Who Was Leopold Kohr?

Written by Steven Yates on Saturday, 21 January 2012. Posted in Opinion, Steven Yates

Leopold KohrA few months back I encountered an article online with the curious title, “This Economic Crisis is a “Crisis of Bigness.”” Such items attract my attention, because like many other observers I am convinced that both government and many corporations are too large to accomplish even well intentioned goals, and that the impulse for a more centralized society—the impulse that leads to “bigness”—was a mistake from the get-go. Likewise the effort to create “global governance.” Globalism seems destined to make the rich richer, wipe out the middle class, and create vast populations of poor people. Is such a system actually governable?  

Reading the article, I encountered for the first time the work of a thinker I’d not heard of before: Leopold Kohr, who turned out to have been the teacher of E.F. Schumacher, best known for his collection of loosely connected essays entitled Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (orig. 1973). Kohr spent close to ten years trying to find a publisher for his manuscript The Breakdown of Nations—finally issued in 1957. The book’s attack on the “cult of bigness” went against the grain of its time, which was towards ever-larger organizations and ever-widening centralization. Power had already begun to migrate from nation-state to international organizations (the UN, the International Monetary Fund, NATO, etc.). Kohr’s book was ignored and sank without a trace. It remained out of print until 1978. The second edition, published without fanfare, also disappeared. Again the book was out of print until Green Books reissued it in May 2001. Who was its author, and what was his message?


Leopold Kohr was born in 1909 in the small town of Oberndorf, near Salzberg, in Austria, and grew up there. He retained fond memories of the town, which was seemingly governed efficiently and effectively. It remained his regulative ideal for the proper size and reach of a political unit. Kohr studied law and political science at the University of Innsbruck and the University of Vienna respectively, obtaining doctorates in both subjects. Then he studied economics at the London School of Economics. The Fabian socialism prevalent there doesn’t seem to have taken—at least not in any form likely to lead to an advocacy of infiltrating organizations and controlling them.

By now it was the 1930s. With the Spanish Civil War having broken out and the world inching toward the still larger war to come, Kohr worked as a war correspondent where he befriended George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway and André Malraux. He observed the mostly self-contained separatist governments of Aragon and Catalonia within Spain, before finally returning to his native Austria. He was Jewish, and with Nazism spreading, his stay there was short lived. He fled his homeland in 1938 and came to the United States His philosophical ideas mostly formed, a distrust of power at its center, he began work on his magnum opus The Breakdown of Nations.


He applied for and received U.S. citizenship. From the early 1940s until the mid 1950s he taught economics and political philosophy at Rutgers University. This was this period he struggled to find a publisher for Breakdown. The manuscript—devoid of the equations and technical jargon that filled the books and technical journals of mainstream social science—probably bewildered academic acquisitions editors. Was this economics or sociology? Was it political philosophy? In truth, the book was interdisciplinary during an age when micro-specialization completely ruled American academia. Moreover, it attempted to defend what he called the “human scale” from the “cult of bigness” during a period of fascination with incipient global governance. No one knew what to make of it. Without the assistance of British philosophical anarchist Herbert Read, it might never have found a publisher.

Kohr accepted a position teaching economics at the University of Puerto Rico, and also lent his advice to local city planning initiatives. In 1973 he moved to Wales and lent his support to an independence movement there. He retired from teaching and divided his time between a residence he’d established in rural Wales and one near his beloved hometown in Austria. Meanwhile, E.F. Schumacher’s network ensured a small audience for his ideas. In 1983 he was given the Right Liveliness Award: a sort of alternative Nobel Prize, “for his early inspiration of the movement for a human scale.”


Like Read he described himself as a “philosophical anarchist.” The thesis denies that there can ever be rational justification or moral legitimacy for a special institution (or set of institutions) called the state, or government. The philosophical anarchist combines this with a quietism, eschewing violent action as the appropriate response to the state both not simply because such action only leads to a more violent response but because violence is the way of the state, not a free people. Philosophical anarchists do not believe the state has any inherent right to command, or that any person has an obligation to obey, though of course it may be prudent to do so.

Such a position may seem quixotic, and Kohr’s work has quixotic overtones in that he did not believe he would live to see his ideas realized. What he believed in was gradualism through benevolence, working with people on the “human scale” to solve problems that state arrogated for itself, the goal being to make the state seem redundant. The morality: one shouldn’t hurt people. One should help them, including freeing them from beliefs that only encourage submission to the state and bring on repressive state actions. The philosophical anarchist’s regulative ideal is the self-governing community, a community small enough that everyone has at least passing acquaintance with everyone else—and, in particular, those who are well off are aware of the plights of those who are not. While this may seem to be bringing some kind of latent Fabian socialism in the back door, Kohr seems not to have looked at matters that way. What mattered was not the economic arrangements but the scale. If political units remain small—if the human scale is maintained—the good will that emerges within communities will serve the purposes the Fabians believed only the state could serve. Hence is room for both freedom and safety nets, because in a population raised within a morality of benevolence, safety nets will happen voluntarily and not through force. Likewise if political units are small, the capacity for destruction of those rogue states who make war on their neighbors is limited. Such states can be contained through alliances on the part of their neighbors. Wars capable of laying waste to entire continents only occur between expansionist empires.

The basic idea is this: all systems have an optimal size range, or scale. If they exceed their proper scale, the result is dysfunction and breakdown. Consider why, at first glance a strange question, it would be impossible for a human being to grow to a height of 200 feet, as in The Amazing Colossal Man (the lovably cheesy sci-fi film from the 1950s). The answer: his enormous weight would make it impossible for him to stand up. His skeletal structure would be too heavy. Moreover, his internal organs would crush one another under their own mass. The only possible counteragent here would be an extensive and very powerful muscular system to counteract the effects of gravity. Such a system would only add to the colossal man’s weight!  


As with organic systems, argues Kohr in The Breakdown of Nations, organizations, economies and societies have an optimal size. When they exceed that size, their functionality diminishes a little at a time. The specifically political problem that appears at once is the ease with which an elite can grab power and begin a train of abuses. These need not be planned. Kohr believes abuse of power is a necessary feature of any organization of human beings that has grown too large. What those in power can get away with, they will get away with—to the exact degree abuse of power is possible because there is no other power base from which to retaliate, or at least to hold the powers-that-be in check. Kohr is offering a commentary on human nature (one very much compatible with the idea of original sin, although he barely mentions Christianity).

Kohr calls his thesis the power theory of aggression. Social brutality and cruelty appear and worsen to the extent the perpetrators realize they can get away with it. “Everyone having the power,” he says, “will in the end commit the appropriate atrocities” (Breakdown, p. 47). These include breaking their own laws if there is no greater power to hold them accountable. That greater power can only be the aggregate will of the people, which can only operate as a kind of feedback loop if the human scale is maintained. He who accumulates sufficient power in a political system grown too big “does whatever it induces in its possessor the belief that he cannot be checked by any existing larger accumulation of power” (ibid.).

When Kohr was writing, the U.S. seemed the glaring exception to his analysis. The U.S. was certainly empire-sized even then, but seemed mostly benevolent. By the time Kohr was able to finish his book, the U.S. had become the most prosperous and the most powerful nation in the world. Americans clearly wore the white hats. We were the good guys, and viewed as such by much of the rest of the world including where we had vanquished tyrants. U.S. military might, alongside that of the U.K and the Soviets, had saved much of Europe from Hitler, after all.

Kohr acknowledged this, but predicted it would change. It had to change, because the dynamics of bigness required it to change. In a chapter entitled “The American Empire”—he might have been the first author to use those two words together—Kohr all but predicts the next 60 years of U.S. history. Military might required a powerful central government to oversee it. Power would corrupt, and very gradually, the U.S. would become everything it once opposed! The Soviet Union also emerged from the Second World War a much stronger entity. Kohr had figured out that the two superpowers would soon be on collision course, and unless one or both collapsed from within, the result would be a third world war. As it turned out, although we saw a frightening arms race war did not break out because the Soviet Union collapsed.

The Breakdown of Nations predicted that the U.S. would become an empire. It would pursue an increasingly aggressive foreign policy, just to manage its foreign holdings. This it had begun to do in the 1950s, before Kohr’s book was published. Not long after, President Eisenhower sounded the first warnings about the “military-industrial complex.” The U.S. would begin to pursue wars on false pretexts, such as in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. Things have gotten worse—with the Soviet Union gone, the U.S. military machine needed new enemies to fight. The 1990s saw a move towards initiating wars of aggression aimed at “regime change.” The first was Kosovo, under the Clinton regime. The most obvious example is Iraq, under the Bush II regime. That nation is now a shambles. The rattling of sabers against Iran has been ongoing for several years now, ratcheted up to a fever pitch in recent weeks. This war of words is extremely interesting to observe in light of Kohr’s power theory of aggression. It is likely that the U.S., probably alongside Israel, would have attacked Iran by now if our government did not fear the repercussions: Iran’s likely closing the Strait of Hormuz despite U.S. warnings, leading to a confrontation that could widen until it destabilizes the entire region, eventually drawing in China and Russia. (China need not do anything militarily. They hold over $900 billion dollars in reserve. All they need do is dump these reserves. All those dollars would come here. Our economy would tank overnight amidst skyrocketing inflation.)

Kohr’s thesis applies to more than just governments, as suggested. If applied to corporate behemoths, it predicts the increasing dysfunction to be found not just in government but in the leviathan banks. It explains how such irresponsible practices as “robo-signing” mortgages can be established. It explains how financial instruments such as derivatives can be invented in the first place, and how they can create a financial bubble capable of bringing down much of the world’s financial system. This is what happens when too many organizations not only grow too large but are networked together into a still-more-expansive network, alongside other corporations and public-private hybrids such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, into a single bloated edifice of “crony capitalism.” Greed, irresponsibility, and short-term thinking precipitate increasing dysfunction, and from these we got the Meltdown of 2008!

Again: power will be exercised, and freedoms abused, if the powerful and the irresponsible see themselves able to get away with it, because those attacked—or victimized—do not have a power base of their own to retaliate.

One reason the U.S. attacked Iraq in 2003 was the realization that Saddam Hussein’s regime had little chance against the U.S. military machine. Neocons in our government have been rattling sabers against Iran for years without attacking. Although provocations are currently increasing, it is clear Iran has the capacity to retaliate; and it has allies. Bullies will back down if their targets appear ready and able to defend themselves. North Korea also appears safe from attack: it has both nukes and a highly-disciplined army of well over a million.

In some respects, Kohr’s view of this world is rather bleak. He didn’t believe his ideas would have any impact. And they haven’t. But on the other hand, there is light at the end of the tunnel. His analysis predicts that no globalist New World Order will stand. An actual world government will enter a period of vicious abuse of those stripped of power, but eventually strangle on its own bureaucracy and mismanagement: after all, the superelite can’t be everywhere at once! Authority structures do not manage themselves. To keep from disintegrating, even a world government will have to devolve power outward from its center, and that will only hasten its disintegration if it cannot maintain the loyalty of its own undersecretaries and functionaries. Empires may subsist for a time, but Kohr’s analysis concludes that none will prove sustainable. The laws of systems posit that every system including governance units has a maximum size it can sustain over time. Exceed that size, and the system enters a period of increasingly unmanageable dysfunction.  

I can’t say we need to rediscover Leopold Kohr, because we never discovered him. Read Breakdown of Nations today, and we come to see why we have a largely unresponsive political system, and why so many of our institutions seem mismanaged—private corporations as well as government agencies. They are too big! Bigness begets alienation and faceless bureaucracy, but more importantly, it begets more bigness: organizations grow larger through desperate attempts to correct for, or at least manage, the dysfunction their present level of bigness has generated. This is as true of leviathan corporations as it is of overextended, expansionist governments.

Kohr’s Breakdown of Nations is a compelling read. This book and its author deserve far more attention than they have received, which, aside from a handful of web articles, is practically zero.


Trailer Leopold Kohr - Small is Beautiful (English) from Ranfilm on Vimeo.



About the Author

Steven Yates

Steven Yates

Steven Yates, Ph.D., earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Georgia. The author of three books and numerous articles in both academic journals and online, his most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (Brush Fire Press International, 2011—http://fourcardinalerrors.com). An expatriated U.S. citizen, he lives in Santiago, Chile, runs a small business editing and proofreading English for Chilean academics, and teaches philosophy at Universidad de Santiago de Chile. He has been blogging occasionally about the nature of philosophy and its role in civilization’s future, if it is to have one, at http://civilizationsfifthstage.blogspot.com. Beginning next month, he will be involving himself with an educational-entrepreneurial start-up based in Santiago known as Exosphere.

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Copyright © Steven Yates. Used with permission.

Comments (2)

  • Nsajigwa Mwasokwa sisikwasisi

    Nsajigwa Mwasokwa sisikwasisi

    31 July 2012 at 17:41 |
    I knew of Leopord Kohr through his only one book that i read during my youth-hood in mid 1980s-Development without aid.
    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...one leave the white collar job, went to study farming instead and then, originated a "back to the land" to 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
  • Georgiana


    12 June 2012 at 22:49 |
    Wonderful article Steven! I read Leopold Kohr while I was at the University of Michigan. I had a wonderful political science professor who introduced us to portions of Breakdown of Nations. After I graduated I bought the book and it is one of my most prized possessions. I wish more people would read it.

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