Swans Commentary » swans.com January 29, 2007  



The Breakdown of Nations
A Sense of Leopold Kohr


by Milo Clark





(Swans - January 29, 2007)   Leopold Kohr's classic work, The Breakdown of Nations, was written in the early 1950s; first published in 1957, republished in 1986 and again in 2001.

Urged many times to write a sequel, Kohr insisted that he would write the same book again. I first read it in the 1960s. To get a copy, I had to do an interlibrary loan and then laboriously copy it page by page on an early Xerox machine.

Many times in my Swans essays and commentaries I have mentioned his core theory: everything has its right size; when that size is exceeded, it implodes -- not explodes -- implodes like stars into black holes.

While, if we will look through his eyes, examples surround us -- the implosion of the Soviet Union by 1991 fits the model perfectly. The once U.S. of A. under George W. Bush also fits Kohr's ideas quite well. The überpower of a unipolar world driven by the patent fallacies of neoconservatism is riddled with dry rot whether crime or war, poverty or greed.

Smallness became more popular, if you will, with E. F. Schumacher's collection of essays. Small is Beautiful was first published in 1973 and republished numerous times since then. Kirkpatrick Sales's Human Scale is of the genre. John Paperworth started Resurgence now 40 years ago and still publishes his little "Fourth World Review." Parenthetically, FWR 140, 2006, contains Patrick J. Buchanan's essay, "The Death of the Nation-State."

Kohr carefully cataloged the myriad reasons why human misery prevails. The accumulations and persistence of human misery underlie history. They account for the rise and fall of nations and empires. One by one, he goes through all the theories used over time to explain human misery, social upheaval, and cultural clashes. Whether the wrath of gods, witches, celestial dynamics, forces of nature, acts of god, economics, psychology, or cultural propensities are popular among the apologists: misery persists. Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, democracy, monarchy, oligarchy, corporation, or collective are all given attention by Kohr. For a current example of such garbled confusion see Leo Strauss and the American neoconservatives.

The nature and causes of human misery, social problems, are relatively constant over time but have increased in scale as more people are crowded into megalopolitan complexes once called cities. It is now announced that more than half the world's population lives in urban confabulations. Mega cities spawn mega slums, festering sores on the body politic. We are plagued not just with wars but big wars ever more focused on civilians than warriors. Unemployment is epidemic. The dignity of work is an ever fainter memory, perhaps myth. We no longer have poor neighborhoods but sprawling lesions of poverty passing into generations of the afflicted. Societies outrun people. People are marginalized into statistics.

Nations have been on a long kick of expanding borders; borders that enclose the culturally diverse, often antagonistic once tribal peoples. As smaller units, tribes, if you will, they were cohesive. They developed their own ways of maintaining cultural cohesion, law and order their ways. Crossing cultural barriers is almost a sure path to conflict. Post-Yugoslavian convulsions between Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Kosovars are still with us as only one example among many.

The United Nations began with 51 member nations and an appealing idea of unity among nations. Now approaching 200 members, a positive factor indicating that some bigger units are splitting off, unity has eluded it, however.

Politicians, as a genre, are addicted to power. Power lusts for bigness. Bigness, adding rather than subtracting people, land, resources, means butting into someone else's spaces. In ever bigger doses, power poisons, corrupts, demoralizes, and makes for more nasty processes with even less appealing characteristics. The once U.S. of A., paragon of civil rights and grand verities, now tortures and kills with the most vicious of history. As I often note, historian John Lukacs accurately predicted a return to barbarity for the emergent 21st century.

What about the better impulses and actions of people? Kohr catalogs the parallel development of the best of civilizations with the barbarities practiced within them. He points out that employers look primarily for aggressive characteristics in hiring. He notes that military clichés are attached to love.

Few examples of benign arts prevail. American comics, Japanese manga, plays, movies, novels, et al., sell with violence, killings, and crude sex, not love and happiness. Once upon a time, movies were required to have happy endings. That passed during the reign of America's only actor president, Ronald Reagan. Note how many presidents have been generals.

In our public spaces, how many statues or parks feature the artists and writers of history? How many honor generals or warriors? Very few of the former and a high prevalence of the latter.

It is said that some nations are more aggressive than others. Germany and Japan are cited in fairly recent history. Yet, as Kohr chronicles, France, by a significant ratio, has started more wars then Germany. Barbarities in French history meet and exceed those under Hitler's Nazis. The allegedly benign once U.S. of A. has been in nearly 200 wars since inception, initiating many of them.

We have been taught that the once U.S. of A. was always dragged into war, until the Bush II administration overtly launched its predators to secure oil and to protect Israel. The Bush II administration has flaunted if not thrown out international treaties, ignored the Constitution, promised and delivered near perpetual war, while seizing power with the most lustful power demons of recorded time.

Asked many times in many ways if he expects changes in the direction of smaller entities, moderated power lusts, community-focused processes, etc., Kohr's eleventh chapter consists of one word: NO!

His twelfth and concluding chapter, "The American Empire," is positively prescient and bears careful reading.

He expects that the processes of time will continue the rotations of power among nations. Human miseries will persist if not expand. Some nations or unity organizations such as UN, NATO, or EU, ASEAN, et al., will go up while others go down. The colossi of today will follow the colossi of yesterday, like aging stars collapsing into black holes. Next, as promised, I will examine PRChina more closely.

The bright spots? There may be interregnums of small states and cultural greatness. After all, there were once Greek city states and Renaissance after Europe's dark ages.


Reference: The Breakdown of Nations, Leopold Kohr, Green Books, Dartington, Devon, UK, 2001 edition, ISBN 1-870098-98 -6.


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Published January 29, 2007