EF Schumacher's Small is Beautiful: another look.

A few days ago I read an article in the Observer saying that Britain's right wing prime minister, David Cameron, had based one of his core ideas - 'The Big Society' - on Ernst Shumacher's book Small is Beautiful (truthfully nobody knows if the BS is an 'idea' or even what it means). The newsmedia also informs us that the government is trying to change the academic research priorities in humanities and the social sciences toward researching this notion of the 'Big Society'.

 

Who can say; anything that encourages people to study society might be good whether fronted by the most right wing government since Thatcher or not. So, I took Small is Beautiful off my shelf for another look. I hadn't really considered this book since I was an undergraduate when I remember finding it a bit twee and I never read it to the end. Usually, at that time, we were pointed to the chapter on 'intermediate technologies' as part of the critique of development.

 

Small is Beautiful was first published in 1974 when there were still major British nationalised industries and, in fact, a lot of the book is about getting the best out of nationalised industry, why nationalised industries have to do something more than merely seek to maximise profit, and why the people who want to privatise them are largely greedy and stupid (Shumacher says this in a more polite way): it all seems like another world now.

 

The foundational argument, though, is that the current rate of exploitation of the globe's limited resources is unsustainable; as is the ideology that everyone can become rich and that the economic 'profit motive' supercedes all other motivations. Schumacher doesn't say that profit seeking is bad - but it has to be maintained in equilibrium with other human values. In order to maintain that balance there needs to be a strong case made in favour of the small scale in human affairs. Small and big are simply two poles of an argument.

 

So here are a few points from Schumacher, and I will leave it to others to work out how this can fit with the aggressive model of privatisation-of-the-commons protagonised by David Cameron and his friends in the banking system:

 

A. The most important human values have their most solid expression, and are best adapted and sustained, within small face-to-face groupings such as the family, work-mates, the village, the household (I am sure we can think of some others - the street corner, the church, the rum bar or whatever). It is too difficult to maintain important human values in very large 'faceless' organisations. In particular the people in charge of very large organisations tend not to recognise the value of the people below and on the periphery; they tend to turn them into capital or into a means to an end. Instead, healthy human decision-making has its best expression in the shared activity of relatively small groups nested within larger entities - the smaller groupings are best placed to understand and affect the organisation of the larger entity from their own perspective of embedded skills and knowledge (subsidiarity).

 

B. Where large-scale organisations dominate geo-politically the only option tends to be to try to join the large organisation (the megalopolis etc.) and try to rise to the top in order to make a life and have a say: hence the drift within nation states to large cities and the loss of energy and creativity in provincial towns and villages. Schumacher is in favour of regional political-economic devolution so that people locally can build their own organisations suited to their own needs and skills. Massive organisations are fundamentally inhuman and encourage inhuman values.

 

C. Education is a matter of enabling people to make their own judgements free from the technologisation of knowledge: no amount of computer power can help people predict human behaviour because - however much it shows conservatism and repetitiveness en masse (and in hindsight) - individual human behaviour is inherently free. And this is another reason to devolve judgement and decision-making to face-to-face groupings.

 

D. Development via large-scale technology imported from the metropolitan centre doesn't work (if the aim is to create a fairer more equal society) because local people have no control over it and cannot exercise any judgement with regard to it. Hence the usefulness of intermediate technologies that are an advance over the labour intensive baseline, but are still comprehensible and adaptable in local terms.

 

E. Nationalisation of commerce is a good thing if the aim is to go beyond simply seeking profit and comes to encompass the building of valuable face-to-face social relationships and judgements at the level of the small-scale. This is not to say that the profit motive is inherently wrong, simply that people who replace serious moral values with the profit motive, who for instance want to break down every barrier to private property ownership, are dangerous to any kind of shared morality or sense of mutual responsibility. Privatisation and untrammeled profit-seeking concentrates capital in the hands of a tiny minority and reproduces the effects of B.

 

 

 

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