When he died in September 1977, the German-born economist/philosopher E. F. Schumacher had become something of a cult figure for his book, "Small Is Beautiful." His simple concept -- that technology and Human organization should be of an appropriate scale to meet the basic needs of humanity -- caught the fancy of million, from Gov. Jerry Brown of California to people who never read the work but found that its title embodied their own lifestyle and philosophy.
"Good Work," a new collection of Schumacher's essays and lectures, rejects speculation about what technology may do for us in the future and ask what human beings can do now, both personally and collectively, in the face of today's seemingly overwhelming problems. "The party's over and we have now to see what happens after the party," he wrote. For Schumacher, work is the answer, for work is "the joy of life and is needed for our development." By his definition, if this work is to be our salvation it should provide us with necessary and useful food and services; enable us to use and perfect our God-given skills; and, finally, help us to collaborate with others, to "liberate ourselves from our inborn egocentricity."
"Good Work" has many deficiencies, as would any collection of materials not originally intended to be published or read in sequence. Schumacher often rambled when he talked, lovingly drawing out examples. For these reasons, the text jumps around a bit, a disconcerting but not overwhelming failing. In a sense, "Small Is Beautiful" contained all of Schumacher's good ideas. But this latest elaboration of his thoughts is extremely readable, indeed often entertaining. Furthermore, "Good Work" gives the reader a profound sence of Schumacher as a thoughful, reasonable man, whose insightful observations about current problems stemmed from wide experience and an inner calm born of deeply felt religious conviction.
In parts of "Small Is Beautiful", in his sebsequent book, "A Guide for the Perplexed," where he detailed the philosophical and religious underpinnings of his analysis, and in the latter portion of "Good Work," Schumacher describes the moral principles he felt must constitute the ethic of the new age. Not surprisingly, these principles come from the roots of our Judeo-Christian heritage -- people should act as divinely derived beings and serve their neighbors. One can only hope that the moralizing tone of so many of Schumacher's passage does not alienate too many of his readers. The comparative commerical failure of "A Guide for the Perplexed" suggests that the more practical and anecdotal sections of "Good Work" may be the most useful to the public. Schumacher's charm and his ability to reach people come forth best in his easy storytelling style, when enables his readers to identify personally with his vision of a better world.
This discerning reasonableness shines through in a story he tells about a friend in Germany who had a splendid Mercedes. The electrical system had developed a small fault, and all the push-botton windows were stuck in different positions. The friend drove from garage to garage, but there was ono one who could repair the system, and all winter he drove around in an icy blast. Finally in the spring he found someone to fix it for $300. Was that a price worth paying, Schumacher asked his friend, so you don't have to turn the handle? To Schumacher, such stories of the tribulations of modern life are at the heart of his analysis of technology run amok, taking on a mind of its own and overturning our values and our priorities.
He appeals to his listerners and readers that mankind can and should do something about it. He scoffs at those intellectuals who say, "This is all very good, but in fact, you can't not allow it." he calls these "questions that are, as it were, tangents going into empty space . . . . We are always in danger of becoming too clever about these things and not noticing what we in fact can do, and the act of doing will keep us cheerful. It is quite amazing how much theory one can do without when one starts real work."
The pragmatic Schumacher did not live long enough to see how fully his words would be put into practice. Spiraling energy prices and rising costs for food, housing and other basic necessities have forced many people to turn from efforts to change the system to practical self-help tasks. In the United States, as well as in other countries, individual and collective self-help is a fast growing social movement. A combination of economic necessity and a desire to overcome personal isolation by engaging in meaningful, fulfilling work is leading many people to do more to help themselves, whether it's gardening, selfhelp housing or participation in a neighborhood organization. In the international development community self-reliance has become a watchword, as both the giver and the receivers of foreign aid realize that what is most reliable and often most successful is what people can do for themselves.
The question left unanswered by "Good Work" is how small-scale selfhelp activites will eventually transform an economic system based on large-scale social organizations and technologies that are currently interdependent to the point of debilitation. To be sure, "good work" that enables individuals and groups to become more phychologically and physically self-reliant can do much to change self-perception and attitudes about the rest of the world. Personal, creative work that people can become involved in can empower and embolden the poor and others who have been long disenfranchised. Through self-help activities, people can acquire skills through practice, not theory. These organizational and analytical talents are the tools of political change. Schumacher would add that even more importantly, such work can lead to a metaphysical reconstruction that can "bring clarity into our deepest convictions with regard to the questions What is man? Where does he come from: and What is the purpose of his life?"
These practical and philosophical advantages of good work notwithstanding, it is doubtful such efforts will directly lead to a more democratic political system or greater economic justice. It is difficult to use how even the most committed, well-intentioned work by isolated individuals will end radical problems, make capitalism less rapacious or socialism less authoritarian. But in fact, it may be the very lack of a coherent plan to turn society around that is one of the reasons Schumacher's writing has been so popular. As has been noted millions of people have been forced to, or have chosen to, control some basic aspect of their lives through self-help work. For the most part they have rejected large, impersonal organizations, high technology and alienating forms of work -- but with no greater goal in mind. Their purpose has not been to change society on a macro-level but to improve their own personal existence.
Unfortunately, in "Good Work," Schumacher makes no suggestion of how those engaged in individual selfhelp can link their efforts in order to achieve broad social change. The argument that a mosiac of individual efforts will somehow crystallize into a new pattern for society is less than convincing. However, he makes a compelling case that "good work" is an important first step. As the economic indicators worsen and the adverse side effects of inappropriate technology become increasingly apparent, more and more people can be expected to find some hope and salvation in practical self-help activities. And one does not have to read "Good Work" between the lines to realize that hope and salvation, not a new society, are what Schumacher was preaching.