Local Wisdom

Intelligence drenched in culture. Instinctive systems-thinking. A state of creative tension between intellect, emotion, place, encounter and tradition.

As a general rule, governments’ record of decision-making is poor. If you had a family relation whose judgment were of this quality, it would be a kindness to make arrangements for him or her to be taken into care. There are examples closer to home, but look (for instance) at Russia’s governments, whose performance substantially took the form of a criminal record of horror and black farce—despite periods of remission—from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin. And this cannot quite be dismissed as an extreme case, for the combination of error and aggression by many of the governments in Europe—the “Dark Continent”—in the twentieth century and beyond belongs to the same genre.L216

The really remarkable thing about this, however, is less the incompetence of government than the ability of the people themselves to survive it without being brutalised. Village life in Russia, as witnessed by contemporary observers such as Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia (1863–1906), could undoubtedly be desperately hard for long periods, and it was not immune from the wicked, but that was not the whole of the story. It had, so far, survived the madness of Russian governments: in their villages, there was play, ritual and social order; there were well-tended fields; self-possessed people smile out of the photographs.L217 It is as if there were a protective membrane between the psychosis of government and the responsible maturity of the people.

The sense of peace in Tsarist Russia’s local communities as we read about them now is wonderful, despite the turbulence in the urban centres of government. That is not to say that the peace was everywhere in the country, nor uninterrupted, but there was local empowerment, which got on with its own business. The word for the community itself was mir—“peace”. There was a culture of joint responsibility—krugovaya poruka—based on consensus-building in the community’s democratic assembly. The good judgment which can be sustained when it is located. And the word which summed up these values was pravda, meaning truth, but also much more; in fact, as Geoffrey Hosking explains, it meant . . .

. . . everything the community regarded as “right”: Justice, morality, God’s law, behaving according to conscience. The criterion taken by the village assembly was that it must accord with pravda. Pravda was the collective wisdom of the community, accumulated over the generations. The whole of life was regarded as a struggle between pravda and nepravda or krivda (crookedness). Pravda was order and beauty, where the home was clean and tidy, family life was harmonious, the fields were well cultivated and the crops grew regularly. Nepravda was a world of disorder and ugliness, where families were riven by conflict, the home was dirty and untidy, the fields were neglected and famine reigned. The orderly world was created by God and was under the protection of the saints; the disorderly one was the province of the “unclean spirit” (nechistaia sila), the devil. Outside the community, officials were judged according to whether their behaviour exemplified pravda or not. The grand prince or tsar was assumed to embody it through his status as God’s anointed: if he manifestly did not, then he must be a “false tsar” and the true one had to be found.L218

The success of local communities in preserving their sanity despite their psychotic governments turns on their ability to insulate themselves. They sustain—or have in the past sustained—well-defended cultural boundaries, not only between themselves and governments, but between themselves and other communities. Here are the parishes which are the decisive neighbourhood-containing community. In the case of the Russian communities, a clear distinction was drawn between my (we) and oni (they); u nas—in our village, at our workplace, in our country—conferred the benefits of being on this side of the boundary; the judgment onne nash (he’s not one of us) could close the door.L219 And yet, the bonding and distinctive identity of one community was the foundation of bridging relationships with others. Communities need each other, for skills and material resources they don’t have, for the alliances and conversations that keep the peace, for interesting rivalries, for potential mates—who are more interesting and less likely to be related to you if they don’t live close by. For a burlesque illustration of this mixture of love of the place you live in and the play-potential with places which have the misfortune of being somewhere else—the fusion of insult and endearment—we have Rupert Brooke’s homage to his village of Grantchester:L220

. . . And folks in Shelford and those parts
Have twisted lips and twisted hearts,
And Barton men make Cockney rhymes,
And Corton’s full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you’d not believe
At Madingley, on Christmas Eve.
Strong men have run for miles and miles,
When one from Cherry Hinton smiles;
Strong men have blanched, and shot their wives,
Rather than send them to St. Ives;
Strong men have cried like babes, bydam,
To hear what happened at Babraham.
But Grantchester! ah, Grantchester!
There’s peace and holy quiet there,
Great clouds along pacific skies,
And men and women with straight eyes,
Lithe children lovelier than a dream,
A bosky wood, a slumbrous stream,
And little kindly winds that creep
Round twilight corners, half asleep.

Rupert Brooke, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, 1912.L221

The significance of local boundaries between the self-reliant communities of the past is not that villagers were mutually hostile, antisocial or tight with food, but that boundaries are intrinsic to the definition of a place. It is the particular place which provides the substance from which community builds its identity as home, along with its ethic, its loyalties and its way of making sense of its situation, sustaining the local wisdom which keeps it going.


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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. 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 pioneer of post-growth economics, and 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', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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