Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations (1957, 1978).

Chapter Four


'Kings in the beginning were diverse in their goodness . . . and men's lives in those times were without all exorbitance of habit or affect, each one keeping in his own compass.'


In miniature all is soluble. The effect of the small-state pattern on dictatorship. It either shortens dictatorial government or enlightens it. It prevents the spread of the dictatorial germ. What would have happened if Hitler had succeeded in his beer-hall putsch and become a petty tyrant in Bavaria. Huey Long's limited power and shortened life span due to a small-state pattern existing in the United States. Small-state principle solves the power problem of huge Labour Unions and Monopolies. The mattress principle.

As the preceding chapters have shown, neither the problems of war nor those relating to the purely internal criminality of societies disappear in a small-state world; they are merely reduced to bearable proportions. Instead of hopelessly trying to blow up man's limited talents to a magnitude that could cope with hugeness, hugeness is cut down to a size where it can be managed even with man's limited talents. In miniature, problems lose both their terror and significance, which is all that society can ever hope for. Our choice seems therefore not between crime and virtue but between big crime and small crime; not between war and peace, but between great wars and little wars, between indivisible total and divisible local wars.

But not only the problems of war or crime become soluble on a small scale. Every vice shrinks in significance with the shrinking size of the social unit in which it develops. This is particularly true of a social misery which seems to many as unwelcome as war itself. Tyranny!

There is nothing in the constitution of men or states that can prevent the rise of dictators, fascist or otherwise. Power maniacs exist everywhere, and every community will at some time or other pass through a phase of tyranny. The only difference lies in the degree of tyrannical government which, in turn, depends once more on the size and power of the countries falling victim to it.

Having just shaken ourselves free of the tyranny of nazism, and being contemporaries of the tyranny of communism, we need not strain our imagination to visualize both the internal as well as the external consequences of the establishment of dictatorial power in a large state. Internally, the machine at the disposal of the dictator is so colossal that only the insane see any sense in being brave. The vast majority is condemned either to a life of misery or of heil-yelling uniformity. But his power has also external effects. It spills over boundaries, overshadowing small as well as powerful neighbours. The small because, in spite of their formal independence, they have no chance to resist, and the powerful because they have no way of knowing whether a challenge to the dictator would usher in his 'or their destruction. So they, too, will do the dictator's bidding. Whenever he moves, the entire world reverberates from the distant thunders of his brewing designs. Only a costly and uncertain war could liberate it from its awesome suspense.

Since great power is by definition an element that can single-handedly throw the world from its balance, a single dictator in a large state is sufficient to disturb the peace of mind of all. As a result, a great-power world is safe and secure only if the government of each great ppwer is in the hands of wise and good men (a combination that is rare even in democracies). As things are, however, great power attracts by its very nature the strong rather than the wise, and autocrats rather than democrats. So it is not surprising that, of the eight great powers existing before World War II, not one but four were under dictatorial rule: Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia; and of the Big Four of the post-war world, two -- Russia and China. And though there are only two great-power dictatorships at the present time, there is not a corner on the globe remote enough to escape the terror of their existence.

l. The Limitation of Evil

Now let us trace the effects of the same problem in a small-state world. If a power maniac gets hold of a government there, both the internal and external consequences are vastly different. Since a small state is by nature weak, its government, which can draw the measure of its strength only from the measure of the country over which it rules, must likewise be weak. And if government is weak, so must be its dictator. And if a dictator is weak, he can be overthrown with the same leisurely effort which he himself had to apply in order to overthrow the preceding government. If he becomes too arrogant, he will hang on a lamp-post or lie in a gutter before he has time to awaken to the fact that he has lost power. No police force in a little state can be great enough to protect him from even minor rebellions.

The first and most important benefit derived from a small-state arrangement is thus the shortening of a dictator's life span or, at least, of his term of office -- unless he decides to be wise rather than to engage in self-destructive assertions of his power. And this is the second benefit. Since arrogance and bullying are dangerous.in a small state, a dictator cherishing his life is practically driven into a rule beneficial to the public. Deprived of the opportunity of glorying in the pleasures of vice, he will do the next best thing and glory in the more subtle satisfactions of virtue. He will employ architects and painters rather than generals and hangmen, and improve the lot of the workers rather than the glamour of his soldiers' uniforms.

History shows that the short-lived as well as the good dictatorship are phenomena that have existed primarily in little states. The first never mattered because of its brief existence, and the second because of the actual benefits the world derived from a good dictator's rule. The history of the ancient Greek city-states, the medieval Italian and German principalities, and the modern South American republics abounds in examples of both these categories of petty tyrants, the short-lived and the good. If the theorists of unity use again the term comic opera figures to describe them, they characterize them exactly as what they are -- men who are ineffectual even if they are bad. The only thing that seems out of place in such operatic designations is their contemptuous undertone. Ineffectualness means the lack of power to tyrannize mankind -- a condition for which the 'comi.c opera' rulers should be blessed, not castigated. When will our theorists realize that the greatest blessing our statesmen could give us would be to transform the stark and worthy tragedies of modern mass existence back into the ridiculous problems of an operetta?

Thus, internally, with the small power supplied by a small state not even the worst dictator is able to frighten his subjects into the kind of creeping submissiveness which even the best dictator commands in a large power. For though also the small-state dictator outranks his subjects, he can never out-tower them.

However, what is still more important as regards the world outside, the small-state dictator is completely ineffectual externally. Unlike the might of Hitler which made itself felt in an uneasy France years before he actually attacked her and she was still considered a great power, a small-state dictator's sway ends at his country's border creeks. Being hardly able to frighten anyone at home, he can frighten nobody at all abroad. His manias are limited to his own territory whose narrow confines act like the cushioned walls of an isolation ward in a lunatic asylum. Any chain reaction of folly is bound to fizzle out when it reaches the boundaries. Communism, which is such a terrible tool in the hands of a great-power dictator, is externally so ineffectual in the little Republic of San Marino that most of us do not even known that there is a communist state also this side of the Iron Curtain. But what the might of the United Nations cannot contain within Russia, a dozen Italian gendarmes can contain within San Marino.

One might say that, although a small-state world limits a dictator's power to his own territory, the dictatorial germ itself might spread and gradually infect others. This is possible, but this, too, would be harmless because in that case dictatorial governments would merely multiply in number, but not grow in bulk or external threat, since the states in which they could develop represent competing interests and, therefore, tend to balance each other. They cannot be used for fusion and aggregation of power. Moreover, since a world consisting of hundreds of small sovereignties with a multitude of differing political systems would constantly react to different forces and trends at different times, the spread of dictatorial influences would be matched by the spread of democratic influences elsewhere. By the time they reached the extremity of the map, they would in all likelihood have begun to fade away in the regions where they originated. In a small-state world, there is a constant breathing and sneezing and changing that never permits the development of gigantic sub-surface forces. These can arise only in a large-power arrangement which provides prolonged periods of peace and allows powers to inhale with their formidable chests for entire decades, only to blow down everything in front of them when, at last, they begin to exhale their hurricanes.

2. Hitler in Bavaria and Long in Louisiana

We all know what happened to the world when Hitler became master of the great power of Germany. It made Germany terrible even in peace, and her neighbours were as afraid of her assertions of friendship as of her threats. But let us assume that the same man had managed to obtain dictatorial power only in Bavaria as he attempted in his famous beer-hall putsch of 1923. It may have been a catastrophe for the world that this early attempt failed.

In 1923, at least part of Germany was still organized on a small-state pattern. Life in little states being more individualistic than in large powers, people do not, as a rule, act as if shell-shocked when they have to deal with government. Consequently, Hitler might either have met the fate of Kurt Eisner, Bavaria's communist dictator, who preceded him in the experiment and was promptly assassinated. Or he might have been granted a few years of rule that could not have extended beyond Bavaria's small territory. The neighbouring states, with the natural reaction towards the success of a competing government in a competing state, would have been on double guard against the staging of a similar putsch on their soil while Hitler, unable to satisfy his power complex in a little state, would have frustrated himself into impotence by the sheer paradox of his condition. As dictator of Bavaria, he might never have become dictator of Germany. He might have remained a crude amateur and petty tyrant with an abbreviated life span, considering that small states can organize the downfall of a dictator overnight. But unfortunately he failed in Bavaria and acquired mastery of the great power of Germany instead. The result was that he not only became virtually irremovable; he forced the greatest minds of his generation to take issue with what they previously called romantic or criminal lunacy, making them wonder whether he was not actually the super-genius Goebbels claimed him to be. In Bavaria, he might for lack of other outlets have decided to annoy or enchant the world, as a Grandma-Moses-sort of primitive from the Inn Valley, with his pictures. In Germany, the same man was able to shatter it like a Napoleonic apparition with his wars. In Bavaria, the neighbouring Wurtemberg or Austria would have been able to cope with him -- as, indeed, they did. In Germany, the combined power of Great Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union could not prevent the nazi dam from bursting.

But we do not need to confine ourselves to hypothetical speculations in visualizing the always harmless effects of dictatorship in small states. In the United States, where we actually do have a small-state organization, the problem of regional dictatorship has never reached unmanageable proportions. Some will say that Americans are too free a people to submit to tyranny, or that we are too educated to produce dictators, and that this is the reason why dictatorship constitutes no problem here. Neither opinion seems valid. There have been dictators, and, by logical consequence, there have been submissions even here. Our good fortune is not that dictators cannot arise, but that diey cannot spread. Their influence is neatly arrested at the state boundaries, and no federal military intervention is required to stop them there. Whatever degree of governmental authority local tyrants may possess in their own states, they can be of no danger to others. Huey Long was as obnoxious a figure, and had as absolute aspirations, as Hitler. If he was ineffectual, it was only because he was a small-state boss, as Hitler would have been had he won in Bavaria. Being without power, there were limits to the effects of his designs. True, the dictatorial germ did spread but Huey could not spread, and even the germ could not go far because of the slowing-down action of boundaries.1 At present, the germ has reached a stage of virulence in Georgia, but again it is neatly confined and, by the time it might reach Florida, it will in all likelihood have expired in Georgia. But even where dictatorships do exist in states of the American union, they are so weak that they are unable to scare anyone except the government officials in the state in question.

But let us assume that, in the place of the many little states, there had been only one great and powerful Southern state. Huey Long, as he succeeded in Louisiana, might just as well have succeeded there. But he could no longer have been overthrown so easily as he actually was. He would have ceased to be a comic opera figure. He would have been an arrogant lord not only to the citizens of his own state, but of all the states of the continent. His morning moods would have been the object of hope and concern from New York to Los Angeles. Instead of being castigated and ridiculed, he would have been decorated and honoured. And his safety would have been protected against an assassin's bullets by an army of SS guards such as could never be afforded by little Louisiana. But there would have been a worse sequel than this. For large-scale tyranny becomes not only respectable and practically irremovable because of the impressive physical force it is able to muster in its defence; it becomes doubly so by breeding at a critical magnitude in the people the appropriate philosophy of submission. In previous applications of the power or size theory of social misery we have found that a criminal mental climate is not cause but consequence of the mass commission of crime, and the aggressive state of mind not cause but consequence of the acquisition of aggressive power. For the same reason, it is not submissive disposition that leads to the misery of tyranny, but tyrannical power, growing in proportion to the size of the community, that leads at a critical magnitude to the condoning spirit of submission. Submis-siveness is thus not a human quality that could be explained to a significant extent as the result of upbringing, tradition, national character, or the mode of production. Like most other social attitudes, it is the adaptive reflex reaction with which man responds to power. Its degree varies directly with the degree of power, just as its opposite reaction, the assertion of freedom, varies inversely with it. Where there is power, there is submission, and where there is no submission, there is no power. This is why, historically, the seemingly most freedom-loving peoples have accepted tyranny as submissively as the seemingly most submissive ones,2 or why it is safe to say that even Americans would submit if our federal structure permitted the accumulation of the necessary volume of governmental power. For, as young Boswell confided so touchingly to his London Journal, 'when the mind knows it cannot help itself by struggling, it quietly and patiently submits to whatever load is laid upon it' (italics mine).

3. The Mattress Principle

Fortunately, however, the United States is internally not an uneasy assembly of great powers, such as would have permitted critical accumulations, but of small states. As a result she benefits from the smooth flexibility that characterizes all small-cell organisms, rendering them capable of adaptation to constantly changing human and social conditions. A small-cell union has the same advantages, and has them for the same reasons, as the newly developed and much advertised mattresses which are built on the principle of the coexistence of a great multitude of small independent springs, rather than on the principle of unitarian construction where all springs are tightly interlocked. As a result, only those springs are compressed which are actually touched by the body, giving the whole a resiliency and duration that had never before been possible. With the previous unitarian and interlocking construction, on the other hand, the depression of a single spring pressed all the others down as well, producing eventually an unregenerative sleeping hole, ruining even those springs that were left unused.

But not in all her relationships is the United States a small-state compleXj and where it is not, we see a repetition of the same problems of size which are typical of all large-area or large-power organizations. Thus, private economic power, unlike the political power of the states, is not limited by state boundaries. As a result, we find that a number of economic powers and enterprises have been organized on a large-scale, coast-to-coast, basis. This means that each of them is in a position to throw the entire nation, not just a single state, off its balance if mood or ambition should counsel such a course.

Nowhere is this unchallengeable great-power domination more dramatically evident than in the vast national labour unions. A raising of John L. Lewis's formidable eyebrows may paralyse the vital coalmining industry, not in one state or two, but in all the states of the union. A frown on his forehead may mean a cold winter for 165 million people. A word from his lips may stop trains and arrest the wheels of hundreds of industries. It may deprive us of gas and light. A single gesture of John L. Lewis or of any of a number of important labour leaders may spell catastrophe to the nation. Organized on a continental basis, unions have become utterly unmanageable because of the formidable power they are able to acquire, a power wholly unnecessary for the realization of labour's aims, or rather one that would be unnecessary if the small-state system had been applied also economically. As long as this is not done, giant enterprises will exist, and as long as there are giant enterprises, the law of balance will demand giant unions.

It is easy to visualize the insignificance of union-management difficulties in an economic small-state world. John L. Lewis, as Governor Long did with his state, would still dominate a union, but a union whose power would end at the state boundaries. During the course of a year, there would be strikes just as there are now, in several or all states, but, according to the mattress principle, they would not be linked or interlocked. They would remain individual, and individual problems are always more easily solved than intertwined mass problems. The workers would still get what they want because employers -- now likewise unable to form interstate combines -- would not be more daring in their refusals of concessions simply because they have to deal with local instead of national unions. On the contrary, they would be more amenable because they, too, would now be weaker. Life, after all, is lived locally, and local pressures are the ones that count. Problems of industrial strife would thus still exist, but they could not get out of hand. They could be solved with a volume of power that would be moderate and yet bring satisfaction to labour without becoming a problem in its own right, that is to say, without becoming power problems in addition to being labour problems.

The same is true with regard to the vast aggregations of power on the side of employers, though, in their case, the small-cell or mattress principle needs less argument because we have long been familiarized with the dangers inherent in employers' unions and unifications. The moment we talk of monopolies, combines, holding companies, or cartels, we realize what the concentration of vast economic power in the hands of a few means. So our legislators have never ceased studying the question of how to cut down their size. But the simplest method, instead of enacting futile prohibitions, would have been to establish the small-state or federal principle, which has succeeded so superbly politically, also economically. With all economic power of a private nature, and serving private purposes, ending at the state boundaries, the monster of size would vanish by itself. And with it would vanish the need of those monstrously powerful labour unions whose sole valid justification is that the enterprises with which they have to deal are likewise monstrously powerful. As our state boundaries constitute no traffic barriers, this would not mean the establishment of tariff barriers. Nor would a reduction of economic power mean a reduction of economic productivity and, with it, a lowering of the standard of living. In fact, as Chapter VIII will show, it would mean the opposite.


Thus we see that a small-state world would not only solve the problems of social brutality and war; it would solve the equally terrible problems of oppression and tyranny. It would solve all problems arising from power. Indeed, there is no misery on earth that cannot be successfully handled on a small scale as, conversely, there is no misery on earth that can be handled at all except on a small scale. In vastness, everything crumbles, even the good, because, as will increasingly become evident, the world's one and only problem is not wickedness but bigness; and not the thing that is big, whatever it may be, but bigness itself. This is why through union or unification, which enlarges bulk and size and power, nothing can be solved. On the contrary, the possibility of finding solutions recedes in the ratio at which the process of union advances. Yet all our collectivized and collectivizing efforts seem to be directed towards this one fantastic goal -- unification. Which, of course, is a solution, too. The solution of spontaneous collapse.


1 Sir George Thomson, in an article in the Listener of 23 March 1950, describing the conditions bringing forth an atomic chain reaction, furnishes in the following an analysis which is as revealing of the problems of the social world as it is regarding those of the world of atoms: 'The process (of the chain reaction) is enormously rapid once it really gets going and the result is a violent explosion. It is really rather like the spread of a disease with the atoms in the role of patients and the neutrons acting like germs. Now just as the disease will spread better if people are living close together in a city than if they are widely scattered, so here one needs to have a lot of plutonium together to make it go off. If there is only a little, or if it is spread out too sparsely, the neutrons will escape into space without finding an atom to infect, and the epidemic will die out at an early stage. In fact, there are always neutrons in the air and a piece of plutonium is always being slighdy infected, but nothing much happens unless there is enough material in a mass to allow the chain reaction to spread -- and then the bomb goes off. So the act of firing the bomb consists in bringing pieces of the material together till they form a mass exceeding what is called the critical size.' Similarly, the infected germ of dictatorship cannot produce much harm in a small-state world whose separating boundaries prevent the accumulation of 'enough mass' for a chain reaction to take place. If there are only small states, or states with sparse populations, which amounts to the same thing, the dictatorial germ, like a neutron, will escape into space without finding enough human atoms to infect.

2 This contradicts the flattering self-portrait of many but not the facts of history. It is said, for example, that the seemingly freedom-loving French would never submit to tyranny in the measure shown by the Germans. Yet, when the nazis extended their sway over them, they -- as also the Danes, Dutch, or Poles -- proved as submissive to their tyranny as the Germans. While there were resistance movements, as a mass phenomenon they were characteristic of post-war development, not of the period of actual German domination. Then even nazis discovered they were resisters. Though the French had a series of revolutions, these were never directed against strong governments. Under Louis XIV and XV, they accepted the most outrageous degree of royal exploitation, waste, arrogance, intolerance, and immorality without a murmur. But when the throne fell into the hands of Louis XVI, a perfectly charming, impotent, humble, and well-meaning king whose greatest extravagance was his tender affection for flowers, they at last staged the revolution that still overwhelms posterity with its exalted principles that were not French, and its daring that was not great. (Liberty, equality, fraternity, being practised for centuries in the mountains of Switzerland and Tyrol, were so alien to France, that it was not until 1789 that they were introduced. And even then they were practised only at brief intervals until they prevailed in 1871.) Hardly had they guillotined their king, they accepted submissively the tyranny of Napoleon, following him with a devotion matched only by that displayed by the nazis under Hitler. True, they also rebelled against Napoleon, but only after he had been hopelessly defeated in the field, and rebellion meant no longer love of freedom but treason. Peoples never revolt against tyrants. They only revolt against the weak. If the Germans had no great romantic revolution, it is not, as popular theory has it, that they are more submissive than others. It is because the historically necessary precondition to every popular uprising, the sudden weakening of a previously strong government, only rarely materialized in their case. When it did, as in 1918, they rebelled as lustily as their neighbours, dethroning not only one sovereign, the Kaiser, but all their kings, grand dukes, dukes, and princes. Space forbids us to present the mass of material, amusing and disenchanting, showing how all peoples, the English, the French, the Czechs, the Germans, have always been submissive to governmental power in proportion to its magnitude, not in proportion to their feelings of liberty or their national character.