Acceptance speech – Leopold Kohr

So let us solve the great problem of our time, the disease of excessive size and uncontrollable proportions, by going back to the alternative to both right and left - that is, to a small-scale social environment...


It is a great honour to contribute a talk on the occasion of the distribution of the Alternative Nobel Prize of 1983 on the eve of what is bound to be one of the most fateful years of history, George Orwell’s 1984.

But there is always a chance that things might turn out better than he envisioned. All that is necessary for our leaders of both right and left is to let themselves be persuaded to choose a third alternative to the ones offered by their contrasting ideologies, but both hopelessly leading in the same direction: the abyss of unmanageable proportions. They are in a similar position as the leaders of a boat, floating on the Niagara River and, having sprung leak which its capitalist crew is no longer able to mend, is taken over by a socialist team whose unused energy and fresh approach has the defect repaired in no time at all. Which seems splendid. But, as I said, the boat is floating on the Niagara River. As a result, what has so efficiently been fixed, causes the boat to be sucked into the roaring abyss of the giant falls faster precisely because it is so much fitter than it was with its capitalist leak. The mending provides the same consolation to its occupants as a Welsh physician said of the well medicated ever jogging citizens of the United States: they arrive on their deathbed in perfect shape. What the occupants would have done is not to repair the boat but let it sink and swim to the shore. That, not a change of ideology, would have been the saving alternative.

But what is the saving alternative to those offered by right and left for overcoming the navigational difficulties, caused by the main problem confronting out age? To give an answer, of which many are tendered, one must first know the question. What is our main problem? Is it poverty? Is it hunger? Is it unemployment? Is it corruption, inflation, depression, juvenile delinquency? Is it the energy crisis? Is it war?

It is none of these. The real problem is similar to the one besetting a mountain climber in the Himalayas. His heart aches, his lungs fails, his ears hurt, his eyes are blinded, his skin erupts, and yet no heart, lung, ear, eye, or skin specialist can help because there is nothing fundamentally wrong with any of his organs or his skin. His sole trouble is that he is too high up in the air. He suffers from altitude disease, and the answer is not to call in specialists but bring him down to a lower level. Only if he feels any of his pains still at lower altitude does it make sense to call in a physician.

And so it is with the social diseases of our age. It is not poverty that is our problem. It is the vast spread of poverty that is the problem. It is not unemployment but the dimension of modern unemployment which is the scandal; not hunger but the terrifying number afflicted by it; not depression but its world encircling magnitude not war but the atomic scale of war. In other words, the real problem of our time is not material but dimensional. It is one of scale, one of proportions, one of size, not a problem of any particular kind. And since the size, the scale of a social complexity takes its dimension from the society it afflicts, it follows that the only way of coping with it is, in analogy with the altitude disease: to bring down the size of the afflicted society to proportions within which man with his limited stature can once again assume control over it.

Even this will solve none of the problems bedeviling us. The poor, as Jesus said, will always be with us. “Men”, as Hesiod said 2.800 years ago in his story of the Box of Pandora – the collective gift of the Supreme Soviet of Divinities to the human species – “will go on destroying the cities of other men.” And as my much admired late fried Howard Gossage of San Francisco liked to point out, 100 our of 100 will continue to dye also in a small society. But the spectre of unrelieved, undiminished, unending, uncopable horror, misery, and fear will diminish along with their scale until we are confronted with no more that the ordinary troubles fate has imposed on us as a companion to the joys of our journey through life.

This amounts to an interpretation of history which assigns the determining influence on historic change not to the change of leaders, religions, ideology, climate, topography, accident or, as Marx has so brilliantly argued, to the mode of production but to the changing size of society. Mankind was expelled from Paradise not because Eve ate the apple, but because there were not enough apples left for a growing population. So it had henceforth to earn its living with a harder mode of production in the sweat of its brows. The symbolic significance of the story of the expulsion lies therefore in the fig leaf as the first means of birth control rather than in the apple as a Malthusian warning of the impending shortage of food supply. And so it has remained all the way up to the atomic mode of production of our own time which has not made it possible for the human population to increase. It is the other way round. The exploding human population has imposed on it the need for inventing the atomic mode of production irrespective of whether it pollutes the air or leads to universal annihilation in 1984. Beyond a given critical size, we simply cease to be masters of our fate. For, as Theophrastus Parcelsus said: “Everything is poison; it all depends on the quantity”- Alles ist Gift, ausschlaggebend ist nur die Menge. That applies to mankind as much as for grasshoppers. Or as Churchill argued the case for the reconstruction of the British House of Commons in its original small, dense, oblong, crowded form, as essential to stimulating democratic debate, by stressing that: “We shape our buildings. But our buildings shape us”.

For all this, the solution of the shortcomings of uncontrolled free capitalism lies therefore no longer, as it once might have been, in the introduction of directed coordination and socialist controls. For the leadership of neither the one nor the other ideology can exercise control over what has outgrown all human control because of the excessive size of our integrated social, political and economic environment. Not even the computer can help them in this, in spite of the fact that, when this sexless tool of overgrowth – is it he, she, or it? – was recently asked whither God existed, It-He-She gave the answer: “Now He-She-It does.”

Nor does the solution lie in the union of peoples or nations. This would simply make the problem of excessive size even larger that it is, aside from the fact that our difficulties are not the result of division imposed on us by our blasphemous attempt at union in the Towers of both Babel and Manhattan, but by bad division resulting from the unequal national size in which the parts of the human raze have organized themselves.

The primary problem thus being one of excessive size, of unsurveyable dimensions, of cancerous overgrowth and bigness, the only practical solution must logically lie not in still larger units which make every problem commensurate to their enlarged scale, but in the opposite direction: in smallness. This alone can solve the host of secondary problems which are derived from the primary problem of excessive social size. And it solves them not by their abolition but by making them manageable through the reduction of their scale. – This was done politically in the successful cantonal structures of federal and confedera enterprises reaching from the large Holy Roman Empire down to small Switzerland and up again to the United States, showing that even a union can manage the problems of scale as long as its divided subordinate units are equally (or even unequally) small.

And militarily it was demonstrated by the Truce of God during the Middle Ages, by splitting the actions of belligerents. It wisely never prohibited war. All it did was to cut it down to bearable proportions by permitting it on weekdays, but never on Sundays, Saturdays, and Saints Days of which there were a peace-insuring plentitude. However the real reason that caused the lusty warriors to adhere to its restrictions was less their piety than the physical fact that they were all too small to contradict the moral authority of a Church which was not too powerful either but had a critical superiority over its strongest subordinate units most of the time. This is not theory than the arithmetic of submission. Only when Emperor Maximillian, the first modern illusionist, promulgated the Eternal Truce of God in an attempt to transform the fragmentized insignificant splinter wars into condition of indivisible peace, did this horsesense-design fail, providing the world with the spectacle of two bloody indivisible wars per century ever since.

For all this, the answer to the overriding problem of bigness is therefore not socialism, capitalism, fusionism, or pacifism, as it is constantly preached to no avail. The answer to bigness is smallness. For, to stress again, the primary cause of human misery is no longer ideology, religion, or economic system but excessive size. And if smallness is the answer it is not only because it is beautiful, as Fritz Schumacher phrased it so fetchingly in a bestseller which is praised by many but followed by few. It is beautiful because it is also natural, in harmony with the scheme of things or, to cite the title of a book by another old friend living in little Liechtenstein, Joseph Maid: it is lebensrichtig which, translated into English, expresses the same fundamental idea as the Right Livelihood Foundation which has created the Alternative Nobel Prize.

And this, that it is lebensrichtig is indeed the basic strength of the argument for smallness. It is the building principle of the universe in all its manifestations – physical, mathematical, chemical, musical, biological, architectural, medical, economic, political, and social. In chemistry it has influenced the studies which led Peter Mitchell to a Nobel Prize in 1978. In economics it was expressed by men such as Raul Prebish in what I have called the Law of Peripheral Neglect or by another Nobel Prize winner, Gunnar Myrdal, in his “Theory of Circular and Cumulative Causation” in which he demonstrated the retarding rather than beneficial effect of common markets on its less advanced members. And Erwin Schrödinger, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics has shown in a delightful booklet “What is Life” not only that atoms are small, which everybody knows, but answered the all-important question, why they are small. Existing in vast numbers, and moving perpetually in unrestrained freedom, they are statistically bound to clash in ever recurring collisions. Were they large, or interspersed with large once like cancer cells are in the human body, or Big Powers in the body politic, their collisions would inevitably result in destruction. However, being small, their collisions, like those of dancing couples, are not only harmless but create a never ending chain of new constellations, forms, and order by releasing with each distrubance themselves the forces lending to a new equilibrium similar to the delicate mobiles hanging over the desks of nervous executives and insuring with their gentle movements caused by every breath of air a landscape of soothing peace – without government, without direction, without control. In a universe of small parts, not even the intervention of the Creator is needed who shaped the world to be a satisfied spectator of his dramatic production rather that a tirelessly intervening watchdog, metteur en scene or Big Brother as he is envisioned for the ominous year of 1984, due to start in 22 days.

In philosophy, the most eloquent of the early defenders of smallness as a cure for social ills was Aristotle who considered the ideal state as one that can be taken in at a single view, and in which everything can be solved because all is translucent, the connections are transparent, and nothing can stay hidden. I was reminded of this when I asked Prime Minister Alexander Frick of Liechtenstein in 1945, whether his country, like The United Kingdom, France, China, Italy, Germany, Japan required American aid. “Look,” was his answer with a touch of hurt pride: “Why, on Earth, should we need aid? By the time a big power learns of a disaster, we in Liechtenstein are half way through mending the damage.” And when I asked two weeks ago a Liechtenstein postmaster what he considered the country’s principal problem, he instantly answered: “none”. This was concurred in by his wife though not quite shared by another former Prime Ministrer, Dr. Gerard Batliner who, nearly 40 years after Dr. Frick, confessed to some apprehension at the slowly growing trend among his country’s younger generation to expand their commercial involvements beyond the limits of visibility and influence in response to the lures of the vast reaches of the Common Market and a more interdependent world community. For bigness, helas, is not only bad. It is also very contagious and satanically attractive – like hell which, in the end, produces the greatest terror afflicting all living things – fear. For what is worst is not war, but the perpetual fear of it, be it atomic or other wise.

This is the Saint Augustine, another of the early great apostles of smallness, maked the Romans after pointing at the fragility of great states: “What reason or what wisdom shall any man show in glorying in the largeness of empire, all their joy being but as a glass, bright and brittle, and evermore in fear and danger of breaking?” As a result of which suggested, as one can again suggest today, that, in the terms of Neville Figgis, “the world would be most happily governed if it consisted not of a few aggregations secured by wars of conquest, with their accompaniment of despotism and tyrannical rule, but of a society of small states, living together in amity, not transgressing each other’s limits, unbroken by jealousies.”

But Saint Augustine did not only preach the idea of smallness along lines proposed by many other realistic appraisers of human nature whom we are want to call utopians such as Plato, Thomas More, Campanella, Fourrier. Like Robert Owen, the Founder of the Co-Operative Movement (which – unlike these modern ideological monster experiments of senselessly integrated overblown human aggregations – flourishes in the individuality of its autonomous small units to this day), Saint Augustine also put the idea to practical use by laying the foundation of those monasteries whose extent was limited by definition, and whose vita communis has paradoxically provided the world with the root of the term communism which, grown into giantism, inspires as much terror as its capitalist countervailing giant whom it tires to combat, once again proving Paracelsus’ dictum that “everything is poison; it all depends on the quantity”,- even Saint Augustine’s gentle monastic communism.

It is therefore not union, capitalism, or socialism but the return to a properly divided Augustinian monastic or Owenite co-operative network of small cells, loosely linked together as in an order spanning the world, which offers the chance, as it did through out the ages, of successfully raising the standards of underdeveloped religions. For this makes it possible to develop them not with aid as perpetually dependent, alienated, ill-tempered frustrates bearing no gratitude for their assisters, but without aid as independent, glittering communities reaching prosperity, security, and contentment infinitely faster than is now possible under the centralized direction of distant benefactors. All that is required is to use intensively the material and intellectual resources of their immediate neighbourhood, thereby saving what Henry Charles Carey has called “the heaviest tax on land and labour – the cost of transportation,” which mounts geometrically with every arithmetic increase in distance, impoverishing the standard and quality of life through the very help tendered to improve them.

True, unassisted development means a return also to what Schumacher called Intermediate Technology, that is: working longer and harder. But working longer and harder is exactly what a world needs that has been pushed into ever mounting unemployment and idleness by the Advanced Technology of a machine age as it has so bitingly been illustrated by Charlie Chaplin in his film Modern Times. However, if Intermediate Technology is to provide the same high living standard as Advanced Technology, it must be applied to areas and societies of limited extent. So we are back at small being not only a little harder but also beautiful. For only within small social environments is Intermediate Technology not only adequate and  economical but more economical than even the most Advanced Technology, just as a row boat is more economical for crossing the Rhine than a jet.

This is why concentrating their energies on the cultivation of their immediate environment, ancient and medieval monasteries were able to contract out of their crumbling surrounding empires maintained by a venial bureaucracy serving an impotent government apparatus, and build as Toynbee would say, “away from all destruction” and government guidance, the glittering network of practically sovereign communities in a time which takes modern engineers of large-scale living to prepare merely their pre-investment infra-structures. With water, wind and muscle power, they developed husbandry, agriculture, forests and fisheries so flourishing that fast days, when only fish was allowed accompanied by such appropriate monastic by-products as Benedictine and Chartreuse, became feast days joyfully looked forward to. And when their material needs have been locally provided for, the monks began to adorn their cells with immortal paintings, compose music for their prayers, educate the young in Latin and Greek, sponsor literature, architecture, and the arts, and copy in illuminated letters the authors of antiquity on enduring parchment without which the roots of Western civilization would have vanished without a trace.

And the same was true of the city states of antiquity which, freed of Carey’s tax of transportation and haulage cost from far away, built, as the Athenians did with the Acropolis, in a single generation the structures of which the geographer Pausanias said centuries later; “When they were new, they looked already ancient; now that they are old, they still look new.”

Philip II of Spain developed the enchanting regional city-state pattern of Mexico by the simple device of decreeing that monasteries must be located so far apart from each other and particular from the pleasures of Mexico City that it was too difficult for them to waste their time in incestuous communication – the very opposite of contemporary development planning. This left them with no alternative but to duplicate in rival splendour what they could not enjoy by touring the already developed centers far away. And even in our own time, similarly successful development experiments were undertaken by the Amish in both North and South America, the Kibbutz communities of Israel, and by the small rural communes of communist China which so impressed the late great Joan Robinson of Cambridge that she unwittingly embraced the teachings of John Seymour of County Wexford in Ireland. As in the case of the others also the Chinese development device for the local communes was not the extension of government control and aid beyond the measure of a birthday gift, but by withdrawing what could not have been offered any way, and encouraging instead the idea that the locals should do things locally with the tools, however primitive, they already had. For pyramids, cathedrals, factories, roads are in the last analysis not built by in money or machinery which is scarce even in the riches country considering that there can never get enough of it, but by hands which are ample even in the poorest communities, and represent the only alternative energy supply which can never be exhausted because everybody is born with it. But once again, for the intermediate technology of muscle power to be economical, the society served by it must be small, as I can see every day in my alternative little town of Aberystwyth in Wales, where I can achieve more by foot, which costs nothing, than by car, which costs a lot and with which I can do nothing at all except leave town. So, let us solve the one insoluble problem of our time, the high altitude disease of excessive size and uncontrollable proportions, by going back to the alternative to both right and left of a small-scale social environment with all its potential for global pluralist co-operative and largely unaffiliated selfsufficiency by extending not centralized control but by decontrolling locally centred and nourished communities, each built around a nuclear institution with a limited but strong and independent gravitational field of its own as it existed in the form of medieval monasteries. Their Abbots, fathers, and brothers can then provide the world once again with guidance, understanding, humanity and taste, though they do not necessarily have to be celibates or legitimized by impressive academic degrees. But neither should be held against them. I could well imagine as Abbot of one of those development monastries Manfred Max-Neef.

As my time is up, and the ideal of smallness applies also to speeches, I am able to do no more than offer this very sketchy outline of the history, philosophy, and science of smallness.

Smallness is of course, not the only way that has been proposed for avoiding the impasse of the terrifying spectre of the world of 1984, that will be with us in 3 weeks time. There are many others that have been offered left and right, by young and old, and black and white. But smallness is the only way that is natural, sound, lebensrichtig, practical, scientific, and beautiful on top of it. What does not work, as everyone should know by now, is bigness, unification, integration, international hymn-singing, handholding and loquacious conferencing in which all those believe who hold the reigns of power in their hands, and actually could do something with it other than guiding us to the nuclear terminus which, according to Schödinger’s statistical laws, is bound to be reached in the next three decades – unless, of course, one dissolves the overgrown human aggregations before they reach the critical mass at which they explode spontaneously. Which of course is a solution, too. It is in fact nature’s own alternative which it applies when it gets tired of a system and kills it off by letting it overgrow until it explodes or collapses into itself.

This should make the solution of smallness a little more palatable, just as a Sunday sermon picturing hell should make the heavenly blessings of singlessness a little bit more appealing than they usually are. But there is always the argument that smallness is just the irrational dream of a romantic. Of course it is romantic. But only to a romantic does life make sense. Starting from nothing and ending in nothing and costing a lot of money in between, it is rationally an indefensible loss proposition. Only a romantic sees glory and meaning in the rainbow spanning the two zero magnitudes at the beginning and the end.

And it is also said that in this age of progress it makes no sense to step back. To which the great Welsh anthropologist Alwyn Rees used to reply: “when one has reached the edge of the abyss, the only thing that makes sense is to step back.?

In conclusion may I therefore suggest once more that the confrontations of our age is not between capitalism and communism, left and right man and woman, black and white, young and old. These are issues of the past lingering on as the glow of the sun after it has set. The real confrontation of our age is man versus man, the individual versus society, the citizen versus the state, the small community versus the big one, David versus Goliath. As André Gide said on his deathbed: “I love small nations. I love small numbers. The World will be saved by the few” — George Orwell permitting.

Leopold Kohr Akademie
Verein Tauriska
Kammerlanderstall 15a
5741 Neukirchen am Gro¤venediger