Today's date:
Winter 1993

The Moon Over Maastricht

Leopold Kohr - In 1941, Austrian-born economist Leopold Kohr wrote an iconoclastic essay in Commonweal entitled "Disunion Now: Plea for a Society Based Upon Small Autonomous Units." In that essay, he argued that European unity based on large-nation states would lead inevitably to domination by Germany, the largest state.

Anticipating present-day objections to the Maastricht superstate, Kohr argued instead for the breakdown of Europe into ethnically-mixed city regions.

Recently, he spoke to NPQ Senior Editor Marilyn Berlin Snell in London. The following is adapted from that conversation.

Tottering amidst gales of popular doubt, the Maastricht Treaty will go down in history alongside the Tower of Babel. And for the same reason: Because the Lord, that is, the law of nature, is against it.

Constructions on such a grand scale don't work. Wherever we look in the political universe, we find that successful social organism, be they empires, federations, states, counties, or cities, have in all their diversity of language and traditions one common feature: The small-cell pattern. The problem is not to grow but to stop growing; the answer: Not union but disunion.

Pathagoras long ago said that man - not the nation, not the superstate - is the measure of all things. And man is small. Man is not "mankind." He is not even France of Germany, no less is he Europe.

That is why the patching together of what remains of the Maastricht Treaty at the Edinburgh Summit in mid-December was a phyrric victory for the European leaders and technocrats who sill dream of a superstate. Their strength today lies in the unanimity of their error - and from Denmark to Switzerland it is waning with each referendum.

It appears that in spite of having been submerged in great unitarian states for long periods and having been subjected to an unceasing battering of unifying propagandas, particularist sentiments still exits in undiminished strength.

The European proponents of union have obviously failed to grasp this fact, or the fact that the real conflict of this age is no longer between races, classes, left vs. right, socialism vs. capitalism - all hangover consequences from the past. The real conflict of today is between man and mass, the individual and society, the citizen and the state, the big and the small community, between David and Goliath.

As I predicted 50 years ago in an essay entitled "Disunion Now," the idea of European unity based on large nation-states will wither before it can bloom. With every step toward further union, collapsed comes closer.

After the razor-thin French endorsement of the Maastricht Treaty in September, former German foreign minister Hans Dietrich Genscher argued that "to stall now on European unity means regression." He is right. For its hubris, Europe has been subjected to the punishment of the gods: If the descendants of Jean Monnet don't continue to peddle the bicycle of European unification they will fall over.

Yet the accommodation of modern European history with the laws of physics would be much easier. Stability could readily be achieved if the European bicycle had so many wheels that it could balance itself. It would not need to be steered from Brussels.

To secure that kind of balance, however, the European bicycle must have small wheels of roughly equal size and strength. This is not theory but mathematics: With nations of different economic and political powers as its members, any federation will in its ultimate stage function as a mere instrument of its most powerful unit.

This particular theory of power is not lost on the people of Europe, which is why they are so nervous about Germany's role. Clearly, if Europe insists on uniting under present circumstances - with Germany being far stronger economically than any other member state - the only "Europe" we will see will be a German one.

As this eventuality looms nearer, I suspect that European disunion will begin anew. With the Maastricht Treaty in such trouble and with the whole world seized by the fever of dissolution, the idea of a united Europe seems distant indeed.

What, then, is the answer? Two outstanding examples of successful federations are the United States and Switzerland, which have both thrived not because they have succeeded in cutting potential great-power regions into small sovereignties. In the U.S., for instance, there is no great Midwestern state weighing down on the independence of smaller states and paralyzing the effectiveness of the federal government.

And in Switzerland we find not a federation of three nations, as is often assumed, but a union of 22 states - called cantons - whose very function is to destroy and disunite the nationalities in order to unit the whole.

Political experts hold Switzerland up to the world as an example of the peaceful coexistence of some of the most diverse nations of earth. Actually, nothing is further from the truth. The percentages of Switzerland's three national groups are roughly: 70 percent German, 20 percent French and 10 percent Italian. If these were the basis of her famed union, the inevitable result would be the exercise of dominion of the large German-speaking bloc over the other two nationalities, which would then be degraded to the status of "minority." The rules of democracy would not impede but favor such a development, and the reason for the French-and-Italian-speaking communities would be gone.

Instead, the greatness of the Swiss idea derives from the fact that it is a union of states, not of nations. There are populations of Bernese, Zurichois, Genevese, etc. and not Germans, French and Italians. The strength of this cantonal system lies in its culturally and ethnically mixed parts.

The same idea could work in the rest of Europe. In fact, nothing would be easier than breaking Europe down into small regions. Unlike building a unifying edifice, there would be little natural resistance to this course, since small regions already exist. In Europe today we find not Germany but Bavaria and Saxony; not Great Britain, but Scotland and Ireland; not Spain but Pais Basqua and Catalonia; not Italy but Lombardy. These regions have not been obliterated by their fusion into modern nation-states. They retain the enchantment of their accents, customs and literature.

A Europe of regions, it has been argued, will end up a Europe of perpetual war and petty nationalisms. Inevitably, there will be collisions. But without large-scale nation-states, the ravages of conflict will not amount to the wholesale genocide or holocaust we have seen this century. Creating waves in a bathtub doesn't wreck ships. As in all things, scale is the poison.

What I envision for a workable European community is a plethora of small regional states that interact the way atoms do in nature. I adopt the analysis of the Nobel physicist Irvin Schredinger on why atoms must be small:

In the first place, they are very numerous. Secondly they are constantly in motion. Thirdly, they are never governed by another atom. Because no one guides them, they constantly collide. If they were like large tanks, they would shatter themselves and the entire system. But because they are small, the myriad and random collisions are creative.

It has been argued that though "small is beautiful" it can also be ugly. Recently, Yugoslavia is cited as a prime example of this potential. But I believe that the former parts of Yugoslavia are at war with each other today because they are still not small enough and the component parts are not yet of equal scale. The former Yugoslavia is still composed of unequally sized, ethnically based political communities dominated by the Serbs. Peace cannot come as long as the present scale of political organization maintains. There is no solution until further breakup occurs.

Yugoslavia today is the political equivalent of a supernova, which explodes and ejects most of its accumulated excess mass.

Whether in the former Yugoslavia or elsewhere in Europe the original units were not tribal. In fact, I believe that tribalism is the result unnatural unification rather than the cause of disunion. Before the nation-state capture Europe, there were smaller, sovereign centers of social existence, similar to today's Swiss cantons, and based upon a convivial scale of interaction. The regional centers of Padua, Florence, Siena and Pisa once were the sovereign shapers of the most supreme art, architecture and music on earth. They only became "provincialized" and lost their spirit when unified into larger entities.

Such a model of sovereign centers, linked together in a federation, would best suit Europe in the next century. To achieve that end, not only must Germany be broken up, but, simultaneously, so must France, Spain and Italy. Europe's best hope is dismember itself politically and economically into subnational regions.

The great tragedy of the 20 century - and we are still not out of the woods - has been the parochial mentality of the intolerant tribe organized on the large scale of the nation-state. When the final disillusionment with the Maastricht Treaty sets in it will be surely realized that it is the most naive of illusions to believe that a superstate is the antidote to the nationalism of its largest members.

The hope of the 21st century must be based on another model altogether, a model that seeks the universality at the smallest scale; a model that recognizes that the fullness of existence is contained in the tiniest of spaces. The spirit of man doesn't require the vast expanse of an Alexanderplatz to reach the sublime.

Legend has it that a little boy in one of the ancient Greek city-states asked his father, "Do other places have their own moon?"

"Of course," his father replied. "Everyone has his own moon."

It is better that way. And we might add that wisdom: We don't need the Single European Act, the European Monetary System or a common foreign policy to have our own moon.

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