Small is Beautiful, pt. 6

My final post on Small is Beautiful. Other posts on Schumacher can be found here.

Schumacher includes another section, on Social Organization, that I won’t survey in detail, primarily because I found it to be the least interesting in the book. I imagine there’s quite a bit of sophistication that I missed, therefore, and don’t want to shortchange him. Schumacher was himself the director of some very large-scale and successful organizations, and he almost certainly offers quite a bit of insight into the subject. Just one more reason for you to check out the book for yourself.

The guiding principle behind Schumacher’s ideal social organization is the venerable principle of subsidiarity, that matters (politial, social, etc.) ought to be handled by the smallest, most local, or least centralized competent authority. Things generally ought to be handled by those who are closest to the situation at hand yet who have enough power to properly deal with the situation. Whenever possible, power ought not be assumed by higher powers unless absolutely necessary. In these cases, the burden of proving their unique capability to handle a given problem lies with the higher power:

they  have to prove that the lower level is incapable of fulfilling this function satisfactorily and that the higher level can actually do much better.

Small is Beautiful, 261 (emphasis his)

Moreover, when the higher power steps in, this must be recognized as an exception, not a rule. So, if a higher power is required to deal with the stresses put on a local system that outstrip that locale’s capacities, the nature of the exception and the scope of the higher power’s intervention needs to be clearly delineated and limited. For example, if the federal government is required to dramatically intervene in the governance of individual states to repair the damage, social and economic, of some natural disaster or social unrest, that intervention ought not be permanent. The aftermath of disaster is not an excuse to destroy subsidiary authority, but to support it until the crisis has passed. At which point, the higher should cede control back to the lower. The fact that this essentially never happens is one of the great problems of modern governance.1

Subsidiarity is, of course, one of the core planks of Catholic Social Teaching, and it was one of the gateways which led to Schumacher’s own conversion. So much for his discussion of social organization. Again, I encourage you to check out the whole book, he’s got a lot more to say.

We’ll thus wrap up our discussion of Small is Beautiful with some quotes from the book’s conclusion.

First, an identification of the central problem the book confronts:

In the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man.  If only there were more and more wealth, everything else, it is thought, would fall into place.  Money is considered to be all-powerful; if it could not actually buy non-material values, such as justice, harmony, beauty or even health, it could circumvent the need for them or compensate for their loss.  The development of production and the acquisition of wealth have thus become the highest goals of the modern world in relation to which all other goals, not matter how much lip-service may still be paid to them, have come to take second place.

Small is Beautiful, 313

Note, the book was published more than 45 years ago. The problem has only gotten worse.

Next, the recognition that the problem is not one of technical incapacity or inadequate allocation of resources but a philosophical and spiritual one that can only be resolved, therefore, by philosophical and spiritual transformation:

We shrink back from the truth if we believe that the destructive forces of the modern world can be “brought under control” simply by mobilizing more resources–of wealth, education, and research–to fight pollution, to preserve wildlife, to discover new sources of energy, and to arrive at more effective agreements on peaceful coexistence.  Needless to say, wealth, education, research, and many other things are needed for any civilization, but what is most needed today is a revision of the ends which these means are meant to serve.

Small is Beautiful, 314-5

How might we begin this spiritual transformation?

Everywhere people ask: “What can I actually do?” The answer is simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order.  The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind. 

Small is Beautiful, 318

The solution lies in the virtues:

Out of the whole Christian tradition, there is perhaps no body of teaching which is more relevant and appropriate to the modern predicament than the marvelously subtle and realistic doctrines of the Four Cardinal Virtues–prudentia, justitita, fortitudo, and temperantia.

Small is Beautiful, 316

Cultivate the virtues in yourself and seek to build the structures that will enable others to do the same. It is this, not AI, not “more education”, not “green” technology, that will save you and, with you, us.


The Waking

A quiet poem about noise.

The Waking
I strolled across
An open field;
The sun was out;
Heat was happy.

This way! This way!
The wren’s throat shimmered,
Either to other,
The blossoms sang.

The stones sang,
The little ones did,
And flowers jumped
Like small goats.

A ragged fringe
Of daisies waved;
I wasn’t alone
In a grove of apples.

Far in the wood
A nestling sighed;
The dew loosened
Its morning smells.

I came where the river
Ran over stones:
My ears knew
An early joy.

And all the waters
Of all the streams
Sang in my veins
That summer day.

Theodore Roethke

Small is Beautiful, pt. 5

An attempt to get back to writing regularly here, perhaps futile.

My last post on Schumacher was in January, so I’ve lost the thread a bit, please bear with me.

Previous posts can be found here.

One of the things I most appreciate about Schumacher is that he takes the challenge of technology seriously. The lack of serious engagement with technology is one of the great blindspots of anti-modern thought, which tends to ignore the catastrophic effects of technological advancement on the traditional world-view and the role of technology in sustaining the (otherwise unsustainable) edifice of modernity.1

If we wish to advocate for reform, we must therefore confront the challenge of technology head-on. Schumacher:

The modern world has been shaped by its metaphysics, which has shaped its education, which in turn has brought forth its science and technology.  So, without going back to metaphysics and education, we can say that the modern world has been shaped by technology.  It tumbles from crisis to crisis; on all sides there are prophecies of disaster and, indeed, visible signs of breakdown.

If that which has been shaped by technology, and continues to be so shaped, looks sick, it might be wise to have a look at technology itself.  If technology is felt to be becoming more and more inhuman, we might do well to consider whether it is possible to have something better–a technology with a human face.

Small is Beautiful, 155

Against the charge of technology being, as Schumacher describes it, inhuman and sickening, there are typically two knee-jerk responses. The first is a vague gesture towards the benefits of technology; medicine, transportation, smart phones.2 The second is an assertion of technology’s neutrality. In this defense, it is not the technology itself that is the problem, but the way we use it.

Note that these responses are inextricably linked. Both operate one step removed from the actual the problem. The (false) assumption here is that the development and operation of technology is an essentially uncontrolled process, an undirected power. Our response to technology is cast as a simple apprehension of and reaction to reality and not the product of a specific weltbild.3 Of course, this is rather obviously false as an even cursory examination (historical, philosophical, phenomenological, etc.) makes clear.

Recognizing that the technological mindset is not given, but rests upon a host of metaphysical claims, which are upon examination rather suspect, enables the possibility of questioning, discarding, and supplanting a view of the world, technological progress, and our relation to nature that, as Schumacher notes, is making us sick, spiritually and physically.

Of course, the defender of the technological mindset will challenge Schumacher’s assertion that said mind set is sickening or, if they are a bit more realistic, suggest that the spiritual and physical sicknesses technology does generate are necessary evils, “worth it” in comparison to the great benefits of technology.4

The response to this defense is simple, though difficult to accept. It is that the so-called advantages of technology in increasing productivity, health, happiness, etc. largely do not exist. While there are certainly technological achievements that have benefited man, antibiotics say, the vast majority add to our burdens, at best leading to the continual cluttering of our lives at worst actively enslaving and killing us.

I don’t have the space to demonstrate this in detail, perhaps I will write about it later.5 But, please, consider your own life : How many technologies truly make you more free, a better person, more productive? How many technologies add more responsibilities, require you to make more money to buy and maintain them, suck away all the small, still moments6 in your day, to how many are you addicted? Most importantly, how many make you a better person?

At the heart of our technological world lies a damning paradox:

The amount of real leisure a society enjoys tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of labour-saving machinery it employs.

Small is Beautiful, 157

Moreover, the bounds of technology wrap ever tighter around us, tying us down to an endless proliferation of stuff and forcing us into an endless series of bullshit jobs to pay for that stuff (isn’t technology supposed to allow us to live lives of leisure? why in this time of supposed abundance do we work so much?).

The number of people who I’ve met who seem to do nothing at all, accomplish nothing, produce nothing. Is this what the pinnacle of industrial society looks like? Pushing paper? Why are we so miserable? This, among other things, leads to a profound sense of alienation and dislocation.

We say, therefore, that modern technology has deprived man of the kind of work that he enjoys most, creative, useful work with hands hands and brains, and given him plenty of work of a fragmented kind, most of which he does not enjoy at all.  It has multiplied the number of people who are exceedingly busy doing kinds of work which, if it is productive at all, is so only in an indirect or “rough-about” way, and much of which would not be necessary at all if technology were rather less modern. 

Small is Beautiful, 160

Schumacher’s solution: de-scaling and, most especially, technology with a human face. That is, technology that is fundamentally oriented towards humanity, that is human-scaled and human-directed–in what is perhaps the best distillation of the central thesis of the book, Schumacher writes:

Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful.

Small is Beautiful, 169

Technology and our relation to it ought to be designed towards helping us achieve actual happiness, eudaimonia. Of course, this requires recognizing that we have ends, that those ends are knowable and shared, that technology can inhibit or advance those ends, that there is no neutral. And this is intolerable to the modern mind.

1. The category into which I’ve assigned this and similar posts speaks to this latter point. Think of the vast amounts of energy exerted everyday to blot out the light of the stars, such a thing is only possible thanks to the tremendous technological achievements of the past two hundred years. Without the ability to exert this energy so freely, we’d be forced to consider the stars and to confront the consequences of that consideration. Technology thus acts as the instrument of our (pseudo)willful blindness to the reality of things. And where does causation ultimately lie? Do we control technology or does it control us? Do we blot out the stars because it is our wish or because we’ve given ourselves no other choice? To whom have we delegated the power of deciding?

2. they rarely gesture toward incinerated corpses in Nagasaki

3. This yet another iteration of the great modern lie, of the possibility of valueless, metaphysically neutral judgment about anything whatsoever. It is rooted in a failure to recognize that metaphysical judgments are prior to all others and cannot be bracketed.

The truth of this principle is demonstrated by the desperate hand-waving of those attempting to ignore metaphysics when confronted with the impossibility of their position. It all boils down to, “well, what if we just pretend that we can suspend judgment on, say, whether God exists?” But all we’re doing is pretending (at best, at worst, we’re deliberately obfuscating perhaps from ourselves. If, for example, the world is a creation, rather than a semi-random accumulation of matter spewed out by some purposeless cosmic explosion, isn’t that the single most important fact about the world? If God became man and died on the Cross, is not all history, all reality colored (indeed, re-created) by that moment? How can we bracket these questions, then? We must proceed under the assumption that these propositions are either true or false, they touch every aspect of our thought, our lives. We cannot do otherwise.

4. If they’re feeling polemical, as those who are long accustomed to seeing their mindset as neutral and default often are (wittingly and unwittingly), there’s often a veiled or explicit accusation of luditism embedded in their defense. “So you want us all to become Amish?” “Oh, so we should just all go back to living in mud huts and dying of the plague?” These are, of course, not actually arguments, mere emotional outbursts, and don’t truly deserve a rational response, though we received rather eloquent one long ago: “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” 

5. If you’re interested, see for example Ivan Illich’s writings on the true cost of cars (His work on medicine is well worth reading as well) or see Kunstler on how widespread automobile usage (something possible only through the mass practice of usury by the way) and designing our living space around cars has resulted in the destruction of American communities. Or look at the correspondence of smartphones with the increasing social dissolution among younger generations. Think about what mass media has done to society, what it does to your brain, about environmental devastation, and so on and so on.

6. See 1 Kings 19:11-12


Restarting my regular poetry posts. I’ve been reading more single-author collections lately, so they’ll likely be less variety, and I also might try to add some commentary on individual poems from time to time.

To begin again, a poem about home, which, as Kipling notes, ought to be loved even in its unlovableness.


God gave all men all earth to love,
But since our hearts are small,
Ordained for each one spot should prove
Belovèd over all;
That, as He watched Creation’s birth,
So we, in godlike mood,
May of our love create our earth
And see that it is good.
So one shall Baltic pines content,
As one some Surrey glade,
Or one the palm-grove’s droned lament
Before Levuka’s Trade.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
Yea, Sussex by the sea!

No tender-hearted garden crowns,
No bosomed woods adorn
Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs,
But gnarled and writhen thorn—
Bare slopes where chasing shadows skim,
And, through the gaps revealed,
Belt upon belt, the wooded, dim,
Blue goodness of the Weald.

Clean of officious fence or hedge,
Half-wild and wholly tame,
The wise turf cloaks the white cliff edge
As when the Romans came.
What sign of those that fought and died
At shift of sword and sword?
The barrow and the camp abide,
The sunlight and the sward.

Here leaps ashore the full Sou’west
All heavy-winged with brine,
Here lies above the folded crest
The Channel’s leaden line;
And here the sea-fogs lap and cling,
And here, each warning each,
The sheep-bells and the ship-bells ring
Along the hidden beach.

We have no waters to delight
Our broad and brookless vales—
Only the dewpond on the height
Unfed, that never fails—
Whereby no tattered herbage tells
Which way the season flies—
Only our close-bit thyme that smells
Like dawn in Paradise.

Here through the strong and shadeless days
The tinkling silence thrills;
Or little, lost, Down churches praise
The Lord who made the hills:
But here the Old Gods guard their round,
And, in her secret heart,
The heathen kingdom Wilfrid found
Dreams, as she dwells, apart.

Though all the rest were all my share,
With equal soul I’d see
Her nine-and-thirty sisters fair,
Yet none more fair than she.
Choose ye your need from Thames to Tweed,
And I will choose instead
Such lands as lie ’twixt Rake and Rye,
Black Down and Beachy Head.

I will go out against the sun
Where the rolled scarp retires,
And the Long Man of Wilmington
Looks naked toward the shires;
And east till doubling Rother crawls
To find the fickle tide,
By dry and sea-forgotten walls,
Our ports of stranded pride.

I will go north about the shaws
And the deep ghylls that breed
Huge oaks and old, the which we hold
No more than Sussex weed;
Or south where windy Piddinghoe’s
Begilded dolphin veers
And red beside wide-bankèd Ouse
Lie down our Sussex steers.

So to the land our hearts we give
Till the sure magic strike,
And Memory, Use, and Love make live
Us and our fields alike—
That deeper than our speech and thought,
Beyond our reason’s sway,
Clay of the pit whence we were wrought
Yearns to its fellow-clay.

God gives all men all earth to love,
But since man’s heart is small,
Ordains for each one spot shall prove
Beloved over all.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
Yea, Sussex by the sea!

Rudyard Kipling