Small is Beautiful as a Book and as a Bum Steer

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Small is Beautiful as a Book and as a Bum Steer

by David Chidakel

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 7, No. 4, Month 1975, p. 17-19

The following is a review 1 of a book which tries to be about building a nonviolent alternative society, an idea that, unfortunately, seems to have special appeal to technically trained people, who have rebellion in their hearts. The book is Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher. After dealing briefly with the book, I’ll suggest a better way to “go left” than the “alternative society” and suggest why the “alternative society” is a bum steer. 

The author, Schumacher, who seems to think that he is some sort of radical, spent 20 years as head of the British Coal Board. If he noticed any contradictions between his job, he doesn’t think to mention them. He presents himself as a critic of the system, but his criticism is tied to a mix of religious metaphors drawn from the East and West. He uses pacifying quotes from the “Sermon on the Mount” and proposes this philosophy as a way to fight oppression. The author also discusses the full employment of his “Buddhist Economics”: 

Women, on the whole, do not need an “outside” job, and the large scale employment of women in offices or factories would be considered a sign of serious economic failure. In particular, to let mothers of young children work in factories while the children run wild would be as uneconomic in the eyes of a Buddhist economist as the employment of a skilled worker as a soldier in the eyes of a modern economist.2 

The sexist assumptions here are hardly subtle. Very few of you will need to be told that working mothers does not mean “children running wild”. Expanded day-care, paternal childcare, and other experimental and not so experimental means are quite well known as alternatives to maternal childcare.

On imperialism: 

It is almost like a providential blessing that we, the rich countries, have found it in our heart to consider the third world and try to mitigate its poverty. . . . I think that this fairly recent development in the outlook of the rich is a fairly honorable one. 

And discussing foreign aid in a context of neo-colonialism: 

I hesitate to use this term [neo-colonialism] because it has a nasty sound and appears to imply a deliberate intention on the part of the aid givers. Is there such an intention? On the whole, I think there is not. 

The best aid to give is intellectual aid, a gift of useful knowledge. A gift of knowledge is infinitely preferable to a gift of material things . . . . A gift of material goods can be appropriated by the recipient without effort or sacrifice. . . this approach incidentally has the advantage of being relatively cheap. 

Apparently the author thinks that the “rich” countries got that way from God’s benevolence or something. Much of that wealth derived from resources stolen from African, Asian and Latin American countries. Much of that wealth resulted directly from people, villages, tribes and whole nations being enslaved and exterminated. The author doesn’t seem to know this. 

I’m not going to go any deeper into this book than I have already. I’m not going to explore his plans for foreign “aid”. I’m not going to examine his many ideas about how we can change our attitudes and educate ourselves to be more noble. I’m not going to go on with this because his basic assumptions are wrong and it is unecological to throw good paper after bad to follow the tortuous logic that follows from his assumptions and eventually leads (of course) to wrong conclusions.   

Now in the introduction to this book, we are told that it is in the tradition of Anarchism along with Kropotkin, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Paul Goodman, Bookchin, etc. I haven’t read Kropotkin, but from what I’ve read of Bookchin I’m not so sure he’d like to share a tradition or anything else with Small is Beautiful and its simpering distortions.3  I cannot imagine Bookchin writing that “any activity which fails to recognize a self-limiting technology is of the devil.” 

But — ok — there is such a thing as a decentralist, anarchist tradition. And more to the point, there are decentralist-anarchist tendencies around today. As a “movement”, it is vaguely defined but, as I’ve said, it seems to have special appeal to technical people who are moving toward radicalism. This relates to many of our readers. 

Most people who are a part of this tendency seem to believe in building an “alternate society” as a means toward “humanizing” the existing order.

What is an “alternate society”? Well since the late sixties this has come to mean a network of “peoples’ institutions” – in areas like food coops, health clinics, non-profit and worker-controlled businesses, and communes. Supposedly, as these institutions gain acceptance and grow, they will provide alternative models, teach people how to run their own lives, and eventually, create an instability that will finally destroy the old order. 

Like all ideas that have appeal and power, there is at least some truth to this one. Furthermore, they are popular because they are the most direct opposites to what is most commonly seen and identified as “bad”. If big corporate capitalism is “bad”, and attempts at reform from “within” never work, then it is best to “drop out” and build small and highly personal alternatives to the large and impersonal corporate behemoth. People with technical skills (who have been bored out of their minds doing repetitive technical things for a living) often get tremendously excited by the idea of using their knowledge for ingenious kinds of “alternative technology” in this “alternate society”. But, disappointingly, this network of peoples’ institutions turns out to be mainly a fantasy draped over a confusion. Sure there are food coops around, but they’ve been a real flop.4  And sure there are alternate businesses (those that weren’t bankrupted by market forces or paralyzed by the personality clashes of functioning collectively). But how many of them are distinguishable from hip capitalism? Are any of them a revolutionary force?5And what has happened to the subsistence farming movement? Some still remain — but to call it a movement is a mean way of mocking an impossible idea.  

What’s wrong? The alternate society is losing the battle for some of the same reasons that the U.S. military lost in Vietnam — the wrong enemy. Our soldiers were told that they were to protect the people of Vietnam from a Communist invasion. So that’s what they tried to do. Since the people they were “protecting” in the South were really one with those “Communists” and were trying to throw off a brutal dictator, they kept lobbing grenades at their protectors who were so confused that they didn’t know who the enemy was! Thus it is with the alternate society. The analysis is wrong. The main enemies have been identified as: “Straight people, Consumer rip-offs, Reactionary attitudes, Capitalism.” 

But what is the nature of the forces arrayed against these enemies? Would you believe the long-haired and gentle son of an international banker? A kid who believes in personal liberation and eros and self-expression in the arts? Are these the real values of a revolution? The most important ones? Why do they have an upper class ring to them? 

As you have probably guessed, it is my belief that Marxists have much more correctly identified the enemy than the alternate society folks have. They pin it down as the small group of wealthy families that own almost all of the productive wealth and control almost all of the power. This might mean the less than 2 percent of the people in the U.S. who own 88 percent of the common stock. Marxists call them the bourgeoisie. They consider that this group has a vested interest in retaining things as they are. They don’t think that members of this class are trustworthy revolutionaries. It was of the utopian schemes generated by so-called socialists from this upper class that Marx said: “They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat. The bourgeoisie naturally conceives the world in which it is supreme to be the best; and bourgeois socialism develops this comfortable conception into various more or less complete systems.”6

There is a larger group of people who get a great deal of relative privilege from the system such as professionals, intellectuals, and small merchants. They often tend to identify with the upper class. And then there is the rest of us — quite a lot really — who have to rely exclusively upon our jobs to survive. 

Now what does this have to do with the alternate society? Just this: what I am suggesting is that if we are going to try to make real and lasting changes in the society, we have to work earnestly at figuring what has to be changed and who we can rely on to help us make that change. 

To find out who, requires a careful class analysis of the sort I have barely hinted at above. The problem can be summarized like this: the vast majority of us are a part of the working class and we are natural allies in the struggle to throw off of our backs a class of people who own to live while we work to live. (When we call “straight” people the enemy as we did in the 60’s we lump together the enemy with the victim.)

In past centuries the working class has built up the factories and the various means of production that are owned by others. The question we are now faced with is what is the best way to change that situation? Should we turn away from these things and build anew the means of production with those various people (small in number) who are inclined to move out to the country and start a “simple” life? I know (from personal experience) that each utopian idea seems importantly unique and it grates to hear someone lump them together and say that it has been done before. But it has … and it still is being done. And having been associated with one such attempt and having observed others, I think that they will continue to fail to make change for the following reasons: 

1. Non-viability — Alternative societies by definition consist of small production units set up in an economy dominated by large corporate monopolies. While advocates of alternate societies may argue that this is less alienating and more efficient — it’s simply not true. It is impossible to put the monopolies out of business with low-production units. After all — that was how they got to be monopolies, by driving out of business the low-production units.7

And if you think it is nonalienating to struggle to survive in a small business that is going under — ask someone who has been there! 

2. Starting from scratch would be a waste — If you recognize that the greatest productive plant in the history of the world was built with the sweat of the working class during the last couple of centuries and is owned by others, how can you ignore that? Even if it would be possible to build something as grand by starting from scratch (and it isn’t) it would be stupid? What is ours is ours. What we must learn is an effective way to demand that it be returned to us. 

Of course effective is the key word here. The problem with a mishmash of ideas about non-hierarchy, nonviolence, spirituality, etc. is that it is hard to imagine a better formula for making it impossible to demand anything. To those of you who have already tried to work or live in completely non-hierarchical situations, perhaps you are already beginning to smell the self-defeating odor of self-sabotage. 

We must ask ourselves, what is wrong with leadership? Are we against all kinds of leadership? What are leaders supposed to do? How can we get them to do that and do it well? But we must be able to seize our society back from those who have it and are taking it for a ride (over a cliff!). And we shall never be able to seize anything against the organized and disciplined forces of the enemy if we don’t organize ourselves effectively! 

3. Isolation — Not only does the alternate society effort isolate us from the means of production, but it isolates us from the people who work in them. Therefore it cuts us off from the main body of the working class. 

4. The final trap — And last of all, if it were possible to run viable alternative businesses, and if it were possible for those businesses to sabotage the established order, and if this were not a terribly wasteful and isolating thing to do — even then it would not work. 

I have witnessed repeatedly the pitfall in alternative businesses. One becomes so involved in the routine of making the nonprofit business “work” and succeed that it is almost inescapable that the challenge of beating the capitalists at their own game results in the final victory for them, because you, do not “play” at being a small business person. You become a small business person. You build up a stake in a stable economic order. You sympathize with the attitudes of the people that own the supermarket (customers are impossible, mortgages are too hard to get). And the small business mentality will make every potential “revolutionary” impotent in the end. 

And so it is my belief that the alternate society is a dead end and not a path to revolutionary change. 

I do not wish to say that all of those writers who are included in the “traditions of Anarchism” endorse the building of an alternate society. In fact they do not. I have tried to deal with what I see as the main anarchist tendency in this country and in our time in the form that has had appeal among technical workers.


>> Back to Vol. 7, No. 4 <<


  1. This article is an adaptation of a review which first appeared in Spark magazine, Spring, 1975.
  2. All quotations are from Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher, Harper & Row, New York, 1973.
  3.  Murray Bookchin, Post Scarcity Anarchism, Ramparts Press.
  4. This is too big a subject to go into here and would be a good topic for a separate article.
  5. This is not to deny, by the way, the importance of movement printers, lawyers, etc. — no matter how “alternative” they think they are.
  6. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Manifesto of the Communist Party,” Marx and Engels, Lewis Feuer, ed., Doubleday & Co., New York, 1959.
  7.  For a discussion of why this happens see Introduction to Socialism, Huberman & Sweezy.