Small is Powerful

This is a very interesting book that takes a unique view of society and the difficulties it faces––still. It shouldn’t be confused with E F Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ which, when it was published took a new look at economics. However the similarity in title of the two books is matched by a similarity of subtitle. Schumacher’s is ‘a study of economics as if people mattered’, whereas Papworth’s is ‘the future as if people really mattered’. Clearly there is influence here, as Schumacher’s book was published in 1973 and Papworth’s in 1995, and there certainly was. Papworth and Schumacher were both in at the beginning of Resurgence magazine, Papworth having founded it in 1966. He is one of those clearly influential and original thinking people who we don’t often hear about now. From an orphanage childhood through various jobs including service in the armed forces to becoming an Anglican minister, his voice & activities became ever more radical. 

The essential thrust of the book is a single proposition: that morality is an aspect of human relationships and that direct human relationships can only operate in communities, which are limited in size to the point where, due to numbers, human interaction starts to become impersonal, and therefore profit and/or power orientated and ultimately amoral. It is a strong argument that is pursued relentlessly through the book, somewhat repetitively, but turned over carefully in different contexts and scenarios. 

Papworth is a man of strong opinions and a deep hatred of many aspects of western capitalist society current in the late twentieth century that we now often take for granted as a normal part of life, like television and the private motorcar. He regards these developments as aberrations, determined by the impersonal and therefore amoral values of big business, public institutions and mass politics. Like his rather flowery language and unbelievably long sentences, all of this has a slightly old fashioned ’socialist intellectual’ ring about it. His views can be looked upon as elitist and personally biassed judgements of popular techno-culture, opposite to what many currently regard as valid sources of our modern life style. But there’s more to it than that and every chapter of the book demands that the reader think again about what is good and what is bad in our society and where market capitalism is leading us at a planetary level. 

For these reasons, this is a quietly revolutionary text and should be much more widely known. It touches on some important truths regarding, for instance, the Luddites and the power of work as well as the causes of the seemingly inexorable journey into climate chaos and ecological disaster that most can see, but in the face of which, we seem impotent and incapable of taking the necessary action. Papworth’s view is that it is the scale of communication and operation that undermines our capacity to act. Smaller communities would, in his view, make better moral judgements and avoid the partial view that leads towards puerile mass entertainment and dependence on the private car to the detriment of our cities. Clearly there is an underlying morality here as well as a cultural preference and possibly overly highbrow outlook. 

The question is, are we too far down this road to ever contemplate turning back? The various challengeable institutions of current society are mutually reinforcing, so would be hard to deconstruct and there is, of course, a counter view. The sort of smaller face-to-face-possibility community that Papworth seems to envisage is anathema to many people who have chosen the anonymity of the city as their preferred way of life, freeing them from the prying eyes and moral judgements of overly active (interfering?) neighbours. They seek unfettered freedom with minimal boundaries.

In spite of these serious questions, the book is a very worthwhile read and the propositions put forward are, at the very least, definitely thought-provoking.

John Papworth, Small is Powerful, Praeger, first published 1995

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