Our excursion into the flooded parts of Surrey this week provides a glimpse into the origins and nature of voluntary action - a subject recently brought into focus by the academic Colin Rochester in his new book Rediscovering Voluntary Action, which we featured last week.
The script goes something like this: misfortune strikes, help from the statutory agencies proves insufficient, so people get fed up and decide to do things for themselves. Some of them then experience a Damascene conversion to the rewards and satisfactions of mutual aid.
It's an elusive process that brings to mind cliches about the wartime spirit of the Blitz and, if politicians could bottle it and sprinkle it across the land, the big society would magically become a reality and David Cameron would be rubbing his hands all the way to the next election.
It doesn't work like that, of course. The emergency fades, as do the energy and adrenalin; people are reclaimed by the daily pressures of commuting and earning a living, and retreat again into smaller worlds. So how do we give community action the best chance of surviving and growing when there are no floods, droughts or national emergencies?
Some ministers seem to think it is just a matter of slimming down the state so that people have no choice but to help themselves, and they might cite the way the churches - not directly funded by the state - have played a key role in the Surrey floods.
But the churches are not the ubiquitous force they once were in society and are not equipped to be its safety net. Most community networks are fragile in the modern age and need some public support to be effective. Such support comes best from local authorities, but they have suffered the worst cuts of all in the years of austerity. The government's rhetoric is of localism, but in practice it hoards power and resources at the centre.
One initiative that deserves more support in the light of recent events is the training and deploying of community organisers, briefed to identify local needs and foster ways of responding to them.- Read about how charities have been helping communities affected by the floods