A High Road for the 21st Century

This article lays out four pillars for adapting previous ideals about global justice to the 21st century. As you read, consider how these pillars relate to the human rights issues we have discussed, and how they present a vision for a more just global society.

In the 1990s, American scholar Joel Rogers proposed the term “High Road” to refer to policies and institutions that jointly uphold and advance the three social values of shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, and participatory democracy. Shared prosperity refers to improvements in human well-being and equal opportunities for all humans to “participate in and benefit from” the activities that produce those improvements. Environmental sustainability refers to “efficient use, maintenance, and restoration of the environmental services needed to support human life.” And participatory democracy refers to governance according to the maxim of “of, by, and for the people.”[1]

While these values are as laudable and fundamental to social life today as they ever were, the intersecting and multiplying crises coming to a head in the 21st Century – climate change, the global Covid-19 pandemic, systemic racism, racial and gender oppression, state violence, police militarization and police brutality, mass surveillance, political polarization, rising inequality, and so many others – call for an updated definition of the High Road. One that makes explicit not only what the High Road stands for, but what it opposes. One that is overtly connected to a broader theory of change regarding how to build a High Road future. One that offers allies a specific set of criteria on which to evaluate policies and practices in order to inform advocacy strategies and grassroots campaigns. In short, 21st Century crises demand a 21st Century High Road (“High Road-21”).

Importantly, the High Road that Rogers built still possesses a rock-solid foundation, and we are not calling for its wholesale replacement. High Road-21 is simply about broadening and repaving the surface, painting brighter lines, and installing new lighting to illuminate the paths that lead away from the harmful, discriminatory, gridlocked systems in which most of us have spent the majority of our lives, and to which we’re told that there is no alternative.

There are alternatives. Below, we articulate four key pillars of an alternative, High Road system for the 21st Century. We then translate each pillar into one or more High Road-21 policy objectives, and we briefly situate the resulting vision into a broader theory of change. We conclude with a call to action: we ask readers to endorse this statement, and to join us in our attempts to embrace and enact High Road-21 principles and values in our many, ever-changing social roles.

The Four Essential Pillars of High Road-21

Four main, interlocking and interdependent pillars hold the 21st Century High Road in place.

Pillar 1: The High Road is Anti-Racist

High Road-21 is anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-misogynist, anti-ableist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic, anti-classist, and opposed to all other forms of prejudice. While the original High Road principle of shared prosperity is consistent with this pillar in spirit, being for shared prosperity is not enough. It is just as critical to be against all policies, institutions, norms, rules, regulations, conventions, and practices that produce, reinforce, or fail to dismantle the structures and systems that give rise to inequitable outcomes in the human population. As such, High Road-21 explicitly rejects all sources of inequity, violence, and oppression.

A policy or institution is anti-racist if it “produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups.” To be anti-racist is to recognize that there:

“is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.”[2]

Following from these observations, one objective of High Road policy in the 21st Century is to actively tear down, with the intent to fully eradicate, the sources of racial, social, economic, environmental, and political inequity and injustice that presently transcend all scales of our shared society, from the local to the global.

Pillar 2: The High Road is Restorative and Reparative

Whereas High Road-21 is against policies and institutions that produce and sustain inequity, it is for policies and institutions that (1) advance equity in the pursuit of justice, and (2) realign and rescale human activities so that they progressively repair and enhance the ecological systems in which an equitable and just society is capable of flourishing. In other words, High Road-21 is in part a reparative and restorative project.

In line with notions of reparative[3] and restorative[4] justice, the High Road-21 agenda aims to explicitly recognize and purposefully redress the harms caused by a legacy of Low Road – i.e., racist, inequitable, extractive, destructive – policies and patterns of social-political-environmental relations. That means that High Road-21 is committed to:

  • Including all parties – including voices for nonhuman species and ecological systems – as full, authentic participants in decision-making processes that affect them, and which have previously rendered disproportionate levels of harm onto some of them;

  • Creating new opportunities for encounters with or interactions between those parties so that all become aware of the ways in which existing institutions produce and distribute harm across our social and environmental systems;

  • Devising new solutions and crafting new institutions and policies that make amends for these patterns of harm; and

  • Striving to reintegrate or resituate parties into their shared environments with new tools and infrastructure to become caretakers and community members, not competitors.[5]

Along these lines, another objective of High Road policy in the 21st Century is to actively invest in, and develop mechanisms that convey, material and symbolic reparations to the people, places, and ecosystems on which inequitable, extractive institutions and policies have thrust disproportionate levels of harm.

Pillar 3: The High Road is Cooperative and Solidaristic

As evidenced by the list of commitments laid out above for Pillar 2, High Road-21 adopts and advances the values of democratic participation, social cohesion, government responsiveness, and the spirit of compromise.[6] Put differently, High Road-21 is cooperative and solidaristic. It views democratic society as a common-pool resource. Like a fishery or other commons, a democratic society can deliver benefits to all of its constituents. Also like a fishery, however, a democratic society is vulnerable to the polluting forces of greed, short-term profit-seeking, hyper-individualism, and rival competition. Low Road policies and institutions that reward or otherwise promote these tendencies undermine the health and well-being of our common-pool democratic society.

High Road-21 recognizes that a common-pool democratic society is most likely to be sustainably managed – and strengthened – when its members share a sense of identity and solidarity with one another. Shared identity and solidarity fuel and sustain the trusting, reciprocal relationships that are vital for prosocial cooperation to emerge and challenge the Low Road system’s prevailing forces of antisocial competition.[7] Solidarity and the cooperative tendencies that it unleashes are buttressed by processes and rules that provide for democratic self-governance and self-determination, equitable distributions of contributions and benefits, and fair and inclusive decision-making.[8] Low Road policies and practices that concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few are necessarily anti-solidaristic, giving rise to the patterns of inter-group conflict and competition that are so visible in our contemporary crises.

Thus, a third objective of High Road policy in the 21st Century is to actively build new and reinforce existing mechanisms that produce solidarity and trust and promote cooperative tendencies among diverse members of society.

Solidarity and cooperation among humans contribute to the sustainable management of a democratic society. However, a cooperative, democratic society cannot thrive in the absence of healthy, supportive, life-giving ecological systems. Since at least the Industrial Revolution, an extractive, anthropocentric policy agenda has treated ecological systems as inexhaustible sources of free materials, and bottomless sinks for wastes and debris. Arguably the most visible form of human environmental impacts, global climate change, is just one – albeit the most dramatic, large-scale, and urgent – example of the environmental degradation and destruction caused by human activities.

Although human impacts on the physical world occur virtually everywhere and affect all ecosystems, environmental degradation and destruction disproportionately harm communities of color.[9] Thus, for moral reasons that are rooted both in (1) a land ethic[10] and respect for the environment, and (2) a social contract and respect for fellow humans, High Road-21 is committed to building solidarity and cooperation between humans and nature. As such, a fourth objective of High Road policy in the 21st Century is to actively create new and reinforce existing mechanisms that decenter human activities on the planet, realigning and rescaling those activities so they promote the healthy, unimpaired functioning of ecological systems.

Pillar 4: The High Road is Prefigurative

To say that High Road-21 is prefigurative is to say that it is at once visionary and practical. It builds and showcases rules, institutions, and social-environmental relations in the here-and-now – using tools of the present – that model what a High Road society can be in the future. In other words, the 21st Century High Road is not a destination to be reached at some unknown point in the future. It is a path that is already under construction across the planet – a path that leads away from the racist, extractive, short-term, Low Road infrastructure that we’ve been investing in for centuries.

It’s time to finally let the costs of those Low Road investments, and the harmful infrastructure they erected, sink. High Road institutions like worker-owned cooperatives and community land trusts,[11] mutual aid networks,[12] and local agricultural cooperatives and independent grassroots political parties,[13] are modeling what a High Road, sustainable, cooperative, democratic economy and society can look like…if we choose to invest in it. On that note, a fifth objective of High Road policy in the 21st Century is to immediately and actively defund or otherwise withdraw economic support from Low Road institutions, programs, and regulatory systems, and to redirect those resources to the anti-racist, reparative, restorative, cooperative, solidaristic High Road alternatives that already exist and are continuing to emerge throughout society.

High Road-21 and the Dual Power Theory of Change

The Four Pillars of High Road-21 are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. They are all vital to the structural integrity of a 21st Century High Road. As such, they should not be treated as separate elements than can or ought to be built one at a time.

Still, it is a useful thought exercise to consider the individual Pillars somewhat sequentially, in reverse order, insofar as doing so tells a story of change. If the vision is an anti-racist, reparative, cooperative, solidaristic, High Road democratic society, then how do we exit off the Low Road and start moving in that direction?

According to the theory of change to which High Road-21 subscribes,[14] one answer to this question is that we prefigure the envisioned society by modeling it in the here-and-now. That is, we use the tools and resources at our disposal in the present to build equitable and democratic institutions that directly challenge the future viability of the Low Road. For example, we:

  • Form place-based “people’s assemblies” wherein participatory or direct democracy procedures set policy agendas that inform “organizing campaigns…and long-term institution building and development work” to challenge the status quo.[15]

  • Organize independent political parties and mobilize voting blocs to advocate for and elect candidates – and pass referenda – that challenge Low Road power structures.[16]

  • Establish community land trusts and co-housing opportunities to challenge traditional concepts of private property and property ownership.

  • Build cooperative businesses to challenge stockholder-centered enterprise designs.

  • Create benefit corporations, social enterprises, and limited-profit firms to challenge conventional views that businesses must put profits first, minimizing costs and maximizing revenues with every decision.

  • Set up public and community-owned banks, utilities, and energy grids to challenge the misguided belief that market competition makes the private sector better suited to provide these essential goods and services.

The list goes on and on. The point is not to name every variety of High Road institution, but to affirm that they exist. Here. Now.

Collectively, these High Road institutions form the building blocks of a democratic, High Road base of real political and economic power. As that power base grows and becomes more distributed over space, it competes for economic and political legitimacy with the prevailing Low Road power base.

The notion that a democratic power coexists and competes with the concentrated power of the ruling class is what is meant by dual power.[17] To build dual power is to invest in High Road institutions and policies that are “of, by, and for” the people in a democratic society – institutions and policies designed and operated in contraposition to prevailing, highly uneven patterns of power and privilege.

According to the dual power theory of change, as the High Road expands, society can become more equitable, democratic, inclusive, and sustainable. However, while the presence of prefigurative High Road institutions and voting blocs is a necessary condition for weakening the Low Road power base, it is not sufficient. Rather, it is also essential to build solidarity between High Road institutions, and between those institutions and the population at large. If we are all to eventually live on the High Road together, then we need to see and get to know one another. The High Road, in other words, cannot be built without strong networking, organizing, and mobilization.

With a visible, networked, and expanding alternative to the Low Road in place, the potential for social cooperation – in the form of collective withdrawal from the Low Road economy and movement toward High Road alternatives – grows. As this potential gets realized, the scales start to tip in favor of the High Road. Eventually, the swelling democratic power base gains legitimacy. With added legitimacy comes greater political power to dismantle preexisting inequitable, racist, Low Road policies, and to make amends for their legacies. In other words, a strong base of legitimate democratic power paves the way for restorative and reparative measures that undo the harms of the past. In their place, the High Road power installs sustainable and anti-racist fixtures that guarantee equity and justice for all.

Over time, the interplay of (1) dismantling and making amends for mechanisms that lead to inequity and environmental destruction, and (2) building equitable, sustainable mechanisms to take their place, closes off the Low Road and helps the few who remain stuck in its gridlock to join the rest of us on the High Road.[18]

In sum, the 21st Century High Road is the welcoming, sustainable infrastructure on which we build dual power. It’s where relentlessly democratic, equitable, anti-racist, solidaristic institutions, campaigns, and policies will allow all humans to flourish as equal members of healthy, well-functioning ecological systems. Simply put, it’s where we go from here.


[1] Rogers, Joel. “What does 'high road' mean?” University of Wisconsin-Madison, COWS, 1990. Last accessed 3 June 2020. https://www.cows.org/_data/documents/1776.pdf

[2] Kendi, I.X., 2019. How to be an Antiracist. One World/Ballantine. (p. 18).

[3] International Center for Transitional Justice, n.d. “Gender and Transitinoal Justice: A Training Module Series.” Last accessed 4 June 2020. https://www.ictj.org/multimedia/interactive/gender-and-transitional-justice-training-module-series

[4] Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, n.d. “Lesson 1: What is Restorative Justice?” Last accessed 4 June 2020. http://restorativejustice.org/restorative-justice/about-restorative-justice/tutorial-intro-to-restorative-justice/lesson-1-what-is-restorative-justice/

[5] Ibid.

[6] Fung, A., 2019. Saving Democracy from Ourselves: Democracy as a Tragedy of the Commons. In Satz, D. and Lever, A. eds. Ideas That Matter: Democracy, Justice, Rights. Oxford University Press, USA.

[7] Ostrom, E., 1990. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge university press.

[8] Atkins, P.W., Wilson, D.S. and Hayes, S.C., 2019. Prosocial: using evolutionary science to build productive, equitable, and collaborative groups. New Harbinger Publications.

[9] Bullard, R.D., 2000. Dumping in Dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality. Routledge.

[10] Leopold, A., 1989. A Sand County almanac, and sketches here and there. Oxford University Press, USA.

[11]Colón, J.M., Herson-Hord, M., Horvath, K.S., Martindale, D. and Porges, M., 2017. Community, Democracy, and Mutual Aid: Toward Dual Power and Beyond. The Next System Project, https://thenextsystem.org/sites/default/files/2017-07/Symbiosis_AtLargeFirst-corrected-2.pdf.

[12] Mutual Aid Networks, n.d. Last accessed 3 June 2020. https://www.mutualaidnetwork.org/

[13] Akuno, K., 2014. The Jackson-Kush Plan: The Struggle for Black Self-Determination and Economic Democracy.

[14] Colón et al. Also see: Akuno, K., Nangwaya, A. and Jackson, C., 2017. Jackson rising: The struggle for economic democracy and black self-determination in Jackson, Mississippi. Daraja Press.

[15] Akuno.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Black Socialists of America. “Dual power map.”

[18] Rogers, Joel and Wright, E., 2015. American society: How it really works, 2E. New York: WW Norton. (p. 228).

Source: Russell Weaver, https://www.hamptonthink.org/read/a-high-road-for-the-21st-century
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Last modified: Monday, September 20, 2021, 3:15 PM