost never cross, but within which we become great single-purpose experts”... “A small state offers the opportunity for everybody to experience everything simply by looking out of the window" – 
whereas a large state has to employ a legion of soi-disant experts to define its problems and produce “solutions”. The other striking comment he makes is –
the chief blessing of a small-state system is ...its gift of a freedom which hardly ever registers if it is pronounced.....freedom from issues....ninety percent of our intellectual miseries are due to the fact that almost everything in our life has become an ism, an issue... our life’s efforts seem to be committed exclusively to the task of discovering where we stand in some battle raging about some abstract issue... The blessing of a small state returns us from the misty sombreness of an existence in which we are nothing but ghostly shadows of meaningless issues to the reality which we can only find in our neighbours and neighbourhoods
Most people would probably see this as utopian – and yet its argument is ruthless and very much in what I would call the “realist” mode (one of the reasons why I was taken with several of the books in my earlier list). As he puts it at one stage in the argument –
many will object to the power or size theory on the ground that it is based on an unduly pessimistic interpretation of man. They will claim that, far from being seduced by power, we are generally and predominantly animated by the ideals of decency, justice, magnanimity etc This is true, but only because most of the time we do not possess the critical power enabling us to get away with indecency”.
This is the bible for both new management and the “slow-food” movement! The writing sparkles – and includes a good joke about a planner who, having died, is allowed to try to organise the time people spend in Heaven into more rational chunks of activity, fails and sent to help organise Hell. “I’m here to organise Hell”, he announces to Satan – who laughs and explains that “organisation IS hell”.

I once said that all courses relating to government should have Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation - the conquest of the middle east on their reading list. This is a book which portrays both the victims of the slaughter and their families and also those in the Western bureaucracies – both private and public – who make the slaughter possible and ignored the lessons of history. Their words are closely analysed – and their actions held to account in a relentless way which restores one faith in journalism. I would now add Kohr’s book to that reading list – not least because it offers an answer to the question we ask from time to time “When will they ever learn?”

Bill McKibben's Deep Economy - economics as if the world mattered (2007) is another book which would be in that list (as well as Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma). I have a short comment on McKibben's book on my public admin reform site. Although he recognises Schumacher, Leopold Kohr gets no mention. Sad!

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