“The Times are the masquerade of the eternities; trivial to the dull, tokens of noble and majestic agents to the wise; the receptacle in which the Past leaves its history; the quarry out of which the genius of to-day is building up the Future. The Times—the nations, manners, institutions, opinions, votes, are to be studied as omens, as sacred leaves, whereon a weighty sense is inscribed, if we have the wit and the love to search it out.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
In 1919, amidst the revolutionary turmoil of the post-war period in Europe, the Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner applied his anthroposophical understanding of the human being to the challenges facing modern society. He called his program “Social Threefolding.” Those interested in the details of the campaign should read Albert Schmelzer’s The Threefolding Movement, 1919, A History: Rudolf Steiner’s Campaign for a Self-governing, Self-managing, Self-educating Society (2017). For Steiner’s explications, see this archive. After initially winning widespread support from workers and some liberals and leaders of industry in Stuttgart, Germany, the effort came under attack from left, right, and center alike. The movement’s failure was due in large part to Steiner’s refusal to succumb to partisan ideological factions. “We have to admit,” Steiner wrote at the time, “that party programs are drifting about among us like the dried corpses of now dead creeds” (The Threefold Social Order (1920), p. 11). Threefolding is not simply a program for political reform. Its success depends first and foremost on the spiritual awakening of free thinking human beings capable of willingly and lovingly engaging in social life beyond the partisan half truths that divide us. As Whitehead put it, “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil” (Dialogues by Lucien Price).
I cannot do justice to the scheme in this short blog post. But I want to share some of the basic ideas. I hope to find others interested in developing them further, as Steiner was explicit that his approach needed to be reconfigured for application to different times and places. Despite the need for updates and adjustments, I believe his approach can aid us in our present social predicaments.
Social Threefolding is rooted in Steiner’s perception that, over the course of its collective evolution, humanity has produced three basic semi-autonomous spheres contributing to the health of the social organism. All three spheres of activity are necessary for societal well-being. Problems arise when one sphere swallows or is allowed to dominate over the others.
The economic sphere corresponds to willing and has to do with the metabolism regulating human-earth relations. The political sphere corresponds to feeling and has to do with the rights and laws regulating human-human relations. The cultural sphere corresponds to thinking and has to do with all that springs from individual personalities for the sake of the social whole.
When the cultural sphere is allowed to dominate over economic and political life, the result is some form of theocracy. When the political sphere is allowed to dominate over economic and cultural life, the result is some form of state communism. With a few important exceptions, humanity’s present social (dis)order stems from the domination of the economic sphere over cultural and political life. We call this system of domination “global capitalism.”
Now, 30 years after its triumphant victory against Soviet communism, the global capitalist system looks more fragile than ever. The social and ecological ills produced by the capitalist growth imperative are impossible to deny. It may be that majorities on the left and right now agree that the current global capitalist order needs at least major reform if not total replacement. But with what? It is in response to this latter question that bitter divisions arise.
Speaking as a politically active American who canvased for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020, I find myself increasingly dismayed by the abstract and unrealistic utopianism of progressive left and conservative right alike. The former seems to believe government can solve all our problems, while the latter seems to believe government is the source of all our problems. Much of the confusion stems from a lack of proper differentiation among the social spheres. For example, while the political sphere has a crucial role to play in securing the rights of all people (e.g., by reforming policing and the legal system, securing voting rights, etc.), it simply is not possible to legislate racism away. Racial biases are a perennial cultural issue and must be dealt with as such (there are plenty of examples of the right trying to legislate cultural issues, as well). Trying to legislatively control education or free speech only exacerbates the problem by allowing the political sphere to overreach and dominate the cultural sphere. That said, dealing with racist cultural biases is impossible without addressing racialized political and economic injustices. That the three social spheres are to be given some autonomy is not to say that they can function independently.
What political rights are citizens of a democracy due? Certainly, in the context of the US Constitution, these include the freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, the freedom of speech, of religion, and of association, etc. But how can one secure their right to life without basic housing, nutrition, and healthcare? And what good is abstract liberty if it does not include access to quality education and cultural life? Without these, liberty loses its concrete meaning and efficaciousness. Under our capitalist political economy, the basic conditions required for life, liberty, and happiness are paywalled, and differentially so depending on historically entrenched racial and class inequities.
Under the current global capitalist system, everything from housing to healthcare to human labor is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold for the private profit of an increasingly small cohort of billionaires. From a Threefolding perspective, the economic sphere has in these instances far overreached its proper charter, infringing upon the political rights of individuals. While corporate capitalism has increasingly embraced cultural progressivism, this rebranding amounts to no more than equal opportunity exploitation.
The claim that food, shelter, education, and healthcare are foundational political rights due to all citizens may make threefolding sound like a form of left wing utopianism. But this claim simply asserts the concrete conditions necessary for realizing the abstract rights enshrined in the constitution. While Steiner certainly sympathized with the plight of factory workers, supporting their call for the abolition of the wage system and for greater self-management, he completely rejected the idea of a state-centralized economy. Instead, he imagined an associative economy of cooperative firms seeking to harmonize their interests:
“The regulation of the production, circulation, and consumption of goods will not be done by laws, but by the persons concerned, out of their own direct insight and interests. The necessary insight will be developed through people’s own share in the life of the associations, and the fact that the various interests are obliged to arrive at a mutual balance by contract, will guarantee that the goods circulate at their proper relative values.”Steiner, The Threefold Social Order (1920), p. 9.
In sharp contrast to the materialism of Marxist political movements, Steiner rejects the critique of cultural and spiritual life as mere ideology. On the contrary, Steiner felt that Marxists were blinded by the ideological weight of materialism from recognizing the spiritual content of their own impulses. He sought to affirm their sense of economic injustice while also inviting them to participate in the cultural life which to that point had been largely reserved for the upper and middle classes. This is not to say, however, that Steiner was blind to the impact of bourgeois ideology. During his campaign for social threefolding in Stuttgart, he reminded upper middle class theosophists and anthroposophists that the comfortable homes they withdrew to in order to contemplate spiritual ideas were heated with coal mined by children. He sought both to awaken the upper classes to the plight of workers, and to awaken workers to the spiritual ground of human life, with the aim of seeding the social soil so as to foster a truly free cultural sphere (including education, arts, religion, science, and media), genuine legal equality for everyone regardless of gender or race, etc., and a cooperative, regenerative economy that aims to contribute to the flourishing of humanity and the earth, rather than to profit from their exploitation.