Who was Leopold Kohr, and does his work matter today?
Kohr (1909 – 1994), about whom I’ve written at greater length here, was both a trained economist and political philosopher. His background included obtaining doctorates at the University of Vienna and at the London School of Economics, after which he observed independence movements in places like Catalan, the region of Spain and began to assemble both the conceptual arguments and empirical data in support of his skepticism about the growing “cult of bigness,” as he called it.
Inadvertently, he predicted the rise of the post-9/11 police state U.S. This prediction is to be found in his major work The Breakdown of Nations (1957), possibly the most interesting work of twentieth century political philosophy almost no one has ever heard of. Kohr didn’t predict any specifics, of course. What he predicted was the replacement of an ideal of governance, one of the country’s founding ideals, which refrained from interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, with a model based on increasing economic dominance and, when efforts at economic domination failed, aggression.
Such efforts had already begun, of course; Kohr, an Austrian who had only recently gained U.S. citizenship, may not have been sufficiently versed in U.S. history to know of Woodrow Wilson’s desire to make the world “safe for democracy,” or of such events, current in his time, as the CIA-backed overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh government in Iran, or other “revolutions” (e.g., in Guatemala) undertaken on behalf of leviathan corporations. Kohr’s thesis again: it is not economic structure or ideology of a governing entity but size, which affords a capacity to exercise power that cannot effectively be countered. This state of affairs, in Kohr’s view, led inevitably either to an explosion of aggression against others or against its own people or both at once. He called this the Size Theory of Social Misery.
Kohr’s words (pp. 70 – 72; but pay especial attention to the final paragraph):
” … [T]he United States … so far has seemed to provide a spectacular exception to the size theory. Here we have one of the largest and, perhaps, the most powerful nation on earth, and yet she does not seem to be the world’s principal aggressor as in theory she should be….
“This is quite true but … to become effective, power must be accompanied by the awareness of its magnitude. Within the limits of the marginal area, it is not only the physical mass that matters, but the state of mind that grows out of it. This state of mind, the *soul* of power, grows sometimes faster than the body in which it is contained and sometimes slower. The latter has been the case in the United States….
“After World War II … there [was] no longer a possibility of the United States *not* being a great power. As a result, the corresponding state of mind, developing as a perhaps unwanted but unavoidable consequence, has begun to manifest itself already at numerous occasions as, for example, when President Truman’s Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, indicated in 1950 the possibility of a preventive war, or when General Eisenhower, in an address before Congress in the same year, declared that united we can *lick the world*. The latter sounded more like a statement by the exuberant Kaiser of Germany than by the then President of Columbia University. Why should a defender of peace and democracy want to lick the world? Non-aggressively expressed, the statement would have been that, if we are united, the entire world cannot lick us. However, this shows how power breeds this peculiar state of mind, particularly in a man who, as a general must, knows the full extent of America’s potential. It also shows that no ideology of peace, however strongly entrenched it may be in a country’s traditions, can prevent war if a certain power condition has arisen….
“… [G]enerally speaking, the mind of the United States, being so reluctantly carried into the inevitable, is still not completely that of the power she really is…. But some time she will be. When that time comes, we should not naively fool ourselves with pretensions of innocence. Power and aggressiveness are inseparable twin phenomena in a state of near critical size, and innocence is a virtue only up to a certain point and age…. So, unless we insist once more that Cicero’s definition of man does not apply to us, the critical mass of power will go off in our hands, too.”
Here we are, of course, 70 years after Kohr introduced these ideas to an utterly indifferent academic audience in a world getting increasingly addicted to the “cult of bigness”: of government, of corporations, of international organizations (e.g., the UN and its satellites; the World Bank; the International Monetary Fund; etc.). For 40 of those years we continued to wear the white hats, as it were, at least in the court of public opinion, for we could point to the Soviet Union as surely the more totalitarian of the two superpowers. But from 1989-91, Soviet Communism collapsed, and we saw the prospects of an entirely new geopolitical world order, one based on peace and prosperity instead of violent conflict. Works like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1991) tried to define this hope as well as warn of a few of its dangers.
It was not to be, of course. Global capitalism thrived, but so did many of the problems for which global capitalism is now blamed: stagnating wages (which had been stagnating for years as they failed to keep up with the dollar’s decline in purchasing power), inequality (specifically: the slow but growing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a shrinking elite), and environmental issues of which supposedly man-made climate change became the most prominent. One of the more interesting consequences of Kohr’s ideas is that ideologies do not “succeed” or “fail” in an intellectual vacuum as it were, for conceptual reasons only. This is contrary to the dictates of Austrian school economics. Either capitalism or socialism can be made to work under the right circumstances; either, given different sets of circumstances, will go down in flames miserably. The imposition of capitalism in the form of Western modernity on the rest of the world failed to bring peace or prosperity outside elite circles; on the other hand, it often brought discord and resentment among common people who saw only once-stable local economies, religious traditions, and their lives, overturned. One reads a book such as John Perkins’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (orig. 2004) and one realizes that via predatory corporations based primarily in the U.S. and a government whose official policies protected them from accountability, indeed, the U.S. had become the very kind of aggressor it once rightly opposed. How much of militant, fundamentalist Islam, moreover, motivated as it is by hatred of the “Great Satan,” is indeed traceable to constant, chronic interference in the internal affairs of the nations in that part of the world, typically on behalf of American-based corporations seeking dominance over their natural resources (chiefly: oil). Will this turn out to be one of recent history’s great tragedies?
The Iraq War, for example, has turned out to be one of our biggest blunders ever, not to mention one of the most expensive … fought against someone who had not threatened us in any way militarily (remember: no weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq), and which (alongside the war in Afghanistan also begun by the U.S.) led the way to the destabilizing of the entire region which continues to this day, with the Russians now involved. The fact that a power of equivalent strength to the U.S. is also involved in the Middle East may well have prevented the forcible overthrow of the Assad government in Syria (hated by the West but with the support of the majority of his own people): a good illustration of one of the corollaries of Kohr’s main thesis: if aggressive power will be exercised in circumstances when it cannot be effectively opposed, it will be restrained only by an equal or equivalent power. It may be fortunate for the world that powers equivalent to the U.S. still exist.
So in answer to my original question above: yes, Leopold Kohr’s work does matter today. Unlike the majority of academic work, it explores timeless theses ultimately traceable to what Christians would describe as the human condition in a fallen world.
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