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Small is Beautiful

New to the reading list is Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher.

For those of you keeping score at home, this may signal my move so far to the right that I've wrapped around to the far-left (the environmentalist and anti-globalization left, to be specific).

But probably not. The edition I am reading has comments in the margins of nearly every page, written by the "contemporary thinkers who have been deeply influenced by [Schumacher's] work and thought." I'm still less than half way through the book, but with a couple of exceptions it's clear to me that those who appear to be the primary custodians of Schumacher's legacy are half-blind to his most critical propositions. For example, from this quotation--"The task of our generation, I have no doubt, is one of metaphysical reconstruction."--one of these custodians derives the lesson that "we need to reconstruct the meaning of ideas like wealth, knowledge, work, economics, development, and progress." For sure. But these would merely be salutary side-effects of the metaphysical reconstruction Schumacher talks about inside his book. The marginal commentators, faced with his impressive chapter on reforming education into a system that once again transmits values and not merely knowledge, can only muster some facile pot-shots at "the scam of the global economy." For Schumacher, the real scams are the intellectual by-products of the nineteenth century: Darwinism, Marxism, Freudianism, relativism, and positivism, each of which abets our enthusiasm for the ever-enlarging, ever more inhuman global economy. By the time he's calling for a return to a heirarchical view of nature, the so-called "contemporary thinkers" are reduced to total dumbness.

The low point is when one commentator refers to "Schumacher's affirmation: 'The difference between a man and a stone is little more than a deceptive appearance.'" Hm. Here's the quotation in context:

What do these six "large ideas [the ones I listed above--CF] have in common, besides their non-empirical, metaphysical nature? They all assert that what had previously been taken to be something of a higher order is really "nothing but" a more subtle manifestation of the "lower"--unless, indeed, the very distinction between higher and lower is denied. Thus man, like the rest of the universe, is really nothing but an accidental collocation of atoms. The difference between a man and a stone is little more than a deceptive appearance. Man's highest cultural achievements are nothing but disguised economic greed or the outflow of sexual frustrations.

It seems someone wasn't paying attention. It sounded like such a nice environmentalist platitude, that humanity and the rocks of the land are of equal value! "Poppycock," Schumacher (a German expatriate to Britain) would insist. The all-too-prevalent anti-humanist environmentalism--what is unfortunately "movement environmentalism" today--is precisely counter to Schumacher's metaphysical vision.

There are, of course, many other chapters more plainly about economics, ecology, and environment and they are by no means less worthy of close attention. But it is as if Schumacher and those who claim to be his heirs--the former directors of the Sierra Club, the conservationists and academic ecologists, the cooperative housing or local economy innovators--are in two different movements that just happen to end up at the same rallies.

I'm sure I'll be blogging more about the book as I get further into it.