Adam Lent has written a wonderful piece, Small is Powerful: Escaping the 20th century love of big power, on the end of “big business, big government and big culture”. The future, he says, is small. Smaller businesses, smaller state and a diffusion of power.
It’s written in that fine English tradition which grounds its radicalism in the past. Parliamentarians in the Civil War invoked Magna Carta and those who framed the Magna Carta cited the laws of Edward the Confessor. The idea that, somewhere a long the line, ancient freedoms have been curtailed by the powerful is a recurring theme in English history.
A Brief History of Big Versus Small
Our modern notion of individual freedom and rights was forged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the great liberal thinkers and movements of that era. But at the time these ideas were widely regarded not as a modern vision of the future but as answering an urgent need to protect ancient respect for diverse local practices, traditional constraints on the power of the state and an economy built around the agricultural smallholder and artisan. In fact, it was monarchical absolutism that presented itself as fresh and radical with its goal of placing all power in an efficient centralised state that would break with tired medieval ways, unite fragmented nations in a common purpose and secure economic well-being at a time of growing imperial conflict. The early assertion of liberal rights and freedoms were as much a reaction against this new wave of absolutism than a break with the past.
Ultimately, of course, liberalism gained the upper hand over absolutism by the middle of the nineteenth century with democracy, the rule of law, legal recognition of human and civil rights and free trade and the free market very gradually securing gains across Europe and achieving full acceptance in the United States.
But just as an ideology that had its origins in respect for ancient diversity, small government and the independent trader seemed to be on the rise, a counter-trend was slowly emerging that valued entirely the opposite. It would be easy to say that absolutism regrouped and fought back but that is too simple. This was the emergence of a new consensus around the value of concentrations of political, social and economic power which was both far more intellectually sophisticated, more politically complex and more deeply rooted in major technological and economic changes than the belief in the divine right of kings. And, as it would turn out, it would also prove far more ambitious.
This isn’t a history of Big versus Small though. The constraints on the medieval state’s power were the church and the nobility, in other words, rival concentrations of big power. The agricultural smallholder and artisan had very little power. Whether they were being oppressed by the king, the church or the local baron didn’t really make much difference. The Whiggish anti-monarchism which evolved into liberalism came first from the aristocracy’s resentment of royal power, not from a desire to promote diversity and protect the independent trader. Again, this was one form of big power confronting another.
The nineteenth and twentieth century didn’t mark a growth in big power. It’s true that corporate power became more concentrated as mergers created bigger companies but this was just a different sort of big power. Corporations grew and the relative wealth and power of the aristocracy declined, unless they too were canny enough to invest in the new industries. For the voteless worker, the small shopkeeper or the artisan, it just meant they had a different sort of master to whom they had to kowtow. There was a different type of chap in t’ Big House but it was still t’ Big House.
For the majority of people, things only began to change when they got big power of their own. Here’s Adam’s view, with mine in brackets:
Particularly on the left the notion took hold that the concentration of power and resources in the state would mean that working class conditions could be improved more rapidly, [they were] that the power of the capitalists could be matched more effectively [it was] and that the economy could be controlled to create the full employment and price stability that ordinary workers needed [well 2 out of 3 aint bad].
All over the industrialised world, it was big power, in the form of trade unions, mass reform movements and political parties that delivered the political rights and economic improvements that we now think of as making the a good society. Even where autocratic regimes granted workers rights and welfare, as in Imperial Germany, it was through fear of revolution and social unrest.
Big power, says Adam, began to decline in the 1960s.
Cultural and social conformity also began to fracture at this time. The 1960s had seen an upsurge of interest in alternatives to the stifling conventions of the post-war era but the real challenge came in the 1970s as those long disempowered and marginalised because of their ‘otherness’ – women, black, gay and disabled people – established forthright movements demanding the same respect, rights and freedoms as dominant groups. The long-term impact on people’s sense of themselves and their attitude to others of these early movements against concentrations of cultural and social power has been enormous. It is maybe unsurprising that it was during the 1970s that the decline in membership of the big civil society and political groups that had reinforced those concentrations began.
Two things to say about this. Firstly, you can’t blame the big 20th century government, corporations and trade unions for cultural conformity. Were conventions more stifling in 1958, 1858 or 1758? Read the novels of the periods and work it out. At least, in 1958, the money in people’s pockets gave them a few more options. That’s why the 60s happened as they did. And people had money in their pockets because the postwar big state, big corporations and big trade unions had helped put it there.
More importantly, though, big power didn’t decline everywhere. As Adam acknowledges, during the same period the concentration of corporate power continued. A Swiss study a few years ago identified a small number of companies with a huge amount of power over the global economy. Just as people were abandoning those institutions that had served them so well for so long, to ‘do their own thing’, others carried on amassing their power, leaving us with the imbalance we see today. Hardly surprising, then, that the era Adam describes as ‘Small Fights Back’ saw the decline of wages relative to capital, increasing inequality and a rising share of income for those at the very top. If small was fighting back, it was getting a damned good kicking.
The thing about big power is that it gets stuff done. The organisation and concentration of resources is what made rich countries rich (which is why places with lots of very small companies are poor). The countervailing power of unions and other social movements made the owners of these concentrated resources agree to share the fruits with everyone else.
Small might be very fashionable but small is not powerful. Furthermore, whatever Merrie England image you may have of autonomous yeomen and artisans, small has never been powerful. Small is only powerful when it gets together with others. Crucially, too, it only stays powerful when it stays together. Crowdsourcing and flash mobs might briefly unnerve the powerful but they are ephemeral. To maintain that pressure requires some sort of organisation. Our ancestors understood this. That’s why they formed trade unions, co-operatives and mechanics’ institutes.
Adam presents a rose-tinted view of a the pre-industrial past and of the last thee decades. In between is the late nineteenth and early to mid twentieth century which he sees as a dark period of big power. It’s a very strange stance for someone standing up for the small and condemning the power-hungry. Whatever its faults, during that period, wealth and power in Britain were re-distributed further than at any other time in this country’s history. It’s hard to Adam’s ‘Small Future’ delivering quite so much.