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LQD - Small is beaufiful (allegedly)

by Helen Mon Sep 26th, 2011 at 03:01:52 PM EST

This essay appeared today in the Guardian

This economic collapse is a 'crisis of bigness' by Paul Kingsnorth

Living through a collapse is a curious experience. Perhaps the most curious part is that nobody wants to admit it's a collapse. The results of half a century of debt-fuelled "growth" are becoming impossible to convincingly deny, but even as economies and certainties crumble, our appointed leaders bravely hold the line. No one wants to be the first to say the dam is cracked beyond repair.

To listen to a political leader at this moment in history is like sitting through a sermon by a priest who has lost his faith but is desperately trying not to admit it, even to himself. Watch Nick Clegg, David Cameron or Ed Miliband mouthing tough-guy platitudes to the party faithful. Listen to Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy or George Papandreou pretending that all will be well in the eurozone. Study the expressions on the faces of Barack Obama or Ben Bernanke talking about "growth" as if it were a heathen god to be appeased by tipping another cauldron's worth of fictional money into the mouth of a volcano.

In times like these, people look elsewhere for answers. A time of crisis is also a time of opening-up, when thinking that was consigned to the fringes moves to centre stage. When things fall apart, the appetite for new ways of seeing is palpable, and there are always plenty of people willing to feed it by coming forward with their pet big ideas.

But here's a thought: what if big ideas are part of the problem? What if, in fact, the problem is bigness itself?


What follows is a hymn to the ideal of the City State.

Yet, devastatingly, nowhere does he examine issues surrounding the power of the global corporates, an omission which renders his entire analysis laughably naive.

Nor does he address the inevitability of these city states aggregating for common interests. If the West could forget the lessons of the Great depression, even to the point of deliberately unwinding the legal constraints explicitly designed to prevent recurrence, then we can definitely expect the re-emergence of the Great Nations within a couple of centuries.

But, this diary is thrown open to a discussion that ATinNM specifically requested, so over to you.....

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To be a little more constructive in my criticism (I echo your points about corporations and the re-emergence of nations) - I think it's worth thinking about what a nation state or a European state provides...

At heart, one of the positive things size provides is a pooling of risk. If you're a city state on a river and there's a big flood, it could knock your economy into the sewer for a generation... but as part of a nation, there may be resources to rebuild, transfers from the national tax pool. Of course, in return, you have to contribute to the pool too, which always upsets the glibertarian tendency... but it applies beyond accidents to infrastructure and more...

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Mon Sep 26th, 2011 at 04:43:49 PM EST
Half a century of debt-fueled growth? As an exercise in revisionist history it's workable, but those of us in the reality-bsed community cannot help but note that Thatcherism has only spent thirty years - closer to a quarter century than a half - on its thirdworldization project.

As for the idea of a city state, show me one that's sustainably self-sufficient in food and energy, then maybe we can talk. Until such time, I rather like having food and electricity, so I'll pass on the city-state as the principal organisational unit of society. Incidentally, advocates of the city-state may wish to bone up on the reason most city states spent a quite inordinate fraction of their discretionary value added on building walls, towers and parapets.

- Jake

Austerity can only be implemented in the shadow of a concentration camp.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Sep 26th, 2011 at 04:58:15 PM EST
City states traditionally had their hinterlands.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Sep 26th, 2011 at 05:02:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Maginot lines...

If there is war cities need walls, so do states. Or dreams of global entities...

All interesting things were thought in city states in ancient Greece...

Democracy invented there...

by cagatacos on Mon Sep 26th, 2011 at 05:04:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If there is war cities need walls, so do states.

States need walls?... Never mind that, if there is war, there is conquest.

All interesting things were thought in city states in ancient Greece...

And then the city-sates kept attempting conquering each other until all were conquered by Rome. And before that, they spawned a short-lived emperor who reached as far as India.

Meanwhile, students of Chinese history will swear that all interesting thoughts arose there, in what were de-facto nation states and then a single empire.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Sep 26th, 2011 at 05:12:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I always thought that Athens had a good pr job about having invented democracy.

It was hardly one person one vote. It began as more of a committee of oligarchs; the vote was widened to property owning farmers simply for factional purposes. But at no point could one say that even the majority of men in athens had the vote, let alone the population.

Who had the first democracy ? France or the USA, I suspect the English only started lauding Greece to deflect the credit away from rivals.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Sep 26th, 2011 at 05:17:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Wasn't this a Renaissance idea?

In other words, there was no Greece when the emphasis on classical Athens took hold in Europe. so it couldn't be Athens and Greece who were doing the PR.

Nonetheless, it may have been scholars such as Marcus Musurus who laid the groundwork for the rediscovery of the classics prior to the Renaissance. He was Greek.

by Upstate NY on Tue Sep 27th, 2011 at 02:27:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Renaissance had lots of Greek thinkers, exiles from the fallen Byzantium to the cities of northern Italy. We should not neglect Romes role in the PR either as Rome created an idealised Greece that it had inherited.

But there is a thruth to Athens PR too, as Athens had lots of written material from its thinkers, it tended to survive better then the oral traditions Plato claimed was supreme to the lazy written word.

A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES in 2009!

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Sep 27th, 2011 at 02:49:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No city-state has ever produced the equipment required for a modern hospital, let alone an experimental physics lab.

"All interesting ideas" may be going a bridge too far, unless you have a very nonstandard definition of "interesting."

- Jake

Austerity can only be implemented in the shadow of a concentration camp.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Sep 27th, 2011 at 04:07:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Until city states aren't economically self-sufficient, there is not only the risk of a devastating natural disaster, war, and shortage of imported goods, but also that of a race to the bottom.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Sep 26th, 2011 at 05:15:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Half a century of debt-fueled growth? As an exercise in revisionist history it's workable, but those of us in the reality-bsed community cannot help but note that Thatcherism has only spent thirty years - closer to a quarter century than a half - on its thirdworldization project.

Apparently that's becoming part of the conventional wisdom, too. From Satyajit Das on Eurointelligence: Economic Stall Speed (28 September 2011)

The most likely outcome is a protracted period of low, slow growth, analogous to Japan's Ushinawareta Jūnen - the lost decade or two. The best case is a slow decline in living standards and wealth as the excesses of the past are paid for. The risk of instability is very high; a more violent correction and a breakdown in markets like 2008 or worse are possible. Frequent bouts of panic and volatility as the global economy deleverages -reduces debt- are likely. Problems created gradually over more than the last three decades can only be corrected slowly and painfully.


Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Sep 28th, 2011 at 06:53:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
this diary is thrown open to a discussion that ATinNM specifically requested

And the brown stuff has impacted the rotating ventilation device ...

sigh

Tonight?  (Maybe?)

Skepticism is the first step on the road to truth. -- Denis Diderot

by ATinNM on Tue Sep 27th, 2011 at 11:55:58 AM EST
What did you specifically request discussing?

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Wed Sep 28th, 2011 at 08:13:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
First thing to do is to write definitions so people know what I'm talking about. (And something we can wrangle about, as well.)

Hinterland: geography and ecosystem within four days travel of a population center

Village: population center whose production-activity is primarily resource extraction based on its hinterland and broker/dealer of the resources extracted. Virtually no ability to generate innovation.  Political-economically is acted upon; has, essentially, no ability to self-determine its economic future.  Only micro-economic activity.  Low population density.

Towns: population centers whose primary production-activity is partially based on its hinterland, partially based on resource importation - generally from villages and other towns in it's hinterland. Minor ability to generate innovation.  Political-economically has a small ability to self-determine its economic future.  Micro-economic and limited meso-economic activity.  Medium population density.

Cities: population centers with little attachment to its hinterland for its economic activity.  Resource importation is used primarily for manufacture for export.  Major ability to generate innovation.  Political-economically has a major ability to self-determine its economic future.  Micro-economic activity, meso-economic activity, macro-economic activity. High population density.

Cities are the "Big Cheese" of a nation's economy.  It's not too much to say the economic vibrancy of a nation depends on the economic vibrancy of its cities.  Imagine what England would be without London, Denmark without Copenhagen, Finland without Helsinki, France without Paris, & etc.  The smaller the country, in population and land area, the greater the identity of "The City" and the nation's economy.  Often "The City" of a small nation is the political, as well as economic, center of the country.  

In that respect: England, Denmark, Finland, and some other European countries "are" a City-State, although the "Is-ness" cannot be carried too far.  Vibrant cities need vibrant towns and, to a lesser extent, vibrant villages to produce, accumulate, and ship resources - including people!  Without a constant flow of external resources cities cannot exist.  For example, the city of Athens absolutely required a constant flow of grain from the Black Sea area to feed its population.  Without the constant flow of goods and services only a city can provide economic vibrancy in towns and villages starts getting grim.  

"Bigness," therefore, is a Feature of cities and a welcome one.

HOWEVER ...

When a city gets "Too Big," sucks all the 'life' out of its support networks of villages, towns, and other cities the ultimate result is an 'Own Goal,' eventually negatively affecting the "Too Big" city itself.

When certain businesses conducted within a city are privileged - such as Finance in London or Kodak in Rochester, NY, USA - such that they become TBTF when they do fail, as all things must, you're screwed since the networks and processes created by the TBTF entities must also fail.

This is exactly why Cities-as-Incubators is so important.  In order to do something different the ability to think "outside the box" is necessary and the one thing a TBTF entity cannot do very well is think outside the box.  Further, a TBTF or TBTF-headed entity has the emergent Property of being able to create a Feedback Loop within the political-economic Fitness Landscape to the degree they don't have to think outside the box and if they should try they find themselves becoming less fit, however one needs to define it, for the business environment (Fitness Landscape.)

OK, I have wandered to a convenient stopping point so let me end by saying:

Kohr, in my view, went along the right lines with his criticism of Bigness.  However, his prescription: city states, is not and does not move towards a solution - as he admitted.  In my view he took an Emergent Property - Bigness - rather than looking at the dynamic processes underlying the EP.  

Skepticism is the first step on the road to truth. -- Denis Diderot

by ATinNM on Wed Sep 28th, 2011 at 02:05:08 PM EST


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