A skill or craft which recognises obligations outside its own specialist field, taking shared responsibility for the wider community, and dedicating time, care and reflection to it in the common interest.

We have two points of departure for thinking about whether professions do actually have that quality. First, we have Alasdair MacIntyre’s idea of practice—the expectation that in learning a difficult craft, we are likely to learn the skills of citizenship at the same time: we will learn truthfulness (for the craft will not allow you to get by without it), a sense of judgment and justice (for the craft comes with its own robust criteria for judging the work of others) and courage (for the craft will constantly take you to the limit of your skill, and you will need the bravery to go further).P101

Secondly, we have Émile Durkheim’s idea of the professions and professional organisations. Professions come together informally in networks, or more formally in professional bodies or (to use Durkheim’s word) “corporations”, embodying the principles of morality and good conduct needed not only by the professionals themselves but also by the society in which they work. We should be careful about following Durkheim too literally—the sociologist David Martin dismisses him as “clapped-out old Durkheim”, and his work does now read as antique when compared with MacIntyre, or with Robert Putnam’s storming presentation of social capital—but Durkheim’s idea that the moral roots of our jobs reflect those of citizenship is an important one as we join together to make a society fit for the world after oil.P102

It is reasonable to expect that a craftsperson who has developed a significant degree of ‘practice’, with constant need to make judgments, will develop a sense of responsibility and motivation that will apply to wider interests beyond the limits of the daytime job. Doctors and carpenters are quite likely also to be magistrates, church wardens and football referees, as well as participants in the community in less formal ways. The nineteenth century friendly societies were explicitly managed by their investors, as James Bartholomew explains:

A judge or a baron of commerce could easily be junior to a dockworker within a friendly society. A poor manual worker could become chairman of his local lodge. In the lodges of the Manchester Unity, the chairman would have two “supporters” who would sit on each side of him at a meeting. Traditionally the chairman would choose a personal friend and someone who was experienced in the rules and practices of the society. The office of chairman was rotated so that, over time, almost everyone would hold the post.P103

Here is an aspect of cohesion, of commitment to the community and to the public sphere, which is indispensable.P104

Those qualities of practice and social engagement—and indeed the word “profession”—are associated with the idea of “middle class”. The causal relationship, however, is not from middle class to professional, but the other way round—it is from {practice and social responsibility} to {values described as middle class} to {supposed membership of the middle class}. There may then be reinforcement from that membership as to social responsibility—a stabilising interconnection, which disappears if reductionism equates membership of the middle class with wealth. You do not have to be middle-income to possess the attributes of a profession and to be committed to the defence of collective capital and common purpose. However, the identification of “professional” with “middle class” has brought the key ethic of profession, and people who giftedly defend their culture, into the line of fire. Resentment, whose mindset is money, eats its way through society like the Ebola virus, whose mindset is flesh. And so the middle class is shot—almost.

The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) also made the mistake of supposing that professional = middle class, but he did at least recognise the significance of that professional quality as a barrier to the overthrow of the state. He advocated its destruction as the necessary task of the revolutionary parties, but he concluded, with regret, that the idea of the profession gives liberal democracy its resilience. Unfortunately, as he wrote in his Prison Notebooks, it holds nations and communities together when disorder threatens—and that means that the first task of the revolutionary is to destroy the institutions such as the church, the schools and the media, which sustain, and are sustained by, the professions. Imperial Russia, he added, had the enormous advantage (from the point of view of his revolutionary agenda) of lacking this public-spirited professional ethic: “the state was everything; civil power was primordial and gelatinous” and, when revolution threatened, it had no resistance to offer.P105

The Lean Economy, by contrast, will intensely value its professions and the ethic of practice which is cultivated by them. In the aftermath of the climacteric, it will not be so flush with wealth and so impoverished in judgment that it feels it is okay to refuse the gifts of citizenship and presence when they are offered. Nor will it be diverted from the life-and-death need to think things through by a demonic ad hominem quarrel about who has a right to do the thinking.


Related entries:

Leisure, Cheirarchy.

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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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