Small is Beautiful

Beginning another series of posts, this time concentrating on E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.

Schumacher was a mid-20th century economist, a student of Keynes, who advised the British National Coal Board (a far bigger deal than the name alone indicates) for decades.  Influenced by his study of philosophy, particularly the traditional social thought of the Catholic Church,1 and his travels around the world as an economic consultant (particularly to Burma), he formulated an understanding of economics and technology that is a vital corrective to prevailing attitudes both in his day and our own.  His book was surprisingly popular, yet the problems Schumacher critiques are still very much with us and his solutions sadly unimplemented, at least on any mass scale.

By and large I believe that Schumacher is correct both in his diagnosis of what is wrong with modern economic systems and in his prescriptions to resolve the problem, and his writings have greatly informed much of the “what is to be done” aspect of my thought on the environment/economy.2

Schumacher suggests that the core problem is a philosophical one, an unwarranted confidence that material advances have eliminated the problem of production.  This false confidence is rooted in a materialistic techno-centric outlook3 that is, at its very core, false and will thus lead inexorably to collapse.  This outlook leaves us blind to the ravenous consumption/destruction of three irreplaceable resources :

This illusion, I suggested, is mainly due to our inability to recognizes that the modern industrial system , with all its intellectual sophistication, consumes the very basis on which it has been erected. To use the language of the economists, it lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. I specified three categories of such capital: fossil fuels, the tolerance margins of nature, and the human substance.

Small is Beautiful, 21

My eye is, of course, most drawn to the last of these, though Schumacher gives ample space to all three.

The problems related to the first are fairly obvious, no less so in our modern era of seemingly never-ending violent entanglement in the Middle East than in Schumacher’s own ecologically-troubled time.

The second points to the broader set of ecological stresses placed on the natural world by careless, over-scaled industrialization.  Conceive of the natural world as an exceedingly complex system that is, for the most part, able to absorb any number of shocks.  A single summer without much rain does not cause an ecosystem to collapse nor does an especially cold winter or even a more violent natural disaster, such as a hurricane.  However, these events do place pressure on the system and, if they accumulate dramatically, a point can be reached where the “safety margin” of they system’s resiliency is overcome, leading to rapid collapse.  Perhaps the most obvious case of this sort of thing is what happened to isolated island ecosystems after the arrival of man.  A population of only fifty people–who brought with them dogs, rats, etc.–was enough to guarantee the extinction of the Dodo in less than a hundred years.

The third category that is consumed by the modern industrial system is, to put it in even more severe terms than Schumacher, the human soul.  One needs to only think of the Satanic mills of industrial England, suicide nets outside iPhone factories, or the bleak dehumanizing horror of Soviet architecture, to say nothing of the terrible all-consuming atomization of modern America.  There is simply no point to industrial society if it deprives us of our humanity, and no point to any reform that does not confront this corruption/consumption head on.

In the next few posts, I’d like to continue this diagnosis, looking at both the moral character of the current crisis and the systems of thought that underlie it, before proceeding to Schumacher’s suggestions of how to fix these issues in the realms of education, technology, and, perhaps, social organization.

1. Schumacher eventually converted to Catholicism a few years before his death in 1977.

2. The two are, of course, inextricably linked.  One of the pervasive and obviously true contentions of Small is Beautiful is that economics cannot simply be an arena cordoned off from the rest of human activity.

3. Which I would define as the idea that the attitude towards nature of humanity is essentially one of control and domination


A Wish

A Wish
Samuel Rogers

Mine be a cot beside the hill,
A bee-hive’s hum shall sooth my ear;
A willowy brook, that turns a mill,
With many a fall shall linger near.

The swallow, oft, beneath my thatch,
Shall twitter from her clay-built nest;
Oft shall the pilgrim lift the latch,
And share my meal, a welcome guest.

Around my ivy’d porch shall spring
Each fragrant flower that drinks the dew;
And Lucy, at her wheel, shall sing
In russet gown and apron blue.

The village-church, among the trees,
Where first our marriage-vows were giv’n,
With merry peals shall swell the breeze,
And point with taper spire to heav’n.

The wind had a mysterious voice and carried nothing now of the songs of birds, or of the rustling of palms and fragrant vines. Its burden was gathered from a stormy expanse of crested waves and briny tangles. I could see no striving in those magnificent wave motions, not raging; all the storm was apparently inspired with nature’s beauty and harmony. Every wave was obedient and harmonious as the smoothest ripple of a forest lake, and after dark all the water was phosphorescent like silver fire, a glorious sight.

John Muir, The Spiritual Writings47, TMW, 145-6

The Captive Mind, pt. 4

[part 1, part 2, part 3]

In previous posts, we’ve seen the tremendous appeal of the totalitarian ideology to the intellectual as a means of overcoming social alienation and the terrific social pressure on doubters that ensues after the ideology has become ascendant.  This ascendancy is unstable, however, because the totalitarian ideology is, ultimately, a lie.

Moreover, it is a lie that is quite often directly opposed to the work of the intellectuals themselves.  Can we truly square Plato, Confucius, Jane Austen with the ideology?  What can it mean to study these figures through a lens expressly hostile to their deepest convictions?  Or, to move beyond specifics, how can we pursue the truth through the means of a truth-denying lie?

The success of the ideology, therefore, leads to a sort of schizophrenia.  The intellectual must become double-minded, seeking truth in a conceptual framework that denies the existence of truth (implicitly or explicitly).  Double-mindedness manifests in a deep-seated anxiety:

A patient has a hard time, however, when the moment comes for him to swallow the [ideology] in its entirety. He becomes such a nervous wreck that he may actually fall ill.

The Captive Mind, 17

There’s a marked unhealthiness, mental and physical, to the intellectual world.  Interestingly, Milosz suggests that guilt is at the root of much of this anxiety, something I had not considered previously, but fits with the alienation between the Procrustean bed of theory and actual objects of study, the mutilation necessary to make reality “fit” the ideology.  There’s an awareness that something real, beautiful, and meaningful is being destroyed/lost in this process.  Since we crave reality, beauty, and truth this loss is deeply upsetting, even if only subconsciously.  Intellectual life is thus pervaded by a mournfulness for what was and what could be.

The result is acedia, that most besetting of modern sins.  Milosz doesn’t actually use the term, but it’s quite obvious that’s what he’s talking about:

The one thing that seems to deny the perfection of [the totalitarian ideology] is the apathy that is born in people, and that lives on in spite of their feverish activity. It is hard to define, and at times one might suppose it to be a mere optical illusion..Yet there is something impalpable and unpleasant in the human climate of such cities as Warsaw or Prague

The Captive Mind, 23-4

Apathy and torpor, despite frenetic activity, with an accompanying despair of any possibility for meaningful change.  As a result, we’re miserable, no matter how fancy our offices, how lush the campus, how privileged the position we hold:

Whatever we may call it, this much is certain; if Hell should guarantee its lodgers magnificent quarters, beautiful clothes, the tastiest food, and all possible amusements, but condemn them to breathe in this aura forever, that would be punishment enough.

The Captive Mind, 24

In the face of this misery, it takes an enormous amount of effort to maintain the ideology, to buttress social pressures, to assuage misgivings with material comforts, to punish dissenters.  There comes a point where maintenance costs become untenable, where they system becomes deeply fragile and unable to respond to crisis without huge expenditures, expenditures which deplete the ability of the system to respond to subsequent crises and even to day-to-day stresses.  Increasingly desperate and brutal attempts to quash dissent and enforce intellectual hegemony are a symptom of what is likely an irrevocable decline.  Ketman proliferates.  Ideological collapse is imminent.

The sheer mass of machinery required to maintain the ideology is the greatest sign of its weakness.  The apathy and despair of the majority is to the advantage of the reformer.  To cast off the ideology is simpler than it seems, though not easy (like all good things).  One simply must have the will, the courage, to do so.  The true enemy, therefore, is not external structures or other people or even the ideology itself, but our own cowardice and torpor.  To overcome the forces Milosz so ably diagnoses, we must overcome ourselves.

The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna

Making this a regular Monday thing

The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna
Charles Wolfe

Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O’er the grave where our hero we buried.

We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sods with our bayonets turning,
By the struggling moonbeam’s misty light
And the lanthorn dimly burning.

No useless coffin enclosed his breast,
Not in sheet or in shroud we wound him;
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest
With his martial cloak around him.

Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow;
But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead,
And we bitterly thought of the morrow.

We thought, as we hollow’d his narrow bed
And smooth’d down his lonely pillow,
That the foe and the stranger would tread o’er his head,
And we far away on the billow!

Lightly they’ll talk of the spirit that ‘s gone,
And o’er his cold ashes upbraid him —
But little he’ll reck, if they let him sleep on
In the grave where a Briton has laid him.

But half of our heavy task was done
When the clock struck the hour for retiring;
And we heard the distant and random gun
That the foe was sullenly firing.

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But we left him alone with his glory.

The Moon

more selections from the Oxford Book of English Verse

The Moon

Percy Bysshe Shelley

AND, like a dying lady lean and pale,
Who totters forth, wrapp’d in a gauzy veil,
Out of her chamber, led by the insane
And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,
The mood arose up in the murky east,
A white and shapeless mass.

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

The Captive Mind, pt. 3

[Part 1], [Part 2]

In the previous two posts, we’ve explored the social alienation afflicting the intellectual and the allure of the newly ascendant totalitarian ideology as a means of overcoming that alienation.  I think it’s important to note that this alienation is a very real and serious thing.  We are social beings and to be detached from society is the cause of considerable suffering.1  The intellectual does not err in seeking to become re-integrated into society, they err in that the ideology they are drawn to is wicked and false (and thus can only increase alienation in the end with a good bit of suffering on the way).  Thus, the point of Milosz’s book, and my summaries of it, is not to be cruel or act superior to the intellectual (there is considerable sympathy in the portrayals of individual artists under the Soviet regime that make up the bulk of the book), but rather to understand the complex, sobering reality of the intellectual life under totalitarianism.2

Once the ruling ideology has become dominant among the intellectual class, the pressure to conform becomes immense.  If the individual speaks out:

He would invariably be crushed by superior reasoning plus practicable threats against the future career of an undisciplined individual. Given the conditions of convincing arguments plus such threats, the necessary conversion will take place. That is mathematically certain.

The Captive Mind, 13

By “superior reasoning,” Milosz does not, I believe, mean that the Soviet ideology was in fact rationally superior to what it was supplanting, but rather that it had an answer for everything and that its supporters had a readily available stock of responses by which any challenge to the system could be disrupted and incorporated.  In other words, that any objection only serves to demonstrate 1.) the unworthiness/wickedness of the objector and 2.) the truth of the system.  This dynamic becomes self-reinforcing and moves outside the realm of ideas and into that of real-life consequences thanks to the ever-increasing control of the ideology over the means of disseminating ideas, hiring committees, media outlets, etc.:

I predict the house will burn; then I pour gasoline over the stove. The house burns; my prediction is fulfilled….I predict that a work of art incompatible with socialist realism will be worthless. Then I place the artist in conditions in which such a work is worthless. My prediction is fulfilled

The Captive Mind, 15

Thus, you end up conforming.  Although you might never truly agree with it, you give lip service to the ideology, nodding along as if you agree, while keeping your doubts hidden.  Milosz, borrowing a term from the Islamic tradition, refers to this as “ketman.”  He details a number of forms this can take, but the one most common to the Academy in my experience is the type he calls “professional”:

since I find myself in circumstances over which I have no control, and since I have but one life and that is fleeting, I should strive to do my best. I am like a crustacean attached to a crag on the bottom of the sea. Over me storms rage and huge ships sail; but my entire effort is concentrated upon clinging to the rock, for otherwise I will be carried off by the waters and perish, leaving no trace behind.

The Captive Mind, 69

Keep your head down, do your work, don’t rock any boats and all will be well.  The truth is, if you manage to avoid the occasionally-invisible shoals, all probably will be well.  You’ll carve out a quiet little space to be left alone and can ride out the storm.  Unless they stop leaving you alone.

We are left, therefore, with a loud and powerful group, likely the minority, that enthusiastically supports the ruling ideology, and a larger, but cowed, set that pays lip service to it, concealing disagreements behind a veil of acceptance.3  The intellectual class is converted, the dominance of the ideology appears complete.

Next, the final (?) installment: the problem is, this drives you insane and murders your soul.

1. The breakdown of social bonds, societal atomization and its attendant pathologies are perhaps the single most serious issue facing us today.

2. And perhaps to banish any idea that salvation from the totalitarian will derive from the intellectual class in their capacity as intellectuals or that they are somehow insulated from the effects of the ruling ideology by virtue of their intellect.

3. And periodically helping destroy the more courageous and outspoken challengers to the ideology, thankful that it is not them who is in the dock.  In these moments we see that ketman is not merely a survival strategy, but moral rot.


A deaf and dumb German girl, named Libbe or Libba, had grown fond of my cousin Armand and had followed him. I found her sitting on the grass, which had bloodied her dress: her elbows were propped on her folded and upraised knees; her hand, tangled in her thin blond hair, supported her head. She was crying, staring at three or four dead men, new conscripts in the ranks of the deaf and the dumb, around her. She had never heard the thunderclaps whose effect she beheld or the sighs that escaped her lips whenever she looked at Armand. Sh had never heard the voice of the man she loved, nor would she hear the first cry of the baby she was carrying in her womb. If the grave held only silence, she would have gone down to it without knowing.
But the fields of carnage are everywhere; at Pere Lachaise, in Paris, twenty-seven thousand tombs and two hundred and thirty thousand bodies tell you of the battle that death wages day and night at your door.

Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave: 1768-1800, 401

The Captive Mind, pt. 2

When we last left the intellectual, he found himself increasingly drawn to the ruling ideology as a means of overcoming his alienation and general uselessness to the prevailing culture.  In the new world of theory, the intellectual is not merely useful, but essential and superior.   Alongside this attraction, Milosz identifies another form of alienation and concomitant resentment that draws the intellectual to the totalitarian ideology: his disdain for bourgeois culture.

The intellectual, being a cultured sort (and in the examples Milosz provides, being an artist himself), recognizes the essential vacuity of bourgeois arts and manners, an emptiness that is especially pronounced in the previously-diagnosed absence of a common faith.1  The intellectual, displaced from their cultural station due to the separation of intellectual pursuits from anything the average person is actually interested in, is drive into the bourgeois class and thus into this emptiness, a situation that generates considerable resentment.  But in the new world, under the new system, they get to be in charge again, to tell the bourgeois what they are allowed to enjoy and do and what art and activities, previously sanctioned, are now insufficiently revolutionary.2  Milosz:

The intellectual’s eyes twinkle with delight at the persecution of the bourgeoisie, and of the bourgeois mentality. It is a rich reward for the degradation he felt when he had to be part of the middle class, and when there seemed to be no way out of the cycle of birth and death.

The Captive Mind, 11

Again, participating in the new system is a source of meaning, belonging, and social capital.  And this meaning, belonging, and status is purchased by the remaking of the world, the destruction of the old order.  Milosz sums up the mindset:

Let a new man arise, one who, instead of submitting to the world, will transform it.

The Captive Mind, 10

Here is where gnosticism enters the picture.  I use the term in the same sense as the great political philosopher Eric Voegelin, whose ideas are far to complex to easily distill in a single post.3  In brief, the gnostic thinker is dissatisfied with the situation of the world, and who wouldn’t be? It is fallen, after all.  But their reaction to this dissatisfaction is to attribute the world’s problems not to human fallibility, but to the system of the world itself.  In other words, the problem is not sin, but the order of things.  Thus, to overcome the evil of the world requires only human action, action taken to destroy the system of the world4 and usher in a more perfect system.

Milosz’s intellectual sets himself up as what Voegelin would call a gnostic prophet, the individual tasked with proclaiming the formula of transformation (a formula of destruction and renewal) to the masses.  And who wouldn’t want to be a prophet?  Much more fun than being a mere academic.

Next time: maintaining orthodoxy

1. Two points. First, you might object that modern intellectuals in fact appear quite enamored with popular culture.  Witness the enthusiasm of the “elites” for works like Harry Potter or the Disney Marvel films which can, at best, be classified as “entertaining trash.”  This doesn’t point to an error on the part of Milosz, rather it suggests that these works are themselves products of the totalitarian ideology.   Enthusiasm among intellectuals (and the hand they have in creating these works) is simply a sign that they have “bought in.”  In this view, the absurd over-enthusiasm works like these generate among the wannabe intellectual set (say, journalists) is a form of status signalling.

Second, to be fair to the intellectual, we should note that he’s correct about the cultural desolation in the absence of faith.

2.  I’m confident the reader can insert the appropriate modern condemnations.

3. I’ve long promised myself that I would similar series to the current on Voegelin.  Now, I’m promising you, dear reader.

4. Up to an including the very order of being itself.  Voegelin notes that it ultimately terminates in the murder of God.

Observations of America

In sum, the United States give the impression of being a colony, not a mother country: they have no past, and their mores are not a result of their laws. The citizens of the New World took their place among the nations at a moment when political ideas were in the ascendant, and this explains how they transformed themselves with such unusual rapidity. Anything resembling a permanent society appears to be impracticable among them. On one hand, this is due to the extreme ennui of its individual citizens; on the other, to the impossibility of remaining in place and the need for motion that dominates their lives: for man is never truly settled when the household gods are wanderers. Placed upon the ocean roads, at the forefront of progressive opinions as new as his country, the American seems to have inherited from Columbus the mission to discover new worlds rather than create them.

Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave: 1768-1800, 339

What happens (happened) when we reach the sea and weep, for there are no more lands to discover?