Lean Logic

The much-delayed Issue 21 of The Land Magazine has just been published – how did we cope with the waiting? If you search diligently through its pages, you’ll find a review in it by me of David Fleming’s fascinating book, Lean Logic1. Below I’m reproducing a longer version of the review than the one that appears in the magazine.

It may be worth just sketching the back story of the review. Fleming died in 2010 leaving his manuscript incomplete, and it was left to Shaun Chamberlin to pick up the gauntlet and see the work through to final publication – which he did with great aplomb and, I’m sure, no little legwork. Shaun kindly suggested to The Land’s editors that I might be worthy to review the book, and so it was that towards the end of last year the weighty tome landed in my mailbox.

Working my way through the book, I was enormously impressed with much of it, but also troubled by some of it, mostly for reasons that have cropped up recently on this website in debates over populism, nationalism and suchlike. I wrote a perhaps overly bad-tempered review draft, but felt a little embarrassed about it since it was Shaun himself who’d put the book my way. So with some trepidation I sent it to him for discussion. He proved splendidly broad-minded about it, and we had an interesting email exchange about David’s ideas in the course of which Shaun helped me to improve the review greatly from my first effort. Shaun pointed out that we can often agree with 90% of what someone says, yet focus on the 10% where we disagree, and I probably have to plead guilty of that here. I guess all I’d add is that I’ve found that dissonant 10% very informative in trying to think through the left agrarian populist project I’m generally engaged in on this blog…and I’m not sure David needs further plaudits from me in relation to the other 90%. But I hope I’ve managed to convey at least a measure of my admiration for his thinking in my review.

Version II of the review that I submitted to The Land was a rather sprawling effort, and I was asked to cut it by about a quarter. Then as the publication date loomed I was asked to cut it by another quarter – doubtless the real quality material had started rolling into the editorial office by that point… Well, no complaints from me – I have endless respect for Gill and Simon’s editorial nous. But though there’s something to be said for brevity, the result is that over the last few months I’ve produced four different versions of the review and I’ve had to cut out various bits that I’d have preferred to keep in.

So what I’m offering you below is kind of a Lean Logic Review – the Director’s Cut, which combines what I hope are the best features of all the various versions into the definitive text. I hope you enjoy it, because boy have I sweated over each and every one of the 2,000-odd words below.


The late David Fleming was a maverick economist who left his imprint across British environmentalism from the Green Party to the Transition movement by way of the New Economics Foundation. In Lean Logic, he presents a lifetime’s thinking on how humanity might deal with a coming ‘climacteric’ – an interlocking crisis of climate, energy, water, food and other resources. The master concept is leanness, which Fleming unfurls against the grain of our taken-for-granted approach to the contemporary capitalist economy by reincorporating ‘the economy’ as politics, and ultimately as culture – one culture among many. Thus, from the impressive but dysfunctional culture of contemporary capitalism, Fleming tries to discern the shape that lean cultures of a post-climacteric future might take – diverse, locally-specific, spiritually-oriented, and dedicated to human livelihood as self-creation rather than self-aggrandisement. He pursues the twists and turns of these issues in dictionary format across a sprawling, and decidedly unlean, 672 pages – not always in directions that I personally find persuasive, but always with integrity, thoughtfulness and a dash of humour. It’s an impressive achievement.

The easiest way I can engage with the book in a short review is by identifying four overarching threads. The first is the logic of argument, the rhetorical means by which people try to persuade others of their views – perhaps a subsidiary theme to the book’s larger concerns, but pertinent nonetheless. Advocates for radical alternatives to the status quo commonly find their views marginalised by all manner of rhetorical trickery which excludes them from the narrow centre ground of ‘serious’ opinion. Fleming is at his best in skewering such tactics in a series of brief, aphoristic entries which allow his mordant humour full rein.

The second thread is the use of systems theory to illuminate the worlds that both natural selection and human cultures have built in the past and might build in the future. I’m slightly sceptical about the usefulness of turning such disparate phenomena as animal bodies, transport networks, groups of conspecific organisms, the human economy, ecosystems and the internet into mere exemplars of ‘system’, and Fleming doesn’t always convince me that the systems he discusses (like Gaia, the Earth itself as system) are really ‘systems’, but his writing is invariably stimulating, especially when he turns to human social systems. A case in point is his clever analysis of the way that the increasing complexity in modern society rests on the increasing simplification of roles in its constituent individuals and communities. This makes it more resilient in its current capacity to prevent system shocks, but less resilient in its ability to recover from them.

Fleming’s third thread is devoted to the economics of resilience in the context of the climacteric. There’s some exemplary analysis here, not least in his characterizations of the ‘taut’ – but not ‘lean’ – contemporary capitalist economy and the way its growth ingests the natural capital it depends on, rather than subsisting sustainably from its flow. He contrasts this with more resilient societies historically that have limited or destroyed growth capital so as to preserve the natural resources on which life depends, often through practices that strike the modern mind as inefficient or frivolous. But he also shows how difficult it is to achieve resilience of this kind once the capitalist genie is out of the bottle: in capitalist societies, degrowth too readily means stagnation, recession and unemployment.

So far, so good. But, for me, Fleming’s thought becomes more problematic when he outlines how the ‘lean’ societies of the future might overcome the problems bequeathed by the present. His economic thought, for example, hinges on a strong contrast between market economies and ‘gift’ economies, where the exchange of things builds trust or solidarity in a concentric pattern emanating outwards from households and neighbourhoods. The problem here is partly an over-general definition of ‘market economy’: there have been many kinds of market economy historically, with vastly different consequences. But it’s also that the non-market exchange of things can build status inequality just as much as solidarity, as with patron-client and caste systems. The hankering to transcend impersonal market relations with socially-embedded exchange is understandable, but social embeddedness isn’t always positive. Fleming appreciates this, noting that “all gifts have strings attached” (p.178) and arguing that the market economy “supports a more egalitarian society than any other large-scale state has been capable of” (p.305). But I think he underestimates its importance, preferring to focus on the possibilities for building harmony rather than hierarchy through non-market exchange. The fundamental problem is not, however, the primacy of market over gift relations but the human will to power, which can happily inhabit both forms.

I’m not sure how troubling status inequality is to Fleming’s project, though, because the politics of Lean Logic are essentially conservative. There’s certainly an upside to this: while the mainstream politics of both left and right have dallied fatefully with market liberalism, it’s mostly been left to conservative thinkers of the kind that Fleming approvingly invokes – Edmund Burke, T.S. Eliot, Michael Oakeshott, Roger Scruton, Alasdair MacIntyre – to think seriously about community and tradition. Conservative thinking at its best – and much of Fleming’s writing fits this bill – helps us in the difficult task of living well in real-life communities. Perhaps it represents a kind of rugged individualism, in Fleming’s words “of being intuitively sure of who you are” (p.206) and able to deal with conflicts and setbacks without abdicating them to a levelling higher authority.

Amen to that. But the trouble with conservatism is that while it deals well with the random conflicts of life, it has less to say when those conflicts become systemic. For example, Fleming identifies the household – an economy rife with pure, unconditional giving – as a potential model for his preferred non-monetary gift society. But he scarcely mentions gender throughout the book, and doesn’t notice there’s a particular half of the population that disproportionately bears the cost of this unconditional giving. Indeed, he’s rather dismissive of systemic social identities like gender or class as politically significant, and dismissive of equality as an ethical end, arguing that equality is only a cipher for what really matters – community and social capital. There are grounds for arguing precisely the opposite.

When Fleming turns in his fourth thread to questions of culture, the conservatism becomes more problematic. Even here, much of what he writes is dazzlingly good. He has the anthropologist’s knack of making our contemporary culture seem strange, and the mystifying practices of other times and places seem perfectly sensible – as in his excellent analysis of medieval carnival, which showcases his fine judgment of the proper contexts for acting rationally, or spiritually, or playfully. I find his view persuasive that we get this wrong in contemporary western culture – and in this sense, whatever one’s views about a future climacteric, Fleming’s work stands up independently as cultural criticism.

But the concept of culture he finally arrives at in service of a future lean society seems the opposite of that outlined by the influential Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, whose book2 on carnival Fleming cites. For Bakhtin, carnival exemplifies a ‘dialogic imagination’, forever open to new meanings, messy clashes of diverse people and ideas, contests over authority in which nobody has the last word. Fleming, by contrast, seems to be seeking some kind of single authentic note to ground culture as shared history and destiny. He frames this appealingly in a memorable phrase: “the story of you and the people you know, set in the place you know” (p.199). But it’s all too easy to invert the formulation and define culture by exclusion against the people and places you don’t know. That isn’t Fleming’s intention. Indeed, he warns against overemphasizing place-based identity: “gypsies and ships’ captains are not necessarily prevented from discovering their identity – but their place is the road, or the sea” (p.206). Yet to me this is an inadequate gloss for what happens to the placeless when culture is strongly defined around place.

There are many such stigmatised and often involuntary ‘wanderers’ in the modern world, and I fear a rigid application of Fleming’s ideas would further marginalise them. His intention is otherwise: to replace the rootless nomadism of contemporary capitalist culture with a world of “strong, distinctive local cultures, sharing mutual respect” (p.321). But here I’m with Bakhtin: cultural boundaries are never fixed enough to define separate, distinct, cultures-in-the-plural unambiguously, and ideas of culture and community are always essentially fictions – indeed, the idea of the nation as a fictive community-writ-large of ‘people you know’ only really arose with the emergence of capitalist mass society from the eighteenth century. Fleming approvingly cites Roger Scruton falling into this nationalist trap, construing ‘culture’ as a fictive shared history defined essentially through the exclusion of outsiders (pp.84-5). This is immediately followed with another approving citation, this time from Wendell Berry, which sounds similar in its weighting of the local but actually grounds culture in shared work on the land, not exclusive history. I wish he’d ditched Scruton and developed the implications of Berry, because in seeking a basis for the post-capitalist societies of the climacteric and lighting on the culture of the nation rather than the work on the farm, I fear he’s backing the wrong horse.

What I wouldn’t dispute is the importance of finding an alternative to the present economic path of neoliberal globalisation, and I think Fleming is right to seek it in the local. Given the contemporary decline of public confidence in large-scale state institutions, his preference for what he calls ‘local wisdom’ over top-down government intervention is hardly controversial. But there are dangers. Much as I like Fleming’s sunny discussion of the “fusion of insult and endearment” associated with “love of the place you live in and the play-potential with places which have the misfortune of being somewhere else” (p.303) the local can be much more vicious and divided than that. I’m thinking, for example, of rape in rural India as a high caste strategy to silence low caste dissent in places far away from any rational niceties about the inviolability of the individual or her body3. Or, less traumatically, an experience that perhaps I’ve shared with other readers of The Land: despite our localist or anarchist leanings, a gratitude towards planning inspectors, those functionaries of the rational-bureaucratic state, who decide in favour of our low impact smallholdings against the ‘local wisdom’ of district councillors and residents who wish to prevent them. Indeed, ever since the emerging centralised states of the late medieval or early modern period gradually started defining a sphere of entitled citizenship against the arbitrary privilege of the seigneurial manor, while at the same time reorienting local economies upwards to the larger ends of the state, I don’t think there’s been a single or a simple story to tell about the encroachment of state power into the sphere of the local in western Europe, and this is paralleled in other parts of the world. Fleming knows this, mentioning the “darker side” of localities (p.68). But, as with his approach to non-market exchange, he tends to gloss over it in favour of more positive interpretations.

Still, it would be wrong to pigeonhole Fleming with the happy multitudes of eco-futurologists who regard anything other than determined optimism about humanity’s prospects as an act of bad faith.  It’s plain from his writing that he doesn’t consider a convivial, lean society of the climacteric to be a foregone conclusion. His entry on ‘unlean’ societies is something of a missed opportunity, detouring into a long exposition of Karl Wittfogel’s discredited ‘Oriental Despotism’ hypothesis concerning the ecological causes of repressive autocracy, and his thought sometimes skirts the same deterministic territory. But ultimately he succeeds in going somewhere more useful – to an insistence on political agency rather than technological solutions to ecological problems, on thinking anew about the relationship between local autonomy and state power, and on robustly defending democracy.

Perhaps there’s an issue with the book along similar lines to one that’s emerged from time to time in comments on this blog. To what extent should we focus our politics on the future we’d like to see, or on the future we think we’ll get? Only Miss World contestants and religious millenarians like the ecomodernists are wont to construe a future of peace, prosperity and technology for all as the political telos of the present – leading them, depending on their other attributes, to enter beauty contests, work as analysts at the Breakthrough Institute or write furious blogs about the infidels blocking the stairway to heaven. But it’s not always clear to me whether Fleming is saying ‘this is the world we’re going to get, so you’d better get used to it’ or ‘this is the world we’re going to get, and here’s how we’ll make the best of it’ or ‘this is the world we’re going to get – delightful, isn’t it?’, perhaps a generic problem for all of us who fix our sights beyond the political short-term. I guess for me an is doesn’t make an ought.

Still, whatever one thinks of his answers, Fleming consistently asks good questions, with a combination of wit and mature wisdom that often makes his writing soar. The book’s intriguing illustrations and excellent production, for which congratulations are surely due to editor Shaun Chamberlin and the publishers, enhance the effect. For all my misgivings about it, it would have been a shame had Fleming’s death robbed us of his illuminating thought.


  1. Fleming, David (2016). Lean Logic: A Dictionary For The Future And How To Survive It, (Ed. Shaun Chamberlin) White River Junction: Chelsea Green.
  1. Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984). Rabelais and His World, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  1. Desai, Manali (2016). Gendered violence in India. New Left Review, 99: 67-83.

13 thoughts on “Lean Logic

  1. Perhaps one detail, complication even, to add to your analysis:

    Terms like ‘gender’ are rapidly becoming as ineffective as conservative ones like ‘household’ because they’re being carried away by the wave of vindictiveness currently dominating the media landscape.

    And very few will turn to us on the land for advice, even just terminological, anytime soon.

    But, right now, Berry it shall be.
    (Sounds almost positive, I know.)

  2. I have not read Lean Logic, only Surviving the Future, but I trust that Chamberlin included the gist of Fleming’s analysis in the latter. I was impressed with Fleming’s analysis of the factors that have contributed to the predicament we face and his acceptance of dramatic changes in the way most people will live after the climacteric. I also agree with his emphasis on community and re-localization as the most likely social configuration to survive post-climacteric conditions.

    But except for an “attaboy” to the Transition Town folks, he devotes little time to strategies for negotiating the potentially horrific process that will convert industrial civilization to a collection of much smaller agrarian communities. He has a clear vision of what will come next and what kind of community can succeed in a post-industrial world, but presents very little guidance to those individuals who want to do what they can to help ensure that they are still walking around in that world. His attitude toward population dynamics is “wait and see” what the population will be. That the survivors will have figured out how to survive is a tautology. How about some advice as to how we should spend our time and resources right now?

    Perhaps there is really no good guidance to be given, but I still hope to see some here at SFF.

    • Hi Joe,

      Thanks for the comment, and for the time committed to reading my efforts to do justice to David’s work. It means a great deal to me.

      Firstly, a confession – I actually wouldn’t go so far as to claim that I included the gist of his analysis in Surviving the Future. Rather I picked out one of the threads of Lean Logic (essentially his economic vision) and turned it into a conventional read-it-front-to-back book. I could equally have pulled out a totally different book on community building, or another on lean thinking, or another on systems thinking, or another on spirit, imagination and nature, or another on manners and logic! Such was the nature of producing a paperback which could contain only around 20% of the content of such a wide-ranging and uniquely structured tome. In the paperback I tried to hint at these additional riches, but could do no more. And for me, part of the beauty of Lean Logic is how these ‘different books’ are so intimately interwoven into one vision.

      Which brings me to your point about strategies for now. For context I must first mention that his comments on the Transition movement are not merely an “attaboy”. Rather, it was his vision as detailed in these books that inspired the movement in the first place, as Rob Hopkins attests in his foreword. Rob has often described Transition as “simply taking Heinberg’s insights into peak oil, Holmgren on permaculture and Fleming on community resilience, rolling them together and making the whole thing comprehensible”. And I can vouch for this, having been there at the founding of the Transition Network eleven years ago, and written the movement’s second book myself a couple of years later.

      Hence the timeline of the publication of Fleming’s books is admittedly odd..! Drafts of Lean Logic were circulating for decades (under a few different titles) but David never quite reached the point where he was ready to release it for publication. Hence in the last years of his life he was able to write content about a movement which was inspired by his work on the very book he was writing in! Transition is, of course, in practice not always as radical as the case he makes – something he touches on in his writing about it, though reminding us, as ever, that the authority lies with those doing the actual work, not those writing about it – but it is nonetheless an expression today of his work being put into practice right now.

      Regarding population specifically, I think you do him a slight injustice in characterising his attitude as “wait and see”. He writes: “In the end, we do not need to make predictions about the scale of human population. The Lean Economy has other business. Its aim is to explore how human society could sustain a mannerly and decent civilisation despite the shocks, and we should not be distracted from this by uncertainty about the size of the population”. To me, that seems an ample task to be getting on with!

      Lean Logic explores the nuance of that task in far greater detail (and beauty, to my eye at least), but to summarise to the extreme, I would characterise his position as “rebuild the informal economy, rebuild the natural economy”.

      Those are what supported humankind before the relatively short era of the market economy, and they are what will support it afterwards, yet the first has been atrophying and the second under assault. Given his vision of where we are heading, the absolute priority is to rebuild them now. I wrote a short piece on this for OpenDemocracy recently, which might interest:

      Hope that helps. It’s certainly given me drive and meaning in these times, which is why I decided to devote my past few years to helping it reach a wider audience.


  3. I reckon the insistence on local politics and the in-group-oriented idea of culture come from an understanding of collective intelligence: that communities of individual intelligences appear to function as being intelligent themselves by allocating resources more accurately and efficiently than a board of economic planners might be able to on their own. And while this requires a sufficiently diverse number of interests (at the very least, people willing to buy and people willing to sell, in the case of a trading system), it assumes mutual goals (presumably the welfare of the community). That is to say, cultural uniformity (adherence to the in-group) is the framework in which these markets function. And so while I wouldn’t disagree that there is an element of ‘xenophobia’ to distinct culture groups, I don’t believe that approach is very important to understanding how politics or markets would interact with culture.

    I’m certainly interested in giving it a read to see exactly what he means by his ‘robust’ insistence on democracy. It certainly works when there are limited resources and people must decide what interests they dedicate them too. But if entirely separate cultures are voting in the same democracies, then of course a conflict arises and democracy becomes a tool by which one group may take resources from another and dedicate them to their own interests instead. In which case you’d expect those cultures to separate and resume functioning in their own, MORE local democracies. The exclusion of outsiders arises from the reality of conflicting interests; there can even be such a thing as compatible cultures that are not necessarily exclusionary (potentially anyway, it’s tricky to find a well maintained equilibrium of peoples in the real world). I WOULD REITERATE anyway that I think the focus on cultures as groups of people trending towards mutual destinies is a means of explaining markets (behavioral, economic, political, etc.) and why locality is so important.

  4. I will (I suppose) eventually get around to writing my own review. For now please allow me to insert a few comments here.

    As you say, Fleming’s “how to cheat in an argument” section is excellent and is worth the price of admission alone. It relates to real world argument and internet shoutery rather than being a pompous list of latin names for fallacies. I shall probably quote great chunks of it in my own blog when I get around to it.

    The anarchist streak in green thought is very evident (for example, and not surpisingly, in the entry for Anarchism). Fleming was a founder of the UK green party, which has been, pre-Corbyn, and in some quarters, trying to present itself as some sort of socialist outfit.

    Fleming was also one of those greens who hates the EU – my goodness doesn’t he. There a numerous digs throughout the book – for example in the entry for “diversity”, he talks about the variously adapted breeds of sheep and then says sarcastically wouldn’t it be better to have one breed, the Eurosheep. This just sounds like embarrassing daily mailism.

    Overall comment: cracking writer, old-fashioned green, very “chewy” thinker. And also – which I think might speak to your comments Chris, definitely a city-dweller – the sort who lives close to Hampstead Heath (which I used to do myself, btw, so not an insult at all).

    • Hi Martin,

      Thought you might be interested in Jonathon Porritt and me discussing Fleming in the context of Brexit, a few months ago:

      Jonathon and David were friends for decades – despite their very different approaches to the challenges of our time – and in the first minute of the video Jonathon claims that despite David’s deep contempt for the homogenisation and so-called subsidiarity of the European Union, he: “loved Europe and the idea of Europe. If anyone would have stood up and said ‘I am a European’ it would have been David.”

      The camera doesn’t capture my surprised look! It’s not something David and I ever discussed, but I don’t doubt that he and Jonathon did. So I can offer no more insight on the matter than that captured in the rather interesting discussion.


      • Hi Shaun

        I had actually seen that video earlier. I am old enough to recall the first referendum on what was then the EU and it was fairly common for people to proclaim – quite genuinely -that they loved Europe but still to vehemently opposed the Common market/EEC/EU.

        So I didn’t find the exchange you speak of terribly surprising. And I’m afraid 🙂 that Flemings comments in lean logic really are quite, well ok, “Daily Mail-ish” is unfair because they’re actually more “Daily Telegraph-ish” – or at least the DT of the ’70’s (my parents used to take both papers, so i know whereof I speak!).

  5. Thanks for those comments… I don’t have an awful lot to add to them, except to say:

    Michael – I’m interested in further thoughts on gender, as it’s something that I probably need to write a little more about (and also on why ‘household’ is necessarily a conservative term…though I’d acknowledge that ‘family’ often is, especially when preceded by ‘hard-working’).

    Joe – agreed, not much guidance on the transition. I guess writers don’t like to get down to such details, for fear of being overtaken by events. But rest assured that here at Small Farm Future we’re about to boldly go into this terrain. Though I suspect you’re right that there’s no good guidance to be given.

    Calhoun – the way I think about ‘cultures’ and ‘groups’ is very much more fluid than the way you do so I find it hard to identify a point of engagement.

    Martin – that all sounds plausible. There is, of course, the ‘Easycare sheep’, which was bred in…Britain. On the matter of political stances, I’ve been reading a lot of leftist futurology recently and feel there’s a distinct gap in the market here for a kind of post-post-scarcity left-libertarian populist anarchism, which I intend to fill.

    • p-p-s l-l p a… at that level of specificity you might only need a handful of adherents to form a movement. But what of first past the post voting… is it time for that to pass? First past the post, post-post-scarcity left- etc. etc. Wow. I’m surprised the autocorrect hasn’t caught fire trying to parse that sentence. Must not be using lithium batteries.

      • Ah well, everyone who’s commented here is automatically a member of the movement – so it has several thousand members already. Though saying that, more than a thousand of them are me… I guess that’s how we’re going to beat first past the post

        • The approach to peasant farming as ‘building up from non-commercial self-provisioning’ you mention over at Brian’s automatically encloses me, hedges me and nourishes me in the tradition of our special kind.

          • Ah, glad about that…I think – provided that being enclosed & hedged is good for a peasant…

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