There is a certain kind of criticism against radical ideas that is difficult to answer, not because the criticism is a good one but because it is so vague and insubstantial that it’s hard to just get a grip on what exactly it implies. This criticism is the one which states authoritatively: “your idea sounds good in theory, but it can only work on a small scale!”
I have heard this sort of objection for a long time, but there seems to be only one justification given for it, when the person bothers to give a justification. This is the idea that such radical ideas depend on people trusting each other, and so they can only work when every member interacts directly with every other, otherwise… some terrible thing will happen. People will start cutting corners, keep other people out of the loop, caring less about those they are supposed to help, making others do what they don’t want to do, not be able to take good decisions because they are disconnected from the context, and so on.
The first thing you might notice from reading this laundry list is that this is in fact a perfect description of the capital-democratic system! Those who are in charge are completely disconnected from the targeted context of their own decisions. They keep other people out of the loop, they don’t care about those they are supposed to help, and they certainly make others do what they don’t want to do. And at the core, it is certainly true that they don’t work directly with every single person they affect with their decisions.
Therefore, if this is an argument for, say, Anarchism being only good on a small scale, then it is much more so an argument for capital-democracy (or any other hierarchical system where some people take decisions that affect vast swaths of others people) being only good on a small scale! Anarchism is still vastly preferable to any statist system based on this criterion.
Do some systems only work on a small scale? Yes, those that require homogeneity. Once you expand these systems to encompass large populations, people will inevitably differ in some important ways. Ironically, democracy is a good example of such a system, since it can only function peacefully if people are in general agreement over political issues. Otherwise, ideological conflict, secession, and force used to prevent both, inevitably result.
Where does this belief in “only works on the small scale” come from? Is it based on the belief that people would, if not restrained by the personal effect of direct contact, cheat and hurt each other? If so, then it is only a corollary of the belief in man being innately evil.
While it is very true that being physically close to someone will make us consider their needs to a greater extent, in the way that seeing those needs on a piece of paper does not, it is not at all clear that not being physically close to someone will make us completely ignore their needs. For example, people give to charities even when they have never seen the future recipients of the proposed aid. So a case must be made for this before we accept it as fact.
I definitely know that some of this comes out of gross misunderstanding of what Anarchism is about. For instance, one so-called Anarchist told me that Anarchism only works on a small scale because Anarchists don’t believe in stopping people from stealing each other’s stuff, so everyone needs to trust everyone else. Where this person got this strange belief, I have no idea. I have never heard any other Anarchist who believes this. But this person is so adamant in this misunderstanding that he has come to this conclusion that Anarchism cannot possibly work on a large scale.
However, I can say that the argument is true in one sense; insofar as the geo-political units we know today are gigantic beyond measure, unsustainable, and anti-individualist in their scope, any rational way of organizing society must break them down into much, much smaller units. In that sense, we definitely want to “work on a small scale,” not on the gargantuan scale of nation-states. We want an ideology which can help us make sense of society, not fog issues by positing that millions of people somehow belong to the same unit that and that we are abstractly bound together by some arbitrary borders.
But the accusation that Anarchism, or any other radical system, cannot scale up is nonsensical. The federative model, in which groups send representants to a higher-level group, which itself sends representants to a higher-level group, and so on, is very much scalable. This is a popular form of generalized Anarchist organization, but only one of many.
The federative model gives its members the power of accountability, something which is quite neutered in a democracy. And this is really all you need for any system to be scalable: accountability and transparency. As long as the abuses in a system can be observed and corrected, there is no reason to fear the mental or physical distance between the people who take higher-level decisions and the people who are subject to those decisions. Of course, one would rather not have to live within such superstructures, but we all live on one world and our decisions affect everyone else, so we really have no choice in the matter.
If we look at the issue from a theoretical standpoint, we know that cooperation spreads once people are made to realize its benefits. This has been observed to be true many times as well. People can be conditioned to cooperate and thus see others positively, but they can also be conditioned to compete and thus see others negatively. Both modes of operation are scalable without limits. Whole societies can be built on trust or built on the desire to control, depending on how they are structured. Neither of them are ingrained in the nature of large-scale groups or society itself.