Every civilisation has had its irrational but reassuring myth. Previous civilisations have used their culture to sing about it and tell stories about it. Ours has used its mathematics to prove it.
The man you might not know. And yet if you know anything about the Green Party, Tradable Energy Quotas, the Transition Movement, New Economics Foundation or the Soil Association you would have met his ideas and his vision many times. His name is David Fleming and for thirty years he carried a large manuscript around with him, amending, adding, editing and re-editing, as each year progressed. This September, six years after his sudden death, it sees the light of day in the form of two books.
Shaun Chamberlin, a rigorous Boswell to this Dr Johnson of the future, has not only skilfully shaped his immense dictionary into a finished form, but also forged a narrative introduction to it. Daunted by the prospect of reviewing the rather unlean Lean Logic, I took the slimmer companion volume, Surviving the Future – Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy on a train trip and then into my summer garden. This is a short response to this multi-layered, beautifully constructed treatise.
The future is a fraught place for those of us who have realised over the last decade we are boarded on the Titanic and heading for a mighty reality check. Some of us have thrown up our hands in horror and despair, some of us have heroically dug gardens, some of us have analysed fossil fuel graphs and turned off our central heating. Most of of us have looked at this wicked problem and tried to work out what on earth is needed now, not as individuals but as a people. One thing is for sure, at some point this all-powerful ship will founder and David Fleming’s clear proposals for an alternative social organisation are welcome reading for all those whose eyes are trained on the lifeboats, rather than the dancing girls in the bar.
Slack and elegance
Surviving the Future is a linear pathway through Lean Logic‘s diverse and visionary eco-system. Where you might – and indeed are encouraged to – explore the larger work’s interconnected range of entries, the small volume keeps you on the main track. Here I am on the 16:00 from Liverpool Street coming home, surrounded by shopping bags and folk staring at their mobile phones, listening to music, eating fast food, wrapped up in their own worlds, and it is hard to imagine that all this might shift into the scenarios David is describing in these pages. And yet it is compelling in ways you do not expect. Even though there are fascinating insights on the more familiar subjects of religion, myth and culture-making, the chapters that grab the attention are undoubtedly those on lean economics, specifically the seven points of protocol which pull in an entirely different direction to the conditions in which the globalised market economy flourishes; the latter which is driven by competition and price and the former which works in an entirely different paradigm.
Economics is not a subject that most of us care about. However, the market economy is a system and creed we live by and has put us on this collision course. We are all embedded within it as we sit in this train carraige rocking through the East Anglian barley fields. Clear thinking about this behomoth and how it might be replaced are paramount – and you could have no more inspired or radical guide than David Fleming in this uncertain territory.
For Fleming a viable future means being rooted in the small-scale local economy and cultivating the resilience of the community you live in. It means creating a thriving culture that will enable people to use their native intelligence and good will to work out how to proceed when the chips are down and the social and technological infrastuctures we take for granted are no longer in place. His premise is that through time localised, interdependant communities have been the norm and that our hyper-individualised hyper-urbanised lives are an anomoly and only made possible because of a destructive oil-based growth economy.
The book looks at key areas, such as food, growth, ethics, employment and waste, through the lens of lean times, and proposes that intead of living in a mono-culture where the price is the measure of everything, we live in a community, where our presence, our loyalty to its shape and interactions matter.
It is a better book to read in the garden, where there is space to breathe. Because, above all things, the book brings space and intelligence and wit to areas that are normally written about in lumbering opinionated prose. In a genre weighted down by tribalism, righteousness, political rhetoric and scientific data, his words come like a fresh breeze. Where other books would feature graphs, he has woodcuts of the English countryside.Where others might beat you over the head, his light and precise use of language effortlessly guides you from high altitude systems thinking to the literature of utopia to the utterly miserable times endured by the workers of the ancient ‘hydraulic’ cultures.
At some points his references to art and philosophy may appear old-fashioned, his fondness for the feast-days of the Middle Ages romantic, but the main theme is utterly modern, thought-provoking and often surprising. At the suggestion we might employ Christanity’s rich liturgy and architecture as a cultural holding place, I find myself exposulating to the runner beans. Hang on a minute, David, when the Church of England is on a all-time attendance low in the UK? Are you suggesting we go backwards and have to worship gods again?
I put the book down and dive into some shade between the buddleia and the raspberry canes. Above me the scarlet admiral and peacock butterflies drink the nectar from the flowers, the light shining through their jewelled wings, above them on a southerly breeze the seeds of a black poplar drift by in search of new territory and above them a marsh harrier circles in the updrift, soaring higher and higher.
OK, so how do you organise society in the absence of competitive pricing? I laugh. This book is subtle! I have no idea: but it is a very good question. One that revolves around loving the earth and sky, that’s for sure. It has to start here. It has to start with this moment.
I reach out to pick several large raspberries and realise that it was Fleming’s ideas about community resilience that had entirely forged my own. These canes from Rita and Nick and Jeannie, the apple trees from Gemma and my fellow writers on Playing for Time, all these vegetables from seed swaps, my clothes from Give and Take Days, my involvement with Dark Mountain via the Transition movement. Everything in my house and larder and woodpile, in my relationships with neighbours and local shopkeepers, with this sandy, salty, wild territory, has come here through the informal economy. In all these small ways I am already living in the future he describes. And in that I know I am not alone.
This shift is not just personal, about me and my downshift style: it is social, about nurturing communities of ‘reciprocity and freedom’. And this is where this book acts as a decisive catalyst. We need deep blue sky thinking, to ask ourselves questions we have never thought about with rigour, to look around us at what we have now between us, a bird’s eye perspective, because if we can’t we will be surely engulfed by the struggle on the ground:
The task is to recognise that the seeds of a community ethic – and indeed benevolence – still exist. It is to join up the remnants of local culture that survive and give it the chance to get its confidence back. We now need to move from a precious interest in culture as entertainment, often passive and solitary, to culture in its original, earthy sense of the story and celebration, the guardianship and dance that tell you where you are, and who is there with you…
One question that is not solved by this book: what do we do with our unmannered dinosaur politics and our dinosaur ways of relating to each other? How do we deal with untempered social hostility, the feudal class system, and lust for blame? How did David Fleming in his eyrie overlooking Hampstead Heath imagine we would deal with those outer and inner forces that absolutely do not want any kind of slack and elegant future? It might work in theory but how about the practice? Having seen several grassroots organisations destroy themselves though the taut powergames we have inherited I am unsure this is even possible. As Charles Eisenstein once pointed out in a meeting of Transitioners in London, any kind of preparation we do is playing at present. Most of us have the option to revert back to the old social contract, when the going gets rough, pull on our headphones and keep shopping. It is one thing gleaning apples from neighbourhood street trees because it is a fun and life-affirming thing to do, and quite another because you and your family are hungry.
But given this is the one alternative that resonates, that makes sense, it is worth giving it our every last creative shot. If you are prepared mentally, physically, emotionally, for a different world and have deintensified your way of life, you are resilient and fluid in a way folk that have never thought about these things are not. That makes you a valuable presence in any kind of climacteric, a flexible open agent within a close, rigid system. I realise this late summer day, the lean localised future so astutely and elegantly mapped out in these pages was the future I chose a long time ago, and the task Fleming sets all writers and artists takes us resolutely out of the sidelines and puts us right where the action is – and where else, given the choice, would we want to be?
At the upcoming Dark Mountain gathering this week we are delighted to welcome Shaun Chamberlin, David Fleming’s close friend and associate, who will be holding a workshop exploring some of his core ideas, and also to be able to sell both books, hot off the press, at our book stall (£30 and £10 respectively, or £35 for the two ).
I like to think David Fleming would have enjoyed Base Camp, at seeing a future-thinking culture being created by people aware of the impending social and economic crises. He might have recognised the lean thinking amongst its strands of myth-making, food growing, knowledge-sharing, music and conviviality. Celebrations and convergences are the bedrock for a society he envisioned could survive and thrive in a rocky future, and it is in this spirit that we publish a short extract from his chapter on Carnival, edited by Shaun and originally published in Dark Mountain Issue 5.
Extract from the late Dr. David Fleming’s Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It (2016). Extensive references are given in the dictionary itself, but are omitted here.
* points to another entry in the dictionary.
Carnival. Celebrations of music, dance, torchlight, mime, games, feast and folly have been central to the life of *community for all times other than those when the pretensions of large-scale civilisation descended like a frost on public joy.
The decline of carnival in the West began in earnest alongside the transition from a rural-centred culture to a city-centred one. There were many reasons. The early stirrings of capitalism encouraged habits of soberness, and it has this fixation about people turning up for work on Monday morning. Some carnivals were getting out of control, becoming the starting-point for rebellion and riot: Robin Hood’s career began as a carnival king; Ben Kett’s rebellion in 1549 started in Wymondham at a festival for St.Thomas à Becket. And the invention of fire-arms had its effect: it meant, of course, that a reckless crowd could also be dangerous, but – more important than that – it introduced a need for discipline, especially in armies. The loading and firing of a musket is complicated; it requires a sequence of steps – forty-three of them, according to Prince Maurice of Orange’s “drill” – each of which must be done exactly, at speed, and (on occasion) under fire. Discipline becomes critical: sober *citizenship, which is good for armies, and good for trade, calls for self-awareness and self-control, and it gets lost in the spontaneous exuberance of carnival.
Carnival has been subdued, and its loss is serious. The modern market economy suffers from play-deprivation. It does exist to a weakened extent in sport, but even there the aim of winning is increasingly taken as the literal purpose of the event rather than the enabling *myth. When such critical cultural assets as *trust, *social capital and the *humour which blunts insult are in decline, *play is in trouble. Insult and rough-and-tumble are now largely forbidden; if an invitation to play is rejected or misconstrued, if a joke goes wrong, there is shame or worse.
It invites the bleak question: ‘What is the point?’ The consequences are various, no doubt, but among them may be loneliness, boredom, anxiety and depression; if society is less fun, its inequalities are more resented. There is no constant reminder of the teeming vitality beneath the surface of other people; there is a loss of authority by the local community, which becomes less audible, less visible, less alive, less fertile as a source of laughter. Barbara Ehrenreich wonders whether the waning of carnival might have had something to do with the awareness of depression which, in the early seventeenth century, seems to have developed almost on the scale of a pandemic. Before then there was, of course, pain, and grief – all the dark emotions – but loneliness and anxiety…? *Tactile deprivation (the sadness of not being touched)…? The sense of the party being over…?
… Homer tells us how the art of the ancient dream world lay in wait to seduce Odysseus and his crew as they were about to encounter the Sirens, whose bewitching song lures everyone who hears it to their death, their bodies added to the pile of mouldering skeletons in the meadow where the Sirens sat. On the advice of his mistress, Circe, the goddess who lives on the island of Aeaea, Odysseus stopped up the ears of his crew with wax, so that, unable to hear the song, they were not distracted from the real work of rowing. He himself, being securely strapped to the mast, could now listen to the Sirens’ voices ‘with enjoyment’, as Circe puts it, and without being drawn irresistibly into their power. This has various interpretations, but one of them makes it a decisive detachment from art: the sound of ancient myth which once drew its hearers in, without means of escape, is rendered sensible and civilised, reduced to a concert, a sort of Hellenic musical evening with female chorus and a professor of Greek to tell us something about the local legend that lies behind it.
On this view we see the breaking of the link between art (music, in this case) and politics: now you only need to buy your ticket, be a spectator of the arts for an hour or so, and then home for herb tea and bed.’
Images: David Fleming on Hampstead Heath by Henrik Dahle. All woodcuts from Lean Logic – A Dictionory for the Future and How to Survive It edited by Shaun Chamberlin and published by Chelsea Green on 8th September.