Publications / Essay


The whole question of nonviolence was taken by various people as being primarily a question of revolution or change or avoidance of war, but the more I reflect on the matter the more I see that it goes very, very much deeper.  So I will start talking about technology because what we stand in need of is to recognize the violence in our technology.  We are always prepared to react in a violent manner because we are very short-tempered.  We want to solve the problem immediately.  We normally solve problems by taking a sledgehammer and smashing it and then the poor problem explodes into twelve bits, and then we take sledgehammers to smash each of the twelve and again they explode.   The whole idea of nonviolence is to start living a nonviolent way, and the slogan of the organization which I set up in England twelve years ago, the Intermediate Technology Development Group, is something like, “It’s second class people who solve problems.  First class people don’t have them.” It’s much better not to have them in the first place.   As a highly intelligent person once asked, “When we see the connection, if an ancestor of long ago would visit us today what would he be more astonished at – the number of our dentists or the rottenness of our teeth?” We’re very grateful that we have these problem solvers, the dentists, but it would be much cleverer not to have rotten teeth.  There are whole populations that have perfectly good teeth.

The proposal of nonviolent solutions often attracts real hatred, real animosity.  For instance, if you say we can have a far more efficient agriculture without all these violent chemicals, then you attract to yourself great annoyance.  Particularly from academics, which is understandable because they have spent years and years learning about all these chemicals, the doses and the counter-doses and the poisons and the counter-poisons and then you come along and say we can do without all this.  But this violent technology is going to be our undoing unless we find some ways of correcting it.

For instance, in agriculture, chemistry is violent.  Biological processes are relatively nonviolent.  Some people say that diseases are biological processes, but we don’t mean that.  Nature on the whole is very benign, very well balanced.  If we understand what she needs and that all of the scavengers also do work, we can utilize weeds instead of killing them.  We can learn from the infestations because they are indicators that the scavengers have come to remove something.  Those who have developed this art of the nonviolent approach to the problem of growing enough food find that these problems don’t really arise.  There was a German gardener who established a garden on the grounds of a former brickyard.  There was no fertility whatsoever, but he built the fertility on his own and he offered any visitor one mark for every bug he could carry for the garden.  There just weren’t any.  These things can be done and have been done and are being done.  This is a nonviolent approach.  To be sure, it is not perfect, but I believe that nothing in this world can be perfect.

I will give another example of violence, perhaps the most horrifying.  We are prepared to get plutonium in order to get a bit of energy so that we can go on building rooms where all sunlight is carefully excluded and nothing can happen unless we burn energy.  We do this in order to be able to carry on with these absurdities, which we have indulged in at a time when our oil and natural gas was cheap and plentiful.  We are now prepared to produce plutonium and litter the world with this unbelievable ghastly substance, which is a danger to all living creatures for all time once it has been put into the world.  The Good Lord did not put it in the world.  We make it.  Then we say that science will make sure that this will never leak out into the biosphere.  Wonderful science.  They try to make us believe that from now on there will never be any earthquakes, no violence of any kind, no civil disturbances, no criminals, no schizophrenics who may pull the wrong lever, and therefore, it is quite alright to put into the world this terrible substance, a danger to all life for 3 million years after it has been produced by man.  So, there are many, many other examples.  This widens the concept of violence and of nonviolence beyond the purely political.  Let’s try to widen it a bit more into the philosophical, the very fabric of the modernistic way of thinking.

You know, something happened three hundred odd years ago in our intellectual and spiritual history associated with the names of Francis Bacon and René Descartes.  They suddenly turned round the very principle of Western civilization.  The principle of Western civilization was formulated by Thomas Acquinas, who actually himself was quoting Aristotle, namely that the slenderest knowledge of the highest things is more desirable than the most precise knowledge of the lower things. In other words, there was a vertical scale, and René Descartes came along and said that only such knowledge is worth having as can be absolutely precise.  The model for this was geometry and mathematics, which automatically confines attention only to the lower things.  Only these things can be mathematized.  But these mysterious factors like life or consciousness, or, at a human level, self-awareness, the kind of consciousness that recoils upon itself and thereby opens all doors, can never be mathematized.  They cannot be known with precision.  They can only be known to the extent that we can mobilize inside ourselves the quantities necessary for knowing.  So, there can be no question of complete precision, let alone measurement.  And this was the great moment when Francis Bacon said that, in the words of Descartes, we shall make ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.  “The masters and possessors of nature”: this is an entirely new attitude that previously no part of mankind had ever held.  Historically, we had looked upon ourselves as, in a sense, creatures.  But that we should have even the ambition to become masters and possessors – that is where the real deeply-rooted violence comes from.  Descartes already, wanting to be precise, said that animals are machines.  Then, of course, it only took 100 years before the next philosopher came along and said human beings are machines.  And when these ideas gradually take root in a civilization it doesn’t take very long before they are carried into practice.  We know we have carried the idea that, after all, animals are only machines.  We have carried this into practice with a vengeance.  They are machines to produce eggs or machines to produce meat in great animal factories – again, an example of the violent spirit that comes from wrong metaphysical positions.

Hence unhappily, because the modern age has perfected itself in the treatment of human beings as machines.  In our industrial system, human beings are means of production and technology is developed not from the point of view of what is the need of the human being to develop himself or herself, but where do we put the human being to speed up the process of production?  And, of course, if this could be mechanized, then we could do away with the human being.  All this stems from the loss of the vertical direction and the loss of any kind of an idea that life has any purpose but just to get through it in some manner that is not too disagreeable.  I believe as an ecologist that we will not get any of our economics straight unless we recover a sound metaphysical basis.  There is, I believe, in all human beings, a tremendous urge which can be smothered that is still there to rise above, above all the frivolities of everyday life, and that used to be symbolized by cathedrals rising up and by all sorts of myths and legends.  All this we have been deprived of increasingly since Descartes.  And now we still have to search, to rise above, and what do we do?  Send people to the moon.  The biggest monument in Moscow is a launching platform for space rockets.  We used to have launching platforms for souls and that doesn’t use much mechanical energy.  It conserves on natural gas for the soul to rise, but for a rocket to rise, that takes any amount of natural resources and non-renewable natural resources.  I am not joking.  These things are interconnected items, and to talk about conservation or ecology without making this connection is a waste of time.  The point is that there must be growth.  Well, having lost the consciousness of the vertical dimension, you say there must be economic growth; we don’t really know why or what, but we imagine that if there is more activity, that this is a good thing which protects us.  Although, we are at the end of an era, so that even your new president was able to say that more is not necessarily better ­–a very, very big statement.  One of the biggest statements made for 100 years.  Of course, it’s always been assumed that more is better.  So I wanted just to make the connection between this idea of nonviolence, which is normally treated as if it was just a matter of ethics, and show that it is also a matter of technology and that technology is also a matter of metaphysics.

The whole idea of sending people to the moon has to be understood metaphysically.  It is not good enough to say, “Well, we are just little boys and because we can do it, we must do it.”  No, we have a need for this upward movement and when we can’t do it spiritually, then we have to do it physically.  Perhaps this has spiritual consequences that may be beneficial.  These people have seen the earth from a distance and have suddenly become conscious that the earth is not as scientific philosophers have been telling us, just a cosmic accident, of no importance.  They have come back and they have said that we have seen the jewel of the universe, a thing of genuine beauty, and a thing all round and just as big as it is and no bigger.  We have visited other planets either in person or by photography and all that we can see is wasteland.  Horrifying wasteland.  Of course, we haven’t seen many of them, but those we have seen gave us a new view of the world.  Perhaps even the silliness of sending people to the moon may bring us back to the truth, because an operation like shooting people up to the moon is an operation that can only grow out of a very violent spirit.  We want to be masters and possessors also of the moon, also of the solar system; with all the fantasies that are being discussed about space colonies and all that, well, one has to keep one’s sense of humor.  I was asked what I thought about it and I said, “Well, you can have my list of people whom I would nominate to send, and I would even subsidize them.  But I’m afraid it won’t happen because this event is losing all sense of reality.”

The things we work with must have some physical existence.  That’s why we are on this earth.  The word is indeed the beginning, but it is not good enough to stay only with the word.  The Gospel, the fourth Gospel says, “In the beginning is the Word,” but read on, the Word has to come down, become flesh and dwell among us.  So the real question of all of us is, how can we first hear the Word, but then bring it down and make it flesh so that it can become a reality among us?  Therefore, we have to do something in the material world, and one of the biggest tasks in my group is to work toward the creation of a nonviolent technology.

Gandhi knew all these things instinctively with a sureness of touch, which is all the more astonishing the more you read of what he said.  How simply he said it!  He knew that nonviolent technology must be technology on a human scale.  We see the skyscrapers – this is the outcome of a violent attitude to everything and has a rather enormous economic consequence.  I spent two years as a young man in the United States, and for many decades when people asked me where I was born, I used to say I was born at the age of 21 in America.  But now I see how strange things are.  How, somehow, the scheme has gotten out of hand.  On the one hand, I find enormous skyscrapers.  And then on the other hand, enormous areas covered with one-story buildings.  That’s very strange isn’t it?  I mean, why can’t we have 3, 4, 5-story buildings as in the European cities?  If there really isn’t enough ground, why this on the one hand – ultra-human scale vertically (physically) – and on the other hand, again the horizontal expansion so that all cohesion is lost? Somehow we have lost touch with one of the fundamentals, namely, what is the proper scale of things?  And when the scale is wrong, then there is violence.  And very easily there is despair.  We have to prepare ourselves for a period, I won’t say it’s today, perhaps in the next 20 months but most certainly in the next 20 years, where there is an increasing fuel crush.  It won’t be a matter of exploitation but a matter of resources.  There just isn’t more than the oil that there is, and at the present rate of usage, it is not going to last more than a couple of decades.  Well, we can’t afford to come to the end of it altogether, so during thenext two, three decades we’ll have to be on a sliding scale learning to do with less and less.  Not to accept this, simply to pretend to ourselves that science will solve these problems, is nothing short of suicide.

Well, let’s return to Gandhi.  The essence of Gandhi as a nonviolent leader and economist is that he says, “I’m not interested in any mechanical or other appliance which is outside the reach of the people.  Bring me machinery, bring me the finest inventions, but they must be such that everybody has access to them.”  This is a nonviolent attitude and I wrote in my book, I think repeatedly, the very, very deep and brilliant saying by Gandhi: the anwer is not mass production but production by the masses. Now this must be understood in the West more and more deeply.

What is the difference between mass production and production by the masses? Everybody needs to be a producer, because everybody is necessarily a consumer, and if you are a consumer without being a producer, you are a sponger.  You are living at the expense of others.  You can’t have even your self-respect.  (I’m not talking about babies or the aged or the crippled.)  There are many sorts of arrangements where not everybody can be a producer or where to be a producer you must lower yourself to be tied to some little niche that you might possibly fill.  Then everybody becomes fearful and neurotic because of the alternatives.  I can’t be a producer because I’m unemployed.  I can’t find a job, or perhaps I’m not prepared to do the kinds of nonsense that they actually expect me to do, well, then I can’t lead a decent upstanding life.  It’s a terrible dilemma for me.

So Gandhi says we don’t need mass production, which is arranged by a few ultra-wealthy or powerful people and a technology that is out of the reach of the people at large.  It is so expensive that it can only be used by people who are either very rich or very powerful.  He wanted production by the masses – a relatively simple technology so that everybody can be productive.  And if you just quantify this, you will decide very quickly that the multiplier effect when really everybody can be productive produces wealth on a scale that the mass production society can never produce.  We have indeed efficient machinery which turns out the stuff, but the proportion of people who are actually productively working is getting smaller and smaller.  It is now so small that only a tiny percentage of our total social time is time that we all of us have together as useful for production.  With further and further mechanization and automation, that percentage is further shrinking, so that the joy of productivity and being creative is organized out of our society altogether.  Needless to say, all this is accompanied by theorizing that has suggested to most of the western world that actually to have to work is a bad thing, that the satisfaction of life can only be had in leisure hours.  Being in a situation where most people can’t enjoy their work because it is mindless and stunting is really pretty disastrous.  And this gives rise to all sorts of wild behavior.

Now to change the subject a little bit and make it a little bit more metaphysical.  There are three different levels: unity at the top, diversity in the middle, and uniformity at the bottom.  I’d like to associate these three words with some others.  Unity, if you take this metaphysically, can be called the divine or heaven.  Uniformity can be associated with the idea of hell.  And this is us here, this is the world, let’s call it Earth.  That is to say, the situation in our lives is one of great diversity and multiplicity, which is a very unstable situation and we have a very urgent desire to get out of this instability.  And we have two possibilities of seeming resolve, that is, whether to go up or to go down.  Now, a mass production society is a society that is built on the idea of uniformity.  This is a movement downwards because with uniformity and standardization you can only get at the lowest level, namely, of lifeless, mindless matter.

Industry is a consistent and systematic attempt to eliminate the living factor from what we are doing.  It is much easier in the textile industry to work with man-made fibers than with natural fibers.  Why?  Because the man-made fibers have total uniformity, whereas there is always an uncontrollability about anything living because there is an element of freedom in it.  So industrialists say, “Well, surely my part is to eliminate the living factor.”  The ideal is total automation.

It’s like a doctor I met in Africa who was studying a disease that comes from snails in the water.  They produce organisms that get into the skin and into the human body, and then out of the human body back into the snails.  The way to deal with the disease is to break the cycle somewhere.  And he says he’d come to the conclusion that it is impossible to eliminate the snails but perhaps it could be solved if we eliminate the human beings.  Then the cycle is broken and the disease will have gone.  Industry is a little bit like that.  They say we want goods.  We are interested in goods and we’d like to eliminate the human being because automated machinery can’t go on strike, it doesn’t indulge in absenteeism.  You have to organize the maintenance, but you don’t have to deal with beings who ask for higher wages and things like that.  So, this is the tendency of mass production.  Industry is forced toward uniformity, to eliminate life.  So it is a downward movement.  And, of course, it kills the human spirit.  If you ask a worker, “Do you like your work?”, then you are well-advised not to wait for the answer.  This is one of the reasons why we have worldwide inflation because people are waking up to the fact that they are being used and that there is no point in it except the weekly paycheck.  It’s rational, then, to say if I work only to get money, I must arrange matters so that I work less and less for more and more money.

But it may be a return to some kind of sanity to force management to reconsider that technology is dehumanizing.  So that work can be made more enjoyable, instead of simply saying, as the slave-owners used to say, “Oh, no, they don’t really mind.  They actually like it.  They are so moronic that the less they have to think, the happier they are.”

I referred to Descartes.  One hundred years later, we had a man called Adam Smith, the founder of economics, whose bicentennial has just been celebrated along with the bicentennial of the publication of his book, The Wealth of Nations.  There, he says that human beings are formed by the work they do, and if this work is totally mindless, the human being will become as mindless and stupid as it is possible for a human being to become.  He goes on to say that this is going to happen in all progressive societies and to the great majority of the population.  And he says that without batting an eyelid.  He doesn’t say that this is a great threat that will lead to total collapse of our civilization; he simply says that this is what will happen and, of course, it would be desirable for government to do something against it.  You won’t be surprised to hear that Marx took up this remark with a certain amount of vengeance.

Well, to return to these levels – the divine level of unity, our level, and the level of hell or the underworld of uniformity.  But you will notice already in the words that unity and uniformity sound very much the same and, hence, ancient wisdom says Satan was the ape of God.  You have to look carefully to see that the difference is a total difference, but the appearances are deceptive for those who have neglected their own spiritual culture.  Now, we can associate this with a few other ideas.  Namely, with the idea of quality and with the idea of quantity and here, of course, in the middle are both.  That is to say, everything that you encounter can be looked at as a quantity so much, so heavy, this or that, or as some essential quality.  We don’t know what you are all doing or going to do.  I started life as a statistician, but also I spent quite a few years as a farm laborer.  Well, when I was a farm laborer some 40-odd years ago my task before breakfast was to go and count the cattle, and then I would come back and touch my hat to the bailiff, “Yes sir, 32, they are all there.”  “Well”, he said, “run off and have your breakfast.”  One day, I arrived there and there was an old farmer standing by the gate who said, “What do you do here every morning so early?”  I said I was counting the cattle.   So he shook his head and he said, “If you count them every day they won’t flourish.”  Well, he didn’t know that I was a statistician in disguise.

Nothing really counts in our society unless it can be quantified.  And the things that really matter cannot be quantified.  In economics we have had a movement from economics to econometrics – great mechanical, quantified models of how things are supposed to intertwine.  It’s a total denial of humanity to approach a human problem in that way.

Now, I’m finally going to associate these concepts after the commercial drug has worked.  You see up here, where it’s a matter of quality, there you have nonviolence.  Quantity, pure quantity, is pure violence because there is nothing to respect.  There is nothing to be tender with.  There are just brutal facts.  There is no soul, there is no life, you are just a number.  This is the region of pure violence and, of course, on this earth, it’s a mixture of the two – nonviolence and violence.  Why is this so?  Because it has been arranged that the strain and stress force a higher level, a higher human level.

There are two classes of problems.  There are convergent problems and there are divergent problems.  Now what does that mean?  If you have a problem, namely, how to get a speedy transport on two wheels and launch this idea with a number of designers, they will come up with the bicycle.  You will see that the more they work on it and the more experience they gain, the more all the different answers of different designers converge until you have the final bicycle.  The bicycle has not changed for maybe 70 years.  That is a convergent problem, and a convergent problem can be solved.  And once it’s solved, we are the beneficiaries even if we haven’t taken any part in the work.  The problem of how to live in a dark room where sunlight is excluded can be solved by electricity and transmitters.  And once it has been solved you only have to operate a switch.  It makes no demands on you at all.  Now, if the whole world consisted of only the convergent problems, no doubt they would all be solved and we would have nothing more to do, and then turn into cabbages.  But this was not the idea.  So the Good Lord has mixed it with a large number of divergent problems which cannot be solved and should not be solved because the solution, I might use the terrible word, the final solution, is only with death.

A very typical divergent problem is education.  If you take equally intelligent people, and put to them the question, “What is the best education?”, one person is bound to say that it is the passing on of the culture of the society through the next generation.  And this can only be done in an atmosphere of discipline.  The little beggars have to sit still and receive it.  And another person with an equally penetrating insight says, “Now wait a minute, these little beggars are all different and you can’t force them.  You have to build a little ring fence around them and then put their roots into the culture and they will take up what they need and grow in accordance with their own laws and thirst and this can only be done in freedom.”  Both answers are correct.  But normally in logic we learn that if discipline is a good thing, more discipline is even better, and the most discipline is the best.  And then you get a school that is a prison house.  Freedom is a good thing and more of it would be even better, and the most of it is the best, and again you don’t get a school, you get a loony bin.  So, this is a divergent problem because discipline and freedom are, in fact, opposites, and there is no compromise.  Either the little fellow can do what he likes or he has to do what I tell him; there is no halfway house.  In politics we have much the same.  We have freedom and liberty and we want equality.  Well, if you leave things free, then things will be very uneven and unequal, and if you enforce egality then your liberty goes out of the window.  There was an intelligent Frenchman connected with the French Revolution who realized that this pair of opposites can be reconciled at a higher level, and hence, the slogan of the French Revolution was not simply the absurdity of having egality and liberty at the same time.  The concepts become reconciled if there is fraternity – brotherliness.

Now, how can I say that this is at the higher level?  How can I recognize it?  Egality can be arranged; it can be legislated.  Liberty can be arranged and be legislated, but fraternity is a quality of the human being.  It cannot be legislated and it cannot be synthetically produced.  It must come from every one of us out of our inner energy.  It is a higher thing.  Therefore, you can conclude that life has been arranged full of divergent problems.  When there are no solutions to the problems, we are continuously stimulated to rise to a higher level.  In this sense, nonviolence is the higher level.  We must not assume that we can achieve nonviolence on this earth, but we must remember that if we don’t practice nonviolence and aspire towards it, then assuredly we will sink down into violence.


Publication By

E. F. Schumacher

Ernst Friedrich Schumacher was an internationally influential economic thinker, statistician, and economist in Britain. His ideas became popularized in much of the English-speaking world during the 1970s. He is best known for his critique of Western economies and his proposals for human-scale, decentralized, and appropriate technologies. E. F. Schumacher was born in Germany in 1911. … Continued

Related Lectures

The Genesis of the Idea of a Community Right to Industrial Property in Youngstown and Pittsburgh, 1977-1987
Toward an Agricultural Ethic
The Economics of Permanence
The Radical Roots of Community Supported Agriculture
World Resources Trusteeship