The Vision And Its Agenda

How does the current North American vision
contribute to the vision of a humane sustainable culture?

One of the articles in Rediscovering The North American Vision (IC#3)
Originally published in Summer 1983 on page 37
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

WHAT IS THE North American vision? How does it apply to our present situation? What relationship does it have to the vision of a humane sustainable culture? It is time for me to take my turn at suggesting some answers to this issue’s basic questions.

Let’s begin with the vision. In the preceding articles, many aspects of the vision have been discussed, such as our relationship to the land, images of progress, patterns of governance, and the role of spirituality – important issues, yet somehow fragmentary. What weaves them into a whole, for me at least, is seeing the North American experience as part of the world-wide transition beyond 5,500 years of "civilization". Without quite knowing where we were headed, we have been working at building a "post-civilizational" society.

To see how this works, consider first that basic to the North American vision, both for the Indian cultures and later, has been the belief that self-rule is both possible and desirable. With this has gone the idea of a fundamental equality between people, and the expectation that people can and will take significant responsibility both for the direction of their own lives and for the health of the whole. The vision also assumes that an empowering, high level balance among freedom, equality and community is best achieved through self-rule. This has extended to embrace the idea that religious tolerance and diversity is possible within such a society.

These are all optimistic statements about what human beings can and will do. For some, this has been a belief in the (at least potential) goodness of human nature. For others, it reflected a belief that, while the original nature was "sinful", through redemption and a proper spiritual orientation, such a self-ruled society was possible. Such optimism was not easily supported by looking at history, but was based on the vision that a "new order of the ages", a truly new world, was possible, and that we could and should build such a society here on this continent.

To see how this relates to the idea of a post-civilizational society, we need to be aware of the characteristics of civilization. While we may associate the word "civilization" with refinement and order, these are only superficial aspects. The root meaning is "city based", and at the heart of civilization as a social system has always been the idea of dominance and hierarchy – of the nobility over the peasants, of the capital city over the surrounding territory, of the priests over the people, of the mother country over the empire, of the center over the periphery. Every major civilization has followed this pattern and used it to justify the exploitation of the mass by the elite, of the outsiders by the insiders. Of course, domination, by itself, was not the goal. Those at the top simply wanted what essentially all humans want – to live their lives as fully and comfortably as possible. Yet it was assumed (with partial justification in that cultural setting) that for some to be fulfilled, others must be exploited.

In contrast, the vision of a post-civilizational society denies the need for dominance. It is the vision of free and equal people working together through voluntary cooperation and federation – where the "center" is everywhere and there are no outsiders. It assumes that the kind of empowering balance among freedom, equality and community that has at times existed in small groups is possible also on a larger scale, and that the fulfillment of each is enhanced by the fulfillment of all. It’s direction is towards as little hierarchy as possible. In its spiritual side, it is the vision of "all things equal in the sight of God" and therefore all things sacred.

In its major outline, this is just a rephrasing of the North American vision. In particular I would emphasize that the North American belief in self-rule denies the foundation on which the old forms of civilization are based, and make it inescapably a post-civilizational vision.

If this interpretation is correct, then the North American vision is also a vision of a humane sustainable culture. The humane side is obvious enough. As for sustainability, even though today’s ecological concerns did not get much attention in the past, the persistent North American focus on the future and on building a new order that would endure reflect a deep commitment to sustainability. (In saying this, I want to carefully emphasize that the North American vision has no monopoly on the more general goal of a humane sustainable culture. We are hardly the only ones who have been working towards this vision. Indeed, it would be rather self-contradictory for us to see ourselves as the "chosen ones" working to grow beyond the dominance of chosen ones. If we are chosen, it is to play one role while others play another role, not to be the crucial player while others are insignificant.)

As a society we have, of course, not completely lived up to this vision, and many North Americans (from Alexander Hamilton through the Civil War to ERA opponents today) have not embraced it fully. Still, it is consistent with the visions of most Native American cultures, it is certainly consistent with the Jeffersonian tradition, and we have, indeed, generally moved toward it.

If this is the vision, how shall we use it? Visions are tricky things. They can give a powerful sense of direction and purpose, yet for the same reason, people can get carried away with and by them. In that sense, a vision makes a better co-pilot than driver. I’m enough of a pragmatist to say: "Let’s test this vision by applying it to our present situation to see if the directions it points towards are indeed the directions we want to go."

How does this vision apply to us today? What issues and directions does it highlight? I’d like to begin to answer this by briefly reviewing the situation we find ourselves in. We are, first, confronted by an array of serious world-wide crises. The list is all too familiar to most of us, and I would here just group them under five primary headings: the plight of the desperate and displaced, the human crisis that is described so well in the excerpt from Conversations With John at the beginning of this section; the strained environment, from the depletion of natural resources to the extinction of species and all the many other facets of the environmental crisis; the arms race, which at best is draining the economic vitality of nations all over the globe; declining faith in and effectiveness of major social institutions, such as government, big business, banking, medicine, law, and education; and the paradoxical problem of the challenge of our ever growing productivity, the socio-economic crisis. This last crisis is the least familiar and could perhaps stand some explanation. You would think that our growing productivity (about to take a quantum leap through the spread of microelectronics) would be a blessing rather than a crisis, and indeed it ought to be. The problem is, however, that if we were to be as efficient as we easily could be, we would eliminate far more jobs than we would create. The steadily rising levels of baseline unemployment during the last decade or so are just the iceberg’s tip. The net result is that we must either choose to be knowingly inefficient (further straining the environment plus being hard to implement in a free society), choose to restrict the benefits of our productivity to fewer and fewer people (thus accelerating the human crisis and deserting our vision), or develop significantly new ways to distribute both work and buying power within the society. It is the desire to avoid facing this third option that turns our growing productivity into a crisis. Looking at all these crises, it is clear that our past successes as a society do not at all assure us of continued success.

Yet even if these crises were to magically vanish, I think we might still be drawn to look at the next steps suggested by the North American vision. The crises are only the "stick", and I know in my own life it is the "carrot" that is much more important. Our successes as a society are incomplete. Even those who seem to have all the advantages are hardly living up to the fullness of their human capacity. Do we really think that our current society is the ultimate in human culture? Are our hearts not touched by the times with family, with friends, with nature, and with our own creative resources when we glimpse the spirit of love and of adventure smiling through the mists of our grey routines and revealing how deep life really is? I confess that my heart is so touched.

So then, what does this vision suggest about how we can respond to both heal the crises and deepen the joys? As the vision’s agenda for our next steps, I would suggest three broad areas: removing the vestiges of "feudal privilege", integrating our new relationship with nature, and moving boldly into the post-industrial age.


The old pattern of civilization was built on fixed roles and hierarchies of classes. Those in the upper classes had special privileges – what I am calling feudal privileges – that were an institutionalized part of their rank and were enforced by the power of the society. We like to think of these as a thing of the past, yet, dressed in new forms, feudal privilege is still very much a part of our society.

On the other hand, a high degree of interpersonal equality, at least in terms of rights and privileges, is basic to the vision of a post-civilizational society for both moral and practical reasons. The moral reasons are familiar and obvious enough. The practical reason is basically that a modern technological society needs to make the most of the intelligence and creativity of its members. Hierarchical systems with their fixed roles are notoriously poor at doing this. This suggests that if we are to move towards such a society, we need to continue the centuries old North American tradition of becoming aware of the forms of institutionalized privilege within our culture, and work to replace them with patterns that make better use of our full human talents.

What then are the forms of feudal privilege that need our attention? The familiar human rights issues of institutionalized discrimination based on race, sex, creed, etc. are certainly examples that need continued work, but I expect that the standard legislative approaches to these problems will continue to have diminishing returns unless we are also willing to deal directly with those forms of feudal privilege that affect all of us, namely bureaucratic privilege, certain types of ownership privileges, and the privileges of certain regulated professions.

Feudal privilege is at the very heart of bureaucracies. They are designed as institutionalized hierarchies. They are built on the assumptions that communication is difficult and that knowledge and authority are relatively scarce. Their goal is to exercise this authority over as wide a domain as possible through simple and restricted communications channels, primarily from the top down. In a society with easy means of communications, widespread knowledge, and widespread capacity to use these, bureaucracies become clumsy behemoths compared to networks and other less rigid forms of organization. Their one remaining strength is that they can be centrally controlled.

Ownership privileges are more complex, since there are certain aspects of private ownership that are essential to personal independence and the freedom from coercive control. Yet on the other hand, the absentee ownership and landlordism that gave one person the power to control others were at the heart of feudal society. The modern shareholder corporation is the inheritor of this tradition, and illustrates the feudalism of both bureaucracy and absentee ownership. Those who are most affected by the corporation, namely the employees, have little or no control of its direction. In practice the control rests with a small, self-selected board of directors who, in a number of cases, have more concentrated power than the kings of old. Indeed, the modern corporation is probably the most important "feudal" institution in our society today.

Fortunately there are effective democratic alternatives, as illustrated by the Mondragon Cooperatives described in the last issue of IN CONTEXT (page 44). We can take a major step towards getting our society back onto its democratic track by encouraging the changeover of corporate North America from its present patterns of ownership and control to something like the Mondragon model. I realize that is a radical, and perhaps even scary, thing to say, but as I read the vision, in the long run it can no more condone the autocratic large corporation than it could condone limiting voting rights to propertied white males.

Furthermore, to fully understand what is being said here, you need to understand the principles behind the Mondragon system. These very successful businesses combine non-governmental democratic control (one worker/one vote, and only active worker- members can vote) with individual equity and profit rights in a way that avoids the feudalism of either the private corporation or the state. Personal ownership of any sized amount of cash or loan notes is in no way discouraged. The only major restriction is that you can not use your cash to buy continuing managerial control over the life and work of others. That is hardly any more radical than saying you can’t buy the mayoralty of a town.

To facilitate this changeover, there are some legislative changes that would be helpful such as the recent Massachusetts law that gives special recognition to Mondragon type cooperatives (see page 52 in last issue), but the primary needs are not legislative. The major work is in areas like training, capitalization, and publicity to make this option more widely known. Mondragon type cooperatives have a strong enough competitive edge over conventional corporations, that once the ball got rolling, the changeover might even occur through the simple obsolescence of the old form. In time some more clearly political issues and battles might emerge, but right now we are being held back in large part by our own ignorance and lack of vision.

The conventional corporation is not the only example of a modern feudal institution. Large governmental bureaucracies can be just as bad, not only for the people who work in them, but also for the society they are supposed to serve. While this is true here in North America, it can be even worse. The world has all too many examples where cultures have tried to curb the arbitrary power of corporations by replacing the private bureaucracy with a governmental one, only to discover that they had simply replaced one form of feudalism for another.

In dealing with today’s governmental bureaucratic feudalism, it is helpful to be aware of our heritage from Progressivism. Starting around the turn of the century, Progressives (and their heirs) worked at reforms to help the society adjust to the impacts of industrialism (see page 11). Their approach was to increase the power of the central government in response to the growing centralized power of industry. They were knights on white horses, offering to champion the weak, but at the unnoticed cost of further entrenching the society’s turn away from its democratic vision. If we now deal with the original problem by changing industry into a decentralized Mondragon type institution, we will then be in a position to rethink much of the feudalization of government that has gone on under the banners of these well intentioned crusaders.

There are many strategies for reducing the undemocratic character of these bureaucracies of which three examples are 1 ) decentralization, 2) rotation of personnel, and 3) alternatives to regulation. The goal of decentralization is to get decision making as close as possible to those who have to implement and live with those decisions. Rotation of personnel means turning as many government jobs as possible into "citizen tours of duty" of limited duration rather than making them career positions. This keeps these job holders more representative of the general population, and will be more in tune with the multi-career working life that is likely to be the normal pattern in the near future. As for regulations, these are a "top down" strategy that, like bureaucracies, assumes that communications is difficult and knowledge is scarce – a small group of experts must decide "the right way" and then require everyone to follow. In a knowledge and communications rich society, there are often other ways to encourage the same ends, such as the use of multiple levels of guidelines and the use of public communications to pressure adherence to these guidelines. Building codes illustrate this distinction. In many areas of the United States, uniform building codes require owner- builders to follow styles and procedures designed for commercial builders, thereby preventing owner-builders from taking full advantage of their own particular opportunities. In some areas, however, special owner- builder classifications allow these builders much greater freedom. The trade off is that the fact of being built under this looser standard is recorded on the property deed so that subsequent buyers are warned. In this way, guidelines combined with appropriate communications replaces rigid regulation.

The third major form of feudal privilege in our society goes with the regulated professions such as medicine, education, and law. These professions have monopolies in major areas of human life – monopolies that are maintained by the power of the state and that restrict the diversity within the society. Here again we have the old pattern that decisions must be made by an expert few and imposed on the mass. In contrast, it is part of the North American vision that people can make their own judgments and take responsibility for their own lives. To see how this could work in a knowledge and communications rich society, let’s take the example of medicine. In such a society, certification should be legally required only for providers of emergency care (in an emergency, information is still scarce). In all other situations, the prospective patient always has the opportunity to check up on the qualifications and reputation of anyone offering their services. Professional groups might very well have certification programs, and these might carry considerable weight with the public, but there is no need to outlaw others from also offering their services. In addition, patients should be able to choose to assume the risk of their choice of helpers, thereby saving the current extravagant waste of malpractice costs. Those who felt the need of this kind of insurance against their own bad judgment should still be able to have it, but the burden of this cost need not be forced on everyone. Similar considerations apply to many of the other regulated professions.


The next major area where the North American vision focuses our attention is on our relationship to nature. This is important for the vision because nature, especially in the form of wilderness, is the ultimate periphery – the opposite pole from the "center". The old worldview saw it as both the great opponent and the ultimate exploitable outsider. We will not have thoroughly made the transition to the new worldview until this gap is bridged, both in feeling and in practice.

Wilderness and the frontier have always been important North American themes, but in recent years our sense of relationship to these two, both as realities and symbols, has gone through a profound change. We have found that, like so many other hierarchical relationships, the idea of humans dominating over nature leads to the harming of both nature and humanity, and if we want to prosper, we will need to develop a cooperative relationship.

There are many facets and ramifications that come with this new (at least to Euro-Americans) perception of humans as a part of nature. The previous articles on bioregionalism, becoming native, and developing a sense of place all explore this new perspective. It is also connected to a greater acceptance of the "wilderness within" – our intuitions, our imagery, all the various nonanalytic aspects of our consciousness associated with the right hemisphere of the brain. Likewise ecology is starting to replace Newtonian physics as the dominant metaphor for understanding social systems. We used to look for the primary cause, the "mainspring" that drove the system – with prime candidates being such things as religion, government, and economics. Now we are more likely to look at the whole system as an interconnected web of feedback loops with no part of the culture clearly dominant over the rest.

The challenge now is to take these new attitudes and get them integrated into our activities, institutions and our daily lives. It is indeed time for North American society to become a native culture – to sink roots and build a much deeper relationship with the land, At an awareness level, this means getting to know where you are – its natural history, human history and current community. In practical terms, it means developing long term approaches to agriculture and land care, such as permaculture. It also means developing the social and economic institutions that can be supportive of people choosing to stay in one place for a long time – what the poet Gary Snyder calls reinhabiting the land. As much as anything, it means working (on your attitudes as well as your surroundings) towards making where you are, where you want to be.


The two previous topics are like the tidying up of unfinished business – the correction of aberrations even from the perspective of the past – but there is more on the agenda than just completing "old business". The industrial era is rapidly being supersede by a new age of some sort that has not yet found a commonly accepted name. It is sometimes called the post-industrial age, the information age, Toffler calls it the Third Wave, and Paul Hawken refers to it as the informative economy. Whatever we call it, it is likely to be characterized by 1) a relative abundance of information, and the means to move and use it, and 2) a relative scarcity of physical raw materials. Its challenge will be to maximize quality of life while minimizing the throughput of materials, and to do so by making good use of all its information and intelligence assets. This new age is developing in the context of the crises listed at the beginning of this article, and it will need somehow to deal with all of them.

What perspective does the North American vision bring to this emerging age and its challenges? If that vision is truly a post-civilizational vision, then it transcends the specifics of its agrarian and industrial forms. Indeed, it encourages us to be inventive – to freely create new institutions and cultural patterns that can take advantage of the opportunities of this emerging age to enhance the fundamental qualities of freedom, equality, and community.

Yet we have no guarantee that this emerging age will enhance these qualities. In summarizing various images of the future, Gary Coates in The Resettling Of America (see page39, IN CONTEXT Winter 1983) suggests four main possibilities: the superindustrial, the hyperindustrial, the preindustrial, and the metaindustrial. Of these, the first two move towards empire and the old patterns of hierarchy, and the third is an image of chaos and collapse. Only the last continues to develop the goals of the North American vision. Thus we need to move boldly into this emerging age – shaping it with the help of the vision and in turn rediscovering the vision in the new conditions and opportunities opening to us.

How does all this relate to the crises we are facing? I would suggest that two of these – our growing productivity and the arms race – are kingpins, and the way we deal with these will have a major impact on the others.

If we really felt free to develop the full material efficiency of which we are capable as a society – through readily available improvements in goods, services, and the ways we distribute these – we could substantially reduce our impact on the environment, offer a realistic and appealing high quality lifestyle that would not destroy the planet if it were shared by people all over the globe, develop the appropriate tools, products, skills and systems for this, all while spending less time producing these goods and services. The only catch is that we would have to deal with what, in today’s terms, would look like 50% unemployment. Ways that this could be handled were discussed in the last issue of IN CONTEXT, and I don’t want to here repeat that discussion. Rather I would just stress that our problem is not a lack of workable techniques. Our problem is one of perception and vision. We have not yet understood how important this issue is nor how great an opportunity it opens for us, so we have not been willing to seriously explore the new social institutions it will require. The contribution that the North American vision brings to this is to emphasize that its basic commitment is to the healthy balance of freedom, equality and community, and not to particular economic institutions. It encourages us to adjust these institutions in response to the changing times so that those more fundamental social values can be maintained and enhanced.

As for the arms race, it is too vast a subject to adequately deal with in this article – indeed "peace" is the theme of the whole Autumn 1983 issue. Nevertheless, it seems to me that clearly the North American vision encourages us to shift our attention away from dominance and the projection of power and back to what is truly "defense". As William Becker points out in The Indefensible Society and Amory and Hunter Lovins point out in Brittle Power, our dependence on complex centralized systems makes our society remarkably vulnerable to even a few saboteurs, not to mention a full scale military power:

"A handful of people, for example, could turn off three-quarters of the oil and gas supplies to the eastern States, for upwards of a year, in one evening’s work without leaving Louisiana. A few people could black out a city, a region, or even the whole country for months – perhaps for years. Attacks on certain natural gas systems could incinerate a city. Sabotage of a nuclear facility could make vast areas uninhabitable. All these could be accomplished by simple, low-technology attack. And because terrorist attacks on the energy system are so devastating – yet cheap, safe, deniable, and even anonymous – they may become the most attractive form of military attack." (Lovins and Lovins in Rain, June/July 1983, p. 4)

If we really cared about defense, about protecting the society against coercion, we would be shifting our "defense" spending away from the tools for global dominance and towards such things as decentralized energy systems. We would decentralize industry and our economy. We would also be making a strong commitment to local networking and community building, and specifically developing the skills and simple equipment that would enable local resistance to coercion to be so resilient and resourceful that it would make attempts to conquer these areas simply not worth the effort. Such an approach is clearly completely in keeping with the North American vision. It would also greatly reduce the current enormous waste of arms spending (not to mention reducing the risk of war) which would in turn aid the environment and the plight of people all over the world.

Putting this all together, we can see the direction towards which the North American vision would point us if we were to take seriously its commitment to the building of a "beyond dominance" society. In this interpretation, the agenda that flows from the North American vision includes 1) democratizing corporate North America via such approaches as the Mondragon Cooperatives, 2) decentralizing government and making it more flexible, 3) deregulating monopoly professions, 4) reinhabiting the land, 5) redistributing work and buying power to allow us to pursue true societal efficiency, and 6) redirecting our "defense" efforts towards decentralization and genuine defensibility. This represents a major restructuring of our institutions, but it is no greater than the changes we have already gone through in the past few centuries. Some, no doubt, will find it uncomfortably radical, but I expect we will have to think this boldly if we are to avoid the disasters that business as usual has in store, and keep alive the vision of freedom, equality and community through self-rule. It seems noteworthy that much of this agenda calls for action that is not primarily legislative. It is a cultural agenda with politics playing only a supporting role.

How does this agenda address the issues of "responsibility but not burden" raised by the first two articles in this section? By focusing our attention on "cleaning our own house", it seems to me that it does accomplish that combined goal. I do not mean to rule out direct emergency aid to the desperate and displaced, but I feel our real work is to deal with underlying causes. The best way we can be of help to the world is to pioneer our own particular version of a humane sustainable post-civilizational culture. By doing this, we can reduce the burden of our current high levels of consumption and build the tools and systems that others will be free to learn from. There is no need to do this in isolation, and we can be willing to learn from and work with others (as the use of the Mondragon model shows).

The challenge of building a "new world" here on this continent is far from over, nor is the North American vision a dead relic. If we would but have the eyes to see, we would rediscover its power and relevance, its vibrancy and glad hope.

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