"Social size: dynamics & interventions"

If it is true that, as Kohr says, it is unchecked power endowed by unchecked size that causes all our social miseries and wars breakdown-of-nationsch. II.4, how is one to go about checking this power by checking the size of societies?

It is a compelling thesis certainly. Cooperation, mergers, collusion are all common tactics of smaller entities, banding together in order to pose a formidable threat against a pre-existing aggressor. But in forming such a coalition, this new group gathers more power than the old bully, and as Kohr would have it, begin to themselves inflict miseries unto others, now that they have the upper hand and with no viable challengers to get in their way. And so another coalition, larger and more powerful than this last, must form, themselves acquire unchecked power, ad infinitum. Kohr himself describes this dynamic well:

For if socially produced brutality, be it on an individual or mass scale, is largely nothing but the spontaneous result of the critical volume of power generated whenever the human mass reaches a certain magnitude, it can be prevented only through a device that keeps power-breeding social size at a sub-critical level. This can be accomplished in two ways: through the increase of the controlling power to the level of the challenging power, or through attacking the problem at its root by bringing about a decrease in social size. The conventional method is to resort to the first alternative.

breakdown-of-nationsp. 34

Of course, he advocates for the alternative—that is to say, for societies and communities to keep their own size in check so as to prevent the acquisition of unchecked power. But such a notion seems almost laughable: which group, in the dominant position, would voluntarily break themselves up and cede its power so as to prevent the atrocities that come as as an inevitability of size? It certainly seems to go against, if not nature, then at least the globalist ideologies of our present age. The breakdown of over-large companies certainly occurs, but they are seldom, if ever, voluntary. Most get broken up only as a result of anti-trust laws, but such laws can only be enforced by the state, who wields an even bigger stick, so to speak. There are no anti-trust regulations for a United States, a China, or a Russia. Are we to hope that these overgrown states would curb their imperialist tendencies through their good graces alone?

Kohr goes on to claim that dividing the nation states down into their constituent regions—many of them vying for independence in any case—would completely solve the problem of war by distributing power:

The re-establishment of small-state sovereignty would thus not only satisfy the never extinguished desire of these states for the restoration of their autonomy; it would disintegrate the cause of most wars as if by magic. There would no longer be a question of whether disputed Alsace should be united with France or Germany. With neither a France nor a Germany left to claim it, she would be Alsatian. She would be flanked by Baden and Burgundy, themselves then little states with no chance of disputing her existence. There would be no longer a question of whether Macedonia should be Yugoslav, Bulgarian, or Greek-she would be Macedonian; whether Transylvania should be Hungarian or Romanian-she would be Transylvanian; or whether Northern Ireland should be part of Eire or Britain; she would be nobody’s part. She would be North Irish. With all states small, they would cease to be mere border regions of ambitious neighbours. Each would be too big to be devoured by the other. The entire system would thus function as an automatic stabilizer.

breakdown-of-nationsp. 59

At the risk of asking the obvious—presumably, these regions were once autonomous on their own, and the nation-states as we know them (as mentioned earlier on in the chapter) only got to their present size through wars. So how is it exactly that we should expect the system to "function as an automatic stabilizer" if that "stability" of those originally small states has already been upended over and over throughout the course of history?


There are cultural groups that voluntarily limit the sizes of their immediate communities. The Hutterites, for instance, would split their communities into two, as in binary fission, when their size exceeds approximately Dunbar's number, founding a daughter colony nearby and sending half their members to live there. But such groups are viewed more as curios than the norm. What paths exist, leading from our present size-obsessed culture, to cultures that recognise such scale-appropriate communities as a pre-requisite for the good life?

Kohr also brings up the example of the Swiss (yes, that ideal wise state), who when minority conflicts arose would tend to split their cantons so as to create new independent regions where the minorities would no longer be at a disadvantage. But this occurs in a landlocked, mountainous state with a history of being a refuge from the expansionary states of the valley regions, art-not-gov so one wonders how palatable such a strategy would prove in other parts of the world.


breakdown-of-nations Kohr, Leopold. 1978. The Breakdown of Nations. Dutton. ↩︎ 1 2 3

art-not-gov Scott, James C. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press. ↩︎ 1