A Great Perhaps



“I am going to seek a great perhaps . . . ”
—François Rabelais

Sale’s theme is the restoration of “human scale” in all our works: architectural, political, economic, educational, and technological.  His thesis is that only radical decentralization can achieve this aim.  Sale first ventured into this territory with a book called Human Scale, published in 1980.  The present work is not simply a new edition, but a significant rewriting, updating, and streamlining of its parent text.  The result is impressive.  The argument was timely in 1980 and is even more so today.  If decentralization has not exactly become a household word, it has in recent decades become increasingly a matter of concern across the political spectrum.  The term localism resonates with both left-leaning Greens and right-leaning school-choice advocates.  Similarly, bioregionalism has widespread appeal in its support for the consumption of locally grown foods, for environmental sustainability, and for reducing local economic “capture” by national and transnational corporations.  Moreover, state-level secessionist movements proliferate, many of them associated with left-libertarian groups.  Nonetheless, the U.S. continues to be dominated by what the urbanist Joel Kotkin calls “hypercentralization,” which “assumes the superior expertise and wisdom of bureaucracies with the power to regulate” and ignores local conditions while foisting one-size-fits-all solutions upon a nation of over 300 million.  Even worse, far too many Americans are umbilically tethered to the dubious largesse of the managerial state, that fusion of federal and corporate power which requires of its beneficiaries an almost infantile dependency.  It should be obvious that when large populations are reduced to such a condition, they can hardly be expected to exhibit the virile self-sufficiency required of the citizens of a constitutional republic.

Sale is not unaware of this.  In a chapter entitled “The Malaise of Citizenship” he notes that the level of involvement in public affairs by Americans is abysmally diminished, so much so that elections have become little more than “the right to reaffirm every other November the loss of participation in public life.”  We lack, he asserts, “authentic political selves,” which is to say that we no longer understand ourselves as “public beings.”  Rather than conclude that Americans have lost the capacity for self-governance, he places the emphasis upon a “felt sense of powerlessness” mingled with a growing “anti-mushroom sentiment in the land,” by which he means a stirring of revolt against centralized control.  Yet, as Sale views the matter, centralization is simply part and parcel of our national infatuation with size.  Size matters, and owing to our peculiar history we are inclined to project our collective consciousness upon vast canvases.  We worship “bigness.”  Our greatest natural wonder is the Grand Canyon; our vehicles have grown larger with each passing decade; our major universities resemble small cities and their sports facilities are like gargantuan temples of athletics; we shop in big-box stores; our suburban dwellings expand (doubling in size since 1973) to accommodate all the junk we accumulate, including the ever larger and ubiquitous flat-screen TVs; and we dine on supersized meals served up by giant national chains and celebrate our obesity even as we dismiss with a shrug the size of our national debt.  Small wonder, then, that our predilection for bigness has fostered an unprecedented growth in centralized administrative power.  The federal government alone employs roughly 4.2 million people across 15 departments, 8 executive offices, 456 agencies, and countless advisory committees, commissions, panels, and task forces.  In addition, the government employs millions more through outsourcing.  The Department of Defense alone employs some 800,000 civilians and 700,000 private contract workers.  One could, of course, make similar observations about the metastasizing growth of the corporate colossi that dominate our economic life.  The essential point is this: Once a government or company expands beyond a

modest size [it] cannot be expected to perform optimally, and the larger it gets, and the more distended the policy, the more likely it is that it will become increasingly inefficient, autocratic, wasteful, corrupt and harmful.  And the more likely it is that it will do irremediable harm to the smaller polities upon which it acts. . . . 

In chapter after chapter Sale writes insightfully about the various kinds of harm perpetrated (often unintentionally) by outsized government and private entities overseen by ever proliferating bureaucracies.  He devotes special attention to the erosion of communal identity, the intractable problems faced by overpopulated urban centers, the dumbing down of public education, the damage to our ecosystems, the waste of resources, and the antihuman thrust of our technological systems.  His argument in these chapters will be, to most observant and thoughtful readers, persuasive in its general outline, if open to challenge on specific points.

Of greater controversy will be his arguments in the second half of the book, especially those advocating a “steady-state economy” and, more radically, a “stateless” society.  Underlying Sale’s advocacy for the first is the assumption that industrial capitalism is irrevocably wedded to continual growth, a growth inherently limited by the finite availability of raw materials and by the growing political demand for redistribution of income.  Moreover, the growth economy has produced unacceptable levels of environmental degradation that constitute a dire threat both to the human community and to the ecosystem which sustains it.  A steady-state economy, while not necessarily hostile to a limited degree of market freedom, would subordinate it to the well-being of local communities and ecosystems.  Moreover, a steady-state economy would be a small-scale economy (thus ruling out socialist models based on central planning).  Many, of course, will simply dismiss such proposals as utopian fantasy, but even those who find them attractive and plausible will raise objections.  One of the virtues of this book is that Sale often anticipates criticism, though not always satisfactorily.  For example, in answer to the objection that a no-growth economy would result in larger numbers of people living in poverty, Sale notes that industrial capitalism has not been as successful at eliminating poverty as its promoters suggest.  However, he concedes that in a steady-state economy we would have to accept significant limitations on our “accumulation and consumption.”  In such an economy, a flagrantly unequal distribution of wealth would be considered “anti-social.”  Perhaps so, but I suspect that something more than communal disapproval would be required to restrain those who would insist on a larger share of the pie for themselves and their offspring.  Indeed, Sale’s estimation of human nature seems at times too rosy; he is convinced that over time citizens will grow to understand that their self-interest will be best served by a cooperative rather than an “adversarial” understanding of our economic life.  He seems to assume that at some point vast numbers of Americans will become like those who today seek out “intentional” communities (though he doesn’t explicitly mention these), eager to live in harmony with one another and their environment.  Interestingly, the number of such communities has, since the height of their popularity in the 1970’s, plummeted to a few dozen.  Apparently, Americans are not eager to submit themselves to the yoke of communal harmony.  Could it be that they instinctively sense that small communities can sometimes be, in their way, ruthlessly coercive?

To be fair to Sale, though, the model he appears to have in mind is not one of tiny intentional communities (which, in any case, live in a somewhat parasitic fashion, selling their hammocks and nut butters to trendy upper-middle-class capitalist consumers in urban centers), but the Jeffersonian model of a network of agricultural villages, towns, and smallish cities, all of them committed to intensely participatory democracy.  This has over the years appealed to many Americans, including many conservatives, albeit in a somewhat nostalgic fashion.  But Sale takes a radical step beyond what most Jeffersonians would advocate.  He calls, in short, for a “stateless” society, and in so doing embraces something approaching an anarchistic framework, shorn, I hasten to say, of any programmatic violence.  The “logical endpoint” of the decentralist tradition, he argues, tends not just toward a “diminished” central state, but to “the withering away of the state” altogether.  The phrase comes from Karl Marx, of course, but Sale is no Marxist.  Marx regarded the state as an instrument of economic domination destined to disappear under the revolutionary auspices of an all-powerful dictatorship of the proletariat.  Sale never explicitly develops a theory of the state, but seems to assume that it has no redeeming moral or political function; rather, the state is simply coercive power made manifest in centralized governmental institutions that claim a monopoly on the use of violence, rationalized as the maintenance of law and order.  To persuade us that a stateless society is not simply a futuristic daydream, he argues that earlier than 5,000 years ago, “when a few isolated peoples began forming fixed hierarchies and chieftaincies,” stateless societies were the normal mode of human existence.  Their success came as a result of “a very simple mechanism.”  Blessedly free of state power, social control was established and maintained through the cohesiveness of tribal or group identity, in which the “transgression of one is likely to threaten the well-being of all.”  Strictly speaking, in such societies, power—the lifeblood of the state—simply had no place.  Here Sale takes his cue from the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres, whose studies in the 1960’s and 70’s of native tribes in North and South America famously theorized that (to quote Clastres himself) the “political” in these primitive social orders was “determined as a domain beyond coercion and violence, beyond hierarchical subordination.”  According to Clastres, such societies immunized themselves against the external power we call the state by way of a curious communal intuition he refers to as a “sociological intentionality.”  In his observations of the authority of tribal chieftains, he notes that tribal societies did, indeed, institute authority, but in such a way as to “let power appear only as a negativity that is immediately subdued.”

The problems here are manifold.  In the first place, as fascinating as Clastres’s theorizing may be, it has never gained wide acceptance among his anthropological peers, and has been roundly attacked by the likes of Clifford Geertz as a fanciful reconstruction of tribal life that tells us more about Clastres’s anti-Hegelian politics than about the societies he studied.  Yet even if one were to grant Sale’s argument some plausibility with respect to hunter-gatherer societies and some (but by no means all) Neolithic cultures, the emergence of stratified societies with all the attributes of “states” is evident as early as 3,500 b.c. (for example, the Peruvian Norte Chico civilization), and this appears to have been an inevitable development once humankind began to dwell in settled agricultural communities.  Even more problematic is Sale’s attempt to extend the notion of statelessness to historic societies such as ancient Greece and medieval Europe.  As is well known, ancient Greece between the eighth and the fourth centuries b.c. was highly decentralized and consisted of hundreds of city-states, many to some degree politically independent.  Those that possessed substantive independence are indeed admirable models of the kind of local self-governance that Sale supports.  However, his depiction of Greek political arrangements seems almost willfully one-sided when he claims that those arrangements were “forms of statelessness . . . sometimes with a few more touches of formality.”  He claims that

the great majority of Hellenic villages and cities operated without kings, without ruling priesthoods, without fixed aristocracies, organizing their activities through assemblies of citizens and popularly elected leaders.

One doesn’t know quite how to interpret such a statement.  If the term majority includes the thousands of Greek “villages,” then perhaps some part of the claim is true.  Villages did not typically have kings or ruling priesthoods, though many—perhaps most—were far from independent, being dominated more often than not by nearby city-states.  According to established scholars like Michael Grant and J.K. Davies, there were probably as many as 1,500 city-states, but we know of only 600 by name, and, to judge from the scant available evidence, the “majority” were probably oligarchies or tyrannies or some form of mixed government.  Fixed aristocracies were often a part of the mix, though these did diminish in power over time.  Democracies were relatively rare.  Most importantly, all of these urban centers of power were states.  They had well-established governments with written constitutions and legal systems, state religious cults, and a monopoly on violence.  Many did include citizen assemblies, but such assemblies were usually dominated by men of wealth or aristocratic birth.

Thoughtful students of American history are aware that the U.S. is an increasingly ungovernable nation-state, one which is careening toward a quasitotalitarian future under the black flags of equality and diversity, those vacuous terms signifying little more than a pretext for the subversion of our traditional liberties.  However, in our eagerness to promote decentralization, we must be wary of the temptation to embrace uncritically the fantasy of a stateless world.  Philosophical anarchism raises bold questions about the nature and necessity of the state, but it is deluded when it imagines that the social order alone can replace the state.  Indeed, the sphere of the “social” does not become an “order” without fixed and hierarchical authority, which is in turn the kernel of state formation.  Whatever fault we might find with the Hobbesian understanding of the “state of nature,” Thomas Hobbes was surely right about one thing: Outside the realm of sovereign power, there can be “no Propriety, no Dominion, no Mine and Thine distinct; but only that to be every man’s, that he can get; and for so long as he can keep it.”  If you are inclined to doubt this proposition, I suggest you book a flight to Caracas and sample the cuisine.


[Human Scale Revisited: A New Look at the Classic Case for a Decentralist Future, by Kirkpatrick Sale (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing) 408 pp., $24.95]


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