The modern world is dysfunctional because, in part, it is scaled for the convenience of machines and despots and not us.
Since publishing SDS (1973), his classic study of the radical student organization of yore, philosopher Sale (After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domination, 2006, etc.) has been much concerned with matters of local governance and autonomy, advocating the atomization of government to smaller and smaller levels of decision-making. In this book, a revised version of a polemic first published in 1980, he looks at all the ways that we work at the wrong scale. Big universities, for instance, rank low on the roster of scholarly achievement. “As long as what matters is ‘efficiency’ ” he writes, “…then American universities have certainly performed their function over the last two decades. But if it is education that’s wanted…then the large institutions that characterize this country may be said for the most part to have failed.” Just so, cities that grow beyond 100,000 tend to break down. As for bureaucracy? Sale coins a term, “prytaneogenesis,” to cover maladies wrought by government, which by rights should be solving problems rather than creating them. Because it is so broad, the author’s argument is often diffuse; Sale is at his best when, in good syndicalist spirit, he pushes for responsibilities as well as rights, as when he reminds readers that no government ever willingly gave up rights, which instead were won in rebellion and struggle, whether of colonies, unions, or individual heroes. By the same token, Sale is too credulous of altruism as opposed to government interventions: it is arguable that private organizations do better at blood drives than social service agencies, though the debate becomes moot when we consider that the Red Cross, a hybrid of the public and private, does the brunt of that hard work.
A provocative book with many points to ponder the next time you’re caught in traffic or on hold with the insurance claims department.