The Faerie House

Transiton Empowerment

David Fleming is getting ready to give a lecture. The food must wait till the talking is done.

The Transition Moot listens intently. And sometimes drifts to thoughts of feasting to come.

In a roundhouse, one sees all sides of people.


Summary of a talk by David Fleming at the moot with Transition Town Louth, The FaerieHouse, 22nd August 2009

Greetings from Transition Belsize Park.

Empowerment, applied to the individual or the community, means being confident, being assured, having the authority to think things through, and to act accordingly. In contrast, disempowerment speaks of the person, the population, the class, that no one (apart, maybe, from a sympathetic minority) listens to: the electorate that is patronised and reduced to an abstraction of consumers and incompetents, not to be trusted to do anything for themselves unless they see a private advantage. It is about accepting passively what comes along, because there is no alternative. Empowerment belongs in a different logic: it is about investing imagination and energy in the place we live in, because that is what living in a place means. “Presence” might be a better word: it suggests permanence and natural competence, without the rather breathless sense of self-assertiveness and recovery as work-in-progress that we get with empowerment, but empowerment needs less explanation, so we will stay with that.

The civilisation we have inherited is a product of empowerment, widely-shared. The mediaeval period is an example. It built institutions of great competence. The monasteries were not mere centres of silent contemplation. They were schools, hospitals, libraries, centres of the arts, history, science and horticulture. They provided assistance for the poor, old-peoples’ homes, safe-houses and prisons, and they were effective instruments for the control of population. They belonged to orders, and had rules but, day-to-day, they governed themselves, through wars and pestilence, for centuries. Likewise, the institutions of land-tenure and cultivation – the feudal system – though contained within a strong and at times harsh framework, were made to function by the people who belonged to them, sustaining the commons. The law was administered by local people, unpaid but empowered as juries and magistrates. Through that period and beyond, local competence sustained carnival, music, architecture and the reciprocities of social capital; it supported households, achieving the routine miracle of making people, teaching language, building emotional development, humour, handiness, and the art of listening and friendship.

An empowered citizenship continued into the modern period and through the industrial revolution. It built the critical institutions – schools, hospitals, local government, the friendly societies which, though voluntarily taken up, provided widely shared protection against loss of income through sickness and unemployment. And it developed to keep pace as the social order broke beyond the limits that could be sustained by local self-reliance and had to be reinvented and rebuilt on the scale of the city-everywhere. Citizens, people like us, built their own society, their own culture of science, freedom, and democracy.

But it has not lasted. The governments that progressively took over those “republican” tasks – that is, the responsibilities recognised by citizens to decide for themselves and to manage their own institutions – have, in the main, been well-intentioned, and the giant steps forward tended to be taken shortly after wars, when governments felt that the benefits of centralised control seemed to have been proven by results. In 1870, the government began to take responsibility for schools, starting the long process of closing down a rich diversity of charitably-funded local education, especially in primary schools; responsibility for national insurance came in 1911, effectively chasing friendly societies out of the territory they had established; Keynesian economics between the wars handed government an instrument of supposedly effective control over the economy, and the big takeovers of the health services and much of the rest of citizens’ institutions following the second world war clearly cast citizens in the role of employees and consumers, rather than as people with presence and responsibility for the institutions of the society they lived in.

What matters to us now, and intensely, is that the costs and structures of centralised provision will not be affordable after the turning-point when climate, fuel depletion, food and water shortages, the loss of the ocean fisheries, social breakdown and the insupportable complication of the economy join forces to change our lives out of recognition. This is the climacteric, when a whole range of essential support systems begin to break at the same time, when a complex system goes into its “release” stage – when, to use the word favoured by Jared Diamond – our civilisation goes into “collapse”. Then government will not be able to finance and manage our large institutions, however much we may want it to do so. Instead, we will need to keep them going ourselves. As the 2009 Climate Camp put it, it is a matter of “DIY or die”, aka “Transition”. We will need to reskill – to move forward from today’s paradigm to tomorrow’s: from economics to empowerment.

How can that be done? Well, it’s in the book (Lean Logic, published soon, I hope). But the essence of what we discussed was that empowerment is not only about reskilling and confidence-building; it is, crucially, about community-building. And community-building is, in part, about defining the existence and presence of the community through celebration. At its heart is carnival, and the music, dance, food, drink, skills, formality and spontaneity that make it. If we want to join together and make a future, the first thing to do is to bring together that mixture of party, tradition and ritual, containing continuity from year to year, expressing the personality of the community. On a small scale, “party” will do, and that Saturday’s conversation and wine on a summer night was perfect. But a whole community, made competent by its land and skills, needs to go into a higher gear: carnival was to a large extent what people lived for in that most empowered of societies, mediaeval England; the waning of carnival and the waning of local empowerment happened at about the same time, and for similar reasons.

Carnival celebrates four things which lie at the heart of empowerment:

That’s empowerment. It goes beyond self-assertiveness. It is about discovering again that we are collectively part of an ecosystem which we have neglected, and dedicating everything we have to rebuilding it – recovering that direct authority over our lives and places which, like the waves on the beach, has been coming and going, but, like the tide, has been relentlessly slipping away.

David Fleming. 6th September, 2009

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