The great economist and once my dear friend Leopold Kohr used to say that the answer to all problems was division, not amalgamation. He would use the example of an ice tray. If you tried to move an empty tray full of water across the room you’d be bound to spill a great deal of it before you finished. But if you use the dividers in the tray it would be simplicity itself without a drop spilled.

And so, he used to say, with most systems, mechanical, natural, or human. Books are improved by division into chapters. Homes are improved by division into rooms. Languages by being broken into many words, each with its own nuance. Parties are saved not by gathering into one big circle but breaking down into many small groups, increasing individual participation, each with its own particular interests.    

Battleships are made more difficult to sink by being divided into many insulated compartments. Airplanes are made safer by having several engines, and the entirety of it a composition of thousands of separate parts, allowing the whole usually to function even when a part here or there should fail. The finches of the Galapagos (that convinced Darwin of evolution) succeeded by dividing into fourteen different species, each with its own niche of food and cover, which would have failed had they remained one species all after the same prey.

And so too the human brain, evolved to be extraordinarily complex by being a composite of millions of little cells and synapses, dividing thousands of complex tasks and responses.

And surely the same universal principle applies to human constructs and designs, such as nations. “Division,” Kohr wrote in his masterpiece, The Breakdown of Nations, “represents not only the principle of cure but of progress, while unification…represents not only the principle of disease but of primitivism. In terms of politics, the only way of restoring a healthy balance to the world’s diseased conditions seems through the division of those social units which have outgrown manageable proportions.”    

There’s no place that division would not make things better. I don’t say utopian, just better. China, where the Uighurs could establish an independent Islamic state without doing any real damage to the rest of Beijing’s rule. Malaysia, where tribal and religious differences are strong and the attempt to hold them together produces neither peace nor pleasure. Libya, which has effectively disintegrated already and needs to be reorganized either into autonomous states or one Islamic and one nonreligious state. Ukraine, where the eastern pro-Russian section at least needs independence and some guarantee that the right-wing extremists of Kiev will not interfere. Nigeria, where the British created a country without regard to the realities on the ground, which would be better off if it were divided at least into Christian and Moslem states.

Oh, and I mustn’t forget, the United States. I worked for some years a while back for the dismemberment of this country, promoting secession here and there, without I’m afraid much success. Still, the idea is in the air as never before, which is a hopeful sign in a land where “one nation, indivisible” was imprinted in so many brains for so long. It’s true that these days most people are thinking of dividing the country along the lines of Red states and Blue states, and that would be nice to see, but there are also nascent movements in California, Texas, South Carolina, and elsewhere, and as the national government shows itself to be both incompetent and disregardful of civilian freedom, we should expect to see more and more of this sort of division.

I must bring the fact up here, lest people should begin to think that so many small states could never survive, that the most successful states in the world, by a great variety of measures, are indeed small, most in the range of 3-to-7 million people. (Indeed, 58 per cent of the world’s nations fall within that range.) Whether measured by per capita wealth, political freedom, health, happiness, or sustainability–and there are organizations that do all this–nations in this range rank at the top and have done so since such measures were first developed. For example, in a listing of richest per capita nations all but one of the top ten are under five million (that’s the U.S., ranking tenth, the others being Liechtenstein, Qatar, Luxembourg, Bermuda, Norway, Kuwait, Jersey, Singapore, and Brunei); the average size of those nine is 1.9 million. Quod erat.

Kohr concludes: “on a small scale, everything becomes flexible, healthy, manageable, and delightful, even a baby’s ferocious bite. On a large scale, on the other hand, everything becomes unstable and assumes the proportions of terror, even the good.” Does anyone really believe any longer that the United Nations, the World Bank, NATO, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, the European Union, the American Empire, or the Chinese Empire, together or separately, are really solving the problems of the world?

How could division not be better?

Image credit: “Water carriers of La Spezia” (1864), by Vincenzo Cabianca via Wikimedia

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  1. I have long argued that the United States is far too large to govern well. I think the nation could be better broken into 6-7 nations each with it’s own federal leadership, but all sharing a common currency and common defense. There are reasons this will never happen without a major catalyst to facilitate this kind of “division” of which you speak. Much has already been written on this, but I think a fresh perspective on this topic might be in order with the events of the last two years having unfolded. And those who think the current 50 states are autonomous … well, I will try to be diplomatic and simply call them unobservant.
    I would like to know of some of the other writers out there that people respect who call for a division of the U.S. and point me to some published pieces.

  2. “There’s no place that division would not make things better.”
    Well, that’s just silly. There’s plenty of places that have political dividing lines that are terrible, often they’re too big, often the lines are just in the wrong places, but it’s not a size issue but a location issue. The question is what scale do people really feel community. And that changes over time, of course. Texans really feel like “Texas” means something significant, from Houston to El Paso, but there’s risk that that could change, but it still holds. New Yorkers used to have that, but today do not feel like “New York” means anything, at least not anything that people agree on anymore.

    “Does anyone really believe any longer that the [long list of institutions that the US set up in the post-1945 world to entrench its Empire] are really solving the problems of the world?”
    No, no one does, and they’re all going to come crashing down in the near future based on the system’s unsustainability and contradictions.
    (Seems strange that “liberals” would have said that only a few years ago, and now don’t. “Actually, if I think about it, it doesn’t seem curious at all…”)

  3. Distributism is the future…. Whether it is climate change, water resources, or food production, the solution to the problems created by industrial scale can only be resolved at the level of community and individualism abandoned to create this alienating dystopian dependency.

  4. Makes me think of Christopher Alexander, who explains that all creation/creativity begins with division. Look at Genesis or the dividing of cells in the womb the moment after fertilization. Very interesting and compelling essay.

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