The culture of a community is its art, music, dance, skills, traditions, virtues, humour, carnival, conventions and conversation. These give structure and shape to community—like the foundational vertical strands used in basket-making, round which you wind the texture of the basket itself. Culture keeps social capital alive and upright. It is . . .

. . . all those habits and customs whereby we identify ourselves as a community instead of as a collection of atomic individuals. And what makes that possible is a sense of shared destiny, shared history, shared home, being together in one place and that place being ours. And out of that we build institutions, religions, literature, art, and music. And they all reinforce each other, and I think that’s what gives a place a culture. But, of course, by that very argument there are things that take that culture away. Mass immigration of people who actually don’t identify with the surrounding community would take it away, and of course that is a problem that we’re all facing. What would also take it away is a complete degeneration of the media of communication, so that people are no longer in touch with literature and art which is theirs, and that is also happening.

Roger Scruton, Any Questions?, BBC Radio 4, 2006.C270

And . . .

. . . a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration. It reveals the human necessities and the human limits. It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other. It assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well. A healthy farm culture can be based only upon familiarity and can grow only among a people soundly established upon the land; it nourishes and safeguards a human intelligence of the earth that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace. The growth of such a culture was once a strong possibility in the farm communities of this country. We now have only the sad remnants of those communities. If we allow another generation to pass without doing what is necessary to enhance and embolden the possibility now perishing with them, we will lose it altogether. And then we will not only invoke calamity—we will deserve it.

Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, 1977.C271

Starting some three centuries ago, the market economy has, with growing confidence, been the source and framework for a loose and easy-going but effective civil society and social order. When it fades, there will be no option other than to turn to a rich culture and social capital to take on this role. The culture of the future will have a challenging job to do, which seems to be unrealistic at a time when it is substantially reduced to an optional, spectator activity. And yet it is the brief era of the market as the dominant source of social cohesion—no more than the interval between acts in human history—that has been the exception. That interlude aside, the frame on which the texture of social order has been woven has not been the ‘sweet commerce’ of the market, but culture.C272

The fabric of the Lean Economy will again consist of its social institutions and their expressiveness—an organic integration of the past into the present. That culture is both the supportive frame of reference for presence, and the condition for the reciprocal obligations and common purpose which will move into the space vacated by the market. Culture will be the creative expression of a community, giving it, and its members, identity. In part, it will be expressed in religion. Lean culture will be the soul of a society which, despite sceptical beginnings and the serial culture-destroying traumas of the modern era, will build and sustain a cohesive civility comprising a public sphere, judgment and participation.

At present, culture is decorative rather than structural; although it may lift the spirits . . .

. . . these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air . . .

T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday, 1930.C273

The Lean Economy, in contrast, will depend on its culture for its existence.

Now, the existence of a cohesive society organised around a common culture will not require everyone to change their character and become altruistic. Benevolence is indeed integral to a culture that works, but that is not the way in; it is an outcome. The crucial task is to capture self-interest and use it in the interests of the community. David Hume (1711–1776), reflecting on this core principle, wrote that the central rule of good design in social arrangements is that “every man ought to be supposed a knave and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest”.C274

A strong culture provides a structure such that when people do act in their own interests, those actions are in others’ interests too:

• You want to sustain a friendship? You take part in a whole range of interactions—encounter, gifts, play and ritual—drawing on an endowment of humour, memory, inference and points of reference which are supplied by the culture you live in.

• You want to find agreement with someone so that you can move forward in a common aim? You have conversations or arguments which draw on a common culture, or a history of participation in cooperative projects.

• You want to be trusted by someone, and it would be helpful if you could trust them in return? That trust draws on grammar, built on clues which cannot be faked. You smile and laugh at the same things; enthusiasms, loyalties, values and memory converge. These are things that draw on the mind and body beyond the level of consciousness, at spiritual and emotional depth, maturing over lifetimes in a common culture.

These muscles of intuition, and the culture on which they rely, atrophy unless they are used, and can fall into near-disuse if a simpler alternative is supplied. Here is one such alternative, supplied by Adam Smith in 1776:

Man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. . . . It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. . . . Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.C275

Well, that’s fine, but what happens when the market economy is no longer around to work that magic? The cultural texture that has been broken up will take years to rebuild. We see an example of the slowness of such recovery (in a different field) in the thick turf of interweaving grasses which is strong enough to support cattle through the winter. It takes a minimum of twenty years to re-establish (Lean Food). That tells us something. The foundation assets of our civilisation will take time to recover, but our need for them is immediate. We have a timing problem.


Scene: Pyongyang, North Korea

I was in the enormous and almost deserted square in front of the Great People’s Study House—all open spaces in Pyongyang remain deserted unless filled with squads of hundreds of thousands of human automata—when a young Korean slid surreptitiously up to me and asked, “Do you speak English?”

An electric moment: for in North Korea, unsupervised contact between a Korean and foreigner is utterly unthinkable, as unthinkable as shouting, “Down with Big Brother!”

“Yes,” I replied.

“I am a student at the Foreign Languages Institute. Reading Dickens and Shakespeare is the greatest, the only pleasure of my life.”

It was the most searing communication I have ever received in my life. We parted immediately afterward and of course will never meet again. For him, Dickens and Shakespeare (which the regime permitted him to read with quite other ends in view) guaranteed the possibility not just of freedom but of truly human life itself.

THEODORE DALRYMPLE, Our Culture, What’s Left of It, 2005.C276

Scene: Torquay, UK

A skills-based curriculum demands that you make connections between different subject domains. That requires thought. Quite seriously, you have got to move beyond, “Should we or should we not teach Shakespeare?” Is the world going to collapse if they don’t know “to be, or not to be”? Our national curriculum should be far more focussed on the development of life skills and ways of working than whether or not we teach the Battle of Hastings.

MARY BOUSTED, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Annual Conference, 20 March 2008.C277

And perhaps the rebuilding of a culture is impossible, even if we had the time. In fact, is there a way back at all? The sociologist, Paul Gottfried, in his history of that defeat, says no:

I do not perceive any possibility of moving backward historically. . . . One simply cannot recreate the cultural benefits of the past, as one might its architecture or cuisine, through public projects or ad-hoc committees.C278

And yet, maybe Gottfried does not perceive any possibility of peak oil, either, or the climacteric. If he did, he could acknowledge that mass production and mass consumption—the ultimate sources of the postmodernism which demolished the idea that meaning is to be found in particular places, traditions and texts—are themselves fading into the past.

Only in a prosperous market economy is it rational to go confidently for self-fulfilment, doing it on your own without having to worry about the ethics and narrative of the group and society you belong to. Even Classical Rome stalled halfway along that road, because it lacked the mass market which is the foundation of the individual speak-for-yourselfism that underpins the democratic order. All societies other than the market economy acknowledged, at least to some degree, that they could not make sense of their practical needs unless they made sense, first of all, of the community—and the culture which defined it, which they were not aware of as anything different from the way they lived every day.

Community is culture’s habitat. Culture is the centre of the community’s life; its essence and DNA. If the great orchestras and theatre companies with a global reach committed themselves to localising their culture, building local competence and participation, they would reveal that, in terms of the planet’s present drama, they had understood the plot.C279

For the post-market economy, the difficult task will not be to move away from our market-based civil society: that will fall away so fast that we will find it hard to believe it was ever there. The task, on the contrary, is to recognise that the seeds of a community ethic—and, indeed, of benevolence—still exist. We now need to move from a precious interest in culture as entertainment, often passive and solitary, to culture in its original, earthy senses of the story and celebration, the guardianship and dance that tell you where you are, and who is there with you . . .


Related entries:

Carnival, Big Stick, Social Entropy, Invisible Goods, Script, Local Wisdom.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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