Presence

Direct participation in community and social enterprise.

For Lean Logic, a social enterprise is any collective accomplishment, such as organising a festival, maintaining a school, building a community, managing a commons, helping the poor, or supporting charities and local institutions such as meals-on-wheels, churches, choirs, or the Scouts. Presence means being there, making a society, weaving a texture of belonging, motivations and affections. There is no such thing as society without it.

Throughout the modern era, however, presence has been in progressive decline. The loss of this crucial asset is widely suspected, but has not been speakable or audible in politics. But that may be changing—for, when the “Big Society” stepped onto the road towards wider participation in 2010, it joined a trend which was already quite crowded.P82 Among the more recent joiners are the Transition movement, the principle of co-production and local initiatives such as those inspired by Participle, but lean thinking, in some of its interpretations, has been moving in that direction for several decades, as has the organic movement. In fact, the idea has never really gone away; it is embedded in the theory and practice of social capital and in those aspects of local cooperation which have no name, but which have always maintained community in town and country, despite the best efforts of war-trained, dismally well-intentioned twentieth century social policy to destroy it.

Recognition is growing of the hidden wealth of nations—the intelligence, talent, time and goodwill of citizenship, its instinct as a home-maker, and the incentive it has to maintain a low profile and simply be effective.P83 In general, there are four broad kinds of incentive system, as given in the table below. They can be thought of as magnetic poles around which political values and assumptions are ordered:

 

SYSTEM INCENTIVE
Command-and-control Extrinsic: power/fear/resentment/ideology. Absence.
Financial rewards and penalties Extrinsic: financial rewards and penalties. Rewards for fulfilling obligations which could be seen as already implicit are demotivating and build resentment. Absence.
Managerial institution Suppressed: no direction, story or common purpose. There may be compliance, but not creative intelligence. Absence.
Presence Prehension: middle-voiced; the person does not feel an explicit objective; he just does it.
Purpose: the incentive is intrinsic and explicit. The person participates in the decision-making that shapes her life.

Command-and-control separates decision from action: the actors—the people down there in the system—are not thought to have the information, motivation, ability or ethical standards to make sensible decisions for themselves. It is supposed that, if substantial participation were permitted, the system would fail, since, in individuals, there is no possibility of an incentive other than opportunism. So they are simply told what to do. The motivations for doing what this top-down system requires are extrinsic: they are more about keeping out of trouble than about furthering the collective interest. For those who see themselves as being in control of this arrangement, the motivations range from benign concern to fear, ideology and resentments. For the controlled, it is less a matter of motivation than of having no alternative. The focus is on enforcement.

As discussed in the entry on incentives, the motivation provided by financial rewards and penalties is also extrinsic (and ineffective). Motivation is not directed towards the task, but towards the reward, preferably achieved by exploiting the system. The task itself is clearly of little worth—which is why they have to bribe you to do it. And yet this is the kind of motivation that government reaches for when it wants to motivate people to do something in the public interest. In the field of climate science, for instance, it is taken to be self-evident that some form of financial incentive is needed to stimulate reduced emissions. Otherwise (it is argued) why would people bother? As a result, we have at present a policy-response shaped by a mixture of brilliant technology and pop behaviourism.P86

The third form of incentive is the managerial institution. An impersonal regulatory culture takes over: procedures, permissions, prohibitions, protective rules, intense anxiety to be in the inner circle. There is displacement of judgment, intention and ownership; there is detachment and distance from the service it is there to provide (see “The Displacement Law” sidebar).

The fourth framework for collective action is presence, the property of a system which people take part in because their incentive to do so is intrinsic. This is the kind of incentive which made the Bromley by Bow social enterprise (see “The Displacement Law” sidebar).

THE DISPLACEMENT LAW
Good intentions run into the sand . . .

In 1997, the Bromley by Bow Healthy Living Centre had been developing as a social enterprise for some fifteen years. It had provided a comprehensive service and setting for local people: doctors’ surgeries, nurses, arts, education, a three-acre park, sheltered housing, support and care, along with shops selling fresh fruit and vegetables, a welfare and benefits advice shop, yoga, t’ai chi, aromatherapy, dance classes for children, circuit training and exercise classes and programmes for Bengali women and the elderly. It employed 150 people and paid its way. The Labour Government that would win that year’s election decided to imitate it on a large scale, making a manifesto commitment to open 257 more health centres at a cost of £300 million. The promise was fulfilled, but only in terms of the budget. The money was spent, and there are remnants here and there, but the programme was closed down soon afterwards, and the intention of bringing this valuable facility to a grateful public comprehensively failed.P84

The mistake is to forget what a social enterprise is. Each one—the community, the school, the health centre or hospital—is invented afresh, the accomplishment of the people who live there, building on, and building, the character and resources of the place. The individual does not simply implement decisions; she has a personal attachment to the project, developing a sense of discovery about what can be done, and a sense that it would not be done as well, or at least not in the same way, without her own contribution. The effect of top-down generalities is to control and kill off local inspiration, and to close down passionate commitment to making the social invention work: grown-up citizenship becomes seen as a disorder in need of treatment. The phenomenon is so universal and predictable that it seems justified to summarise it in The Displacement Law:

If a social enterprise proves itself successful, bringing essential benefits elegantly and efficiently, it will be removed from the care of the citizens who have created it, brought under the bureaucratic control of the state, and turned into a problem.

Or, more succinctly (from Janet Daley):

Government domination pushes out personal involvement.P85

Presence can take either of two forms (or it may lie somewhere on the spectrum between them):

First, there is prehension (Middle Voice), where an action is prompted less by conscious intention than by membership of a group, by the momentum of participating in something that draws you in. This is easy to see in the case of, say, dance—especially traditional dance, in which each individual’s movements are determined by a motivation midway between active decision and passive conformity: you are swept up in the dance; you do it, but the dance decides for you.P87

Secondly, there is purpose: the person wants to do a thing on its own terms. Here, too, the motivation is intrinsic. If it is integrated into the community’s own intentions, there is the critical benefit of alignment, of common purpose; the participants want to do what needs to be done. There is engagement with other people with the same objectives—an awareness of detail. It is more than a bottom-up process: there is ‘inside-out’ decision-making, where collective achievements begin with one person’s inspiration. People are present in the situation, and respond to it on its own terms.P88

 

The power of presence

It is time for a glance at how normal presence used to be, as the way of making things happen, and at how intensely regretted and advocated it has been since its decline.

The products of social enterprise—healthcare, education, social insurance, charitable work and place-making in all its forms—happened because many individuals joined together to make them happen. The principle by which the institutions of our culture came into being was direct voluntary participation—the path to both prehension and purpose. Every social invention which makes us recognisable as a society and a culture arose out of, and is sustained by, voluntary action—cooperation, the dedication of time and lives—by citizens who are themselves present in schools, hospitals, the Bench, friendly societies, charitable giving, churches and libraries, the enabling institutions which make us a people.

As we have seen, however, the recent pattern, once an institution has achieved a substantial degree of competence, is for the state to take it over. It is then forced to pay for services which had formerly been supplied voluntarily, to find funds which had formerly been donated, to motivate commitments which had formerly been vocational, and to apply central control in the space vacated by local intelligence, rapport and evolution. The state has difficulty in maintaining standards and will try to cope with these troubles by undersupplying, by overstaffing and regulation, by queue- or congestion-rationing, or by partly or wholly closing down the services it has commandeered.

Presence does better. This has long been recognised, with perhaps even greater clarity than elsewhere, in the United States. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), for instance, noted that . . .

. . . government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of the way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.P89

Among many who pressed the case for leaving policy in the hands of citizens—directly participating in, and being responsible for, what happens in their locality—was Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). He argued for local “wards”, similar to the Swiss model of local participation, and small enough for citizens to take part in decision-making directly:

Where every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic, or of some of the higher ones, and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day; when there shall not be a man in the State who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him . . .P90

As for schools:

If it is believed that . . . elementary schools will be better managed by the [state] governor and council, the commissioners of the literary fund or any other general authority of the government than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience.P91

In fact, what we ought to be about is . . .

. . . instilling the principles and exercise of self-government into every fibre of every member of our commonwealth.P92

It went beyond the rhetoric. Doing-it-yourself means doing it on a manageable scale—which means making it local. It was in the name of local empowerment that Ralph Borsodi established his homesteaders and Arthur Morgan his communitarians, and Kirkpatrick Sale—in his extended and passionate review of this direct, hands-on, located form of self-government—lists groups such as the Greenbacks, the Grangers, the Oklahoma Socialists, the Knights of Labour, the Georgists and—achieving substantial political power for a time in North Carolina—the Populists.P93 More recently, the yearning for direct presence in politics was expressed in the Port Huron Statement (“The Hippy Charter”, 1962):

As a social system we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; [and] that society be organised to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.P94

“True democracy”—the phrase comes from the “reformist anarchism” school of thought—is about participation, with decisions and responsibility taken back into the hands of the public associations, schools, hospitals, parishes, citizens. It seems idealistic, but this is only because it is so different from our present normality. The mere idea of grown-up citizenship can bring on a panic attack in the context of the state’s displacement of every enabling institution of society-defining significance. “The people”, as the economist and philosopher Ludwig von Mises observes, “are reduced to the status of wards”—and recovery is still uncertain.P95

 

Why, then, has government’s encroachment and regulatory capture been so comprehensive and relentless?

Among many reasons, one, of course, is the seductive appeal of Marxist theory which encourages the state—on which power confers a monopoly of moral judgment—to see itself as bringing order where liberty would mean class warfare. This is the state in its role as carer, peacekeeper, guide, disciplinarian and father of the people (Paternalism).

A second reason is the logic of democracy: governments and parties, needing to attract votes, see voters as customers or patients—and this in turn can have a seductive appeal to voters who don’t mind being wooed, if it comes their way.P96

Thirdly, there is expertise, that strange status-envy which dismisses ordinary knowledge—acute observation of the local particular—as a direct threat to expert credibility.P97

Fourthly, money. Money has no moral texture. It tells us nothing whatsoever about anything. We can study it and think all the time about it and still know nothing. A society that thinks money has equality of innocence comes at problems naked as the day it was born, and thinks only of being lifted to safety.

Fifthly, there is the effect of war. The state interpreted the experience of (for instance) the Second World War as proving the competence of the government as an organiser, demonstrating its power to deliver results in bulk, legitimising the authoritarian control which had a chance to prove itself under testing circumstances. As shown in Harmonic Order, this was key to the UK Labour Party’s 1943 plans for the National Health Service, based on the need for the centralised control which was so enviably maintained by the army. War games, real and virtual, are addictive and, in fact, as Kirkpatrick Sale argues,

We are still living in a war economy. Wars are centralising: that’s why governments have them.P98

A sixth reason is economics itself. Keynesian economic management enables governments to enjoy the intoxicating delusion of being in command, and this is backed by appeals to economic criteria and competitiveness as the basis for judgment across the whole field of public policy. Government has found itself a job of overriding importance—a necessary condition for all its other expensive controlling missions: to keep its citizens gratefully consuming.

 

Sale, who has done more than anybody to explore and map the subject, offers a reminder of how insidious the displacement of autonomous local institutions has been—and by authorities whose task it was to protect them. Writing of state services and regulatory agencies,

There is not a one of them, not one, that has not in the past been the province of the community or some agency within the community (family, church, guild) and has been taken on by the state only because it first destroyed that province. There is not a one of them that could not be reabsorbed by a community in control of its own destiny and able to see what its natural humanitarian obligations, its humanitarian opportunities, would be.P99

The shredding of the networks of cooperative responsibility by which people once wove a social fabric has been so savage that the possibility of a world with an empowered and responsible citizenship has become hard to recognise as an option. Instead, not only is the commons being destroyed by its protector, but the protector itself is sick—and busy making itself sicker. Here Dr. Max Gammon, introduced in Harmonic Order, gives his diagnosis:

In gigantic, centrally directed systems, unintended consequences provoke centrally prescribed adjustments that, in turn, will have their own unintended consequences. These will then require further adjustments, and so on until, to use an Information Theory metaphor—noise drowns out the signal. In a protected environment, shielded from competition, a bureaucracy will grow indefinitely and approach ever more closely the black hole state, in which externally supplied resources are entirely consumed by its furious internal activity . . .P100

. . . and citizens who have lost any means of deciding for themselves will think that’s normal.

Until now, that is, for a realisation that society is a living system with powers of judgment and the ability to act on them is beginning to stir into life, and to be spoken in public. The Big Society is not well-defined at this early stage, but there is an intention there which is interesting. It is to bring healing and presence to a deserted landscape, to join up the remnants of local culture that survive, and to give them the chance to get their confidence back. Yes indeed, others will claim rights in that landscape, too, and whether we want that depends on who “we” are. So, at the same time as making the Big Society mean what we want it to mean, we need to discover our identity. And our identities.

It was the Transition movement that said it first. Lean thinking, in some of its forms, has been thinking it for half a century. A case can be made for permaculture, with its diverse participation of species—humans included—in a productive ecology, being an expression of the same principle. And the institutions of social capital—the neighbourhoods and communities, centres of learning in their own right—have been doing it and teaching it since the invention of human groups, and probably since the first sliver of life first became aware that maybe there was another one close by.

And not before time. Presence is beautiful; it is friendship; it is our being; it is what life is for.

Absence makes things difficult. The task of rebuilding the competence of a place, its conversation and confidence, is hard by any standards, but especially so when there’s no one at home.

 

Related entries:

Introduction, Call and Response, Courtesy, TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas).

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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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