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An Overview of Decentralism

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Reprinted from neweconomy.net

a presentation at the International Decentralist Conference, organized by the E. F. Schumacher Society June 28-30, 1996, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Copyright 1996 E. F. Schumacher Society (now New Economics Institute) and Kirkpatrick Sale

I know that there are some of you out there who are wondering how two such disparate figures as John and I can be occupying the same stage and talking about the same subject - as colleagues. But I am afraid that such people are victims of what I would call the flat-earth delusion of politics. That's when you see all political thought on a straight line, with Left over here and Right over there:


But as you all know, we've given up the idea of a flat earth--most of us have, anyway--and the appropriate way to look at politics today is with a round-earth perspective. In that, you see, the Left makes up one hemisphere and the Right the other.

And the important thing about it is that, at the poles, the Left and the Right are not so far apart--because at one pole you have the authoritarians of both camps, the Stalinist Left and the Hitlerian Right, for example, and there's not much to choose between them; then down in the middle, along the equator, you have the squishy middle-ground liberal-moderate types of both Left and Right, far apart; and at the other pole you have the antiauthoritarians, the decentralists of all stripes, anti-big government, antistatist, communitarian, the anarchocommunalists and communitarians and communards and anarchists on the Left, and the libertarians and Jeffersonians and individualists on the Right, and they're really not so far apart.

That is why John and I are here together tonight. Because I am a decentralist of the Left and he is a decentralist of the Right, and on most things, in most ways, we agree. I remember when we first got together as trustees of the Schumacher Society he sent me one of those Johnny Hart cartoon strips, you know, those little cavemen always hanging around rocks--"B.C.," it's called--and this one showed one caveman saying, "Can you stand it that everyone's so happy?" "No," says the other, leaning on a rock. "Well, then," says the first, "let's start a government." Exactly. We had plenty of common ground there.

Let me start by suggesting some of the things that decentralists generally agree on, whatever part of the round earth they come from.

First, big is bad--the corollary of Schumacher's small is beautiful. The centralized state, particularly the mass-society state of the 20th century, is inherently a failure: it is authoritarian and anti-liberty, imposing checks and laws on all individual actions; it is hierarchical and arbitrary, with power at the top and subservience for the great majority below; it is bureaucratic in order to function at all, but it functions poorly nonetheless because bureaucracies are always inefficient and clumsy and self-perpetuating; it is undemocratic, because it is too big to allow direct face-to-face decision making and substitutes various forms of representation, all of which take power from the individual.

I am reminded here of a story that Leopold Kohr, the great decentralist economist, used to tell, about going to Lichtenstein and wanting to visit the Prime Minister of the country. He went to the castle, rang the bell, and the man who answered the door and ushered him in, whom he assumed to be a servant, turned out to be the Prime Minister himself. And when they were seated in his office, chatting, the phone rang and the minister answered, saying, "Government." You see? with a tiny country like that government is always there, always responsive, always able to answer the phone and take care of your problem.

But to continue with what we agree upon, we decentralists, about why big government is bad... it is dangerous, inevitably dangerous, because it favors war, welcomes war--war is the health of the state, as Randolph Bourn put it--and is not afraid to use its citizens as cannon fodder; and it is technological, continually amassing more and more complicated technology of the kind that increases its power and control over citizens, increases its ability to centralize all authority. In my book Human Scale, which is certainly appropriate to this gathering, and some copies of which I am told are available somewhere around here, I have a chapter called "The Law of Government Size." It is lengthy, but it's easy enough to reduce its lesson to a few words: "Economic and social misery increases in direct proportion to the size and power of the central government of a nation or state." Among the many historical proofs of this is one of my favorites, having to do with the German people. When they were divided into dozens of little principalities and duchies and kingdoms and sovereign cities, from about the 12th century to the 19th, they engaged in fewer wars than any other peoples of Europe: they were so small attacks by them were few and feeble enough, and so small attacks on them by larger powers were seen as useless. But when the German people were united and formed into a state of 25 million people and 70,000 square miles, it almost immediately embarked on wars against the other European powers, conquered territories in Africa and the Pacific, and ultimately instigated two devastating world wars within the space of thirty years.

Enough, then, about big government--that is the place where all decentralists begin, the common ground for all the rest of our shared understanding.

The next, following, point of agreement is that power should be diffused, and to the lowest level possible-- which means to a bioregional level, and beyond that to a community level, a neighborhood level, a family level, an individual level. Nothing should be decided at any level beyond that where the people effected get to have their say and participate in carrying it out. Following from that, as a next point of agreement, is that the community is the most important human institution in the life of the species--the small, place-based community, where each member is known to every other. It is primarily there that power should reside--social, economic, political, whatever.

And finally, also following, liberty is not the daughter of order but the mother. In a true decentralist society, freedom comes first, upon which are then built the needs and obligations of individuals one to another, and thus the order and harmony of the community and the society at large. Liberty is the mother of order.

Now having said all that, I am obliged to confront the question of where we decentralists stand today--together, communalist Left and libertarian Right. But we both must recognize that this is, without question, the Age of Authoritarianism. And even if the most egregious forms of that have, for the moment, been subdued except in the smaller states of Asia and Africa, it is still true that the 20th century is the era of the large and powerful nation-state, a condition only made worse by the fact that it is also the era of the global corporation, superpowerful entities that have all the characteristics of the state, except any vestige of responsibility, and operate with their own free - wheeling authoritarian ways. Yes, what we face today, in both political and economic spheres, is Authoritarianism Triumphant.

And yet--and yet--these are facts: decentralism is the basic human condition; decentralism is the historic norm for human societies; decentralism is deeply in the American tradition; and, despite everything, decentralism is alive and well today. I want to expand briefly on each of those points.

1. Decentralism is the basic human condition. The community is the oldest human institution, found absolutely everywhere throughout the world in all kinds of societies. As Rene Dubos has pointed out, more than 100 billion human beings have lived on earth since the late Paleolithic period, and "the immense majority of them have spent their entire life as members of very small groups...rarely of more than a few hundred persons." Indeed, he believes that the need for community has lasted so long that it is encoded in our genes, a part of our makeup, so that "modern man still has a biological need to be part of a group"--a small group, the community, the village, the tribe.

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Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of a dozen books, including After Eden: The evolution of Human Domination,   Human Scale and Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution (more...)

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