Wherever something is wrong, something is too big.

Antidote to bigness

Paul Kingsnorth in his article in the Guardian ‘The Crisis of Bigness’ tells how old school theorist, lLeopold Kohr, predicted the recent economic collapse and how things would get better

A time of crisis is also a time of opening-up, when thinking that was consigned to the fringes moves to centre stage. When things fall apart, the appetite for new ways of seeing is palpable, and there are always plenty of people willing to feed it by coming forward with their pet big solutions. But here’s a thought: what if big solutions are part of the problem? What if, in fact, the problem is bigness itself?

One man who would not have been surprised by this crisis of bigness, had he lived to see it, was Leopold Kohr. Kohr has a good claim to be the most important political thinker that you have never heard of. Unlike Marx, he did not found a global movement or inspire revolutions. Unlike Hayek, he did not rewrite the economic rules of the modern world. Kohr was a modest, self-deprecating man, but this was not the reason his ideas have been ignored by movers and shakers in the half century since they were produced. They have been ignored because they do not flatter the egos of the power-hungry, be they revolutionaries or plutocrats. In fact, Kohr’s message is a direct challenge to them. “Wherever something is wrong,” he insisted, “something is too big.”

Kohr’s claim was that society’s problems were not caused by particular forms of social or economic organisation, but by their size. Socialism, anarchism, capitalism, democracy, monarchy – all could work well on what he called “the human scale”: a scale at which people could play a part in the systems that governed their lives. But once scaled up to the level of modern states, all systems became oppressors. Changing the system, or the ideology that it claimed inspiration from, would not prevent that oppression – as any number of revolutions have shown – because “the problem is not the thing that is big, but bigness itself”.

Drawing from history, Kohr demonstrated that when people have too much power, under any system or none, they abuse it. The task, therefore, was to limit the amount of power that any individual, organisation or government could get its hands on. The solution to the world’s problems was not more unity but more division. The world should be broken up into small states, roughly equivalent in size and power, which would be able to limit the growth and thus domination of any one unit. Small states and small economies were more flexible, more able to weather economic storms, less capable of waging serious wars, and more accountable to their people. Not only that, but they were more creative.

Bigness, predicted Kohr, could only lead to more bigness, for “whatever outgrows certain limits begins to suffer from the irrepressible problem of unmanageable proportions”. Beyond those limits it was forced to accumulate more power in order to manage the power it already had. Growth would become cancerous and unstoppable, until there was only one possible endpoint: collapse.

We have now reached the point that Kohr warned about over half a century ago: the point where “instead of growth serving life, life must now serve growth, perverting the very purpose of existence”.

According to Kingsnorth, Kohr’s “crisis of bigness” is upon us and, true to form, we are scrabbling to tackle it with more of the same: closer fiscal unions, tighter global governance, geoengineering schemes, more economic growth. Big, it seems, is as beautiful as ever to those who have the unenviable task of keeping the growth machine going.

This shouldn’t surprise us. It didn’t surprise Kohr, who, unlike some of his utopian critics, never confused a desire for radical change with the likelihood of it actually happening. Instead, his downbeat but refreshingly honest conclusion was that, like a dying star, the gigantist global system would in the end fall in on itself, and the whole cycle of growth would begin all over again. But before it did so, “between the intellectual ice ages of great-power domination”, the world would become “little and free once more”.

Posted on June 1, 2015 in Uncategorized

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About the Author

Kelvin was the founder of Urban Initiatives, an internationally recognised urban design practice based in London. Formerly Visiting Professor in Urban Design at the University of Westminster and now a Visiting Professor at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at the Bartlett, University College London, he is known as one of the leading figures in his field. He has written government policy on urban design, published numerous books and articles on the subject, regularly speaks at conferences and has advised a number of cities on design matters. He has passionate interest in the future of cities and towns, in particular the development of new thinking and processes which unlock good urbanism and effective civic leadership. In 2013 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Urban Design Awards for his contribution to the profession and was later awarded the 1851 Royal Commission Fellowship in the Built Environment.
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