SURVIVING THE FUTURE: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy
by David Fleming and Shaun Chamberlin
Chelsea Green Publishing, Hartford, Vermont
Paperback: 304 pages
Reviewed by Brian Coman
“Examine everything,” writes St Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “hold on to that which is true.”
Now, of course, St Paul is here referring pre-eminently to matters of Christian faith, but his teaching nonetheless has the character of a universal axiom. The problem is that, in these troubled times, establishing the truth of any secular matter is no easy task.
Anyone who bothers to compare the “factual” news analyses coming from, say, the ABC with the same news items from, say, Sky News, will understand the sort of problems I am referring to. The truth, it seems, has many versions.
So, it was with St Paul’s advice in my mind that I turned to the book under review. Had the book been sent to me a few months back, before the Wuhan virus, I doubt that I would have bothered reading it. After all, it was written by a prominent greenie writer and I am not well disposed towards your average greenie activist. The various encomia contained in the cover blurb, were nearly all from green-orientated commentators.
The book was also predicated on the supposition of some impending ecological crisis, and climate change, ocean acidification and so on all loomed large. Nonetheless, I noted that the late Sir Roger Scruton – a bastion of conservatism – had kind things to say about the book.
Moreover, a casual flick through the pages quickly indicated that this was no ordinary piece of green apocalyptic. Its focus was on a way forward, and its vision was anthropocentric, not eco-centric, as is most green writing.
And so, this book is centred on practical ways to foster human flourishing after what Fleming called a “climacteric” – a stage in our present economic, political and social order where the stability of the whole system is especially exposed “to a profound change in health or fortune”. And, of course, the ravages of the Wuhan virus have presented us with just such a “climacteric”.
Fleming, naturally enough, could not have predicted this. His “climacteric” was envisaged in more or less standard greenie scenarios – oil depletion, global warming, etc. But this does not detract from many of the positive ideas he proposes for the future of human societies.
What matters is not the cause of the climacteric, but how we respond to it. And a big part of that response is the need radically to re-examine our notions of “the market economy” – a point that has been reiterated in recent issues of News Weekly.
David Fleming (1940–2010) was a British writer and thinker who played big roles in the genesis of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement, and the New Economics Foundation in the UK.
Surviving the Future is actually a much-shortened version of Fleming’s magnum opus, Lean Logic – a book written in the manner of cross-linked encyclopedia entries. The editor of this volume has attempted a more conventional presentation of Fleming’s ideas in a standard narrative style.
Fleming can rightly be called a polymath. This book displays clear evidence of a man with a keen interest and deep under-standing in almost every department of human endeavour – politics, history, literature, economics, philosophy, religion, the
arts, and the sciences. The range of his readings in these areas is prodigious. In this abridged edition of his book, the bibliography covers some 450-500 authors.
Most Green-oriented writers focus narrowly on science and political and economic theory, but in Fleming, you will find that poets and their kin are quoted as often as population theorists. The thoughts of the “ploughman poet”, John Clare, are just as important as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. And, in another uncharacteristic approach (for a green thinker), history and the need to connect with our past is immensely important for Fleming.
For News Weekly readers, the importance of this book lies in its analysis of the so-called “free market” and of the “global village”, a consequence of which is all too visible in the Wuhan pandemic.
Fleming’s insistence on the primacy of local communities is also directly in line with the long-held principles of this newspaper and its parent body. So, there is much in this book that will strike a chord with older readers who will remember back to the days when we were accused of fostering the notion of “three acres and a goat”. But now the idea of self-sufficiency – at least in certain important areas – has come back upon us with a vengeance.
True enough, green philosophy in general tends to take the question of self-sufficiency and turn it into actual subsistence. But Fleming’s notion of what he calls “the lean economy” has a great deal going for it.
The lean economy is one that is “held together by richly developed social capital and culture, and organised around the rediscovery of community. It is a fusion of society and economics, based on presence and cooperation in a slack social order, building from small groups and household production, through the neighbourhood and community in its many forms, to the nation. It sustains solutions.”
Fleming’s use of the term “slack social order” requires some explanation. What he means, essentially, is that producers will not always want to provide their goods and services in the most efficient (that is, cost-effective) way. For instance, a question of local loyalty may arise.
Indeed, Fleming here quotes Garrison Keillor and the fictional town of Lake Wobegon: “You need a toaster, you buy it at Co-op Hardware even though you can get a deluxe model with all the toaster attachments for less money at K-Mart in St Cloud. You buy it at Co-op because you know Otto.”
Now, of course, Lake Wobegon is not a fictional town at all. I grew up in just such a country town and the sense of community that one gleans from The Prairie Home Companion is not a fiction at all. It is a description of a real and flourishing local community such as once existed in small towns all over this country, as well as on the American prairies. They are now, for the most part, dead or dying.
I cannot, in this short review, cover the full scope of Fleming’s book, but something needs to be said about the concept of “carnival” as the author under-stands it. It is closely linked with the idea of culture, but goes further in seeking to ritualise and celebrate human interaction.
Fleming uses many examples from history and these include feast days, processions and other celebrations embedded in the yearly cycle. Many of these celebrate human work in nature.
Unfortunately, Fleming’s green philosophy tends to go into overdrive here and he attempts to link such events – prominent in Medieval times – to a sort of Dionysiac nature worship or mere indulgence of the senses. Indeed, he makes a direct comparison of the Greek god Dionysus with Christ. This I found offensive. For a person as well read as Fleming, it is hard to excuse such deliberate ignorance of the Gospels. Even Nietzsche would take issue with Fleming here.
Likewise, Fleming’s treatment of human sexuality is underwhelming, to say the least. Eros is celebrated in a whole chapter, but the word “marriage” occurs but three times in the entire book. He his happy to quote both George Herbert and Richard Crashaw in support of his views on eros, while neglecting to point out that both of these poets were devout Christians. It doesn’t add up.
In fact, the weakest part of the book concerns the place of religion in a well-functioning society. In this book (admittedly an abridgement), religion receives only nine pages. It is as if religion is simply a manifestation of a well-ordered society. Fleming should know that the very genesis of the civilisation to which he belongs is inextricably linked to the Christian religion. Those qualities of pre-industrial Western societies that he extolls developed precisely because of the Christian religion.
To be fair, Fleming does realise that the form of modern capitalism that we have is deeply antithetical to many aspects of the Christian religion and he does have an understanding of how the genesis of the acquisitive society was a sort of unintended consequence of post-Reformation Puritanism – along the lines of Max Weber’s famous thesis.
Other parts of the book simply push the standard green agenda; this is why, at the head of this review, I quoted St Paul on the need to sift and evaluate. Fleming’s summary dismissal of nuclear energy is not well documented and seems particularly one-sided. Likewise, the tendency to call up what I will call the “Noble Savage” argument hardly does the book justice.
But, for all its weaknesses, this is an important book. One does not have to be a green apologist to appreciate the many thoughtful arguments and insights contained within it. For those of us with an interest in the traditional Christian notion of a well-ordered society, the book can be used as a sort of reference work – exactly as Fleming first envisaged it in its original “encyclopedia” format.
We stand now, at an important juncture in history. Until this time, anyone who dared to question the adequacy of the market economy was immediately howled down as a socialist or communist. That is understandable enough. During the whole period of the Cold War, the sheer repulsiveness of totalitarianism blinded us to the possibility that our own politico-economic system might have shortcomings. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, free-market capitalism emerged as the triumphant victor and Francis Fukuyama announced “The End of History”.
But it was not the end of history and the much-vaunted freedoms we supposed to be ours have turned out to be not “free” at all. Like Esau, we have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage. Now is the time to take St Paul seriously. Alternatives must be examined. For all its shortcomings, this book can aid us in that task.