Lean Logic and Surviving the Future: Reviews by Mark Garavan

Jan 14, 2017 No Comments by

Lean Logic – A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It
Surviving the Future – Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy

By David Fleming, Selected and Edited by Shaun Chamberlin

David Fleming was a good friend of Feasta’s. Among other contributions, he wrote an important paper in Feasta Review 2The Lean Economy: A vision of civility for a world in trouble. He died suddenly in 2010.

Lean Logic is the culmination of David Fleming’s lifelong work. It is a book difficult to categorise. It does not have the structure of a straightforward text or of a linear argument but rather it is a type of dictionary or even an encyclopaedia, a style of book with echoes in the early Enlightenment but one rarely encountered in today’s Internet-mediated world. It is a book to be explored at leisure therefore rather than read straightforwardly from cover to cover.

Surviving the Future on the other hand is Shaun Chamberlin’s commendable effort to present Fleming’s wide and varied work in a coherent, more conventional, format.

Before examining these books a number of initial comments are worth recording.
First, the publication of Lean Logic is a considerable achievement. This is a rich and complex text, an effort by Fleming to express ideas and ways of living on our shared planet outside the familiar framework of free-market economics. It is a worthy tribute to Fleming and represents a true labour of love by Chamberlin. He has also performed a commendable task in re-presenting the complex and myriad ideas of Fleming into a single edition in Surviving the Future.

lean logicIn passing, I think it worthy to note as well that it is also a testament to the value and beauty of books – Lean Logic is a very handsome object indeed. In Lean Logic we encounter directly a genuinely original thinker, one who stimulates, delights, infuriates, confuses but who is always intriguing and engaging. The two books complement each other: the one a clear and coherent introduction, the other the rich source itself.

Secondly, I feel I should also record that the various entries in Lean Logic are so diverse and considered that the reviewer should exercise both caution and humility in assessing them (though humility warrants an entry in Lean Logic in which Fleming makes some negative judgements of it as a supposed virtue!). It is not wise to facilely offer a critical perspective on a lifetime work that is so rich and it is certainly going too far to claim that the reader can encompass this work in one sitting and understand it.

I hope therefore to attempt to present what I think is the central core of Fleming’s ideas and then offer some tentative thoughts in response. However, I do urge all those interested in sustainability and resilience and how we might imagine a benign future to read these books and use them for their own reflections. Anyone seeking hope and direction in these troubling times would greatly benefit from this work.

Core Argument

At the risk of simplification, the core argument of Fleming’s work may perhaps be presented as follows:

‘During the early decades of the century, the market will lose its magic as a stabiliser. The main burden of holding society and economy together will shift to culture and reciprocal obligation, embedded in social capital. These assets will need to be remade. It will be difficult: we are standing in the wrong place’ (Lean Logic: 17).

Culture, he argues, is best manifested within small-scale, resilient, diverse communities:

‘Community is culture’s habitat’ (Lean Logic: 87).

A crude summary of Fleming’s thesis might be presented as follows:

1. A crash of the present market-based system is imminent due, among other factors, to fossil fuel-based energy peak and to the impossibility of endless growth.
2. Human resilience / survival is only possible through community – small-scale community is our default pattern to which we return following civilizational collapses.
3. Community is built on a shared and vibrant culture – culture replaces the market and money as the mode by which human relationships are mediated.
4. A localised world thus emerges – one that is qualitatively better and more joyful.

Indeed, it is important to stress that sustainability is presented in Fleming’s work as joyful – rooted in human carnival, conviviality and music.

surviving the futureThus, Fleming argues that our large-scale problems do not need large-scale solutions. Rather, they need small-scale solutions within a large-scale framework. The large-scale framework is provided by his central concept of ‘leanness’. To be ‘lean’ means to act on the smallest scale possible with maximum participation.

‘In the context of energy and material deprivation and, more generally, of the climacteric, community – most especially in the sense of locally-competent cooperative groups – will be the only way forward. Community will need to be reinvented as the defining form of human society.’ (Lean Logic: 72-3).

The climacteric is Fleming’s adopted term for the point of crisis or collapse in the system –

‘a stage in the life of a system in which it is especially exposed to a profound change in health and fortune’ (Surviving the Future: 5).

Fleming argues that there is no point in trying to collapse capitalism – it will collapse anyway. The key therefore is to build community resilience now based on a shared and agreed culture embedded within the local people and place.

Fleming here takes his stance in the logic of necessity – we must return to, or create anew, culturally cohesive communities. There is simply no choice he says. Collapse is inevitable due to the growth problem and only community and lean economics can provide the basis for survival. Culture becomes the antidote to strife and turmoil.

While this hopeful option suggests optimism Fleming is no idealist. Indeed, there is a grim sense of reality throughout his work. Local communities of the future will not necessarily be good but possibly ‘impious, immoral, even monstrous and contrary to virtue’ (Surviving the Future: 172). Communitarian solutions may not succeed and instead the crash may lead to warlordism, authoritarianism, and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan solution. The key to determining a more benign future – a model for literally surviving the future – is to build community resilience and capacity today.

Future possibilities are therefore open and need, he argues, to be invented. For this, lean thinking is required. This is a thinking derived from a well-defined intention and the freedom to invent. We need to construct a future because inevitable descent needs to be managed. It is in this precise context that communities will have to step in to provide services. Communities are ‘localised habitats on a human scale’. Culture replaces price as the engine / stabiliser of the lean economy. Adam Smith’s self-interest is replaced by benevolence and reciprocal ties.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of culture in Fleming’s work. Culture plays a central structuring role in summoning up, regulating and sustaining human communal relationships. In schematic terms, culture achieves:

1. Social cohesion – for example, choirs, music, carnival, dance.
2. Develops a public sphere – a way of moving beyond oneself to become situated as part of a community.
3. Develops practice – for example, accomplishment in an artistic skill.
4. Develops judgement – to think clearly by establishing your identity, and by not having to prove anything, in the sense that one knows who one is by being part of a community.

In outlining Fleming’s ideas it should be acknowledged once again that they are not presented in his work in so linear and structured a form. Instead, individual entries in his Lean Logic dictionary cross-reference with other entries in a kind of mosaic of interlinking thought. Chamberlin’s book very well succeeds in presenting this weave of thought in a more easily comprehensible manner.

To offer a perspective on Fleming’s ideas it might be helpful to address two crucial points Chamberlin presents in Surviving the Future – how the Lean Society will work in practice and how we might get to it.

How the Lean Society will work

Many books and writings on sustainability offer detailed criticisms of the contemporary market-based growth economy and society. Often however, they can be less successful in delineating a clear alternative. Fleming, by contrast, presents quite a detailed picture of a new, post-crash, community-based society. As noted above, this is grounded fundamentally on a shared, living culture. As Chamberlin outlines, it will have the following features:

1. Carnival – literally a recovery and affirmation of communal festival and collective play. As in the pre-modern world these social events serve to forge social bonds, radically break from the mundane, conventional mode of life, elide social hierarchies, lead people to take themselves less seriously, allow our wilder ‘second nature’ to be manifested, and permit representations of symbolic sacrifice and succession thereby ensuring the continuity of the culture.

2. Slack employment – inefficient technology will be freely chosen to spare nature. Hhuman work becomes merely part of the daily task of life. Efficiency and economic ‘tautness’ will no longer be considered objectives in a future lean economy.

3. Eroticism – the full range of human emotion and desire will be acknowledged as important drivers of human creativity.

4. Needs and Wants – these will very much remain. ‘In the Lean Economy, effective signals of identity, of good faith, of availability, will be needed – goods will have to work hard again; to say something’ (Surviving the Future: 89). Material processes will reflect culture, place, community – it will ‘be robustly materialist’.

5. Small Scale – the problems with larger scale are loss of elegance, judgement and presence and, what Fleming designates as, the ‘sorting’ problem (the question of the distribution of goods). A small-scale economy will be more effective. For example, the Lean Economy ‘learns, by scale management, to minimise the intermediate economy – the regrettable necessities’ (Surviving the Future: 100).

6. Intentional Waste – there will be a deliberate destruction of goods or a deliberate production of goods of no practical value. Fleming has in mind here ‘growth capital’ – goods which give rise to economic growth for its own sake. Resilient societies will limit growth capital by i) preventing its growth ii) destroying it following growth iii) ensuring its output does not lead to further growth capital.

7. Religion – this is affirmed by Fleming as part of the social, cultural bond forging community. ‘Religion is the community speaking. It is culture in the service of the community’ (Surviving the Future: 112). ‘A coherent social order in the future will need a religion; a religion will need a rich cultural inheritance’ (Surviving the Future: 115).

8. Utopia – can all of this be dismissed as merely utopian? Fleming is no sentimentalist and recognises that the future is open to various possibilities. He is clear however that the Lean Economy is not a Utopia. ‘The turbulent decline of the market economy could stir these ingredients into action’ (Surviving the Future: 119). ‘The Lean Economy is set at a time when the potential for the extremes of disorder and tyranny is increasing’ (Surviving the Future: 124). ‘Local lean economies are unique expressions of particular places, and lean thinking says that the people who live there are best able to work out what to do, if given the chance’ (Surviving the Future: 124).

What is the path from here to there?

Presenting lucid and achievable pathways from our present dysfunctional system to a new resilient society is also a serious challenge. Chamberlin presents Fleming’s thoughts on this as follows:

1. Growth – the pathology of endless growth is well understood. Ending growth is an imperative. However, not every method to achieve this is equally viable. For example, an ‘unlean’ alternative to growth would be authoritarianism. In addition, appeals to voluntary simplicity (a la Schumacher) won’t suffice. ‘The task we face, therefore, is not the generality of “de-growth”, but the detail of “deintensification”’ (Surviving the Future: 143) – smaller-scale, localised community. We need ‘A rebuilding of the diverse informal economy of communal self-reliance’ (Surviving the Future: 144). Fleming argues that the climacteric will force this anyway. The new system will not be a revision but ‘a complete rewrite’ (Surviving the Future: 146).

2. Population and Food – food supply is not secure – there are multiple threats to land, water, soil, energy, food poverty, climate, hybridisation, industrialisation and specialisation, depleted oceans. ‘Local resilience and scientific intelligence are going to need each other’ (Surviving the Future: 157). ‘The Lean Economy is designed not only to prevent or mitigate a reduction in population, but to provide the basis for a stabilised society far into the future, whether such a population collapse occurs at the start of the period or not’ (Surviving the Future: 159).

3. The Wheel of Life – Fleming relies on systems thinking to demonstrate that our system is inevitably crashing anyway. A new system is coming. ‘The more flexible its sub-systems, the longer the expected life of the system as a whole’ (Surviving the Future: 168). Sub-systems need independence and self-reliance, diversity, slack and feedback. As noted above, large-scale problems require small-scale solutions within this large-scale framework.

4. Transition – he cites the Transition Movement is an example of de-concentration. ‘Localisation stands, at best, at the limits of practical possibility, but it has the decisive argument in its favour that there will be no alternative’ (Surviving the Future: 173).

5. Ethics and Ecology – Ethics will be a guiding feature but will be developed locally in response to each community’s circumstances. ‘A key property of the Lean Economy is resilience, and a key property of resilience is diversity, with all that it implies in terms of different solutions to the problems of opportunities faced by people and communities in different places’ (Surviving the Future: 175)
6. Lean Thinking – In an interesting comment Fleming states that in a time of crisis the quality of our thinking really matters. We are now at a time of a radical break, a paradigm shift, a fundamental rupture from old ideas. A shift to lean thinking is therefore essential. The rules of lean thinking include intention, lean means, flow, pull and feedback. The Lean approach ‘is about listening acutely to what a system needs and responding accurately’ (Surviving the Future: 214).


Despite this somewhat mechanical outlining of his ideas which I have imposed on his work, I would like to stress again the sheer vitality and interrelatedness of Fleming’s thinking. He does not conform easily to simple categorisation. New thinking requires new modes of expression that seem at first instance strange and challenging. Hence, perhaps, the dictionary format of his writing.

Let me cite one entry by way of example of this novelty. He has an entry on Death – a topic often shied away from in modern writing. He notes that – ‘In systems thinking death is sacred’ (Lean Logic: 88). ‘[T]he reduction of life to an icon – the assertion that life (viz, human life) is sacred – disconnects the mind from the ecosystem to which it belongs’ (Lean Logic: 88). These quickly expressed ideas are in fact quite profound and philosophically subversive to a deeply rooted humanist, anthropocentric culture such as ours.


Let me conclude with some questions. These are not so much criticisms as thoughts or responses raised by Fleming’s work. These are tentative as I’m conscious that one ought to inhabit the great reaches of Lean Logic for some time before presuming to critique it.

Fleming’s reliance on the community leaves him open to the charge often made of communitarian writers. He evokes a somewhat idealised notion of community, an almost Arcadian, uniquely English ideal of village-based community. But what about social conflict embedded and continued within communities? There remains the underlying conflictual position of women and gender identity generally, and of oppressed categories such as the ‘outsider’, the social deviant, the non-conformer. What happens to those who are situated – whether by choice or exclusion – outside the culture?

It is almost certain that in any post-crash world some international frameworks and institutions will be required. Fleming assumes the crash to be so total that all Nation State and global structures will effectively collapse. Perhaps they will but perhaps they should not and should be struggled for. After all, we are likely to still require systems of cooperation, exchange, agreements, security, and mechanisms to deal with various global liaisons.

The concept of culture itself is unproblematised in his work. Who lays claim to it, who can change it, how it determines insiders and outsiders are important considerations. Culture may be conservative as well as progressive. Tradition and convention can be comforting to some, oppressive to others. Fleming assumes an ultimate agreement regarding what constitutes local culture but in human social reality everything is contested – definitions of community, of culture, of task, of practice. He does in fairness acknowledge this arena of potential discord and proposes that a new common culture can be forged, that a Social Covenant can be agreed regarding core values and that district segregated local cultures can live side by side in a respectful relation.

Finally, though, if culture is truly open and vibrant then it is possible to imagine that post-crash cultures could well encompass global frameworks of place. Rather than cultures inevitably being rooted solely in distinct and separated communities, globalism and global solidarity could well form part of a new culture. Culture is not just local – it could also be universal, or at least contain universal components which serve as an integrating, unifying factor.
Fleming assumes culture to be inherently local and communitarian in nature – orienting people back toward place. But it is highly fluid and socially constructed – not simply an object to be re-found and re-animated. After all, for better or worse, we are all now global beings. Could not a global cultural dimension not support and construct global institutions? A culture outward-oriented and other-inclusive? We are inevitably inter-dependent. Consider even an issue such as water. The behaviour of communities along water courses affect those elsewhere. What do we do with defaulters or communal freeloaders without trans-communal institutions of some form?

These comments are not those of an opponent but of a dialogue partner. Lean Logic offers the reader the chance to learn, to reflect and to respond. There could be no greater gift bequeathed to us.


These two books offer a wonderful summation and presentation of Fleming’s life work. He is always stimulating and always provocative. It is very difficult to think new thoughts – how to express what is ‘not yet thinkable’? We fall back on old ideas and categories, that which is available to us. The truly new cannot be expressed – the alien language can make no sense to us. What lies on the other side of the climacteric? Will the old re-assert itself or will truly new modes of human presence emerge?

Fleming’s ideas have the capacity to itself evoke their own reality – they offer a viable option for implementing. When the crash occurs we will need ideas, a horizon of hope and possibility, a viable social and economic blueprint. Fleming provides us with one such vision of a world coming into being.

Shaun Chamberlin will be giving a Schumacher College course on David Fleming’s work in early February. More information here: https://www.schumachercollege.org.uk/courses/short-courses/community-place-and-play

Featured image: Carnival party. Source: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/carnival-1492486

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About the author

Mark Garavan lectures in social care in the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. He is the author of Compassionate Activism: An Exploration of Integral Social Care. He is currently chairperson of Feasta's trustees.

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