Small is Beautiful, Schumacher, E.F.; A Book Review
E.F. Schumacher (1911-1977) is most famous for this book, although he did write others. While published in 1973 under this title Small is Beautiful it was not the title originally conceived by Schumacher, but was added as a last-minute afterthought by the publisher. The book’s original title and now its subtitle is the less engaging… A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, which was meant to express what the author intended. The book’s published title is misleading as it sings the praises of smallness, yet fails to adequately present its case.
Indeed, being a young adult during the 1970’s Back-to-the Land Movement, this book was not only presented as the pop-primer on small privately held industry and agriculture, but was, at least by self-styled Catholic intellectuals, the practical blueprint for the Distributism of the early part of the Twentieth Century. In fact, however, Schumacher is less influenced by the writings of notable Catholic Distributists like Chesterton, Belloc, McNabb, and others, but was predominantly influenced by the Buddhism he encountered during a stay in Burma, now known as Myanmar. It is essentially a polemic against Capitalist industry’s alleged brutality and its despoiling of the environment and of the human spirit; it is particularly a presentation against private ownership of the means of production and industry. He fails, however, in his attempt to produce evidence that small enterprises are of less strain on resources and the environment then large capital industries. After all, a small employee-owned steel mill needs the same iron ore, coal, and other essential mineral resources produced by mining, which the Greenies are so rabid about. Unfortunately, this book has not only come to represent, in some way, Distributism to those on the left, but also is wrongly the epitome of Distributism to those on the right because they’ve not read the works of the great Distributists of the early part of the Twentieth Century who’s concepts are truly based on Catholic Economics grounded on the great theologians of the past.
Although I had begun to read this work several times in fits and starts over the past two decades, this tome really should have been presented as two books, because the two thirds of the book essentially rails against man’s present predominant energy source, that is, carbon based fuels like oil, coal, and even wood. Schumacher goes on about peak oil and mentions nothing about the contrived effects of political and environmental restrictions on these fuels as a primary cause of the peak oil shortages rather than a real solution to dependence on fossil fuels.
To address his contention that much of the mindless repetitive work, of the assembly line, for example, is stifling human potential and creativity, I would agree, in that the human intellect craves more focused, mind-stimulating, and intellectually rewarding work. However this would apply more to earlier generations rather than the contemporary one due to today’s intentional dumbing-down of the populace and their affinity for mind-numbing entertainment pursuits and passive pastimes. Clearly, those of the younger generation, whose hours-long gaming, as they call it, have been conditioned to hours of repetitive, tedious, and mindless occupations. Indeed, most contemporary citizens no longer read an actual book for pleasure, knowledge, or entertainment, but only read when required to understand the current popular game or what is needed for a job. This is a tragic development which bodes ill for the future in terms of producing great literature because reading is the seed-bed for great writers.
While paying little more than lip service to Distributism the main thrust of his thesis is more of public ownership of the means of production, of at least fifty percent, (read nationalized ownership). This, however, is not revealed until the two final chapters of this book; as opposed to Distributism, which promotes the increase of private ownership of the means of production, whether as an individual or as employee owned. He also promotes government involvement in business at a national level rather than official regulation of business, if needed at all, at the more effective local level. This local level government involvement is called subsidiarity, and is a key part of Catholic Social Teaching.
His concept of “small is beautiful” was effectively formulated during the 1960’s, the age of revolution and rebellion throughout the globe, at a time when anti-Capitalist industrial gigantism, which had been the dominant trend for decades, became the target of Socialistic and Communistic agitation, primarily from the universities and colleges. This was also the period of time when industries were cycled out of a wartime mode into the beginnings of what has since become the New World Order, so the Socialist vision on national and international economics and culture fit in quite well with the fads of the day including this “small is beautiful” aspect. However, be that as it may, this concept of small is beautiful did not have the subsidiarity meaning of the Distribution that had come before, but was used to indoctrinate the useful idiots of the trendy 1960’s to actually implement the opposite in a new economic and social world order where larger and more remote leadership dictated the policies.
Schumacher was an economist who was born in Bonn, Germany and studied at Oxford University as a German Rhodes Scholar in the 1930s. With the rise of Nazism he fled back to the UK, only to be interned as an enemy alien during the war. After the war, he became briefly chief economics editorial writer for The Times (London) before he joined the British National Coal Board, a large organization where he spent most of the rest of his working life. He used the National Coal Board as an example of a big organization that had set up a number of “quasi-firms” within it. These quasi-firms, he said, had to have a large amount of freedom “to give the greatest possible chance to creativity and entrepreneurship”. Essentially, the Coal Board, (a subsidiary of which I coincidentally also worked for), was actually, in the upper echelons of management, still in control of all subsidiaries within it maintaining a “big company” management style to all firms below. This upper echelon, as with many European companies for which I have worked, including French and German, was ultimately rooted in the government ownership; effectively making them a Fascist economic structure from the get-go.
In conclusion, I would say his, Schumacher’s, vision is not one that is compatible with Catholic Social teaching, at least until Vatican Council II, and I would not recommend this book to any serious traditional Catholic. It’s billing as a “modern”, (if you can call 1973 modern), Distributist concept is completely and intentionally false to lure the unsuspecting Catholic who’s interest in Distributism was / is superficial at best. Truly I was immensely disappointed given the billing of this book as an economic justice approach akin to Catholic Social Teaching: it is anything but!
So now I go on to The One-Straw Revolution, a book by Masanobu Fukuoka, which, deals with small scale agriculture …another book I’ve been anxious to read for several decades as well. Hopefully I will not be equally disappointed. Expect a review of this book to follow at a future date.
Post Script… Interestingly, I’ve thought often of what Schumacher would think of the intervening economic and social times since his death in 1977, most especially, in view of bailouts and bail-ins of corporations, governments, and financial institutions and I cannot help but think that he is somewhere smiling at the progress of what could only have been his ultimate objective in this Small is Beautiful book, that is, a gigantic Fascist collusion of government and corporate interests … all for the good of the “little people”, of course! Clearly, this work is just another of the myriad Socialist smoke-screens set up to tickle the ears of the rebelliously ripe generation of the indulged 1960’s and 1970’s and is of no value whatsoever to Catholic Social Justice and Catholic Economics. Even if you were to find it a garage sale or used book bin for $1, don’t waste your time and money …pass it by!
Continue to pray the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as this review proves, the forces of darkness are working in all ways to end the order of Christ and His Church in the world.
Richard of Danbury, D.S.G.