A good historian could take us back to the early part of the 20th Century when Rudolf Steiner developed his idea of the Threefold Social Organism. By 1917, when the idea was first articulated in his two Memoranda, the Great War was in its third year, a war like nothing humanity had ever experienced. They called it “total war” because it consumed the entire energy of the populations in the warring nations. And it consumed more than energy; it consumed lives. Upwards of 20 million were dead by the armistice on November 11, 1918 and another 20 million were wounded. It was a time of tremendous questioning and debate about the right way to organize modern social life. The western capitalist model was being challenged by socialist movements and by the communist revolution in Russia (1917). Workers chained to the harsh environment of smoke belching factories were yearning for a better life, and by the millions they read the writings of Karl Marx. Rosa Luxemburg had organized the Spartacus League in Germany and was agitating for a communist revolution to parallel the disaster enacted by the Bolsheviks in Russia. Capitalist businessmen were at their wits’ end trying to understand what would constitute the future structure of Germany. Rudolf Steiner introduced his great threefold idea in this fiery milieu, when many people really wrestled with the riddle of how best to organize human society. His efforts left their mark on historic documents. For example, Raymond G. Fuller reviewed Steiner’s seminal Towards Social Renewal, in a full-page article in the January 14, 1923 edition of the New York Times Book Review under the title “New Scheme of Social Organization.”
The intensity of questioning died down during the course of the 20th Century, but, as we enter the 21 Century, symptoms of social turmoil and discontent are reaching such a pitch that real striving for better ways of organizing social life is emerging again. Perhaps this will lead to re-examination of Rudolf Steiner’s Threefold Social Organism.
Rudolf Steiner developed the idea between 1917 and 1922. The core concept recognizes three domains of human social activity: economic, legal, and cultural. Steiner maintained that the health of human society depended on an adult population that understood the characteristics of each domain and could thereby organize society so that each domain enjoyed independence and autonomy. In an early characterization Steiner said the three domains should be as independent from one another as national states interacting by way of treaties.
Economic life concerns transforming what nature provides in the mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms into commodities that meet human needs. From the threefold perspective, economic activity should be organized and carried out in the spirit of brotherhood with the objective of meeting the needs of all human beings on the planet.
Rudolf Steiner maintained that the entire economic life was encompassed by what he called the “Law of True Price.” He formulated the law in these words: “A true price is forthcoming when a man receives, as counter-value for the product he has made, an amount sufficient to enable him to satisfy the whole of his needs, including of course the needs of his dependents, until he will again have completed a like product.”
To understand the law requires serious study. In this introduction only a few pointers can be offered. First, it is essential to remove an error in economic thinking -- the concept of “wages.” Steiner maintained the idea of wages, i.e. paying people for their labor, is an illusion. In reality all real labor produces something of value, and the worker is paid for this value. Consequently, to properly perceive the economic life, it is necessary to picture each wage earner as actually running a little business that creates value and to interpret the wage as the price paid for the value. When wages are included among other prices then it is possible to apply the Law of True Price.
A second pointer is to observe that the formula speaks of the future, and states that true price allows the participants in the economic life to meet their needs for the time required to reproduce the value. It seems evident that if this is not the case, if people could not meet their needs for a sufficient time to reproduce the value, then eventually the economic process would beak down.
The formula also includes the challenging term “needs” which leads to the obvious question of determining them. It should be noted that the idea of needs was far more transparent in 1922 when Steiner formulated the law. Since then the enormous forces of commercial psychology and advertising have conspired to manipulate needs and transform them into desires. For a good discussion of this very significant and sinister transformation of civilization see the film Century of the Self by Adam Curtis which describes, in particular, the work of Freud’s nephew, Bernays, who was the father of public relations and manipulative advertising. The basic point is there are real needs that can be made visible when the impact of powerful subliminal manipulation is weeded out of the soul.
In Steiner’s picture of the economic domain, associations of the economic life collect price data and use a combination of market forces and other policy tools to keep prices true.
The middle realm of the threefold social organism is the legal domain (also called the political or rights domain). Its role is to establish laws that govern the behavior of all adults equally. From the threefold perspective this domain is exclusively about human rights and, in particular, there is no room here for business entities. From this it follows that there is no place in the legal domain for corporations as legal persons. Regulation of business life is a matter for associations of the economic life. Political questions concerning human rights and obligations are the sole subject matter of the political\rights domain. The laws formulated in this domain should be formulated independent of economic concerns and power. This means that economic resources should play no role in deciding the rights, laws and obligations of human beings. Once rights and laws have been established society must have the power to enforce them and, consequently, police power belongs to the legal domain. To the extent that it is necessary to defend the rights from foreign intrusion, military power also belongs here.
Culture, in the widest sense, is about the cultivation and recognition of human capacities. Human capacities are the spiritual endowments that rain in upon the earth with the births of new human beings. Finding the best way of unfolding these capacities is the task of the cultural domain. The key ingredient for this is freedom. The archetypal picture of this freedom-in-operation is the teacher with his students. In unfolding this relationship only the spiritual/mental faculties, feelings and insights of the teacher and students should come into play. Steiner described this freedom in a newspaper article:
“[The cultural life] aims at a form of cooperation among men to be based entirely on the free intercourse and free association of individuality with individuality. Here human individuality will not be forced into an institutional mold. How one person assists another, how one helps another advance will simply arise from what one, through his own abilities and accomplishments, is able to be for the other. It is no great wonder that presently many people are still able to imagine nothing but a state of anarchy as a result of such a free form of human relations in the social order’s spiritual-cultural branch. Those who think so simply do not know what powers of man’s innermost nature are hindered from expanding when man is forced to develop in the pattern into which the state and economic system mold him. Such powers, deep within human nature, cannot be developed by institutions, but only through what one being calls forth in perfect freedom from another being.”
This passage makes clear that no laws or regulations should be formulated about how or what a teacher should teach. The how and what of teaching is a purely cultural matter and is the providence of colleges of teachers interacting on the basis of freedom in the cultural domain. Similarly, economic power should in no way be allowed to determine how cultural life is conducted.
In addition to education the cultural life encompasses all of science, art, religion, medicine, and the working of judges. Each of these areas is about human capacity. Artistic endeavor concerns the capacity to transform nature into sensory experiences that awaken spiritual ideals, even beauty; religion concerns – among other capacities - the capacity of reverence; medicine the capacity for recognizing and tending illness; the work of judges deals with the capacity for weighing truth with criminality. Inventing and innovation are actually part of cultural life too. The aspect of banking and finance concerned with recognizing individuals whose developed capacities make them able to manage capital is likewise part of cultural life.
All of these activities require freedom and competition among human beings of capacity, allowing the most talented to rise to the top. The notion that competition belongs in economic life is a confusion that arises because part of cultural life is mistakenly viewed by our civilization as economic. What our civilization views as business competition in product development and innovation is the same sort of activity that takes place in a competition for the first chair violin in an orchestra. In other words, it is an activity of the free cultural life. It is this confusion that has led to the erroneous idea that economic life is about competition.
Equally erroneous is the association of freedom with the economic life. In reality a deep and dense network of dependencies characterizes economic life. These become particularly visible when disaster strikes. For example, the bankruptcy of a large automobile manufacturer spreads a wave of damage and hurt in ever widening circles. First to loose their livelihoods are those who work for the manufacturer. As the wave expands the suppliers to the automobile manufacturer and the car dealerships feel the pain of reduced income or bankruptcy. The circle of people who have lost their jobs or who have significantly lower incomes, of course, spends less as consumers, and this affects all the people whose activity was supplying these consumer needs, e.g. town merchants in the affected area, etc. It was Steiner’s insight that brotherly cooperation and interdependence was the true quality that should rule these densely interdependent networks in order that everyone’s needs might be met. The notion that people are free agents in this realm belies the fact that each person is tied by innumerable threads into a complex network that demands he perform the tasks required by the needs of others. Brotherhood is about brotherly interdependence. That characterizes economic life.
The three qualities, freedom, equality, brotherhood were the famous cry of the French Revolution: liberté, egalité, fraternité. The cry was a symptom of humanity’s unconscious longing for a threefold social organism. Threefolding is necessary precisely because these three ideals are incompatible. For example, equality in all things would mean that everybody should have a turn playing a Stradivarius violin in the first chair of the Boston Philharmonic. This would obviously lead to many lousy concerts. Similarly, freedom in all matters would mean social sanctioning of theft and breaching of business contracts. Brotherly interdependency in artistic matters would prevent great novelists or inventors the liberties they often need to stimulate their creativity. The only way to resolve the incompatibility of the three ideals of freedom, equality, and brotherhood is by threefolding the social organism, thereby providing a domain where each quality is exclusively exercised.
It was Steiner’s insight that society should be structured so that each of the three domains had its own organization and autonomy and that the domains would negotiate among themselves on matters of common concern. In his original formulation in the “Memoranda of 1917” he pictured these negotiations taking place in “[a] kind of senate that is elected from the three corporate bodies, which have the task of ordering the political-military, the economic, the judicial-pedagogical affairs…” As an example of such a negotiation, imagine what would happen if citizens interacting based on equality in the legal domain enacted a law that no person should be required to work more than 15 hours per week. The economic domain would have to accept such a decision as it would a fact of nature, e.g. the average rainfall in a region and its implications for agricultural productivity. But in the senate, representatives of the economic domain would point out to representatives of the legal domain that the total economic output would be considerably smaller than if the rights state set maximum work at 40 hours. Citizens in the rights domain might then reconsider their decision, recognizing that everyone would have proportionately less to consume, or they might decide that they preferred the extra leisure and would be willing to reduce their needs accordingly. Whatever was ultimately decided in the rights sphere about the work week would be accepted by the economic domain as an operating constraint just as the farmer must accept the rainfall nature provides.
One-Fold Theocracy to Threefold Organism: The Evolution of Consciousness
This introduction would be incomplete without a look at the world prior to the time when threefolding was a hygienic necessary. Steiner points to the origins of the legal foundation that is a pre-requisite for a functioning modern market economy. When did laws and rights originate? How did we get to the point where we had a system of property rights and dispute resolution? The answer takes us back to ancient Rome. That is when human beings first established real laws. They actually developed two systems of law: one system for relationships between Roman citizens and another for relationships between citizens and non-citizens. The Romans also introduced the idea of a last will and testament. It was an extraordinary innovation that allowed a person to determine what happened to objects on earth after his death. Before Rome, such an idea was unknown. So it can be stated that the ideas of law and rights were born in Rome; that is the time and place of the origin of the middle domain of the threefold organism.
Before Rome, civilizations were quite different. For instance, consider ancient Egypt. It was a theocracy, a world where the pharaoh, a priest-king, ruled over the religious life, the legal life, and the economic life. Thus the religious life encompassed the entire society and was led by the pharaoh who, at least in the Old Kingdom, was considered a god. This god held absolute sway over all legal questions and his judgments were seen as true because they were the judgments of a god. He also ruled over economic affairs.
Steiner held that in very ancient times economic life was organized instinctively. He states, “Certain social conditions obtained among men – caste forming and class forming conditions – and the relations between man and man which arose out of these conditions had the power to shape instincts for the way in which the individual must play his particular part in economic life. These things were very largely founded on the impulses of the religious life, which in those ancient times were still of such a kind as to aim simultaneously at the ordering of economic affairs. …In those early times, the question of labor, or of the social circulation of labor values did not arise. Labor was performed in a certain sense instinctively. Whether one man was to do more or less never became a pressing question, at least not a pressing public question, in pre-Roman times.”
Roman civilization witnessed the separation of the once unified theocratic order into a religious-cultural sphere and a legal one. The idea of the citizen with rights was born. Related to this was the legal status of the citizen’s labor. Of course, slaves who had no rights carried much of the labor in Ancient Rome. Ideas about labor rights continued to develop through Roman times and into the Middle Ages and indeed into our own time.
As labor became emancipated a new problem emerged: human egoism. While labor was governed by religious organizations that saw to it that human beings were “fruitfully placed in the social organism” egoism could do no harm. But as labor rights became emancipated from the theocratic order, humanity had to deal with selfishness. Steiner stated: “[H]umanity strives … unconsciously to come to grips with Egoism … and in the last resort, this striving culminates in nothing else than modern Democracy – the sense for the equality of man- the feeling that each must have his influence in determining legal rights and in determining the labor which he contributes.”
Milestones on the road to democracy include the Magna Carta (1215), the first elected English Parliament (1265), the British Bill of Rights (1689), the American Revolution (1775-1781), and the French Revolution (1789-1799). While functioning democracies were emerging another major event occurred: the scientific revolution (16th and 17th Centuries). According to Steiner, it came about because human beings underwent a metamorphosis of consciousness, i.e. human consciousness evolved. The idea that human consciousness has undergone an evolution during historic time is part of Steiner’s worldview, which is considered radical by orthodox science. Steiner described the shift in consciousness that first manifested in the leading figures of the scientific revolution:
“The picture of nature is no longer drawn in a manner that allows thought to be felt in it as a power revealed by nature. Out of this picture of nature, every trait that could be felt as only a product of self-consciousness gradually vanishes. Thus, the creations of self-consciousness and the observation of nature are more and more abruptly contrasted, separated by a gulf. From Descartes onward a transformation of the soul organizationbecomes discernible that tends to separate the picture of nature from the creations of the self-consciousness. With the sixteenth century a new tendency in the philosophical life begins to make itself felt. While in the preceding centuries thought had played the part of an element, which, as a product of self-consciousness, demanded its justification through the world picture, since the sixteenth century it proves to be clearly and distinctly resting solely on its own ground in the self-consciousness. Previously, thought had been felt in such a manner that the picture of nature could be considered a support for its justification; now it becomes the task of this element of thought to uphold the claim of its validity through its own strength. The significance of the transformation of the soul life can be realized if one considers the way in which philosophers of nature, like H. Cardanus (1501-1576) and Bernardinus Telesius (1508-1588) still spoke of natural processes. In them a picture of nature still continued to show its effect and was to lose its power through the emergence of the mode of conception of the natural science of Copernicus, Galileo and others. Something still lives in the mind of Cardanus of the processes of nature, which he conceives as similar to those of the human soul. Such an assertion would also have been possible to Greek thinking. Galileo is already compelled to say that what man has as the sensation of warmth within himself, for instance, exists no more in external nature than the sensation of tickling that a man feels when the sole of his foot is touched by a feather. Telesius still feels justified to say that warmth and coldness are the driving forces of the world process, and Galileo must already make the statement that man knows warmth only as an inner experience.”
Steiner’s research into the evolution of consciousness reveals that the above-described metamorphosis of human consciousness began about 1413. What Steiner is saying is that prior to this change, human consciousness experienced it’s own thinking as part of nature. After the change, consciousness no longer experiences thinking this way. Rather thinking is experienced as something private and apart from nature. Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum --“I think therefore I am”-- epitomizes the new condition. A consequence of this change in consciousness was man’s new capacity to approach nature as a detached and disinterested observer.
The first historic symptom of the change in consciousness was the scientific revolution. On the basis of newly discovered natural laws numerous life-transforming inventions flowed into civilization. The new technology led to the technological revolution that induced vast migrations from agrarian life into the cities and factories. One consequence: an economic life exhibiting deeper and wider division of labor than had formerly existed began to take shape.
This division of labor had a significant implication: “Whoever works in a social organism which is based on the division of labor never really earns his income by himself; he earns it through the work of all the participants in the social organism.” This constitutes that interdependence that characterizes modern economic life, an interdependence that needs to unfold in brotherliness. As these impulses of the new scientific consciousness spread through humanity, an independent economic life, like an amoeba, detaches itself from the legal and cultural domains. This occurs as the depth and breath of economic interdependence intensifies.
This rapid survey of historic time illustrates that in very ancient times, civilization was one-fold and dominated by a theocratic order. When we reach ancient Rome, the legal system began to manifest a separate identity and the idea of the citizen with rights emerges. Much later, during the 17 and 18th, the economic system begins to exhibit an independent identity. Steiner observes: “[I]n former epochs – nay, even as late as the 15th and 16th century – economic questions such as we have today did not even exist.”
The emergence of three independent domains of human social activity from an ancient unified theocracy occurred more or less unconsciously. In the early part of the 20th Century Rudolf Steiner tried to call humanity’s attention to the necessity of making this reality conscious and of acting accordingly. The history of his remarkable attempt to re-structure post World War I Europe on the basis of this idea will be described in the next section. As that and subsequent attempts to make the threefold idea the conscious organizing principal of some land on the earth have so far failed, the threefold idea has never enjoyed a laboratory where it could be worked out in practical life. Nonetheless the threefold idea can serve both as a lens and a diagnostic tool to view and understand the problems of contemporary civilization.
A simple exercise is to read the news through this lens asking questions like: Which domain(s) of society is (are) involved? Is there an issue of unlawful interference in one domain by another? A common problem is commercial interests (economic) attempting to influence legislation (rights) with the intention of creating greater profits. For example, the decision to go to war with Iraq can be interpreted in this light, though there were, no doubt, other factors at work as well. Recall the preemptive war was justified with the allegation that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. But no WMDs were ever found. On the other hand, it is now known that big commercial enterprises made a fortune as war contractors. Often contracts were awarded without competitive bidding. Evidence of significant over billing and substandard deliverables also exists. Regarding the big picture of the Iraq war, one senior administration official is alleged to have stated the war was really about oil, i.e. not about WMDs.
As another example, consider the news stories pointing to the toxicity of GMO foods and the fact that a vast amount of food in the US contains GMO substances without labeling. Focusing the threefold lens on this issue reveals an unlawful interference of commercial (economic) interests on the rights domain. The evidence is that the majority of Americans want clear labeling of GMO foods, but so far this has been prevented. In Europe, until now, GMO food must be clearly labeled.
Another interesting area to investigate is unlawful commercial interference with cultural life. This can occur, for example, when scientists falsify or hide their findings for commercial gain. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. exposed a startling example of this problem in his article “Deadly Immunity,” published on Salon.com in 2005. The findings of the tobacco litigation provide another example.
Focusing the threefold lens on the 2008-housing crisis can be instructive. The kernel of the problem was that mortgage brokers allowed people to purchase homes they could not afford. This actually represents failure of the internal regulation of the economic life itself. From the threefold perspective confusion exists because the agencies in our society charged with regulating lending institutions are viewed as part of the political sphere, e.g. Comptroller of the Currency, Federal Reserve Bank, Office of Thrift Supervision, etc. From a threefold perspective, most of the functions of these agencies really constitute aspects of the economic realm. These agencies failed to perform their functions, apparently at times under political pressure. This political pressure represents unlawful interference with the economic life. Deeper exploration would probably reveal that economic interests stood behind the political pressure. Consequently, the matter also apparently represents unlawful commercial interference with the political life. The consequence is the tremendous economic downturn of 2008-2009 and the enormous suffering that it implies.
As a final example, consider Internet regulation. This includes the idea of censoring certain content with filters. What governments have in mind includes filtering independent news sites. Evidently, this is an example of political domain interference with free cultural life.
Wrestling regularly with such questions develops the capacity to see what is happening in society more clearly. If sufficient numbers of people would take up this exercise, the foundation would be laid for a true threefolding in the future.
Not Rehashing Plato’s Republic
In addition to exercising a basic understanding of the threefold idea, it is also necessary to answer some of the criticisms leveled against it. One criticism is that Steiner’s idea amounts to nothing more than repackaging the three estates from Plato’s Republic. The three estates were the Philosophers who ruled, the warriors who protected, and the artisans who composed the majority of the population and who provided for the every day necessities. The response to this criticism is that other than the fact of three groups, Plato’s idea has little in common with Steiner’s. In Plato’s Republic each person belongs to one group only. In Steiner’s threefold social organism each person participates in all three domains. As consumers everyone participates in the economic realm and not just by eating. Adult consumers also participate in economic associations along with distributors and producers to survey economic conditions and make adjustments where necessary. By contrast, the fact that Plato’s philosophers eat does not make them part of the artisan estate and the same is true of Plato’s warriors. Another difference is found in the way laws are formulated. All adults participate on the basis of equality in the domain of politics and rights in formulating laws that apply equality to all human beings in Steiner’s threefold social organism. In contrast, in the Republic the Philosophers carry this function. Yet another contrast is this: The leading figures of the political life do not have exclusive overarching responsibility for the guidance of the threefold social organism just because it is threefold, and consequently its guidance arises from three separate centers each responsible for different functions. In contrast the philosophers of the Republic are philosopher-kings, that is they are theocratic leaders of a still one-fold society.
To underscore the idea of three separate centers, Steiner often made use of a comparison with the human organism. The human organism can be viewed as consisting of three distinct functional areas: the nerve and sense faculties which Steiner also calls the head system; the rhythmic system consisting of “respiration, blood circulation and everything which expresses itself in the rhythmic processes of the human organism” ; and the metabolic system which comprises all the organs and functions serving metabolism. He explains that these three systems “maintain the total processes of the human organism” and “function with a certain autonomy” with no absolute centralization.
From the fact (a) that each adult participates in each of the three domains and (b) that Steiner’s threefold society has three distinct functional areas each enjoying autonomy from the other, it should be evident that Steiner is not rehashing Plato’s ideas. It also should be made clear that the threefold idea is different both from capitalism and socialism. For example, Steiner maintained that the entrepreneur and business manager uses capital like an extension of his arm. Consequently, he must have unhampered control over capital. In this sense the threefold idea is capitalist. Indeed, Steiner considered the idea of state control of capital – a key tenant of socialism and communism – disastrous. But Steiner did not think market mechanisms could meaningfully allocate capital. Rather he maintained that bankers and other figures of the cultural life, who had developed the ability to recognize which human beings had the capacity to use capital for the benefit of the community, would place capital at their disposal. Moreover, when these entrepreneur-managers reached a point in life when they either no longer wished or were no longer able to manage capital, it would be transferred to other capable hands.
Steiner’s threefold thinking also diverges from capitalism in that he placed limits on private accumulation of wealth. People of great capacity would be entitled to a share of the profits that arose from the enterprise they directed. When they retired they would be entitled to keep their fortune. However, Steiner maintained that it was not to the benefit of society that great fortunes pass endlessly from generation to generation because it could easily come into unproductive hands that would squander it. He advised that great fortunes (e.g. over $10 million) should be governed by a kind of copyright law for fortunes. Consequently, a certain time (e.g. 25 years) after the passing of the person who accumulated a fortune, that fortune would be returned to the cultural life as gift or placed in the hands of able business managers to be re-deployed for the benefit of society.
To capitalist critics that argue markets are the only efficient way to allocate capital, it should be observed that markets no longer are the exclusive means of allocating capital in the US, generally considered the most capitalistic society. Rather it is allocated by the seat of the pants of the Chairman of the Federal Reserve and the Secretary of the Treasury. (Witness the trillions dropped from Bernanke’s helicopter and Paulson’s legislation in 2008.) Steiner’s idea contemplated a more rational method of placing capital into the hands of people of capacity and morality, who would use it for the general good of society.
In ending this introduction it should be observed that the Threefold Social Organism is not a fantasy. Rather it describes something which already exists but in a muddled way. What is really needed is a public educated to the three domains. Once consciousness of the three domains lights up in sufficient numbers of people, a proper threefolding could be brought about in a perfectly legal fashion. There is no need to speak of revolutions except in consciousness. This would lead to the three centers functioning according to their inherent qualities.
It also should be stated that the emergence of a conscious threefolding would not produce a utopia because problems and tensions constantly arise in social life. What it would produce is an organic way of dealing with the difficulties and tensions before they become explosive. Otto Lerchenfeld (1868-1938) asked Rudolf Steiner the question that led to his formulating the Threefold idea. In his memoir, Lerchenfeld records this thought: “[The Threefold Social Organism] did not provide what was intended to become a definitive solution of the social question, and could naturally not do this by reason of the very nature of a living organism. Nevertheless, there did result out of this idea the way, the only straightforward way upon which the social conditions, the social difficulties with their eternally varying problems, might be guided again and again towards a solution appropriate to the period, towards their curing.”