Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Breakdown of Nations

A few excerpts from The Breakdown of Nations by Leopold Kohr, first published in 1957 by Routledge & Kegan Paul ...


Compared with the barbaric exploits of the civilized, the savageries of the barbarians seem to lose all significance.

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If wars are due to the accumulation of the critical mass of power, and the critical mass of power can accumulate only in social organisms of critical size, the problems of aggression, like those of atrocity, can clearly again be solved in only one way – through the reduction of those organisms that have outgrown the proportions of human control. As we have seen, in the case of internal social miseries, already cities may constitute such overgrown units. In the case of external miseries, only states can acquire critical size. This means that, if the world is to be relieved of some of the pressures of aggressive warfare, we can do little by trying to unite it. We [w]ould but increase the terror potential that comes from large size. What must be accomplished is the very opposite: the dismemberment of the vast united national complexes commonly called the great powers. For they alone in the contemporary world have the social size that enables them to spread the miseries we try to prevent but cannot so long as we leave untouched the power which produces them. … where there is a critically large volume of power, there is aggression, and as long as there is critical power, so long will there be aggression.

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In vastness, everything crumbles, even the good, because, as will increasingly become evident, the world’s one and only problem is not wickedness but bigness; and not the thing that is big, whatever it may be, but bigness itself. That is why through union or unification, which enlarges bulk and size and power, nothing can be solved. On the contrary, the possibility of finding solutions recedes in the ratio at which the process of union advances.

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The great powers are the ones which are artificial structures and which, because they are artificial, need such consuming efforts to maintain themselves. As they did not come into existence by natural development but by conquest, so they cannot maintain themselves except by conquest – the constant reconquest of their own citizens through a flow of patriotic propaganda setting in at the cradle and ending only at the grave.

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The chief danger to the spirit of democracy in a large power stems from [the] technical impossibility of asserting itself informally. In mass states, personal influences can make themselves felt only if channeled through forms, formulas, and organizations. It is these latter rather than the individual who become increasingly the true agents and asserters of political sovereignty, so that we should speak of a group or party democracy rather than of an individualistic democracy. As a result, the individual declines, and in his place emerges the glorified average man of whom Ortega y Gasset writes that ‘he is to history what sea-level is to geography’. An individual can now have his will only to the extent that he comes close to this mystical average, and it is on the strength of his being an average, not an individual, that his desires can be satisfied. …

But who is this mystical, glorified, flattered, wooed, famous, inarticulate, faceless average man? … [H]e can only be one thing, the representative or reflex of the community, of society, of the masses. What we worship in the individualistic fiction of the average man is nothing but the god of collectivism. No wonder that we overflow with emotion when we hear of government of, for, and by the people, by which we express our adherence to the ideals of group or mass democracy, while as true democrats we should have nothing in mind but government of, for, and by the individual.

Thus, however democratic a large power may try to be, it cannot possibly be a democracy in the real (though not original) meaning and glory of the term – a governmental system serving the individual. Large powers must serve society and, as a result, all genuine ideals of democracy become reversed. their life rhythm can no longer depend on the freedom and interplay of individuals. Instead they become dependent on organizations.

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As has already been indicated, it is not any particular economic system that seems at fault, but economic size. Whatever outgrows certain limits begins to suffer from the irrepressible problem of unmanageable proportions. When this happens to a community, its problems will not only increase faster than its growth; they will be of a new order, arising no longer from the business of living but from the business of growing. Instead of growth serving life, life must now serve growth, perverting the very purpose of existence. … [T]he 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 power. The more it gains in density, the more is devoured by the process of meeting the problems caused by its increasing density. And the more it advances, the more is devoured by the problems resulting from its very advance.

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[S]ince nothing is ultimate in this ever-changing creation, one may safely carry de Tocqueville’s predictions [‘[Russia’s and America’s] starting-points are different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe’] or, rather, deductions a step or two further and state that, whatever comes, the ultimate world state will go the road of all other ultimate world states of history. After a period of dazzling vitality, it will spend itself. There will be no war to bring about its end. It will not explode. Like the ageing colossi of the stellar universe, it will gradually collapse internally, leaving as its principal contribution to posterity its fragments, the little states – until the consolidation process of big-power development starts all over again. This is not pleasant to anticipate. What is pleasant, however, is the realization that, int he intervening period between the intellectual ice ages of great-power domination, history will in all likelihood repeat itself and the world, little and free once more, will experience another of those spells of cultural greatness which characterized the small-state worlds of the Middle Ages and Ancient Greece.