Ralph Borsodi: Prophet of Decentralism

Bill Sharp © 6/25/20 

The core principle of Borsodi’s system is decentralism.  In brief, decentralism, as Borsodi wrote about it, addresses the issue of personal independence verses centralized authority, be it church, state or commerce.  It is the foundation philosophy about a lifestyle free of the influences of outside, coercive authority.  It is about achieving our potential as human beings.  The term “decentralism” was ubiquitous in the works of the School of Living and featured on the banner of its journals.  
Borsodi was a leader in a decentralist movement.  There were a lot of people involved and each had his or her own interpretation of what “decentralism” meant.  Borsodi had his own definition of the term, and he worked diligently to perfect his expression of the idea.  Reading through this chapter will give you a sense of where he was going.
Mildred Loomis, long-time association of Borsodi’s, called him the “Decentralist Supreme”.  Borsodi was arguably the most outspoken advocate of decentralism in the twentieth century, and his influence was widespread.  So was hers.  As School of Living Director of Education, she passionately promoted decentralism, and towards the end of her life she wrote her own book on the topic:  Decentralism:  Where It Came From, Where Is It Going?
Decentralism is a term rarely heard these days.  When a Google search can often produce millions of results, I found only 43,000 hits on “decentralism” (twice as many for “decentralist”).  Searching the word “independence,” I got over 300 million hits.  To a certain extent, the two ideas have much in common; at least on the surface.  
Centralized entities are tightly structured, rule-bound, and disaffirm individualism.  Ant hills and beehives are highly centralized social organizations; they have no individuals, save perhaps the queens.  Since the founding of civilization, both church and state have centralized authority, often absolutely.  Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia are persuasive examples of the dehumanization of massive centralization.  
Modern society, including governments, religious organizations and even schools at all levels are centralized and work to produce uniform (or factory like) “products.”  Corporations have highly centralized management, strictly defined corporate cultures, and have established an iron grip on the global economy.  Digital media is also a centralizing influence.  
Decentralism is a revolt against centralization in all its forms.  Decentralism is perhaps best defined in the words, quoted by Borsodi in his A Decentralist Manifesto, attributed to Henry David Thoreau, “That government is best, which governs least.    That government is best which governs not at all.”
The idea of decentralism has roots in the French Enlightenment and Revolution.  Its objective was the overthrow of the centralized authority of the Church and monarchy.  One of its leading proponents in France in the nineteenth century was Alexis de Tocqueville.  Tocqueville visited and then wrote an insightful book about American life at its peak of decentralized social and economic organization:  Democracy in America (1835).  It should be noted, however, that Tocqueville saw a trend in American democracy towards mob rule.  
There are a number of economic and political theories and social philosophies related to decentralism.  Many of these are written abstractly as academic performances.  Typically, they address “what ought to be.”  Borsodi painted a vision of practice, not just ideas.  His practical, down-to-earth vision of the ideal decentralized life was the self-sufficient homesteading community, a model he labored to the end of his life to establish.
Decentralism is not the same as decentralization.  Decentralization is a common organizational practice.  Banks decentralize into branches, the postal service to local post offices, retail outlets to malls, etc.  But all these little pieces are tightly bound to the hierarchy of the massive entities they represent:  There is one CEO and board, the pay checks all come from some central office and the products delivered from distant warehouses – in essence, a hive style.  
Decentralism is a way of life.  The ideal School of Living homesteading community is decentralized, or autonomous.  The people who form such a community are individualistic, self-reliant and voluntarily collaborate for the sake of the advantages of these small communities.  While these communities would likely engage in regional trade, they would be, as communities once were, largely self-sufficient.  This was the way it was before the advent of the industrial revolution, the railroad in particular, following which these self-sufficient communities, particularly in the US, became a part of a mass, hive-like, society.
The root of Borsodi’s decentralism was his personal practice of individualism.  He was self-reliant to an extraordinary degree.  Borsodi considered individualism an essential quality of being fully human, and without self-determination we cannot live up to our potential.  This came out in his idea of “normal” living in Education and Living.  Borsodi had a humanistic, you could say, compassionate, attitude towards individualism.  In a sense he reflected the ideals of Jefferson, Emerson and Thoreau, Nietzsche and towards the end of his life, his friend Abraham Maslow.  

The Individual as a Building Block

It should be made perfectly clear that Borsodi did not consider the individual an end but rather a means.  While he quoted Nietzsche, he clearly understood the limitations of his philosophy.  Borsodi was more inclined to the wisdom of Jefferson and Confucius.  Borsodi was in fact a strong advocate of family and a community builder.  He knew that a good society required men and women of character, with healthy personalities, who exerted a positive influence.  He described the normal, that is optimal, individual, family and community in some detail in his Education and Living[1]

The Road to Decentralization

During the 1920s, as he and his family established their homestead, Borsodi wrote three books critical of the American economic system culminating in This Ugly Civilization.  The first two volumes were pioneering works on consumer advocacy.  In This Ugly Civilization he made a definitive statement about a proposed program for an alternative way of life, laying out the foundation for both personal and economic independence.  He formed the School of Living five years later and continued to work to the end of his life on a revolutionary program of self-reliance.
This Ugly Civilization[2] was a response to what Borsodi called the age of hysteria that defined the beginning of the twentieth century.  He denounced, in a thoughtful and systematic manner, the ills of the age and called for a peaceful revolution, away from the ugly, urban-industrial life that had come to dominate American life.  His socio-economic context was the age of the Robber Barons who subjected workers, including children, to cruel living and working conditions with Scientific Management that literally reduced the human worker to mere cogs in the machinery of industry, and forced them to live in the squalor of cities built to support the factories.
If individualism is an essential quality of the healthy personality, what are the barriers to achieving it?  Borsodi’s indictment of the factory system can be seen in these lines:
“Now what has the factory done to the worker, and what is it continuing to do to him?
1 It relentlessly mechanizes the workman and reduces all workers, except the few "blessed" with administrative genius, to mere cogs in a gigantic industrial machine.
2. It decreases the number of workers engaged in productive and creative labor by reducing the number of workers required to produce things and by condemning the remaining workers to elaborate methods of flunkeying for one another.
3. It arrays worker against employer, separating capital and labor into two independent and mutually antagonistic interests, and inflicts upon society an unending succession of foolish and often bloody strikes.
4. It makes it almost impossible for individual workmen to be self-sufficient enough to develop their own personalities.
5. It destroys the skilled craftsman to whom work is a means of self-expression as well as a means of livelihood, by offering work only for machine feeders and machine tenders, thus making it more and more difficult for skilled workmen to find employment.
6. It creates workers without initiative and self-reliance, and fills the state with citizens who lack a sustained interest in public affairs and good government.
7. It transfers the satisfying of the economic needs of the worker from the home to the factory, robbing the worker, his wife and his children, of their contact with the soil; depriving them of intimacy with growing things--with growing animals, birds, vegetables, trees, flowers; and destroying their capacity for fabricating things for themselves and of entertaining and educating themselves.
8. It condemns not only the natural robot, but those capable of creative effort in the crafts, the arts and the professions, to repetitive work, because it leaves open no field in which they may exercise their talents and earn a livelihood.
Since those days the global economy has eliminated a majority of America’s industrial jobs and moved us to a “service” economy model; from blue-collar to white-collar, many of these jobs at low wages.  With the Great Recession of 2008, labor force participation, if not the official “unemployment” rates, declined to the lowest in over half a century – only some three in five in the labor force were working or looking for work.  The 2020 Crisis produced an incredible spike in unemployment in the second quarter alone, as social distancing closed down much retail trade.
The plight of the buyer is no better than the factory machine feeder and machine tender or office/store clerk.  The buyer becomes a shopper, or today, a consumer, who earns money to exchange for goods and services.  In Borsodi’s day most women were homemakers and they had become the chief buyer in the family; no longer performing the productive work their mothers had done.  Today it takes two incomes, both parents working fulltime, to acquire the stuff we are conditioned to want.  The economy is consumer driven.  We have lost our sense of “production.”  Indeed, “homemaking” is now a politically incorrect term.
In This Ugly Civilization, Borsodi moved from a thorough critique of the American urban-industrial dis-ease to a description of the advantages of homesteading life.  As was his way, he stated the problem and presented a solution.  It was not a theory but based on nearly a decade of conscientious practice.  Being a master cost accountant, he did the numbers for the economic advantages of home production of food and other goods, and his argument is compelling[3].
The real problem he found, however, was that of changing the mindset of the American public to make it receptive to a transformation back to a human-scaled life.  The mindset of the ugly civilization is what he called the “quantity mind.”  The quantity mind is about stuff; about numbers and dollars and cash flow.  It is driven by what we today know, in terms even clearer than in Borsodi’s day, as the financial industry, the source now of nearly 40% of corporate profits’ that is, profits on the trade of money[4], not of goods and services.  The economy is about the numbers.  Economists are “scientists.”
Then, in the age of print media and at the dawn of the radio age, advertisement was already working to condition people to work for money to exchange for goods others produced[5].  Ford at least understood that he had to pay his workers enough to buy the cars they built.  The radio was but the start.  Borsodi witnessed how television came to dominate the advertising world.  During his life, television was available on only a few channels and all of the stations went off the air at midnight.  He did not see the rise of the cable T.V., the personal computer and cell-phone world where indoctrination went to 24/7 and became personally targeted.  Indeed, consumer conditioning has become a highly developed science and art.  That science is expressed in a rapidly evolving field called User Experience (UX).  The consumer pays for that experience – more cost added.  Culture itself has become commercialized.  As such it has detached us not only from nature but from the roots of our own society.
The drivers of the commercial world seek, in Borsodi’s words, a mass or herd mentality -- John and Jane Consumer.  We must break free from both the herd mentality and the quantity mentality and develop “quality mindedness,” he asserted.  
Borsodi was realistic in understanding that not everyone would, could, or wanted to break free.  Psychologists, such as Erich Fromm in his Escape from Freedom, have documented this phenomenon.  Borsodi clearly saw that the tool for liberation from the herd mentality was education.  This is a view he shared with other leading minds of the day.  This was, remember, the era of the Populists and Progressives, two movements shaped by Jefferson’s ideals that a self-governing people must be a well-educated and informed people and that the farm was still the foundation of American life and values.
Borsodi put teachers at the top of the list of social leaders; not necessarily the person with a degree or job in education, but, indeed, those who were self-informed, well read, critical in their thinking, perceptive and aware that things are not as they should be, and who sought to serve their community by helping others learn, to become what was latter known as self-actualized.
Borsodi was seeking a revolution and a renaissance.  In his words:
Social changes find their genesis in three forces: (1) the forces set in motion by great natural convulsions--changes in climate such as those caused by the movement of the glacial ices--and which are independent of man[6]; (2) the forces set in motion by the efforts of ambitious individuals to sate their appetites for self or power--the forces set in motion by an Alexander, a Caesar, a Napoleon, and to come up to date, by the forces set in motion by the activities of a John D. Rockefeller, an Andrew Carnegie, a J. Pierpont Morgan; (3) the launching of new ideas, as for instance, the forces set in motion among men by the idea that the world is round; by the idea of immortality; by the idea of equality; by the idea of democracy.
It is the operation of the second of these forces that explains most of our social, economic, and political history. Quantity-minded men, in their struggles to sate their ambitions, have been able to impose their wishes upon mankind because of their domination of the herd-minded masses and the dependence upon them of the quality- minded individuals.
Let the quality-minded individuals free themselves from this dependence upon the quantity-minded and the civilization of the future will be built upon the basis of intelligent ideas of what changes are desirable in society and how it is most desirable to bring the changes about.
Borsodi sought to identify and describe the quality minds of his age and offered this outline, from the works of Harvard President and progressive educator Charles W. Eliot, of what the quality-drive person should take from his or her education[7]:  
1. An available body. Not necessarily the muscle of an athlete. Good circulation, digestion, power to sleep, and alert, steady nerves.
2. Power of sustained mental labor.
3. The habit of independent thinking on books, prevailing customs, current events. University training, the opposite of military or industrial.
4. The habit of quiet, unobtrusive, self-regulated conduct, not accepted from others or influenced by the vulgar breath.
5. Reticent, reserved, not many acquaintances, but a few intimate friends. Belonging to no societies perhaps. Carrying in his face the character so plainly to be seen there by the most casual observer, that nobody ever makes to him a dishonorable proposal.
This is an excellent concise statement of the values to which men of superior qualities attach importance. But it is most interesting as a revelation of what Eliot himself considered the "durable satisfactions of life."
In simple terms the difference between the quantity-minded and quality-minded person can be found in these two statements:
The quantity-minded react to how many; how large; how expensive. 
The quality-minded react to how fine; how unique; how beautiful.
The quality-mind person, I should add, is by Borsodi’s definition a self-sufficient homesteader.  He devoted several chapters in This Ugly Civilization to promote and describe his ideal of homesteading.  Only by freeing ourselves from the domination of the quantity-minded can we hope to achieve liberation.  Emerson called it self-reliance.  Abraham Maslow describe such a state as self-actualization.  
Maslow, in his hierarchy of needs, saw that the higher realm of attainment was achievable only when we are free from what he called the deficiency needs, the basic needs for which consumers virtually slave to acquire.  Borsodi understood there was a special quality of being to be working to meet the basic needs of life.  The values of the upper part of Maslow’s pyramid are found in the achievement of the good life at the lower levels.  Borsodi married means and ends.
Borsodi added chapters about the Barriers to achieving quality mindedness and how to overcome them.  Again, the answer is education.  One of the bright beams of Borsodi’s genius was his capacity to penetrate to the essence of issues, to achieve a compelling clarity of understanding – something radical - that Counterculture era sociologist C. Wright Mills would later call a “lucid summation.”  Mills said that the lucid summation, the product of the sociological imagination, provided not only clarity but the moral energy needed to affect change in a broken society.  


Building community is an immensely challenging undertaking.  Most “homesteaders” today are, in fact, at least marginally standoffish.  Both formal studies and practical experience tells us that many have the attitude of hermits to some extent - “just leave me alone.”  Very few, however, are remotely self-reliant and are, therefore highly dependent on the global factory system they, for the large part, despise.  Repeated efforts to build communes and communities have had relatively rare instances of “great success.” 
Americans are, by definition, highly individualistic.  Too often this translates into “isolated and alone.”  Alienation is a way of life.  A scattering of friends, perhaps; a communal association based on profound emotional commitments, rarely.  This is not a normal state of being for human beings.  We are social animals, tribal by instinct.  As Buddha said, life has no meaning without human association.  The practice of social distancing coming out of the 2020 Pandemic in many ways reinforces this isolation.  It is also producing new tools for remote connectivity.  We will have to wait to see how this works out in terms of community.
Our history before industrialization is one of communities, of Main Streets, of a sense of place and neighbors who cared for each other.  True, they had conflicts, but so does any family.  It takes deep emotional bonds to make a community work.
The failure of community in America, essentially the result of urban-industrial development, is arguably the greatest crisis of our time; building community continues to be one of the most challenging issues.  Unless and until we achieve a communal and agrarian reengagement, it is unlikely there will be any real prospect of building a better way of life.
Borsodi envisioned homesteading communities of 40 or more families.  He saw families as three-generation units with groups of between two and three hundred:  a village.  That happens to be one of those as yet not well-understood numbers that represent the scale of successful human social organization.  It is also the average number necessary to provide a division of labor sufficient in scope to assure a high degree of local self-reliance.
Since we no longer have the institutions around which a successful community can be formed, Borsodi proposed a School of Living as the center of the homesteading community.  This is not a school in any way like those we see today.  In Education and Living[8] (1948) Borsodi did indeed acidly critique modern education; and we’ve gone a long way downhill since.
In Education and Living Borsodi also continued his critique of centralization with a focus on how it has adversely affected public education at all levels.  This involves not only schools but “educational” media such as advertising, radio and TV, and social media in general.  
By then, following the carnage World War II, much of the world had witnessed the horrors of political centralization carried to an extreme.  Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan and just then emerging the People’s Republic of China, demonstrated how centralization could readily reach levels of not only completely annihilating individuality but also mobilizing the masses to commit acts of genocide on an unprecented level.  And, just at the time Education and Living came out, the world entered what would become a generation-long Cold War, a war with many hot and lethal conflicts in which more millions of lives were consumed.  The ideological issue was a centralized economy of communism versus the more open market economy of capitalism – tyranny vs. the free world.  And both sides had the capacity to utterly destroy human civilization.  
The post-World War II era also witnessed the rise of the multi-national corporation, business giants that transcended borders and regulations, with revenues larger than many countries and with a highly centralized form of organization.   Modern capitalistic multinational corporations have administrative structures that are, ironically, virtually indistinguishable from communist organizational theory. and differ from communist societies not in kind but in degree[9].  These corporations today dominate the world’s economy and have a huge influence on national governance.

The School of Living

The formal organization of the School of Living marked a turning point in Borsodi’s work.   As noted, Borsodi outlined a School of Living program in Flight From the City in 1933.  He had, by that time been working with prospective homesteaders for over a decade with several families coming out from the city on weekends to work with the Borsodis at Dogwoods.
The purpose of the Borsodi’s homesteading program was to help families improve the quality of life, but quality is more than homegrown food and fiber.  A “normal” human being requires a quality education not only in basic skills but in critical thinking and access to the world’s accumulated store of knowledge.  For those of us already “educated,” this requires reeducation.
In Education and Living Borsodi elaborated the model of the School of Living.  As noted, most of volume one consists of a critique of “mis-education.”  Most of that critique focuses on the problems of centralization; centralization of industry, the economy, politics and education.  He defined the idea of decentralization in these terms: “Decentralization … is not merely the opposite of Centralization; it is not merely the negation of Centralization.  It is a positive process.”  As he described it, decentralization is communitarian, cooperative, provides local autonomy in the governance of affairs and promotes personal freedom.  
Borsodi’s decentralization is not a political model at all.  It is first and foremost a model for development of human potential and the means to that end is education.  We need not a new state but a new state of mind.  The second volume of Education and Living explains Borsodi’s vision of achieving decentralization in detail.  The second volume is in two parts: “Right-Education” and “Re-Education.”  It explains how to educate for the “normal” human being and for achieving the “normal” way of living.  This is not the “normal” of the bell curve, the average of a population.  This is normal in terms of what a human being is innately capable of.  It is not the “normal” of “the noble savage” but the norm of a person whose capacity for life, whose capacity for action, has been nurtured by education and training for life; who is the product of a School of Living.  Volume two provides an insightful description of what and how a person of high individual and social potential can be developed.
Borsodi developed a university program to support his educational system during the 1950s using Education and Living as a textbook.  During this period, working with a group of dedicated supporters, he developed and refined his problem-centered system, which I believe was an important phase in the progress of his system.
In The Education of the Whole Man (1963), in a sense Borsodi’s master text on his educational model, he outlined what he hoped would be a sequence of volumes, each devoted to one of the major aspects of human life; in short, a detailed outline of the curriculum of The School of Living.  That book, in fact, I learned, was the text for the problem of education.
Borsodi wrote The Education in India, drawing in no small part from the example of Gandhi.  Borsodi proposed his curriculum for the elevation of men and women most receptive to uplifting the human race who in turn would become the teachers in their own communities.  This was Borsodi’s model of leadership:  the teacher.
There are four qualities, he said, that distinguish this natural leadership:  
1.      They are thoughtful.  They have not only learned but seek to penetrate and understand what they have learned.
2.      They are concerned.  They realize this is an age of crisis and personal involvement in addressing the issues of that crisis.
3.      They are courageous.  They are willing to struggle and sacrifice for the cause of human advancement.
4.      They are dedicated.  They are devoted to achieving something of greater than personal scope
Just after he arrived in India, Borsodi’s Gandhian friends asked him to write his “Panhumanist (Decentralist) Manifesto” (1958).  In this pamphlet Borsodi outlined his philosophy of life centered on decentralism, starting with these lines:  
A new world is being born. 
If this new world is to be a better world than the one now dying and to make possible a fuller fruition of the human spirit, then it will be very different from the Capitalist world of today, and different from the world which the dictators of Russia and China are providing, and different from the Socialist world into which most of the world is now drifting. 
Concerned and thoughtful men and women are challenged to arrest the present drift and drive into a mechanized barbarism, and to contribute to the birth of a world in which persons will be free to realize their potentialities as creative beings. Such leaders must have the courage to assert themselves and must discipline themselves to think about all the institutions essential to such a world. 
The pamphlet is in three parts:
1.     Humanization and Social Renaissance
2.     Political Liberty
3.     Economic Justice
It begins and ends with a call for leadership, a leadership not of warriors, kings, priest, politicians, businessmen and financiers, but of “concerned and thoughtful teachers,” writers, artist, poets and even men in women in professions who “consecrate themselves to the search and realization of what is true, what is good, what is beautiful.”  In short, the quality minded.  Above all else these gifted people must teach.
How we achieve decentralization is through education, learning, and moral re-education.  It is also about how to revive the small community and how the small community is nested within the larger human social system; an ethos Borsodi called “pan-humanism.”  All human beings, all around the world, he asserted, have the right to a quality life, to a just and secure form of life that is denied them by the predatory practices of established and dysfunctional urban-industrial social institutions.
As noted above, Mildred Loomis published her own work on decentralism:  Decentralism:  Where It Came From – Where Is It Going? (1980).  In this book Mildred gave a short history of decentralism but focused on where the School of Living was taking the idea.  There is some wonderful history about the School of Living and its role in the decentralist movement of the day.  This was written just as the Counterculture, a movement Mildred was named grandmother of, was ebbing.  It was the dawn of the Reagan era and the globalization of the American economy.  

The Rise of Centralism

There is a story about how we got to centralism that is instructive.  It tells us a lot about the various ways people have found to live on the Earth.  It starts with the appearance of the first of our kind some 200,000 years ago in Africa.
Over the course of 190,000 years, human society consisted of hunting bands and tribes.  There are still aboriginal people in many places around the world who live in this fashion.  These societies exhibit a high degree of social cohesion.  There is typically a chief/elder, a shaman and a council.  Tribes are necessarily small and rarely exceed a few dozen members.  There is often fierce territorial competition between these roving bands.  The chief occupation of men is hunter/warrior, their job is to kill game and enemies.  They use the same basic tools (weapons) and organization skills for both tasks.  The purpose of such a society can be defined as survival.  To achieve this, nomadic groups, evolving over eons, have settled into what is essentially an iron-bound structure.  The American Plains Indian societies represent one of the highest achievements of nomadic tribal organization[10].
About ten thousand years ago, following the end of the last Ice Age, a new way of life appeared which involved staying in one place, planting crops and domesticating animals.  With agriculture, tribes settled into villages.  Villages are groups of up to a few hundred persons.  Society was still organized around chiefs/elders, councils and the shaman became priests.  The early village was essentially autonomous.  While they had new tools for tillage, they often foraged, fished and hunted.  They were armed with clubs, spears and bows to repel hostile invaders, typically nomadic groups.  They too had exceptional social cohesion.  They too served the iron-bound moral imperative of survival.  There are still millions of traditional villages and small towns around the world today, albeit caught in the web of modern industrial society. 
Village culture was a very successful way of life.  Agriculture produced surpluses of food and populations grew and villages proliferated, and inevitably cities emerged.  City cultures appeared spontaneously in six places; four in the old world and two, a bit later, in the Americas.  It took a lot of trial and error over thousands of years for villagers to learn to form these first cities.  Early cities (and most cities throughout the history of agrarian civilization) were places of only a few thousand people.  
The city was to change the nature of human existence in a dramatic way[11].  Though still small by modern standards, those cities were vastly more complex than village societies and the need for social organization far more demanding.  They were ruled by kings and priests and authority was more formalized than before.  They required professional classes of administrators and soldiers.  Writing and cyphering were invented to establish control of complex activities.
Our modern economy developed in these early cities.  So too did social stratification, laws, bureaucracies and an increasingly hive-like culture.  Ninety percent of the population worked on the land and supported those who lived in the cities.  The farmer, at the bottom of the pyramid became not the foundation of society but a lower class.  
With a surplus of food, trades and crafts developed and with them a division of labor which defined scores of different forms of livelihood that became essential for civilization, created a sophisticated economy, and required more exacting control.  As cities became kingdoms and empires the level of authority necessary to maintain and defend them increased dramatically and they became increasingly rigid.  Elaborate systems of laws were enacted and death became a common penalty for breaking what we would consider today relatively minor infractions.  We call this phase of social evolution “civilization.”  In history books, civilizations are typically great empires, such as Rome, but there were hundreds of smaller civil societies around the world.
The city introduced rigid hierarchy into social organization.  Villages were essentially egalitarian and self-ruling.  Cities were far more complex and far less personal.  Rulers emerged who based their authority on raw power.  Conflict between city states became widespread, and farmers were forced to seek protection from the king and his soldiers because of marauding nomads and later from competing cities.  The dependence was mutual but asymmetrical.  
In addition to professional soldiers were the professions of priest and scribes and the birth of bureaucracy.  Kings and armies and temples needed money; merchants who had the money gained a certain power in a class somewhere between peasants and the nobility and later in the nineteenth century when they began to displace landed aristocrats.  From the beginning of the city we see those who produced being reduced to a subservient class and those who ruled, and commanded wealth, rising to the top of the pyramid of society.  That’s not a political statement; it is just history.  Borsodi believed the dominance pattern could be extinguished by a return to an agrarian life, much as had Jefferson, Emerson, and Gandhi, and he provided an extensive framework for achieving that. 

American Agrarianism

Throughout the course of civilization, the vast majority of people lived and worked on the land.  It took a long time before the farmer – often a peasant, serf or even slave – became the American ideal.  In North America, and particularly the protestant British colonies, far from the centralized authority of church and state in Europe, the freely held small farm became an honorable way of life, at least in the northern colonies, while aristocracy and slavery dominated the southern colonies.  
By the time of the Revolution, which was a revolt against encroaching centralized British authority, a free, democratic, agrarian culture was securely in place in the American colonies.  With the American Revolution, the farmers became the soldiers, and the English tyrant and his armies were sent packing.  Well into the twentieth century the agrarian ideal was the bedrock of American character.  The bulk of Borsodi’s personal philosophy came out of this period of American culture.  It was during his lifetime, however, that industry finally came to dominate the economy and undermine the agrarian way of life; the values of life on the land faded into history[12].


Following the American Civil War (the first industrial war), our industry and cities grew to gigantic size. Railroads and telegraph lines stretched across the continent.  In barely a lifetime the vast wilderness known as the American Frontier was settled and the pioneering, agrarian, era drew to a close.  Until the industrial revolution, economies were by default highly localized.  Transportation, and work, was muscle-powered (wind at sea).  Then came steam power, and from steam, we quickly moved to electricity and internal combustion; from horse and buggy and oil lamps to automobiles, airplanes, electric lights and home appliances, telephones and radios.  Life became increasingly more complex and interdependent.  Many Civil War veterans lived to see this transformation.
Big industry and great cities were twinborn.  Centralization as we know it today is a product of urban industrialism.  The very idea was anathema to rural farm folk.  When the American Republic was established, closer to the Jeffersonian and New England ideals, government was carefully restricted.  With industry (ironically since it resists regulation), came more government.  The proponents of economic growth, the Federalists, wanted stronger government for the very purpose of advancing industry.  State supported central banks were established to mobilize vast sums of capital and a national monetary system.  Growing cities required huge bureaucracies to keep services going.  The Federal government slowly grew but then became more centralized during the First World War and vastly more so during the mid-twentieth century.
Industrial distribution networks demanded exacting organization and careful timing.  The standard time zones were introduced in 1883 to coordinate transportation across the continent (along with the standard gauge railroad track). Time zones spread around the world to facilitate global commerce the following year.  England with its vast merchant marine and navy, became the baseline of the global time system.

The Decentralist Response

The decentralist movement was established early in the 19th century in both the US and UK and steadily grew over the century.  The Populist and Progressive movements, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mobilized massive sympathetic support for agrarian values.  But it was a losing battle.  Borsodi became a leading champion of decentralism just as the US New Deal administration launched the most massive program of centralization in the history of the country.  But that was only the dress rehearsal for the quantum leap in centralization that occurred during World War II.  Bureaucratic authority has steadily grown since.  Business corporations have also grown into massive bureaucracies.  Today, digital technology gives these authorities intrusive and almost instant influence over every aspect of life.

Borsodi in a Nutshell

I have been trying to present Borsodi in, as they say, a nutshell.  I’ve described the shell, but I’m not sure I’ve yet got the nut.  The question remains, just what was Borsodi’s personal philosophy?  As noted, Borsodi was a very private man.  Little is known of his personal life and his deeper thoughts.  He didn’t, as far as I know, keep a journal.  His letters are businesslike.  He rarely expressed his private thoughts.  His written legacy is programmatic, not philosophical.  Mildred Loomis, his closest associate for over 40 years, probed this question in her biography of Borsodi.  She listed authors who she knew influenced Borsodi, some from the distant past, others from the founding of the American Republic, many related to educational and economic innovation.  She described his works and writings, but she was never able to articulate his personal philosophy; however, it is clear that decentralism is the foundation.  
I think the root of Borsodi’s philosophy is a principle even deeper than decentralism:  it is Individualism.  It is clear to me that he was a radical individualist.  He was independent from the age of 15, living in his own apartment and earning a living.  He shunned school and preferred the library for his education.  He surrounded himself with books and read them intensely.  His pioneering homesteading was not only the back-to-the-land hallmark of self-reliance that inspired many, but also a declaration of his own independence.  He clearly exhibited the qualities that Emerson called “self-reliance” and that the celebrated humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow (and they were friends) called “the self-actualized personality.  “He was, however, not withdrawn; he was a humanist and an organizer and a leader.  He devoted a long and productive life to projects that had the singular intention of liberating individuals and building a livable society.  
Is anarchy part of this model?  The short answer is no.  If anarchy means disorder and protest against established political regimes, it is not a part of Borsodi’s vision.  Anarchy as a political-economic theory has a historical association with violence.  The objective of such revolutionary anarchy tends to be a socialist, centralized, state.  Today anarchy is associated with survivalists, preppers, doomsters, and the like, and there tends to be a lot of guns and talk of violence and definitely anti-communitarian associated with them. That is definitely not a part of Borsodi’s vision.  He was communitarian to the core and, as we shall see, a man of peace.  In his view, the good life comes through voluntary collaboration among psychologically healthy people.

Free America

In 1937 Borsodi and friends Chauncy Stillwell and Herbert Agar started and edited the journal Free America.  As I will relate elsewhere, there was a considerable distributive/decentralist movement in the US and UK at the time, and Borsodi quickly became a leader in this movement in the US.  When Stillman and Agar went to war (both were Navy Reservice officers) Borsodi continued Free America and started a School of Living journal named The Decentralist.  Following the war, he and Mildred Loomis started a new journal, The Interpreter, which continued to support the decentralist position.  It eventually absorbed the Free America mail list.  It was also the platform for Borsodi’s problem-centered education philosophy.  Issues and articles were classified by the universal problem they addressed.

The Individual and The School

The other core aspect of Borsodi’s work is a distinctive style of education.  Borsodi, as noted, was self-educated.  Although he was awarded Masters’ and Doctorate degrees and founded a university, there is no evidence that he ever attended college, and there is some doubt he even graduated from high school.  Those who met him, including renowned scholars, remarked on the breadth of his knowledge and understanding of literature.  His writings clearly illustrate a well informed and retentive mind.  
I don’t think Borsodi intended to leave a philosophical statement.  That would be essentially counter to his idea of individualism.  He sought not to inform others but to motivate them to ask the questions, to read, to dialog, and to form their own individual views of life.  He sought to motivate them to a life dedicated to self-reliance, self-sufficiency, an unassailable self-esteem and service to the uplifting of humanity.  This was to be accomplished through a systematic program of re-education.  He had a detailed and well attended seminar program.  
His problem centered, adult, self-education, is about removing dependencies in life.  It is not an academic or scholarly pursuit per se.  It is about learning how to live well.  While he had a powerful intellect, his interest was always focused on the practical problems of living.  
I find Borsodi’s School of Living model very carefully thought out.  There is far more to it, as I probe into the depths of the thinking it was built on, than meets the eye.  I believe his decentralism involves two ideas:  The first, as mentioned, is the individual, who is the product of the second element, the “school.”  I want to convey something vital in the relation of these two ideas.  Both are stories about the human essence.  Both inform our vision and give us purpose. Let’s go a bit deeper into the idea of the individual first.

The individual

Decentralism is about the institutions that govern society.  It probes the question of how little governance, which translates into coercion, is necessary to maintain a stable social order.  Norms, or rules, define the structure and function of a society or of an organization.  The question is, how much structure do we need?  If we do not wish to have rules and coercion, we need an alternative framework to make community work.  For centralized organizations, the rule is imposed from without.  For a dogmatic religion[13], the rigidity of a monastery or seminary is necessary to shape the norms of congregations.  If we are not self-reliant, we get controls.  For a truly free society, it is a different matter.  For the “Normal” human being, social order must come from within.  
Our individual uniqueness is inescapably inherent in our DNA and in our personal consciousness.  The biological feature that defines us is a highly evolved brain with a complex cerebral cortex.  What defines us behaviorally is that we are intensely self-conscious, and we have an extraordinary capacity for language that allows us to think as no other species we know can do[14].  
Individualism as we know it, found in democratic society, is a very modern expression of behavior.  It took a long time to develop this ideal.  The European Renaissance and Enlightenment laid the groundwork.  The fruition of the idea came to modern form for the first time with the creation of the American Republic.  Our Republic has a system of laws that guarantee individual liberty to an unprecedented degree.  We have developed a large literature and practices for self-development.  But it is a constant struggle to maintain personal liberty.  
Even in democratic society we have created levels of government from town to county to state to national; each defining the political context of increasingly larger groups of people.  Each level is defined by the authority of the larger governmental entities (counties, states, national), for example, local ordinances must be in compliance with state and national law.  Government administrative structures, rule-bound bureaucracies, have become larger, more complex and less flexible.  Industrialization created a higher level of standardization.  Our culture has been “homogenized.”  
During wars, and during the Great Depression, national governments took control, and massive government has since become the norm.  There are those who believe that the solution to the world’s problems is to form a world government, representing even more massive centralization and complexity, to subordinate national governments.  Massive corporations control the economy and digital technology culture, and the schools standardize the formation of young adults.  The young around the world are, through school and the digital media, becoming more identified by age than by place of birth.  Developing countries, as Borsodi warned, are becoming economically and culturally standardized.  In short, as centralization continues we become increasingly more dependent and thus less individual.

The Dark Side of Individualism

Individualism has a light and dark side, several dimensions of this in fact.  Some of these traits are perhaps genetic, but many are learned.  On the dark side, individualism can be expressed as egoism, self-centeredness, selfishness, hedonism, and narcissism.  There are sociopaths and psychopaths.  And there are those born with autism who lack, in varying degrees, a capacity for emotional or empathetic attachment.  
Modern science has cast doubt on our capacity for individualism.  In psychology, Freud proposed that there is a deeper and darker layer in the psyche that dominates personality.  Behaviorism does not accept the idea of a thinking and self-determined mind.  Darwinism, and more modern forms such as social biology, interpret human behavior in terms of raw animal instincts.  Not all cultures or political systems accept individualism.  Some sociologist, historians and philosophers have voiced disdain for individualism and/or democracy.  Marx, for example, placed historical determinism over individuality.  Spengler predicted a dark future of society reverting to a feudal form of rulers and virtual slaves.  Nietzsche and Carlyle had no use for democracy – they championed aristocracy.  Alexander Hamilton favored a plutocratic aristocracy for the new American Republic.  Periods of severe social instability turn people towards authoritarian figures, and we are seeing that today in the US and elsewhere.  Erich Fromm, in his Escape From Freedom, made a psychological study of how people flee the responsibility of individualism.  Hoffer, also noted above, wrote of the role of the loss of individuality, of meaning and purpose in life, as the root of mass movements.
The dark side of human nature is not really a new story:  it is found in the ancient religions and it is given graphic expression in Manicheism, Zoroastrianism and the Hindu sagas – the struggle between light and dark, good and evil.  Christianity gave us Satan and his demonic hoard.  Christianity considers “man” as a fallen creature, most of us doomed to eternal damnation.  In a sense, science and religion can be in agreement about a baser quality of human nature.  

The Bright Side of Individualism

Humanistic psychology, on the other hand, has given us a literature and practice for developing the healthy personality.  From Emerson to Maslow we have a profound literature about self-reliance and self-actualization.  There is something here that speaks to an essential quality of our humanity.  But it is a still, small voice that is easily lost in the clamor of modern life.
We are also a social species, indeed one of a very small class with a highly evolved instinct for society, a class of only 19 species, out of millions, which E.O. Wilson classified as eusocial.  Such species are instinctively unselfish towards their own kind, or at least kin.  We are the only higher form of life in that group, and we are the only species that can choose to be otherwise.
Our social instinct is profoundly reinforced by our distinctive capacity for language.  Language gives us the capacity for self-awareness and unprecedented powers of communication, but language is a social phenomenon.  Individually and collectively we have an extraordinary capacity for learning, for defining and solving problems, and for passing on what is learned from generation to generation.  We thus have the unique capacity for a rapidly evolving synthetic society.  The flip side, however, is that, as we detach ourselves from the natural world of which we are a part, we lose something essential in our being.  Borsodi, in going back to the land and forming healthy families and healthy communities, sought to reestablish that essence.  We also have a unique capacity for self-deception.  As the Red Queen told Alice, “[S]ometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
There is a paradox in the two sides of our nature:  a profoundly social species that is individualistic to the ultimate extreme.  That paradox has troubled us throughout human history.  But this is a yin-yang symbiosis that has slowly evolved our society to modern form.  It took thousands of years of cultural evolution to make us who and what we are today.  Emerson, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Jefferson and Paine, Franklin, George, Gandhi, Maslow, Borsodi and a host of others worked diligently to promote, and increasingly to preserve, individuality as a birthright.  But we have just begun, at least I hope it is begun, to transform ourselves into a more humane state of existence.  To do so requires a new form of education.
Healthy individualism is harder to explain than pathological behavior, but it seems to be associated with a commitment to larger ideas, which is to say morality.  These include justice and fairness.  This rational moral imperative distinguishes the healthy from the unhealthy individual.  It appears to be learned behavior.  

Is Individualism Cause or Effect?

The movement towards individualism is a delicate balance.  We need to better understand the forces behind this process.  I think the most important question we need to ask is whether individualism, as we know it today, is a product of the evolution of society towards democracy; or is it a product of the breakdown of normative order?  To put it another way, did the Enlightenment, for example, which opposed the authority of church and state, facilitate the decline of the old order, or was it the product of that decline?  
Individualism first appeared during a period that historian Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, more or less 2,500 years ago.  The concept of the individual appeared seemingly spontaneously across the then known world from Europe to Asia.  A new literature emerged with the Greeks in the west, to the Hebrews, Zoroastrianism, the Hindu Vedas, Buddhism, Lao Tzu and Confucius in the east.  These philosophies and religions defined much of what we think today.  Each sprung out of a time of trouble, during a breakdown of their respective societies.  That they all occurred over the course of a few centuries is intriguing.
I will argue that the decline of the European Medieval order made individualism an imperative.  It started about the time of the Renaissance.  Individualism as we know it today, is a new state of consciousness and, as indicated in the evolution of human society, one that is not in accord with our preferred state of being which is intensely communal.  Freedom, and the responsibility that goes with it, the consequence of self-choice, can be frightening.  Relatively few readily embrace it.  We are steadied in our growth when guided by those who have made progress in this direction; that is, through the agency of teachers and mentors.
While the Enlightenment, which defined much of modern individualism, may have challenged their authority, church and state were in fact already in rapid and irreversible decline.  Leadership, both sacred and secular, was failing — and continues to do so.  The type of community that defined the tribe and village, from ancient times through the Middle Ages, was disappearing.  Early twentieth century sociologists, humanists and agrarians lamented the loss of communal values in Europe and the US.  The existentialists following World War II expressed it.  Established communities, from rural towns to urban neighborhoods, went into dramatic accelerated decline toward the end of the third quarter of the twentieth century.  Postmodernism, the philosophical movement of the late twentieth century, echoed this sense of despair and nihilism.  This trend is continuing into the 21st century.  It has left us increasingly adrift and disillusioned. 
Personal freedom can be a terrible burden.  Individualists are required to choose their actions and embrace the consequences for themselves.  They live on the edge of the law, so to speak, always on shaky ground.  Social capital, which comes out of our instinct for cooperation and interdependence, is rapidly declining.  People feel increasingly powerless in an era that is becoming progressively complex and chaotic[15] and the institutions our forbears relied on have clearly failed.  This is overwhelmingly true of government and of religion.  Many, indeed, now turn in desperation to individualistic, “designer,” forms of exotic spirituality and even Christians have increasingly chosen to be unchurched and craft a religion of their own, describing themselves as “spiritual beings” rather than “religious persons.”
It is clear that the defining feeling of the age is alienation, or anomie, a term that means “without norms,” or more precisely, a condition of society that provides little moral guidance for individuals.  Over a century ago, Durkheim coined that term in his classic study of suicide.  He attributed it to industrialization.  People in modern society, he concluded, kill themselves out of despair that is due to the loss of a sense of belonging[16] that had eroded in the industrial age.  It is ironic that an age that gives people longer lives encourages more of them to end theirs.  
Eric Hoffer, in his best seller, The True Believer, wrote of a disturbing social consequence of alienation.  His concern was with the effect of massive social dislocation channeled into mass movements, particular under Hitler, Stalin and other twentieth century tyrants.  In many cases people who had lost hope turned not away from but toward strong leadership, to centralism.  They gave up their individuality for a hive-like existence.  In this twenty-first century we see this fanaticism in global terrorism, and we have seen it emerge in increasingly polarized politics.
Modern industry works to artificially fill the void it created in our souls.  Factories spew out shiploads of stuff that advertising claims will make our lives easier, sexier, and make us admired by others.  Social media, in reality an advertising media, is all about “look at me.”  Mass market hedonism and narcissism, however, far from liberating us, enslaves us.  Digital and social media replaced face-to-face meetings with tiny screens.  The 2020 Crisis has taken social distancing to a new level.  It is not clear where this will go.
We live in the information age.  Access to knowledge is virtually instantaneous making us potentially the best-informed people in history.  But the media is the message and the digital media represents an overwhelming flow of stimulus.  There is little time to assimilate, little time to think, little attention devoted to the world beyond the screen.  But this too has become a comforting escape from reality.  We are losing cultural cohesion.  We have become culturally illiterate, and, as a result, we are losing a sense of innate meaning in life.  
The quick fix, hedonism, narcissism, social media “look at me,” and anarchy are not expressions of nor the means to achieve individualism but, as described by Fromm in his book by this title, an “escape from freedom.”  

A Path to Liberation?

Borsodi cataloged all of these ills; we but add footnotes.  He did so, as was his manner, to clearly define the problem before us, and he worked diligently to provide a framework for solving those problems and restoring quality living.  He created his School of Living to provide the organization and framework for preparing people to make the transition in their lives to becoming more self-reliant, better family leaders and community builders.  The need to raise the bar on the problems of man and society have become increasingly apparent in 2020.  

[1] Free pdfs of the two volumes of Education and Living can be found and downloaded at these links:  https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B1wQ6T5I3eBVY2RyWjZjcmpKUFk/edit and https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B1wQ6T5I3eBVd0FabTZUdGR6aGM/edit.  
[2] A digital copy is available on-line at the School of Living web site:  http://www.schoolofliving.org/Borsodi/This_Ugly_Civilization.pdf.   It is also available in a new print edition with a new introduction by Bill Sharp:  http://www.thisuglycivilization.com.
[3] Borsodi elaborated in “realistic economics” in his Prosperity and Security, published by Harper and Row in 1938.
[4] Money or fictitious financial commodities such as derivatives.
[5] At least then most of the production was “Made in the U. S. A.”  
[6] Alas, this is an age of “changes in climate” and they will very likely shape the evolution of history to come.
[7] These are qualities that can be found in the works of Emerson and Thoreau.
[9] The “degree” defined largely in terms of if you didn’t like working for one corporation, you could change jobs, you could join unions, and where allowed you could claim the privileges of national citizenship to insure certain basic human rights.
[10] The movie, Dances With Wolves, or better, Michael Blake’s original novel, Dances With Wolves and the sequel, The Holy Road, provide a penetrating insight into the nature and loss of these cultures as a result of American industrialization.
[11] More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, the US is over 80% urban and there are 40 countries even more urbanized.
[12] I saw that happen in the agrarian community where I grew up during the last decade of Borsodi’s life.
[13] The word “religion” is derived from the root “religio,” or rule.  
[14] We also have extraordinarily dexterous hands and eye-hand coordination.
[15] There is a profound difference between “freedom” and independence.
[16] There are those who believe the high level of suicide among veterans may be as much or more the result of the loss of the solidarity of fellow soldiers than the trauma of prolonged lethal encounter with an enemy.  

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