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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Whenever something is wrong....something is too big." Leopold Kohr and the broken society.

Next year is the fifty fifth anniversary of the publication of a book which at the time was considered a joke. I am talking of Leopold Kohr's "The Breakdown of Nations". In 2011, it is an excellent explanation of our societal and economic ills. More importantly, he provides a solution.

His punch line? That “Wherever something is wrong….. something is too big”. This modest Austrian was writing at a time when "big was best" seemed logical. Witness the high rise flats in the ‘60s, built at the expense of community-focussed terraces. Relationships sacrificed on the altars of progress and development.

This was a prescient theory, which with the passage of time, seems to be gaining traction. He provided an analysis which the political parties should be discussing at their conferences.

Everything is big. Today we talk of globalisation and multinational organisations such as the EU. We know about banks in 2008 which became so big they could not be allowed to fail. We see the power of our supermarkets squeezing out local shops. We have multiplex cinemas limiting film choice. We see the growth of regional shopping centres killing off town centres. We see the centralisation of government in London suffocating local councils. We see parish councils with less to do. We have larger and larger bureaucratic organisations running hospitals, council services, police and education provision. We have takeovers and mergers in the name of agglomeration economies forgetting the longer term downsides.

In the name of efficiency and economies of scale, business and public sector organisations have become removed from the average Joe in the street. Communication technologies with their attendant frustrations and disembodied relationships just add to the cocktail.

There is a pattern here. Families and communities are under threat. Individuals feel they have less of a stake in society. They feel powerless, alienated and the broken society becomes common parlance. Witness the large call-centre providing virtual reality help and how customer-care comes second. We have less face-to-face contact, live in little boxes and adopt virtual reality communities – let’s call them television soaps.

Kohr observed that as organisations get larger, power gets concentrated. This can be abused by those who wield it and the rest of society switches off or engages in deviant behaviour. Declining membership of political parties and electoral turnout is the evidence.

Belgium is one of the smallest countries in Europe. They are getting through without a central government and yet growth rates compares favourably with the rest of the EU. Kohr might be smiling at this feat.

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