Thinkers before their time 1: Leopold Kohr

John Osmond introduces a man who believed the world’s problems were exacerbated by size

The present global economic crisis, we are told, is one of demand. People around the world have stopped spending enough. The result is an economic slow down leading to recession and, potentially, a full-blown depression. The answer, we are also told, is that we need to increase growth. Yet, how can we reconcile that with our also being told to be concerned about global warming and climate change, the result of ever increasing carbon emissions caused by increasing economic activity?

It seems to me that we need a better way of looking at these problems. Which is why we’re giving special attention over the next few days to two economists who, in their heyday in the 1970s, were certainly thinking before their time. Tomorrow we give the spotlight to Fritz Schumacher who was briefly famous in the 1970s for the title of his book that became ever associated with his name Small is Beautiful.

Thinkers before their time

Tomorrow Virginia Isaac reflects on the legacy of her father Fritz Schumacher. On Monday we publish Old Wine, an essay by Leopold Kohr on political leadership.

Schumacher always acknowledged that a major source of his ideas was a lesser known economist Leopold Kohr (1909-1994). His mantra was the simple but generally ignored notion that problems are more difficult to solve the bigger they get. As he once wrote:

“The answer to bigness is smallness, not still larger units, just as the answer to the Deluge was the Ark of Noah, not the Titanic. His contemporaries called Noah a lunatic. Maybe he was. But it was from him that we descend. The experts all drowned.”

In other words, Leopold Kohr’s abiding idea was that when something is wrong, something is too big. He was always on the look out for things that were, as he put it, of an appropriate size or scale. He thought Wales, with its three million people, was the appropriate size for a nation, which was one reason why, later in life, he came to live among us. In the 1960s he chose to “retire” in Aberystwyth – he said it was a town of entirely ‘appropriate’ size – as a lecturer in political philosophy in the extra Mural department in the University. He became a close friend of Gwynfor Evans and doubtless with him in mind, published a remarkable little book in 1971 called Is Wales viable?

However, he had published  his defining book The Breakdown of Nations 15 years earlier, in 1957 in the United States. The thesis was that small states, small nations and small economies were more prosperous, more creative and more peaceful than great powers or superstates. Kohr argued that continued growth would inevitably lead to only one possible outcome: collapse. Arguably we are approaching this tipping point in 2011.

However, at the time The Breakdown of Nations was published, the space age was about to be launched, and the general view was that the bigger economies were  the better. As Leopold said at the time, his critics “dismissed my ideas by referring to me as a poet.”

Leopold Kohr belonged to that Austrian-German Jewish emigration of genius during the later 1930s, including Freud, who changed the entire intellectual nature of the world outside Central Europe – affecting psychology, physics, mathematic, aesthetics as well as economics. He was born in the village of Oberndorf, in the province of Salzburg, where the carol Silent Night was penned. Leopold always claimed that it was the smallness of Salzburg which enabled it to pick out and promote the local boy called Mozart.

Kohr studied law at Innsbruck, followed by the London School of Economics, and finished his studies as a political scientist in Vienna. He worked as a freelance journalist during the Spanish Civil War, met George Orwell, and like him was deeply impressed  by the anarchist experiment with the city state in Barcelona.

The rise of Hitler and the Austrian Anschluss drove him into exile, first to New York and then Canada where, apart from beginning his study of economics, he spent some time gold prospecting. From 1943 to 1945 he worked as a research associate in charge of customs union projects at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington. He finished The Breakdown of Nations at Rutgers University, New Jersey, in 1953 but had to wait four years before it was published.

By then he was ensconced as Professor of Economics at the University of Puerto Rico where he stayed for 20 years. In that time he produced many essays that were published in local newspapers, eventually brought together in two essay collections The Inner City (1989) and The Academic Inn (1993). At Puerto Rico Kohr first formulated his “Velocity theory of population’, suggesting that “the mass of the population increases not only with every addition to its numbers … it increases also with every acceleration to the speed at which the population circulates.”

He wrote a good deal on what he termed the ‘under-developed nations’, especially in Africa where he was a major influence on the founding President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere. Kohr argued that aid to developing countries merely led to dependency, ideas he expounded in his book Development Without Aid. Nyerere’s ideas on self-sufficient agricultural production in Tanzania derived partly from this source.

On one occasion, in London in 1970 Fritz Schumacher introduced Leopold Kohr who was about to deliver a lecture on The Breakdown of Great Britain as “a whole man”:

“…an economist who looks beyond, through, above, and behind economics and cheerfully puts economics in its place; at the same time: an artist, an historian, an adventurer, a man of the people who can equally walk with philosophers and kings. In this schizophrenic age, such people are rare. Most of the time they go unrecognised. The age recognises specialists who are persona grata with the other specialists. Whole men are normally unpopular with fragmentary men.”

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

6 thoughts on “Thinkers before their time 1: Leopold Kohr

  1. He also lived in Aberystwyth, Baker St I believe. It would be good to have a plaque to remember him and his influence on Wales. He’s always been widely read by Plaid Cymru supporters for obvious reasons but I think his influence and thoughts deserve to be wider than that as they also touch on urban planning, architecture and society.

  2. I’m not convinced by this argument about optimal country size. Research by Alberto Alesina and others shows that in a free trade environment, country size doesn’t matter for either growth or per capita income. Size does make a difference in more protectionist conditions, where large countries do better. More broadly, if you look at most international rankings – human development index, life expectancy, education – you’ll find large and small countries in all parts of the table.

  3. I was a postgraduate Bangor student part-based in Aberystwyth reading Peniarth MS and more in NLW 1967-70 when I attended Leopold’s extramural classes. I even got involved in his support for Anguilla in dispute with Nevis and St Kitts. Anguilla’s ‘independence’ was floated on the basis of international sales of its postage stamps to collectors. I posted lots of envelopes for him! It was through Leopold at a conference organised by the great editor and Head of Extra-Mural Studies Alwyn D Rees (who with his brilliant comparative literature scholar brother Brinley taught me at Bangor co-authored ‘Celtic Heritage’) that I met Fritz Schumacher. This was my introduction to postmodern cultural left green non-statist politics, a position in which I have been confirmed ever since, and which now as Chair of Environment and Sustainabliity Committee for NAW I daily promote. As I remember Phil Williams was very comfortable with it too. In today’s latest crisis of capitalism it is the only place where we can breathe. Welsh Government’s Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship Curriculum 3-19 is the among the best results worldwide of all this thinking. Leopold and Fritz would love it. Thanks for remebering them – which I do too with huge affection. Leopold in his Austrian-Jewish accent in classes would reduce everything to ‘the problem of sais’ which we Welsh-speaking bilinguals would interpret in another way!

  4. I, too, remember that conference at Aberystwyth, at which young Plaid researchers unveiled their budget for an independent Wales. Leopold Kohr, put away his large, old-fashioned hearing aid, and rose to address the conference with a dramatic inflexion made greater by his accent. “Your budget is verrry interesting.” he said. “But I take your figures and I tear them apart,” he added, ripping a piece of paper into small pieces. His voice rose. “Let me tell you that the only figures that are completely unassailable, are figures (there followed a theatrical pause)… figures that you invent! Now, I will invent a budget for you”. This is what made him such a difficult thinker for drier academics, and even television presenters to handle. In one television interview, Joan Bakewell accused him of being a romantic and said it was ‘impossible to turn the clock back’ in that way. “My dear,” he replied, ‘your analogy is as weak as your argument”, and pulled a large pocket watch from a waistcoat pocket and held it up to the camera. “There, I have turned the clock back”. Bakewell was left speechless.

  5. Like many Plaid supporters I’m naturally sympathetic to the small is beautiful idea. But small can be pretty ugly too. If Abraham Lincoln had subscribed to Kohr’s idea there might still be slavery in parts of Mississippi. Progressives in the United States – often of the green-Leftist type that Dafydd Elis-Thomas describes above – tend to support the role of the central government in areas such as health. Reactionaries tend to question the ‘power of Washington’ and argue for ‘states rights’. ‘Small is beautiful’ is pretty meaningless in political terms – it all depends on the kinds of politics being pursued.

  6. I knew of Leopord Kohr through his book, which I read during my youth-hood in mid 1980s: Development Without Aid – The Translucent Society. I have read sizable books for an Afrikan, but that was the best in terms of relevancy – then and now. It lead me to do two things: first leave the white collar job and went instead to study farming, and next originated a “back to the land” youth movement to go live “social living” in the rural Tanzania.

    I lost the copy of that one, I am a man in search of that book that re-oriented my life… Nsajigwa in Tanzania

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