beyond small is beautiful

(Orlando, FL) So many of the initiatives that I admire happen to be small: classrooms devoted to reflection and service, deliberative meetings of citizens, one-on-one interviews with community organizers, efforts to restore wetlands and woods. Their leaders do not necessarily favor smallness; they may wish to “go to scale.” Yet the values they prize seem linked to smallness, and I suspect that the “Small is Beautiful” movement of the late 1960s is somehow in their heritage, whether they know it or not.

With that in mind, I’ve looked superficially at E.F. Schumacher’s popular 1973 manifesto, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Some passages seem to me insightful. For example:

In the affairs of men, there always appears to be a need for at least two things simultaneously, which, on the face of it, seem to be incompatible and to exclude each other. We always need both freedom and order. We need the freedom of lots and lots of small, autonomous units, and, at the same time, the orderliness of large-scale, possibly global, unity and coordination. When it comes to action, we obviously need small units, because action is a highly personal affair, and one cannot be in touch with more than a very limited number of persons at any one time. But when it comes to the world of ideas, to principles or to ethics, to the indivisibility of peace and also of ecology, we need to recognise the unity mankind and base our actions upon this recognition (p. 61).

Forty years later, it is not longer so obvious that “action” requires small scale, on the basis that “one cannot be in touch with more than a very limited number of persons at any one time.” A person can have thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Moreover, networks of people who associate voluntarily can now quickly become large and powerful. Bennett and Segerberg (2012) cite, for example, los Indignados, a movement composed of 15 million protesters in 60 Spanish cities that arose in 2011. These protesters kept “political parties, unions, and other powerful political organizations out: indeed, they were targeted as part of the political problem. … The most visible organization consisted of the richly layered digital and interpersonal communication networks centering around the media hub of Democracia real YA!

Thus I would no longer draw the line between small and big. But Schumacher was right that “action is a highly personal affair”; and domains of personal action require relationships among human beings who know and hear each other and cooperate in tangible ways. Thus we can draw a distinction between personalized politics and institutionalized politics that roughly maps onto small versus big. Schumacher would say that we need both.

 personalized institutionalized
main forms of interaction talk, collaboration, relationships rules, incentives, directives, measurements
major advantages ability to take tangible action; responsiveness to individuals’ needs fairness, efficiency, predictable general rules that permit individuals to live freely, the ability to address big problems
major disadvantages exclusiveness, petty politics and bullying, failure to address macro issues individuals have modest or intangible impact
equity and inclusion mean responding to each member’s needs and interests appropriately; inviting outsiders to join rules and rights that enhance equality of opportunity and/or outcomes for a population; applying these rules impersonally
democratic decision- making can sometimes be consensual. Always requires a concern for the feelings of each member majority vote or a market system for aggregating preferences
how to deal with collective action problems personalized appeals; sometimes a violator is ostracized requirements, monitoring, and penalties (e.g., in a system of taxation)
roles are relatively informal and can be equivalent for all members formalized and differentiated

One of the most difficult questions is how to connect institutionalized and personalized politics together so that we can get the best of both. We cannot ignore big systems in order to live within our chosen networks, because the big systems govern us and ultimately decide the fate of the small associations. But as we try to move from relational politics to institutionalized politics, we often lose the distinctive virtues of the former, especially deliberate human agency.

The two main methods for expanding the scope of relational politics are: 1) replication and 2) leverage–that is, either finding ways to make relational practices happen over and over and networking them together, or else using instruments like laws or the mass media to achieve the ends that we have selected in personal interactions. Neither is easy to accomplish with integrity, and I think the whole question of how relational politics can influence mass systems is seriously under-explored.

[Sources: E.F. Schumacher (1973), Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, Harper & Row; W. Lance Bennett & Alexandra Segerberg (2012) The Logic Of Connective Action:  Digital Media and the Personalization Of Contentious Politics. Information, Communication & Society (15)5:739-768.  See also Jane Mansbridge’s Beyond Adversary Democracy.]

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.