The Breakdown of Nations

Kohr, Leopold

A classic book, with wide-ranging implications for how we structure our communities and societies. Its conclusions have held up remarkably well over the years, and continues to be incredibly relevant to our current state of over-extended affairs (e.g. US imperialism, Brexit, climate change, tech anti-trust, etc. etc.). It upended my thinking on the uses of "unity" and "size" for purposes of peace (cf Wars & Unions).

If you were looking for solutions to the problems of scale, Kohr does suggest a few. If you were looking for optimism about the fate of the human race, however, I'd strongly suggest you look elsewhere (though that does not prevent me from recommending it, so endearing is his expression of nihilism).


The Tower of Babel babel.

Unkastened Notes

I find it a little ironic that a book about how "smaller nations are better" opens with this grand claim that he's going to propose herein one single social model to rule them all. I suppose even he couldn't help but get caught up in the hard-science envy of the day.

As the physicists of our time have tried to elaborate an integrated single theory, capable of explaining not only some but all phenomena of the physical universe, so I have tried on a different plane to develop a single theory through which not only some but all phenomena of the social universe can be reduced to a common denominator.

breakdown-of-nationsp. xviii

So much Orientalism on page 9:

It is the face of Michelangelo we see in Saint Peter's Basilica, not that of the Italian people which put the marble in its place. This is the main difference from the massive accumulations of stone built in Egypt not by men but a dis-individualized society which, characteristically, poured most of its creative energy into the construction of tombs.

Also some uses of "mongoloid" as an adjective + questionable stances on feminism, hence my content warning.

"Homologies", not "analogies"

Sir George Thomson has described the phenomenon of the instability and self-destructiveness of bigness in an analogy which is all the more interesting as it tries to illustrate a physical process by drawing a comparison from the political field as this book tries to illustrate a political process by drawing a comparison from the physical field:

Atoms of middle weight are stable and inert, but the light as well as the heavy atoms have stores of energy. If one thinks of the heaviest atoms as overgrown empires which are ripe for dissolution and only held together by special efforts, or perhaps by a genius, one may think, on the other hand, of the lightest of the atoms as individuals which run together naturally for mutual help and readily coalesce to form stable tribes and communities.

It is always the same revelation: only small things, be they atoms, individuals, or communities, can be combined in search of a more stable existence, and even they will coalesce naturally only up to a point. Beyond that, what previously helped to fulfil their form, now bursts it, with the result that, as they continue to grow, they become heavier and clumsier until the only thing they do naturally is—fall apart. This is why neither Sir George Thomson’s political nor my physical comparisons are really analogies. They are homologies. They are two different manifestations of one and the same principle: the universal principle by which stability and soundness adhere only to bodies of middle weight or, to put emphasis where it belongs, to bodies that are relatively small.

breakdown-of-nationsp. 84–5

What's the "half-life" of an over-large society?

Crushed by the intellect-killing but emotionally appealing weight of great physical power, they have drawn their scornful daggers against the small and placed everything that has size, bulk, or mass on glittering altars. They have persuaded us to worship the colossal and then were amazed that we worshipped Hitler who was nothing-but he was colossal. They have praised to the heavens the enormity of the Roman empire and were amazed that we worshipped Mussolini along with the ancient Caesars who were nothing-but they were enormous. They have praised the development of massive powers, of the unification of East and West, of the creation of first two worlds and, finally, glory of glories if it comes, of the one world, though the one-state world is nothing but totalitarianism projected into the international plane.

They cannot see that the great word unity, which they pronounce with such solemnity and preach down to us from every pulpit, is to a true democrat what to a boxer’s eye is his adversary’s fist. If driven too far, it not only destroys the individual but the state as well, [...]

breakdown-of-nationsp. 112

Boot Self Meme

"Producer goods"

Large-scale manufacturing gives us "producer goods" e.g. factories "which satisfy no direct human want but have become necessary in order to enable us to meet our increasing requirements for essentials." breakdown-of-nationsp. 134

Size theory of business cycles

p. 147

  • Power commodities "tanks, bombs, or the increase in government services required to administer increased power."
  • Density commodities "traffic lights, first-aid equipment, tube services, or replacement goods for losses which would never have occurred in less harassed smaller societies."
  • Progress commodities arms race conditions: anti-aircraft guns must be improved to match improved aircraft and so on, "unwanted tie-in products we must acquire along with the desired fruit of progress".

The bulk of the vaunted production and productivity increase experienced by today’s great powers goes into these personally sterile but socially necessary growth commodities. It raises not our real but our bogus standard of living by giving us the illusion of increasing wealth while, like currency in inflation, it amounts to nothing but an enormous increase in the price and effort an expanding society imposes on us for giving us the goods we really desire.

breakdown-of-nationsp. 147

It is inability, the plain sheer unadulterated inability of man to cope with the problems of societies that have grown too large. What Thomas Malthus said of the relationship between food and population—that the population must outrun its food supply because of its tendency to multiply at a geometric ratio while the latter increases only at an arithmetic ratio—is true also of the relation between human talent and the problems of size.

breakdown-of-nationsp. 149

In favour of co-ops

Since the consequences of economic behaviour can be foreseen only in units that are small, the smallness of the economic complex is not an accidental but the most fundamental characteristic of cooperative concepts. It excludes gigantomania by constitution, as early capitalism excluded it by competition.

breakdown-of-nationsp. 153

Boundaries, not barriers

It is this spectre of the restoration of boundaries which seems to hold such terrors to our unification theorists, but only because they cannot visualize that boundaries do not necessarily mean barriers and that, without the connotation of barrier, they are the source of our happiness, not of our misery.

breakdown-of-nationsp. 167

(How) Can it be done, the breakdown of nations?

  1. war
  2. proportional representation in a federal union (oh boy... population wars)
  3. appeal to particularist sentiments (e.g. Brexit, Scottish/Basque/Catalan independence, etc.)

Chapter Eleven: BUT WILL IT BE DONE?




babel “The Tower of Babel”. “The Tower of Babel”. Genesis. The Bible. ↩︎ 1

breakdown-of-nations Kohr, Leopold. 1978. The Breakdown of Nations. Dutton. ↩︎ 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8