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.”