12 JULY 1957, Page 10

Too Big

By DWIGHT MACDONALD N 1951 the American city of North Plainfield, INJ, had a population of 12,800 and a police force of fifteen, or one cop to every 853 citizens; near-by Elizabeth, NJ, ten times as big, had a police-citizen ratio of one to 438; while another neighbour, 610 times as big, namely New York City, had a police-citizen ratio of one to 401. In short, the bigger the city the more homo homini lupus and the more policing per capita it requires. This is one of many curious and significant facts to be found in a curious and significant new book by Dr. Leopold Kohr,* a forty-eight-year-old Austrian-born political economist now teaching at the University of Puerto Rico. Dr. Kohr is obsessed with size, the proper size that is, which means that in our age of super-States he is a prophet of smallness. As other men collect stamps, he collects data proving how much wiser, brighter, kinder and happier men are or were in decently minute communities like Switzerland, Sweden, Renaissance Florence and Periclean Athens than in such super-colossal monstrosities as the US, USSR, or even France and England.

I think he is right. For some time now the ills that afflict us have seemed to me to be more related than is usually recognised to the inhumanly vast scale on which our political and cultural activities are conducted. The enormous increase in popula- tion stimulated in the last two centuries by the • THE BREAKDOWN OF NATIONS. By Leopold Kohr. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 30s.) rise in industrial production—this has led to gigantism, to a cancerous growth of sheer num- bers that chokes up the springs of communal ac- tivity with all sort of debris, from Hitler's lunatic 'programme' to the sub-Marxist ideology of the Communists, from the tons of American comic books to the miles of dreary suburbs around every large Western city.

There are just too many of us; ours is the century of the masses. (To think one once had Utopian hopes about 'the masses'! It was Hitler, it was Stalin who knew how to channel that force.) The masses are in historical time what a crowd.is in space: a quantity of people unable to express themselves as human beings because they are related to one another neither as individuals nor as members of communities. Indeed, they are not related to each other at all but only to something abstract and distant: a sporting event or parade in the case of a crowd, a system of industrial production or a party or a Stale in the case of the masses. In a community individuals are linked to each other by common interests, traditions, work, values, sentiments; the scale is small enough so that it 'makes a difference' what each person does—a first condition for human, as against mass, existence. In contrast a mass society, like a crowd, is a loosely structured collection of uniform, undifferentiated atoms which, so far as human values go, cohere only along the line of the lowest common denominator, its morality notoriously being that of its most brutal members, its taste that of the most ignorant. In a community, each individual is at once more able to be himself than in mass society and at the same time more closely integrated into the common life, his creativity nourished by a rich combination of individualism and communalism. Not only have all the great cultures of the past come out of such com- munities, as Dr. Kohr notes, but in our own time the avant-garde movement (Joyce, Eliot, Picasso, Stravinsky, etc.) was able to function only by creating an artificial community of talent and taste walled off from the corrupting, deadening influence of the masses.

For there now exists, for the first time in his- tory, a 'mass culture'—that is, pseudo works of art and thought manufactured especially for sale on that mass market which the industrial revolution created. In the novel, the line stretches from Eugene Sue to Daphne du Maurier, in music from Offenbach to rock 'n' roll, in ant from the Vic- torian chromo to the covers of The Saturday Evening Post (or the 'Socialist realist' paintings of Soviet Russia). Mass culture has also developed its own media; wireless and TV, the cinema, and mass journalism. The last has flowered most rankly in London, rivalling Hollywood in cheap triviality—Fleet Street dinosaurs, with brains the size of a pea, the monstrous products of an evolution in reverse, from Addison to Nancy Spain.

Unhappily, our author has buried a great truth —that masses think, feel and act on a much lower level than individuals or communities—under a great structure of philosophical nonsense. 'I have trier to develop a single theory,' he writes, 'through which all phenomena of the social universe can be reduced to a single common denominator. The result is a new and unified political philosophy centering in the theory of size. It suggests that there seems to be only one cause behind all the forms of social misery : bigness.' Dr. Kohr's Magic Reducing Machine— Just Press the Lever. This sort of thing used to be done in the optimistic nineteenth century more than it is in our disillusioned age; we are more sceptical, for the old reductive machines didn't work very well really. Not even Marx's, in whose footsteps Dr. Kohr consciously follows, merely substituting 'the changing size of society' for 'the changing mode of production.'

His machine works roughly as follows : (1) 'Bulk, size, mass not only leads to power; like energy, it is power—power congealed into the dimension of matter.'

(2) Power is dangerous when it accumulates beyond a certain point, as an atomic explosion takes place automatically when the fissionable material has reached a 'critical magnitude.'

(3) 'Everyone having the power will in the end commit the appropriate atrocities. . . . Virtue and vice are not internal qualities of the human soul . but the automatic response to, and reflex of, a purely external condition—a given volume of power.'

(4) Having shown subjectivity the door with great ceremony, Dr. Kohr is compelled to smuggle it in again the back way, for obviously there have been very big nations that have not gone in for war and imperialism and very small ones that have. The US in particular gives him a great deal of trouble, so reluctant to grasp world empire, so insistent on giving to its satellites rather than taking from them. So he must have an explanation to explain the explana- tion : there is also a 'subjective element'—i.e., the nation must think it is strong enough to get away with it (also, one might add, though he doesn't, must want to get away with it). But through this loophole pour back all the subjective bogies exorcised by the Kohr Reductive Machine, and we are right back where we started from.

(5) Temporarily, that is, for Dr. Kohr, like all good system-builders, post-dates his cheques when necessary; if something doesn't work out here and now, it will 'in the long run.' Thus in the US 'the state of mind, the soul of power' has grown more slowly than the physical body that contains it, so that she is not yet as bellicose and atrocious as her size requires. 'But she will be.' And : 'When that time comes, we should not naively fool ourselves with pretensions of innocence. . . . The critical mass of power will go off in our hands, tbo.'

I believe this mechanistic approach to be untrue, and I feel it to be repulsive. Untrue because even in this mass-ified world there is in human behaviour an element of free will ('indetermin- acy' would be more chic) which is why none of the machine-builders has yet been able to predict the historical future in any but the vaguest terms. And repulsive because a determinist world would be one without art and morality, the two realms irreducible to scientific explanation because of their own nature they imply a free choice, hence the unpredictable. One side of Marx's tempera- ment led him to the same dead end that Dr. Kohr has reached. He, too, saw 'virtue and vice' as 'merely the automatic reflex of a purely external condition,' and so no more blamed British factory owners for working some women and children to death than he blamed the Bengal tiger for eating others; both were natural responses to the environment. But Marx also had another, contra- dictory side to him, which did blame the factory owner, and the pages of Capital are suffused with a noble indignation which is not their least attractive quality—nor their least effective.

But this isn't Dr. Kohr's style at all. He seems to write partly out of antiquarian passion, partly out of a Menckenian (or Shavian) tough-boy pose. However, he writes well, he has dug up a lot of interesting historical material and he has good ideas (when he isn't tinkering with his reduction machine), such as that a decent political life can be maintained only by the principle of balance, of compromise between conflicting interests, and that this balance is possible if the units are many and small but impossible if they are few and big. Also, of course, his big point—if one may be permitted the term—is correct.