This economic collapse is a ‘crisis of bigness’

Paul Kingsnorth writes:

Living through a collapse is a curious experience. Perhaps the most curious part is that nobody wants to admit it’s a collapse. The results of half a century of debt-fuelled “growth” are becoming impossible to convincingly deny, but even as economies and certainties crumble, our appointed leaders bravely hold the line. No one wants to be the first to say the dam is cracked beyond repair.

To listen to a political leader at this moment in history is like sitting through a sermon by a priest who has lost his faith but is desperately trying not to admit it, even to himself. Watch Nick Clegg, David Cameron or Ed Miliband mouthing tough-guy platitudes to the party faithful. Listen to Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy or George Papandreou pretending that all will be well in the eurozone. Study the expressions on the faces of Barack Obama or Ben Bernanke talking about “growth” as if it were a heathen god to be appeased by tipping another cauldron’s worth of fictional money into the mouth of a volcano.

In times like these, people look elsewhere for answers. 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 ideas.

But here’s a thought: what if big ideas are part of the problem? What if, in fact, the problem is bigness itself?

The crisis currently playing out on the world stage is a crisis of growth. Not, as we are regularly told, a crisis caused by too little growth, but by too much of it. Banks grew so big that their collapse would have brought down the entire global economy. To prevent this, they were bailed out with huge tranches of public money, which in turn is precipitating social crises on the streets of western nations. The European Union has grown so big, and so unaccountable, that it threatens to collapse in on itself. Corporations have grown so big that they are overwhelming democracies and building a global plutocracy to serve their own interests. The human economy as a whole has grown so big that it has been able to change the atmospheric composition of the planet and precipitate a mass extinction event.

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.”

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One thought on “This economic collapse is a ‘crisis of bigness’

  1. Internationalist

    Oh, how very cute. The defining characteristic of our age is that of increasing economical integration and cultural uniformity, coupled with the political fragmentation inherited from the last two centuries, and this gentleman pretends that by increasing the degree of political fragmentation the economy will somehow become more local. Happiness will then ensue, I guess.

    There several fundamental problems with this:

    -As the case of, say, Switzerland, Iceland in its salad days of financial “innovation” or a plethora of minuscule tax havens show, small political units are all too eager to integrate themselves in a global capitalist whole. It’s no wonder that libertarians and other assorted enablers of turbo-capitalism luuuuuurve small scrappy political units and hate things like the EU. Václav Klaus, Daniel Hannan, the Tea Partiers with their “state rights”… There is no greater encouragement to be “competitive” (i.e. pandering to big global players) than having to compete with your neighbour. More generally, forget about coordinated action on issues of global import like financial regulation or global warming when you multiply the number of actors sitting at the table.

    -Political fragmentation is no antidote against militant support for one’s own statelet. Militant support for a political unit leads invariably to distinguishing citizens on the basis of their ability to contribute to and steer said unit’s destinies. Equality before the law becomes a fiction. Without equality before the law there can be no democracy in any *modern* sense of the term, and certainly no economic equality. This Kingsnorth chap needs remedial lessons on the history of, say, Ancient Greece or Rome or the Italian Renaissance.

    -Kingsnorth sounds as if economic globalisation (to which things like that beastly EU would be a mere corollary) are merely the result of misguided hubris. Note how this alleged leftist makes explicit mention of the starry-eyed grand schemes born of the post-war (broadly) social democratic consensus, and remains nebulous on the successes of political reactionaries over the last thirty years. As it happens, the current shape of our economically globalised world owes much to said successes, and to the realities of technological development. Breaking stuff up may prove more complicated than our dauntless author makes it sound.

    -“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'”. Well, silly me, I think there are significant differences between monarchy and anarchism, human scale or not. Kohr is actually very much a child of his age, a modernist given to grandiose, dangerous simplifications. At any rate, it is helpful that his disregard for democracy is on the verge of becoming explicit in his argument.

    -When a genuine leftist ponders on these matters, you get something like this:

    As a Catalan (i.e. somebody who’s had plenty of chance to see nationalists of the “small is beautiful” variety in action), I am familiar with the kind of romantic bogus leftist embodied by Kingsnorth and the members of such parties as Esquerra Republicana in Catalonia or the shape-shifting Batasuna-ETA complex in the Basque Country. Once they grow old and stop being concerned with being hip and thus left-leaning, they are all-to-happy to become the next generation of right-wing local notables.

    – Everybody should take a look at the paper “The network of global corporate control”, by three Swiss researchers.

    Here’s the abstract: “The structure of the control network of transnational corporations affects global market competition and financial stability. So far, only small national samples were studied and there was no appropriate methodology to assess control globally. We present the first investigation of the architecture of the international ownership network, along with the computation of the control held by each global player. We find that transnational corporations form a giant bow-tie structure and that a large portion of control flows to a small tightly-knit core of financial institutions. This core can be seen as an economic “super-entity” that raises new important issues both for researchers and policy makers.”

    The challenge of our times is to extend the rule of law to that network, not to circumscribe the political agency of citizens to small, pitiable patches thereof. The challenge of our times is to get citizens involved in greater global governance, not to scoff at the notion.

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