|THE WISDOM OF LEOPOLD KOHR
in association with Matthias Rieger.
A revised and expanded version of this can be found here here
Without the recovery of proportionality, all environmental reforms such as an energy tax and other economic alternatives slide into utilitarianism, technical administration or diplomatic.
THIS YEAR'S ANNUAL Schumacher Lecture [usa] has been organized to honour Leopold Kohr. During his lifetime, this teasing leprechaun was recognized by very few as a man ahead of his time. Even today, few have caught up with him; there is still no school of thought that carries on his social morphology.
I want to be precise: To place him among the champions of alternative economics would be a posthumous betrayal. Throughout his life, Kohr laboured to lay the foundations for an alternative to economics; he had no interest in seeking innovative ways to plan the allocation of scarce goods. He identified conditions under which the Good became mired down in things that are scarce. Therefore, he worked to subvert conventional economic wisdom, no matter how advanced.
Kohr's time will dawn when people awaken from their economic slumbers, when the age of faith in homo economicus gives way to a penetrating skepticism, when social theorists carefully read this modest but important thinker.
His vision of a decent common life was predicated on modesty, not on plenty. He began with the propensity of Salzburg folk to trust and enjoy the local ways distinctive of each valley. He saw the truth in their suspicion of universal values. He perceived how a good life could be corrupted. Kohr remains a prophet today because even those social theorists for whom small is beautiful have not yet discovered that the truth of beauty and goodness is not a matter of size, nor even of dimensions or intensity, but of proportion.
I see Kohr as the one social thinker who picks up the biological morphology of D'Arcy Thompson and J. B. S. Haldane as the starting point of a social morphology. These scientists studied the proportion between form and size in living creatures. Mice appear only within rather narrow parameters of size. One intuitively grasps mousy-ness - that familiar form of a small, compact body with tail that scurries across the floor on four swift and delicate legs. Such beings come in sizes from an inch to a foot. Haldane demonstrated that the form, mousy proportion, could not exist outside this lower and upper limit. Since the weight increases with the cube of its size, legs able to move a larger rodent would have to thicken beyond mousy proportions.
Kohr discusses society in analogy to the way plants and animals are shaped by their size and sized by their shape. He is uninterested in the timeless and weightless critters elaborated by social scientists. As a friend remarks, these abstractions appear to come out of "social thought about mice on the moon''.
KOHR'S THOUGHT resists reduction to any scenario of the future. Nor is it oriented toward progress; rather, he inquires into the form that fits the size. I was impressed by this in the 1950s, when I found Puerto Rico a Mecca for planning, attracting Young Turks from Princeton to Tel Aviv. These brash technical advisers looked upon "Operation Bootstrap'', an economic development scheme for the island, as a grand opportunity for social engineering. Kohr, living and teaching in Puerto Rico at that time, was a familiar figure in a hillside slum at the edge of the Rio Piedras campus. A sugar cane-cutter expressed what I felt: "Unlike the professors, party workers and priests, this Austrian makes us think about what our neighbourhood is, not about how to carry out the experts' plans."
Kohr cast his net beyond planning goals, toward the not yet, the nondum, which the poet Paul Celan places to the "north of the future''. Kohr never attempted to seduce people into utopia, which is always a misplaced concreteness. He fostered a vision that could be realized because it fell within limits, it remained within reach. Kohr stood for renunciation -- to a ranging gaze that sought chimeras beyond the shared horizon.
He was aware of the crippling effect of our upbringing; he knew that most people of his time had grown up on formula. Bottle-milk was the fashion; breasts would only make their comeback in the seventies. What Jacques Ellul calls the technological system made the commodity paradigm all-pervasive. Telling stories about his native village Oberndorf, where a schoolteacher -- Franz Xavier Gruber -- had composed "Silent Night'', he attempted to teach about what had become almost impossible: look to common sense in the midst of development euphoria.
His character qualified him to be a spokesman for this lost "faculty'', common sense. He was a funny bird -- meek, fay, droll and incisive. Everett Reimer, also living in Puerto Rico at that time, introduced him to me as a coqui, a green tree frog, so tiny that few have ever seen one sitting in the hollow of a banana leaf. But the melodious croak of this tiny amphibian dominates Puerto Rican nights, making them different from the darkness elsewhere in the tropics. Unsurprisingly, the islanders have chosen the creature as their totem.
Kohr was an eminently unassuming man. I would even go so far as to say that he was radically humble, and this aspect of his thought and character tends to disqualify him from inclusion in textbooks. This may also have contributed to the fact that so few have grasped the core of his argument: the prominence he gives to proportionality. Inspired by him, many have gone so far as to cherish smallness. Encouraged by his participation in conferences of Greens, numerous friends joined in the defence of European regionalism. But not many of those who applauded him understood the depth of his opposition to current axiomatic certainties, shared by both ecologists and industrialists, embraced by economists of otherwise opposed positions and schools. Diffidently, he asks you to step outside of what passes for commonly accepted perception. Thus I find him a guide into the untracked hope that lies beyond the future.
KOHR'S CONTRIBUTION is to be found in his social morphology. There, two key words open up his thought: Verhältnismässigkeit and gewiss. The first means proportionality or, more precisely, the appropriateness of a relationship. The second translates as ''certain'', as when one says, "in a certain way''. For example, Kohr would say that bicycling is ideally appropriate for one living in a certain place, like Oberndorf. An examination of the statement immediately reveals that "certain'' as used here, is as distant from "certainty" as "appropriate" from "efficient''. ''Certain'' challenges common sense for a specific meaning, while ''appropriate'' guides one to knowledge of the good.
Taking both ''appropriate" and a "certain place" together allows Kohr to see the human social condition as that ever unique boundary-making limit within which each community can engage in discussion about what ought to be allowed and what ought to be excluded. To consider what is appropriate or fitting in a certain place leads one directly into reflection on beauty and goodness. The truth of one's resultant judgement will be primarily moral, not economic.
Proportionality, then, as Kohr uses the concept, does not fit into an economic calculus. But I have found it very difficult to make an argument establishing this position. For example, many today are rightly horrified by the consequences of economic growth and development during the last few decades. They are convinced that alternatives to current political and economic policies can be found without abandoning a fundamental assumption of the good life today: society is built on scarce value. But my argument undermines this belief.
Economics is built on the assumption of scarcity. Therefore, it deals with values and calculations. It cannot seek the good that fits a specific person within a given human condition. Where scarcity rules, ethics is reduced to numbers and utility. Further, the person engaged in the manipulation of mathematical formulas loses his or her ear for ethical nuance; one becomes morally deaf.
Ethics, in a strong tradition from Aristotle to Mandeville, was a public controversy about the good to be pursued within a human condition perhaps grudgingly accepted. Economics, however, is the evaluation of desirable goals under the assumption of scarcity. It deals in the optimization of values; this means a modern economy, the creation of economic society; this provides seemingly unlimited fuel for a technological civilization; such a civilization attempts to transform the human condition, rather than debate the nature of thehuman good.
When I was asked to give this lecture, I was in the midst of a conversation with Matthias Rieger, a friend and musicologist. This young colleague has helped me see an argument that may make Kohr's and my position clear. The thesis I want to establish is this: Economic assumptions, once incorporated in one's way of perceiving reality and constructing arguments, exclude ethical options whose object is the good. Rieger's thought now comes to the fore in what I say. We can base ourselves on his musicological research and see the development of Western music as a reflection of various changes occurring in different parts of European society.
KOHR'S "a certain appropriateness" strikes one as a powerful intuition only when it is understood in the context of a historical fracture. In this rupture, the world we inhabit finds its origin. Kohr insists on the correlation between a certain size and the harmony that shines forth in appropriate proportions. Outside this configuration lies Nemesis. A memorial to Leopold Kohr demands that one explore this correlation. It is my contention that both the perception of such a correlation and the very concept to imagine it have been lost. This loss encompasses physical, social and cultural realms of thought and action. To demonstrate this, Rieger and I have composed an argument in three movements on the theme of proportion.
In a prelude, I focus on the relationship between society and nature. Here, I find a paradox: The most radical ecological policy proposals grope towards a recovery of proportionality. But, at the same time, these very recommendations, accepting the conventional world of economics, cannot be carried out without deepening the fracture.
The next movement is composed in counterpoint to the society/nature presentation and reveals the depth of the issue by comparing the creation of economics and the pianoforte. The third movement, a coda, touches on seven other domains where globalization explodes any possible framework of appropriateness. In these instances, one sees how ancient harmony has been replaced by various kinds of a modern temperament.
EVERYONE KNOWS about the issues: People in the industrial system not only need, but also consume and use up, nature. Further, they leave behind, not only their shit and dead bodies, but also poisonous mountains of ashes. Trash is not an occasional side effect, but an essential trait common to all forms of modern technology. Progress, then, might be better understood and gauged according to the ways nature is consumed rather than by looking at the increasing distance between wealth and poverty. Questions of social justice may actually be a distraction, hindering thought about real solutions. It's true that the average American and European exhaust nature with an intensity hardly imaginable to the poor of the world. And those who gather to discuss such matters are altogether atypical -- they are experts. Being such, the protection of nature obligates them to exploit nature -- through sophisticated travel and meeting facilities -- far beyond the public average. But these kinds of consideration may be a smokescreen.
Up to now, the unrestrained use and commercialization of nature, together with the accompanying social polarization, was driven with iron logic by the dream of ever further progress. Today, some believe that the reason for these seeming distortions is the failure to distinguish between technical efficiency and social productivity. The distinction becomes plausibly relevant, they say, through an analysis of the use of energy fuels in industrial society. Technically, it is possible to get four times as much "prosperity" out of one gigajoule of energy as formerly. It is not energy-efficiency that results in this fourfold increase, but what they call energy productivity. Energy productivity translates into satisfaction. To satisfy the desire to converse, cook or read in the evening, one analyses the rational design and arrangement of the light fixtures. This will indeed result in a calculable reduction in wattage required for a given lighting system.
Opinion leaders like Ulrich von Weizsäcker in Germany and Amory Lovins in America propose, through a gradual rise in the cost of "energy'', gradated according to the intensity of ecological impact, together with significant tax cuts in other areas, to increase energy productivity by about 3% annually. Such an ecological tax reform would shift the profitability of investment capital from technological efficiency to productivity, and encourage the re-migration of work back into small groups -- from new construction to making repairs, from the provision of services to their substitution by individual and community actions. This plan predicts a decline in polarization and a reduction of shadow economy work when not only salaries and wages, but also the exploitation of nature is taxed.
Apparently this policy, although couched in technocratic terms and translated into dollar signs for news-consumers and voters, does not contradict Kohr's world-view. Indeed, the proposal suggests that we can begin to think about a prosperity that is not the result of producing ever more. Proponents speak about remaining within the range of reasonable and appropriate expectations. The ultimate criterion for taxes would not be a quantitative measure of production and circulation of goods, but an excessive exploitation of the environment. The principal guide for social policy would be appropriateness and not percentages. Why do I find fault with this unconventional but reasonable proposal? An energy tax that seems to be calculated in the light of the idea that human and world well-being depend on the proper relationship between society and nature has great symbolic power -- in this case, the power to promote a deception.
From Friedrich Engels to Milton Friedman, from fiscal liberals to conservatives, the redistribution of the social product is the basis for a general prosperity. Any fundamental transformation in the society will depend upon the marginal conditions of the economy, plus certain technical parameters: recycling, insulation of buildings, ecological agriculture, the elimination of long-distance transport of goods. In all current scenarios, a world market is simply a given. In this respect, clearly, Kohr's idea of smallness is simply irrelevant, if not nonsensical.
If one wishes to include the ideal of social justice, some kind of economic growth is required: more products and more services. But growth promoters fail to see that, hand-in-hand with a bigger pie, any ecological gain will be accompanied by the further modernization of poverty and the legitimation of the poor's dependence on the pie. Economic growth always means that it costs the poor more to live, and binds them more tightly to large-ticket consumer durables. On both this side and that of "the Wall" -- as still found today between Miami and Havana -- there is a shared commonality: values measured by money. And the money supply available for redistribution remains tied to taxation of employment and the turnover of merchandise sales. Thus the material basis of justice is chained to a social product that must grow.
Even Chinese planners now share with American and German technocrats the opinion that not only prosperity or justice, but the very existence of a viable economy is threatened by a value system that is out of alignment with natural balances. But even the most radical reformers overlook the fact that the concept itself of values, on which all political economy depends, is inappropriate to give substance to the notion of proportionality. A certain proportionality, however, is implicit in every argument made by Leopold Kohr. Therefore, every proposal based on values, that is, accepting economic society, deepens the historic break, takes us farther from any recovery of proportionality.
THIS CONCEPT, which one can understand as "the just measure '', "reasonableness'', or "proportion'', the Greeks named tonos. These differences in meaning invite one to look at its history. I want here -- especially in the light of energy tax proposals -- to look at tonos as the foundation for understanding cosmic relations in Western thought; it is also central in a 2,000-year tradition of making sense of oneself and of the world. Then one can see that if the common welfare is not built on a tonos, a certain tension, a proportion between humans and nature, the energy tax idea, together with other economic alternatives, slides into adaptive utilitarianism, systems-oriented technical administration or diplomatic environmental gossip.
A hundred years before the French Revolution, proportion as a guiding or orienting idea, as the condition for finding one's basic stance, began to be lost. Up to now, this disappearance has hardly been recognized in cultural history. The correspondence between up and down, right and left, macro and micro, was acknowledged intellectually, sense perception confirming it, up to the end of the seventeenth century.
Proportion was also a lodestar for the experience of one's body, of the other, and of gendered relations. Space was simply understood as a familiar cosmos. Cosmos meant that order of relationships in which things are originally placed. For this relatedness, this tension or inclination of things one to another, their tonos, we no longer have a word today. One cannot even imagine the experience of Dante, emerging from hell, rejoicing in the harmony of four new stars, having moved into the realm of justice, temperance, fortitudeand prudence (Purgatory, Canto I). Today, one is confined to the positivist symbol of a scientific paradigm.
This energy tax proposal gives us the opportunity to make explicit the argument for ordering oneself and one's world through proportion. Such an attempt is not romanticism, nor a turning back of the clock, and certainly not a renunciation of social justice. On the contrary! We want to recall that tonos which was silenced in the course of Enlightenment progress as a victim of the growing mathematization of science and the desire to quantify justice. Therefore, we face a delicate task: to retrieve something like a lost ear, an abandoned sensibility. Perhaps we can achieve this with music.
-- To be continued.