To the size of states there is a limit as there is to other things, plants, animals, implements; for none of these retain their natural power when they are too large or too small, but they either wholly lose their nature or are spoilt. – Aristotle
The great Aristotle is always worthy of our deference and respect. When he speaks we should listen. We should, therefore, consider what he teaches about the proper scale of things, especially with regard to “the size of states.” Is there a politics of scale, much as there is an economics of scale, favouring the competitiveness of large states over small? More to the point, does this politics of scale contribute to the freedom of the citizens of such states or does it militate against political freedom? Is big-is-better where the size of nation-states is concerned or is the small both better and beautiful in politics as in business? In short, what are the political implications associated with scale?
Those of us raised on the glories of Queen Victoria’s British Empire or Uncle Sam’s ascendant America will no doubt assume that the politics of scale are as powerful as the economies of scale. Indeed we might believe that the whole of history is determined by the politics of scale. According to this deterministic view of history, human society began with the family; then families joined together to form tribes; then several tribes formed a nation; then a number of nations formed a “Union” or “United States” or “Empire”; finally, the consummation of the entire process will be the formation of a single world government. We might refer to this concept of political determinism as the theory of progressive centralization.
This theory is driven by the theory of the politics of scale. It presumes that a country has to be big in order to be prosperous—the bigger the better. Thus, for instance, Winston Churchill derided “the pumpernickel principalities” of Germany prior to the birth of the Bismarckian Reich. It was only through unification under Bismarck that German prosperity was possible. And yet, as E. F. Schumacher reminds us, responding to Churchill, “the German-speaking Swiss and the German-speaking Austrians, who did not join, did just as well economically.”Furthermore, Schumacher observed that most of the prosperous countries in the world are very small, whereas most of the biggest countries in the world are very poor. Shouldn’t this provide food for thought?
Schumacher also offered hypothetical examples to illustrate that big is not necessarily best where the size of nations is concerned: “Imagine that in 1864 Bismarck had annexed the whole of Denmark instead of only a small part of it, and that nothing had happened since … Or imagine Belgium as part of France.” In the intervening years, the Danes and the Belgians, as ethnic minorities, would struggle to maintain their language and their cultural identity. If eventually they began to demand their independence, the political “scientists” of the big-is-best brigade would dismiss their demands as unrealistic. The Danish and Belgian “regions” would be derided as “non-countries,” too small to be economically viable as independent nations. In fact, since history has spared us this scenario, we know that Denmark and Belgium are every bit as viable as their larger neighbours.
A further argument against the political giantism that leads to empire and other manifestations of internationalism would be a frank admission that Bismarck’s Prussianism led to militarism and expansionism and ultimately to two World Wars.
Another example that militates against the presumptions of those who believe in the inexorability of progressive centralization is the history of the Soviet Union. Lenin and Stalin centralized political power in Moscow, annexing or invading neighbouring nations. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Tadjikistan and many others were swallowed up by Soviet political giantism. Beyond the Soviet border, Stalin consolidated communist power by forcing most of eastern Europe into the Soviet empire. It was all part of the inexorable march to communist world government, or so Stalin believed. The peoples of the communist empire had other ideas. Preferring the beauty of their own small nations to the power of the Soviet bloc, they began to fight for their independence. One by one the nations of the former Soviet empire seceded, toppling the largest and most powerful political empire on earth.
The most telling condemnation of the politics of scale is to be found in those who took it to its logical extreme. In the past century the three political leaders who were most obsessed with centralizing power and with empire-building were Stalin, Mao and Hitler. This tyrannical trio took the politics of scale to its logical conclusion, ditching human-scale politics in favour of the grossest inhumanity imaginable.
Clearly the legacy of political giantism leaves much to be desired. What then is the alternative? Essentially it is that the principle of small is beautiful must apply to politics as much as to economics. Whereas believers in the politics of scale call for centralization, politics-as-if-people-matter demands decentralization. Whereas believers in big is best look towards the evolution of ever larger, supra-national political bodies to govern humanity, those who seek the human scale in human affairs call for devolution of power to smaller nations, or to regions or states within nations. In political terms the establishment or re-establishment of genuine small-scale local and regional self-government is nothing less than the re-emergence of genuine democracy.
Since democracy is a political dogma to which most governments in the world claim allegiance, it is necessary to differentiate between nominal democracy and the genuine article. Nominal democracy, the form practised in many of the world’s largest countries and in supra-national bodies like the European Union, works more in theory than in practice. At best it is inefficient and inadequate; at worst it is little more than a sham. In order to understand what is meant by genuine democracy it is helpful to reiterate the words of Aristotle: “To the size of states there is a limit as there is to other things, plants, animals, implements; for none of these retain their natural power when they are too large or too small, but they either wholly lose their nature or are spoilt.”
The largest “democracies,” like the largest nations, are either wholly losing their truly democratic nature or are being spoilt by the imposition of the politics of scale and the political giantism it serves. True democracy needs to be brought closer to the people through the reinvigoration of local and regional government and the devolution of power away from alien and alienating centralized bureaucracies. In politics, as in economics, small is beautiful!
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