Down through history many concepts of the nature of reality have emerged, developed and disintegrated. The breakdown usually occurs when a civilization loses a positive image of its future, since the image of the future motivates actions, provides a criterion for selecting priorities, and literally forms the future for that civilization.1
"Disintegration" and "breakdown" are surely exaggerated descriptions of our present business and economic afflictions, but there can be little doubt that the U.S. business community lacks a positive image of its future. This lack in turn has left us with little motivation beyond individual or corporate survival, and the result, in present circumstances, may be economically counterproductive as well as morally and philosophically destructive. Also, for kindred reasons there is little sense of priority or direction in national policy other than the hope that the various combinations of restraint and expansionism will somehow get us back to "normalcy."
This sense of aimlessness is unnecessary and unjustified, and unless corrected, could indeed lead us toward a Toynbeean type of decline and fall. I believe this condition derives from a general misunderstanding of the "nature of reality" of the world that business has made, and most particularly from a failure to appreciate the developmental and even evolutionary prospects already implicit in the achievement.
We are, it is true, plagued with compound economic, political, and social problems that seem to defy analysis, let alone solutions. And legions of economists, government planners, and social scientists are at work on the specifics, as they should be. It would be preposterous to suggest that these problems can be waved away by the power of positive thinking. But there is such a thing as a power of negative thinking. And if it is true that "the image of the future motivates actions," one could argue that the work of public problem solving would be made easier with a clearer perception of our present position and some sense of potential destination.
To understand where we can go and what we can be, we must first appreciate where we are and what we are. This appreciation begins with the acceptance of a fact long shunned by academic, religious, and social thought: that the United States is a business society, or a business civilization. Thus business, as defined here, is something far more than one sector of national activity, and businessmen far more than a group of managers or entrepreneurs locked in conflict (as they sometimes imagine themselves) with everybody else.
Business is the United States's principal national effort. It is, as Julian Koenig has written, "the aggregator and articulator of our interests, the broker of our hopes, and the builder of our road to riches, both tangible and spiritual."2 It would take an obtuse businessman to deny that he is the beneficiary of scholarly research, of science and technology, of education, of government policy, and even of the dominant Protestant ethic that reinforces man's inclination to express himself through work.
But this is far from saying that the diverse elements of U.S. national culture are subservient to business. Rather these elements interact continuously with business--each maintaining a sphere of independent thought and action. The business society, then, is a continuing interplay of forces whose principal expression is the production of goods and services under a profit discipline. Even if we acknowledge the widening influence of educational institutions, of nonprofit foundations, and of governmental bureaucracies, it is this productive activism that still gives purpose to the lives of most Americans and is spreading its influence to new millions in Europe and Asia.
In this article I will argue that this system bulwarks and activates the qualities that most Americans deem essential to modern life: political freedom, social achievement, humanist means, and progressive goals. Central to this argument is the notion that the business society is a process that enlists