Reciprocity and Cooperation

Reciprocity is about the ways in which people act in each other’s interests. It may be conscious, or pleasurable, or permanent, or freely entered into, or none of these; it exists between nations, between equals, between master and slave. In some forms of reciprocity, it can be hard to distinguish between giving and receiving—as in, for instance, the reciprocity between mother and infant: the baby gets what it needs to live, and in return the mother receives the satisfactions of giving, of love, of making a person. So it comes in many forms. But, within that wide range of meaning, there is one salient property: on the definition of Lean Logic, reciprocity is usually informal—that is, it refers primarily to means of distribution and exchange which work without money.

Cooperation is about joining together for a shared purpose. No exchange is implied. In exchange, the parties involved are facing each other. In cooperation, they have joined together for a task that needs more than one person on the case—sometimes many more—and they are facing the same way.

The terms on which reciprocity and cooperation are based depend on, amongst many other things, the size of the group within which they take place. The key group sizes (small group, neighbourhood, parish, county and nation) are discussed in separate entries. Each of the five group sizes has its corresponding kind of reciprocity, but there is no general agreement on what to call them. The labels used by Lean Logic are, respectively: direct engagement, collaboration, balance, exchange and latency (for a summary table, see Groups and Group Sizes).


1. Direct Engagement

This is the form of reciprocity in small groups. Within the range of “small”, there are two sizes of group which have particular significance and potential. First, there is the primary group, consisting of around 5 members, usually family, close friends or work partners. Secondly, there is the group consisting of around 12–15 members: a person’s circle of close friends, about whom he or she cares very much—and “very much” means that he or she would be devastated on hearing of their death. This is termed the sympathy group. Primary groups consist at least in part of people recruited from, or into, the sympathy group, so a person has one sympathy group, but may belong to several primary groups. This is the scale of that fluid, definition-resistant but central group, the household.R5

In small groups, especially in the primary group, reciprocity and cooperation are equally important. Members work together. If one person minds the garden, that does not mean that she is “owed” anything by any other member of the group, it is simply part of her participation and engagement in it. Contributions may be out of balance, with (for instance) a high level of care being provided for one or two members (infants, old people, the sick) and/or by one or two members. The level of engagement on this small-group scale may be extreme—members may be willing to devote their lives for the group. That commitment can be made in groups of all sizes, but there is a sense in which, in the case of the small group, it is close to the surface.

The critical significance of the small group lies in its powerful, almost unconditional, cohesive bonding. There is cooperation, interdependence and affection. This may have something to tell us about why marriages and families in the late market economy seem to find it harder to stay together. However evident the advantages of packaged convenience in food, heating, cleaning, entertainment and opinion may be, they reduce the need for real reciprocity and mutual dependency in the household. The opportunity and the need for routine, practical, small-scale cooperation are less: affection has tougher conditions in which to grow, since it dwindles to the status of a voluntary activity, a bonus to be enjoyed while it lasts. It lacks the muscle conferred by interdependence—the unashamed, other-focused self-interest embodied in mutual cupboard love. With each decline in the practical motivation for reciprocity, there is a little less certainty as to whether friends and family members have a necessary role in one’s life. The loss of material need for others opens up new opportunities for lonely comfort: a single-parent household becomes a more practical option when there are no fireplaces to be raked out every day.R6

The small group is not free of conflict, but reciprocity, with its frequent gift-exchanges, is in itself a conflict-moderator: giving improves the chances of being forgiven. Conflict itself, in moderation, need not be a problem; and spirited disagreement is part of relationship-building. In fact, much of it happens between spouses, but, as Michael Argyle assures us, marriage remains far out in front on measures of the things that matter to us most: practical help, emotional support, shared interests and activities, low levels of stress, good mental and physical health, happiness.R7

In all these ways, the small group is the locus of privacy. The private setting allows informality—a friendly insolence—which would be startling if it were tried on anyone other than an intimate friend. One of the reasons experimental communities have such a poor record of success is the lack of privacy: anyone in the community can act as if he or she were your close friend. There is a limit, however, to how much of this can be endured before you feel the need to get away. The coalition of intimates in small groups draws the line; and that can make the difference between being a member of the community and being taken over by it.

It is the personal warmth and reassurance of the small group that gives its reciprocal relationships their strength. You are not being pushed to love your neighbour. You already do love your circle of intimates; and can then participate in the neighbourhood with the option, but not the obligation, of emotional engagement—building alliances of collaboration, caritas and friendship. And, of course, the small group is the hot centre for practical results, in matters such as being born, learning to speak, eating, discovering and practising the emotions, providing, mourning, being loved, being happy. And having that friendly power base from which to participate in the neighbourhood and community.

Edmund Burke summarises:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ, as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.R8


2. Collaboration

This is the reciprocity that can develop in a neighbourhood of up to 150 households. The depth of engagement between neighbours is not as close as it is in the small group, but it is still intense enough for people to do things for each other and with each other, without expecting to be paid or rewarded specifically or by any particular time.

The most frequent form of relationship is likely to be cooperation—working together to achieve a common purpose, but it is reciprocity that builds the networks in the first place. The reciprocities are indirect—that is, if you provide a service for another member, she can “repay” that by providing a service for someone else, or for the group as a whole. The sequence of loose ends—services that haven’t been directly reciprocated—create a network of obligation which holds a community together. A person might make a particular contribution in growing food, or catching mackerel from his boat and giving them to neighbours; or it may be a collective and cooperative act, such as being part of the team that repairs a sea wall or provides a meal a day for the elderly, or which participates in collective responsibilities (see Lean entries). These are the services of the informal economy and are intrinsic to living there; earning and sustaining credit and affection by being part of the community and making it work. And the neighbourhood contributes to the community in many ways:

First, it has those material tasks: lean production of food, energy, water and materials. There is no presumption that collective effort is an advantage in its own right; often, the best results come when people can get on with it on their own, but cooperation is often needed, too.

Secondly, the neighbourhood knows its people. It makes a home for itself. It cares. Communal spirit (see sidebar) has deep roots, and it is real—a matter of what you want to do, as distinct from what you think you ought to want to do.

and radiant neighbours

There was a good deal of mutual help—a year’s credit was usual and acceptable. We were all poor together, hence there was a magnificent communal spirit. When my father was so dreadfully ill in bed upstairs with rheumatic fever, the neighbours came and cheerfully cut a hole through the bedroom floor—larger than the bed, then lowered the bed with father in it to the room below, y parlwr where there was a fireplace, a wicker armchair and a bed—the so called guest-bed with a starched valance all around it to hide the chamber-pots. The guest-bed was dismantled, taken upstairs and the joists and boards replaced. It was a great comfort to know that one had such loyal helpful neighbours. We met this feeling again during the last war. . . . The coming of victory and of prosperity has vitiated this spirit—one could almost say “stained the white radiance of eternity”.

~ JAMES WILLIAMS, Give Me Yesterday, 1971

Thirdly, the neighbourhood has a political function. It is the coalition which defends the interests of its people in a wider political world in which neither the individual nor the household, unaided, would have much chance. The neighbourhood is at the heart of politics in the Lean Economy; it will act in the parish, representing its members’ interests. And the need to do so will be intense: given the deep constraints on the supply of such fundamentals as energy, land, food and social order, membership of a strong neighbourhood will be a life-saver.

The fourth function is social life. It is too small for much courtship, which needs a wider range—at least the range of the parish—as do most public expressions of culture and religion. But conviviality and common core values will still be indispensable, and the neighbourhood will be the place where the basic skills of society and culture are learned—the setting for fun, exuberance and rites of passage in which neighbours participate together in wider events, notably in carnival on the scale of the parish. Neighbourhoods are therefore the base from which to participate in the wider world of the public sphere, but they are not themselves the public sphere: they are home.


How does the neighbourhood hold together? There are seven principles. Because of their wide application, six of them are described in separate entries: Boundaries, Character, Culture, Play, Gifts and Common Purpose. But those will not always be enough to prevent conflict, so the seventh principle is about coping with it.

Conflict prevention and resolution has a large and deeply researched literature. Some suggestions about where to look are made in the endnotes, and a good place to start thinking about this in the setting of community is Diana Leafe Christian’s Creating a Life Together. Lean Logic’s own take on it emphasises two points. The first is that conflict is a symptom that reveals the strengths or weaknesses of the community—and these in turn are reflections of practically everything it does. So the whole of Lean Logic, from that point of view, is about conflict resolution, or prevention.R9

The second point is that, in the neighbourhood, as in the primary group, conflict is by no means always a sign that things are falling apart. When conflict does break out, repairs do not always follow quickly, but they can do so. Anger and indignation against people who try to take a free ride on other people’s work has its uses in helping to bind groups together, as can the settlement that follows. The elaborate reconciliation, grooming and bonding that occurs after conflict in primate groups (e.g., baboons) provides the basis for strong alliances; coalitions are probably stronger and have greater cohesion if their recent history has included some conflict, a reminder of the intense value of the cooperative solutions which the neighbourhood can provide. Indeed, play itself explores an ambivalent boundary between adversaries, in which it does not always successfully distinguish the make-believe from the real.

There is an echo of this in the account of a retired fish-porter, Mr. Don Ruth, who had spent his working life at the old Billingsgate fish market in London. He spoke of the friendly joke-laden atmosphere that used to exist among porters and, as an illustration, he described the fights that took place—under strict rules, and always in the same place on the first floor, and attended by seconds and others to ensure fair play. Shortly after a fight was over, the contestants could be seen comparing their bruises and congratulating each other on their tactics—which is as close to baboon-like mutual grooming as human males usually get. Afterwards, the two were likely to remain firm friends, bonded by their ordeal and the reconciliation. “Then”, said Mr. Ruth, “the fights were stopped, and the whole place became—oh, I don’t know—impersonal.”R10


3. Balance

This is the reciprocity in the context of a wider locality or parish which has developed its potential as an effective Lean Economy. It is the scale for substantial initiatives that take the community forward. Politics, courtship, carnival, religion, education, healthcare, most law and order, some defence, local currency and a secure context for neighbourhoods and households—all happen at the level of the parish, which is also at the heart of lean economics. The reciprocity is not the close collaboration and cooperation of the household and neighbourhood—here there must be a balance between what you give and what you take—but transactions are not impersonal. There is an incentive to maintain the flow of services rendered and received, not least because the health of the parish as a whole depends on its own responsibility and common purpose, and reciprocities are integral to its structure.

There are precedents. The obligations of membership of medieval communities were embedded in personal relationships, kinship and loyalties. Family relationships extended through the locality in a web of interconnectedness. Fraternities committed themselves, beyond the requirements of law, need and kin to “fraternal dilection”—concern, diligence, charity and cooperation.R11 The meaning of “kinship” itself was extended: compaternitas was the principle which saw godparents as kin to the child’s whole natural family. The community assisted its poor with food, goods, stock (animals) and hospitality.R12 It built and maintained churches and bridges and, within its central ethic of caritas, there was day-to-day care, duty, affection and reciprocal service.R13

All this was celebrated in festival and carnival—in particular, in the celebrations of the church year. One example of this was Corpus Christi, the celebration of the body of Christ, a day of feasting and lavish expenditure on banners, garlands and lights hung from the houses—and another day off work, one of many festa ferianda in the church’s year.R14 It was a time of not only conspicuous consumption but conspicuous giving, substantial and regular enough for it to take the place of tax. As Catherine Pickstock writes, “the liturgical cycle of feasts and festivals freed charitable donation from the anxiety of private choice”; it also helped to sustain the significance of a gift—with its implication of a personal obligation and bond.R15

But the strongest incentive of all to collective action is the knowledge—integral to lean thinking—that if you don’t come together to do it, no one else will. That was demonstrated by the famous case of the Orangi district in Karachi—a place characterised by official inertia and paralysis in planning and building regulations. There was a gross failure in the supply of food, water, shelter and sanitation—typhoid, malaria, diarrhoea, dysentery and scabies were endemic—and no systems of social order prevailed other than those imposed by warring local mafias and drug gangs. Then, in the 1990s, the community took action. Led by local people with technical knowledge, they installed latrines, drains and sewers, along with septic tanks between the latrines and the sewers to prevent them being clogged with solid waste; they established maintenance systems organised by local “lanes” (equivalent to neighbourhoods), and set up organised garbage collection. A 70% reduction in infant mortality followed, along with a ninefold increase in the use of family planning, a halving of disease, an 80% reduction in spending on doctors’ fees, and higher rates of literacy.R16

The Orangi example is, justifiably, seen as a model by people who recognise that the authorities cannot cope and that, if they want action, they will have to do it themselves. And now there are Transition Towns, natural lean thinkers, recognising that the most creative initiatives are local. The parish is at the creative edge between vision and local detail.


4. Exchange

Here we are moving from bonding to bridging. The scale on which this reciprocity is most comfortable is that neglected and supposedly obsolete social unit—the county. On this scale, there is no particular obligation or expectation for informal reciprocity. Instead, there is “negative reciprocity”: the supply of goods and services prompts no reciprocal supply, leaving a gap which has to be filled by money. It is impersonal; both sides simply get what they bargain for.R17

And yet, there is more to this exchange than calculation. This is the vital but often forgotten level of cooperation between communities within easy distance of each other—roughly the scale of the county. There is trade, and a market, with little fudging of the intention to get a good deal. And yet, there is mutual endorsement and exchange in education, experience and skills. There is cooperation in law and order, conflict resolution and lean defence. There is shared participation in the arts. The county is explicitly in the public sphere; the antidote to excess immersion in the parish. It is the bridge between the parish and the nation. It is the wider ecosystem in which the parish is set, the place of unconformity and evolution. At the level of the county there is space for eccentricity and non-belonging. And at its heart is its landscape, which may be as diverse as chalk and cheese, beloved and basic to the county’s identity.


5. Latency

Now we reach the scale of the nation. Here, too, the form of exchange is negative reciprocity but, again, there is more to it than is obvious at first sight. At the level of the nation there may be a shared predisposition—a latent mutual willingness—to cooperate if the occasion should arise. In brief encounters there is a flicker of recognition, in the sense that the potential for balanced reciprocities, for collaboration and even small group reciprocities is there. Latency, where it exists, is a shared sense of inhabiting a place, of good faith, confirmed by civility, humour and acknowledgement of the common purpose and culture, even between strangers.

If it is not there, you feel its absence. This is a place of strangers and unconcern, whose people can speak only for themselves, for all are separated by their individual rights, opaque interests and privacies. This is the lonely, fractured state—and latency fractures easily: it breaks down if pushed too far (the tradition of free overnight hospitality in the Scottish Highlands ended when it was overwhelmed by numbers), or when there is no sense of common destiny, or shared legitimacy in the claim to be there. When food is short, it is tested to the limit (Access).

The possibility of the non-existence of latency gives it meaning. In its absence, what fills the space is discussed by the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859). He calls it “individualism”, halfway house to narcissism. Whereas such egoism (he writes) is an ardent and excessive love of oneself . . .

. . . individualism is a calm and considered feeling which persuades each citizen to cut himself off from his fellows and to withdraw into the circle of his family and friends in such a way that he thus creates a small group of his own and willingly abandons society at large to its own devices. . . . At first, individualism attacks and dries up only the source of public virtue. In the longer term it attacks and destroys all the others and will finally merge into egoism.R18

The shared sense of safely inhabiting a place cannot be made to order. It comes of intense care, sustained over a long time. There is faith in permanence, the point of reference that reminds us who we are.


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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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