The Urgency of Social Threefolding in a World Still at War with Itself (draft article)

The following is a rough draft of an article I am preparing for a special issue of the journal Eidos (CfP here). I understand that the threefolding idea is likely to upset people on all sides of the political spectrum. I am sharing the article at this stage to invite criticism, as my aim is not to antagonize but to dig below the superficialities that separate well-meaning people.

“The end of the end of history.” These lines opened the call for contributions to this special issue of Eidos in honor of the Ukrainian people who continue their courageous resistance against Putin’s aggression. Even before Putin launched his brutal invasion, Francis Fukuyama’s neo-evangelist claim[1] that all major disputes had been settled because liberal capitalist democracy represented the final form of humanity’s ideological evolution had become something of a dark joke. A list of historical events that continue to refute Fukuyama’s by now infamous thesis would include the 9/11 terror attacks, the illegal US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq which followed, the failure of the secularization thesis and the return of religion, repeated financial crises, the resurgence of ethno-nationalism, and the accelerating climate crisis and broader ecological unraveling (of which the zoonotic “spill over” of Covid-19 and ensuing pandemic must be seen as symptomatic). As Jacques Derrida pointed out immediately following the publication of Fukuyama’s thesis[2], and as Bruno Latour more recently reiterated[3], Fukuyama’s declaration of the “end of history” was never more than a pseudo-secularized and all-too-abstract religious eschatology. 

Adding to the existing cascade of catastrophes, the Ukrainian people (and young Russian conscripts) now find themselves the tragic victims of a geopolitical struggle between an imperially ambitious ethno-nationalist Putin to the east and an expansive NATO fueled by the US military-industrial complex to the west. After heroically pushing back a full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s territorial integrity remains uncertain, with the Russian speaking eastern regions likely to be annexed by Russia. At the same time, rising tensions in the South China Sea threaten to unleash multi-hemispheric military conflicts, or worse. Humanity once again finds itself rapidly plunging into far more than just a war of ideas, dispelling any illusions about history’s apotheosis in neoliberal capitalism. The stakes were set by Putin in his February 24, 2022 speech announcing the Russian military’s invasion: should Europe or the US attempt to interfere in an effort to defend Ukrainian sovereignty, “the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”[4] This thinly veiled nuclear threat is a stark reminder that Russia and the US have thousands of world-ending warheads set to launch-ready status. Many now fear that Fukuyama’s “end of history” may yet find a more literal realization. 

Where is the human community, still only nascently conscious of its shared origin and destiny, to find the inspiration to overcome its tragically persistent internal conflicts? Modern political thought, whether right or left, communist, fascist, or liberal, has thus far proven itself both inhumane and ecocidal in the face of such challenges. Western peoples, benumbed and atomized by consumerist religion, remain complacent behind our digital screens, addicted to doom scrolling and cynicism, unable to find clearer understanding or a means of effective action in the face of overwhelming planet-scale convulsions. As the French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin put it in a recent op-ed:

“Outside the actual war zones, we live in a warlike peace, our bodies settled in peace, our minds among bombs and rubble. We attack an enemy with words, who threatens us in return, but we sleep in our own beds, not in a shelter.”[5]

Given our modern predilection for reductively materialist explanations of the human condition, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) may at first appear to be a rather untimely source of insight. Over a century ago, amidst the revolutionary upheaval following the First World War, the Austrian philosopher, esotericist, and social reformer applied his “spiritual scientific” understanding of the human being (otherwise known as anthroposophy) to the challenges besetting contemporary societies. Die Kernpunkte der sozialen Frage (1919)[6], Steiner’s book about the essential points of the social question was initially quite well received, selling tens of thousands of copies internationally and winning a glowing review in TheNew York Times: “it has novelty and bigness…the most original contribution in a generation.”[7] Launched in Württemberg during the chaos and excitement following the November 1918 German revolution, the so-called “threefolding” movement sought clearer differentiation (distinction but not separation) between the economic, political, and cultural domains. The proposal won early support from some workers councils and produced a few successful spinoffs (like the now world-wide Waldorf/Steiner schools and biodynamic agriculture), but Steiner’s refusal to allow the movement to calcify into an established party mold soon made it the target of attacks from the right and left alike. The threefolding initiative, like the proletarian revolution, ultimately failed, leaving Germany vulnerable to the rise of the National Socialist party in the coming decades. Nonetheless, the argument of this article is that Steiner’s indications for a more differentiated and decentralized social organization remain urgently relevant today at a time when both socialism and liberalism have proven inadequate to contemporary needs and the shadow of fascism once again looms on the horizon.[8]

It is important to clarify up front that Steiner’s proposal for social threefolding is not a new partisan policy or revolutionary utopian program aiming to overthrow existing institutions and impose a final form of government upon society. It is not an ideological manifesto but a handful of seeds and soil to be cultivated within and/or alongside existing structures. It is a sketch of the concrete practical work required to generate the conditions for a healthier harmonization of existing social forces operative at this particular moment in history. As human evolution is ongoing, some years from now new forces will surely predominate requiring novel modes of social organization. All “final solutions” to social problems must therefore be rejected. Further, each local situation will require creative implementation of the threefolding dynamic to suit its unique needs. Grand declarations in favor of universal humanity sound nice, but in the end, successful implementation and maintenance of a healthy threefold organization of society will depend upon the free spiritual activity of individual human beings devoted to their particular communities and environments. Concrete feelings of solidarity with the whole of humanity and broader biosphere cannot be imposed by way of abstract slogans but must be built up from micropolitical agreements and interpersonally negotiated associations. Finally, we must not bracket (or worse, explain away) the inner depths of human consciousness by remaining on the surface in our social analyses, imagining that mere legislative tinkering, piecemeal investments, lip service to empty ideals, or worst of all, technocratic social engineering, could ever reach the root of our social problems. We must tap into the “primal creative thoughts that underlie all social institutions” if we hope to achieve a more harmonious balance among the powerful social forces shaping our world.[9]

Steiner’s threefolding proposal seeks to distinguish and consciously further the dignities of three spheres of human activity which over the long arc of historical development have come to differentiate themselves: they are the economic, the political or rights, and the cultural or spiritual spheres. It should be apparent that Steiner is hardly the first thinker to mark a distinction between these domains. His proposal is not plucked from heaven or made from scratch but distilled from a careful study of history, five years teaching at a socialist worker’s college in Berlin, and his own firsthand experience growing up in a poor, working class family. Though sensitive to the plight of workers under exploitative capitalism, Steiner remained a spiritually motivated anarchist, rejecting revolutionary Marxist calls for state-control of the economy and education. His philosophy of freedom was grounded in a conception of the evolution of consciousness formulated in terms of what he called the “basic sociological law”: 

“Humanity strives at the beginning of civilization for the development of social groups. In the interest of these groups, the interest of the individual is initially sacrificed. Further development leads to the liberation of the individual from group interest and to the free unfolding of the needs and forces of the individual.”[10]

In earlier epochs of human history, the social order was experienced as inseparable from a divine-cosmic order, i.e., as part of a “compact” cosmology in Eric Voegelin’s well-known terms.[11] For example, in ancient Egypt or China, the pharaoh or emperor was both priest and king and served as the fulcrum or meeting point between the divine hierarchy above and the social hierarchy below. In modern terms, ancient compact societies are theocracies wherein the cultural or spiritual sphere dominates over the undifferentiated economic and political domains. Needless to say, the rallying cry of the French Revolution—Liberté, égalité, fraternité—affirming individual freedom, political equality, and economic solidarity, respectively, was as yet unimaginable. In the modern period, as church and state became increasingly separated and capitalism disrupted feudal economies, new human capacities were awakened, but so, too, did new pathological imbalances become possible. Confusion about the proper role of each nascently differentiating sphere led to regressive absolutistic power grabs. Under communist regimes, for example, the political sphere swallows and suffocates the economic and cultural spheres; under fascism, nationalist chauvinism violently erases the political rights of those of nondominant cultures and forces industry to serve the aims of the fatherland; while under the hyper-capitalist mode of production that presently dominates most of the Western world, the economic sphere grows so powerful that legislation, labor, and increasingly culture itself become commodified, thus hijacking human social life to serve the accumulation of private profit above all else. 

We can use an analogy with the human organism to bring the differentiated threefold organization of society into relief, though it should not be taken literally. Steiner does not envision society as a hierarchically closed organic totality[12] but rather as a dynamic and open-ended process of becoming whose ultimate purpose, according to the basic sociological law stated above, is to protect and further the free unfolding of individuality. Steiner relates the human limbs and everything having to do with metabolism to the economic sphere, while the nervous system and senses are related to the cultural sphere, and the heart and lungs or rhythmic system to the political. Just as a functioning human organism requires all three systems to work in harmony, each individual moves between and depends upon the healthy interaction of the social spheres. The threefold social order is thus not a class-stratified pyramid but a Ven diagram of overlapping aspects of social life to which everyone contributes. The aim of Steiner’s threefold teaching is to increase our instinctual sensitivity to when, where, and how the interests of each sphere are relevant and ought to take precedence over the others. 

Given the dominance of economics in Western neoliberal democracies, it is best to start with Steiner’s conception of the economic sphere. Though we will quickly see how, while distinguishable, the three spheres are also intimately interwoven. The idea is not to isolate them, but to thread them together more consciously. The economic sphere has to do with our biological nature as organisms and with the transformation of earthly materials into food and other commodities to meet human needs. In today’s intensely commercialized media ecology full of psychologically manipulative advertising, the economic sphere now also includes a panoply of products designed to meet an ever-growing list of human desires. The hyper-capitalist economy is bent on quantitative growth in profits, rather than qualitative growth in human flourishing, and so new desires must always be produced. There is no escape from our role as consumers in the economic domain, since like all organisms we need to eat and reshape our environments to some degree in order to remain alive. But the profit motive of the capitalist economy has become so inflated that it systematically degrades human beings themselves to the level of commodities, e.g., by turning our attention into a product on addictive social media platforms or by forcing workers to sell their life energies for a wage (thus proving this part of Marxism correct). While Steiner advised strongly against state control of the economic sphere, he insisted that the basic rights and life needs of human beings (whether in our role as workers, consumers, managers, or owners) take precedence over any other economic imperatives. Private land enclosure and the expropriation of labor from workers in a classist society is not a state of nature to be accepted but a moral wrong to be amended. This is an example of the way the spheres inevitably overlap and check one another, as in our political relations individuals are ethically bound to treat one another as ends, never as means (as Kant argued). By commodifying land and the abstraction of “labor time,” the economic domain of commodity exchange trespasses into what are really political issues. Steiner considered the idea that something called “labor time” might be sold as a commodity (i.e., via the wage system) to be a lie rooted in an injustice. Human productive capacity, physical or mental, is essential to our existence as free individuals. To be severed from this capacity, as occurs under the wage system, is tantamount to a form of enslavement, as it inevitably leads to a class division between those who must sell themselves to make ends meet and those who own enough to either work only for themselves or to retire into a state of indefinite leisure. Further, in producing desires rather than meeting needs, the economic sphere trespasses into the cultural. Ideally, according to Steiner’s vision, cultural life is the domain wherein human beings treat one another not as raw material to be manipulated or energy to be harnessed but as free spirits to be befriended and encouraged to grow. Steiner’s understanding of modern economics and the consequences of the division of labor was rooted in what he called the “fundamental social law”: 

“The well-being of a community of human beings working together is the greater, the less the individual claims for himself the proceeds from his work, that is, the more of these proceeds he gives over to his fellow workers and the more his needs are satisfied not from his own work but from the work of others.”[13]

A healthy economic sphere would leave room for free enterprise and individual ingenuity but would involve new conceptions of cooperative management and property ownership, including “temporary disposition rights” over capital contingent upon functional service to the whole community of economic stakeholders (i.e., producers, distributers, and consumers).[14] Property rights become property wrongs whenever they infringe upon our equal political status as free human beings.[15] Rather than cutthroat competition, the economy’s guiding ideal would be cooperative association and solidarity, making sure the entire human community has its needs met and only seeking profits as a side effect of efficient production and distribution. Steiner did not pretend to have any simple solutions for determining just pay for a particular form of work but sought rather to clarify that such determinations were a political and cultural issue and thus not to be reduced to the level of commodity exchange between parties of unequal economic power. Steiner contended that a person cannot remain spiritually free or politically equal if they’ve been severed from their labor power to serve someone else’s profit motive. 

In our age of ecological unraveling, a healthy economic sphere would also be premised upon recognizing our kinship with all life on Earth. Maximization of profit undertaken in total ignorance of the human economy’s utter dependence upon the Gaian oikos is suicidal. Our laboring bodies and their technological extensions are bound up in an ecological continuum with the living Earth, such that the economy forms one inseparable planetary metabolism.

The cultural sphere has to do with our spiritual nature as free, creative individuals. It includes everything to do with education, athletics, art, media, science, and religion. Unless rights are infringed or commodities exchanged, neither the state nor the economy should interfere with what free individuals bring forth in the cultural domain, whether through regulation of speech, control of school curricula, or direction of scientific research. The call for education to be freed from state control is likely to raise the eyebrows of contemporary progressives, who argue for the importance of public schooling both to push religion into private life and instill democratic values. But it is hard to deny that, in practice, state regulation of schools has had many negative side-effects (e.g., administrative bloat and the deadening effects of standardized testing, etc.). State-controlled education also creates a situation wherein economic interests as well as parents of diverse cultural outlooks vie for the political power to impose their worldview on curricula, thus pushing teachers into passive, prescribed roles. Steiner envisioned a proliferation of diverse independent schools run entirely by teachers and centered upon the developmental needs of each student rather than the administration of standardized tests. As under a threefold scheme, access to education is considered a political right rather than a privilege for the wealthy, all parents would receive an educational credit (established by way of a negotiation between political, economic, and cultural spheres) and could then decide to send their children to the schools of their choice. 

At this point, attentive readers may have noticed that Steiner’s two laws, mentioned above, appear to stand in tension with one another. While the basic sociological law of human evolution points to a progressive movement away from collectivism toward individualization, the fundamental social law reveals how economically enmeshed modern individuals have become. Though hyper-capitalist neoliberal social relations encourage us to emphasize greed and selfishness as primary human motivations, in fact the division of labor driving the modern world-economy has made us more dependent upon one another for our basic needs than ever before. Steiner’s description of selfless community work may sound utopian, but viewed from the proper angle, it is simply an observation about the actual functioning of contemporary economic conditions. Today, very few of us would be able to survive without countless forms of work done by others, from the growing of food, to the building of houses, to the sewing of clothing. The problem, of course, is that the materialist idea of human nature as basically selfish and greedy obscures the fundamental social law from our view.   

The political sphere, then, is where free and equal individuals democratically decide upon their rights and responsibilities to one another. While some degree of competition among free individuals (what the ancient Greeks called “agon”) is appropriate and even inevitable in our cultural activities, our democratic equality in the political sphere requires legally enforceable agreements be made that provision social and ecological responsibilities and that protect the basic rights of every individual regardless of race, class, gender, or any other characteristic. For example, the United States Declaration of Independence lists “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” In contemporary post-industrial democracies, the practical realization of such rights has increasingly come to be understood (if not yet legally codified) to require the democratic provision of food, housing, education, and healthcare. Absent such provisions, individuals would be unable to live, much less live freely in pursuit of happiness. Rather than envisioning such basic life needs as privileges for those who can afford them, a healthy social order would assure that anyone unable to work (whether due to disability, injury, or other justifiable reasons) would not therefore lose their equal status as a human being worthy of spiritual dignity. The idea is decidedly not for a state centralized command and control economy to subsume agriculture, industry, schools, and medicine, but for reasonable laws to be passed and taxes levied on economic activities that assure the just distribution of surplus monies to those in need. There’s no question, however, that the threefolding proposal would involve dramatically shrinking the size and role of modern governments, as much of the work done by the current state apparatus would become matters for the economic associations and cultural initiatives to take up. The state would be limited to the legislative and administrative functions required to protect individual rights and enforce social responsibilities at the behest of fully inclusive democratic procedures. Again, the goal of threefolding is not to magically resolve all the problems of social life, but to find better directions for our social arrangements to move. The tensions manifest between individual striving, political equality, and economic solidarity are healthy so long as they are folded into the overall organization of society in a mutually balancing way. 

Though no less critical of capitalist exploitation, Steiner rejected the Marxist reduction of cultural and spiritual life to mere ideology. Marx is often credited with turning Hegel’s dialectical idealism into a potent political weapon in the revolutionary fight for control over the material conditions of history. Steiner’s work in ethics and epistemology especially as articulated in Die Philosophie der Freiheit (1894) may yet still serve as a brilliant philosophical justification for revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist praxis, though without succumbing to Chomsky’s Cartesianism or to any sort of crass materialism. On the contrary, Steiner felt that Marxists and some anarchists were themselves blinded by the ideological dead weight of scientific materialism and so failed to recognize the spiritual origin of their own impulse for political justice. He supported workers in their struggle against capitalist exploitation 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 power 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 about universal human brotherhood were heated with coal mined by children.[16] He sought both to remind the upper classes of the plight of workers, and to awaken workers to the spiritual sources of human freedom, with the aim of seeding the social soil so as to foster a free and creative cultural sphere, genuine legal and political equality for everyone, and an associative, regenerative economy serving humanity and the Earth, not just private profits.

In addition to working within Germany to implement a threefold organization of society, Steiner sought to apply his ideas to diagnose and ameliorate international conflict. He understood the First World War to be symptomatic of an inappropriate fusion of the cultural, political, and economic aspects of social life under the all-encompassing umbrella of the nation-state. Steiner’s criticisms of Woodrow Wilson’s call for national self-determination have often been misunderstood by opponents as evidence that his proposal is anti-democratic. Steiner stood against the imposition of Wilson’s abstract conception because he felt it totally ignored the actual social conditions of Europe, where for example Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Hungarians and others of unique cultural and linguistic heritage lived side by side. Imposing nation-state boundaries upon such a situation would inevitably lead to the oppression of minority groups and the severing of existing economic relations.[17] Steiner feared that the Wilsonian doctrine’s confusion regarding the appropriate relationship between the political state, economy, and cultural or national life of a people would only lead to further conflict. He attempted to convince any German officials who would listen (including foreign minister Richard von Kühlmann, who represented Germany at the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations in March 1918, and the imperial chancellor Max von Baden[18]) that threefolding could prevent further conflict by allowing for cultural self-determination alongside protection of individual rights and free economic associations. Alas, the power politics of the nation-state system won out, leaving the diverse peoples of Europe helpless against the rise of ethno-nationalist genocide and yet another even bloodier world war less than two decades later. 

While the complex history of the region and multitude of competing interests can hardly be adequately summarized in this brief essay, a deeper understanding of the current conflict in Ukraine, and a plan for peace, may be possible if the situation is viewed through a threefolding lens.[19] Obviously, Putin’s ethno-nationalist dream of restoring Russia’s imperial status follows from a deadly fusion of the cultural and political spheres. Such a fusion inevitably leads to minority oppression and even genocide. On the other hand, as Edgar Morin has argued[20], the Ukrainian government must also recognize that Russian speaking Crimea and the Donbas region could only remain part of their territory by way of a federal solution, a path that now seems closed in any event following the Russian military’s occupation and likely annexation of Ukraine’s eastern territories. Attempts by the Ukrainian government to legally enforce the Ukrainian language as against Russian, which is spoken by nearly 1/3 of Ukrainian citizens, provides another example of unhealthy fusion between the political and cultural spheres. The urgency of differentiating between legal rights (whereby our democratic equality is to be protected) and spiritual freedoms (whereby our cultural differences are to be celebrated), which are pathologically merged in the idea of the modern nation-state, has never been greater. Similarly, as the consequences of the struggle over Ukrainian grain and Russian gas exports ripple around the globe, it is increasingly obvious that all of humanity is inextricably knitted together in a single world economy. Oligarchs in the US, Russia, Ukraine, and around the world further their private interests by playing the nation-state system against itself, quietly benefitting from the tremendous profits won through international trade while fueling nationalist hatred at home through their monopolistic control of media. Further, the fusion of state and economic interests represented by the military-industrial complex has turned war and the threat of war into a highly profitable enterprise. 

There are no easy solutions to resolve the conflicts that continue to lead our world down the warpath. History is a bloody ruin of failed ideologies. What social threefolding offers is not a ready-made solution but a new understanding of the problem rooted in a deeper perception of human needs and capacities. Its specific suggestions in the realms of politics, economics, and cultural life seek to balance the one-sidedness of more well-worn ideologies stemming from progressive and conservative orientations. This provides an opportunity for threefolders to forge pragmatic alliances to begin working within existing social conditions but also leaves any successful movement vulnerable to shallow attacks from all sides. Steiner felt that the social and spiritual conditions amenable to the threefolding organization would prevail for several centuries hence, meaning the effort to implement a more differentiated theory and praxis respecting economic initiative and reciprocity, political dignity and equality, and individual cultural freedom remains a long-term spiritual task.  


[1] See The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992). 

[2] See Specters of Marx: State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (Routledge, 1994), p. 106: “For it must be cried out, at a time when some have the audacity to neo-evangelize in the name of the ideal of a liberal democracy that has finally realized itself as the ideal of human history: never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity.” 

[3] See Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (Polity, 2017), p. 195n33: “Quite unintentionally, … Fukuyama provided a very accurate diagnosis of the post-apocalyptic situation of America and the impossibility of re-engaging with historicity in which the nation had found itself for the previous thirty years. How could those who were done with history take an interest in–or even comprehend–the new geopolitics of a multiple Earth? I take this to be the deep reason for the attachment of Americans to climate skepticism: ‘something like that cannot happen to us anymore.’” 

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/24/world/europe/putin-ukraine-speech.html

[5] https://www.ouest-france.fr/monde/guerre-en-ukraine/guerre-en-ukraine-escalade-et-degringolade-la-lettre-ouverte-d-edgar-morin-eba4f72a-d5fc-11ec-9a86-07eb4bd130d9 (English translation by Sean Kelly: https://footnotes2plato.com/2022/06/07/escalation-and-collapse-by-edgar-morin/). 

[6] Translated variously as Towards Social RenewalThe Threefold Commonwealth, and The Threefold Social Order.

[7] “New Scheme of Social Organization,” New York Times book review, January 14, 1923 by fiction author and child labor activist Genevieve May Fox (1888-1959): https://www.rudolfsteinerweb.com/m/NYTimesReview.php

[8] I must mention here the polemical essays on Steiner published by historian Peter Staudenmaier. In numerous articles on the Institute for Social Ecology website and elsewhere (e.g., https://social-ecology.org/wp/2009/01/rudolf-steiner’s-threefold-commonwealth-and-alternative-economic-thought/), Staudenmaier has accused Steiner and anthroposophy of sheltering anti-democratic, pro-capitalist right wing political views, promulgating racism and nationalism, and even of holding proto-Nazi sympathies. While Steiner should be criticized for any backward or misguided statements, many of Staudenmaier’s accusations are simply false or rooted in a “guilt by association” fallacy, betraying his own ideological presuppositions rather than a careful consideration of Steiner’s own ideas and efforts in response to the chaos of the First World War. In Between Occultism and Nazism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race in the Fascist Era (Brill, 2014), Staudenmaier describes the apparent internal contradictions and political pluripotentiality of Steiner’s views (which a more sympathetic reading would see as attempts to hold a dialectical tension between otherwise opposed social forces) while condemning many of his anthroposophist followers for accommodating themselves to Nazi rule in the 1930s (Steiner died in 1925). Despite the unfortunate associations of some of his followers, it is important to note that, while critical of the propagandistic use of “democracy” as a label for political systems whose strings were pulled by economic elites behind the scenes, Steiner was unambiguous in his support of actual democracy in the political domain. His rejection of ethno-nationalism could not have been more clearly stated. Hitler himself condemned Steiner’s threefolding proposals in a 1921 newspaper article as “one of the completely Jewish methods of destroying the peoples’ normal state of mind…” (March 15, 1921 in Völkische Beobachter; English translation available at http://www.defendingsteiner.com/sources/hitler-steiner.php). That said, like most 19th and 20th century European philosophers and anthropologists, Steiner upheld a Eurocentric view of human history. His comments scattered through various lectures concerning historical racial hierarchies must be condemned even while they should also be read in the context of his clear anti-racist and anti-sexist view of the human present and future. For example, in a lecture series in 1917 on the evils that must be overcome in the future course of human evolution, Steiner states: “Someone who speaks of the ideal of race, nation, and tribal membership today is speaking of impulses which are part of the decline of humanity. If anyone now considers them to be progressive ideals to present to humanity, this is an untruth. Nothing is more designed to take humanity into its decline than the propagation of ideals of race, nation, and blood. … The true ideal must arise from what we find in the world of the spirit, not in the blood” (The Fall of the Spirits of Darkness [Steiner Press, 1993], 186).

[9] Steiner, The Threefold Social Order (Anthroposophic Press, 1972), 25. 

[10] Steiner, CW Vol. 31, 255. 

[11] See Voegelin, Order and History, Vol. 1: Israel and Revelation (CW Vol. 14), 44ff. 

[12] The social Darwinist Herbert Spenser, for example, applied biological analogies to social theory, which he intended to be taken quite literally. Thus, stratified social classes were justified by analogy to diverse organ systems and their functions. This is entirely foreign to Steiner’s proposal, which seeks to further the individual freedom of each person by eliminating hierarchical class structures. Steiner’s three spheres are not class divisions, but aspects of social life freely engaged in by each individual. “Steiner’s view is not corporative-collectivistic, but democratic-individualistic” (Schmelzer, The Threefolding Movement, 53). 

[13] Steiner, CW Vol. 34, 34. 

[14] For more on Steiner’s re-imagination of property rights, see Schmelzer, The Threefolding Movement, 56ff. 

[15] Steiner, CW 23, 89. 

[16] Schmelzer, Albert. The Threefolding Movement, 1919: A History (Rudolf Steiner Press, 2017), 108.

[17] Schmelzer, Albert. The Threefolding Movement, 42. 

[18] Schmelzer, Albert. The Threefolding Movement, 45-46. Not to mention the fact that Wilson’s proposal for national autonomy evidently did not apply to the Allied Powers, as England was not required to give up its rule over Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, nor the United States and other Western European powers their colonial empires.

[19] See also Seth Jordan’s article applying threefolding to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict: “To end all wars” published March 4, 2022 (https://thewholesocial.substack.com/p/to-end-all-wars).

[20] Morin, “On the Edge of the Abyss or, How to Wage War on War?” March 9, 2022 https://footnotes2plato.com/2022/03/11/on-the-edge-of-the-abyss-or-how-to-wage-war-on-war-by-edgar-morin/ (translated by Sean Kelly). See also https://www.lesoir.be/428270/article/2022-03-07/edgar-morin-au-soir-il-faut-une-ukraine-federale-et-neutre-trait-dunion-entre

8 Comments

  1. “There are no easy solutions to resolve the conflicts that continue to lead our world down the warpath. History is a bloody ruin of failed ideologies. What social threefolding offers is not a ready-made solution but a new understanding of the problem rooted in a deeper perception of human needs and capacities.”

    Steiner’s threefolding is misguided, flawed and faulty because it (or Steiner rather) does not understand true human nature and the real world we’ve been living in. It’s a doomed failure like the “failed ideologies” of history that suffered from the same core issues. You can’t solve a problem unless you recognize and face the true WHOLE cause of it.

    Without a proper understanding of the world humans live in, and the nature of humans (study the essay “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” at https://www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html), no “easy” and no AUTHENTIC solution for humans’ vast ongoing destruction will ever come forward. All we get is more “failed ideologies” and more RE-ARRANGEMENT of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    Your paper is just MORE of the traditional historical misdirection offered by theorists, intellectuals, and other “well meaning” folks. It’s an intellectually amusing albeit hollow distraction, nothing more.

  2. A start to a conventional essay nevertheless, if one seeks to find a resolution one has to address the root cause of the problem. A quote from Robert Pirsig is therefore appropriate:

    “But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”

    There is a genetic defect in the underlying form of reasoning and rationality; and unless or until that genetic defect is addressed, nothing will change. So much talk but so little understanding……

      1. It has its origin in the centrism of the self-model, no question about that fact; but more importantly, it can be traced to our world view that is best expressed by subject/object metaphysics (SOM). From a physical as well as a psychical perspective, SOM divides our world into parts. Once the division of that intellectual maneuver has taken place and become rooted in our psyche, there is no way to reconcile that division, a division which in itself creates a deep seated feeling of isolation.

        Unification is a personal journey, one that cannot be embarked upon utilizing the schemas of any and all institutional programs. It requires a novel, revolutionary metaphysics which I call reality/appearance metaphysics or RAM. First and foremost, RAM does not divide our world into parts wherein both truth and reality are a continuum based solely and entirely upon context. In the context of homo sapiens being the apex predator on the planet, the underlying form of reasoning and rationality is perfectly suited for that end; and that overall objective is physical as well as psychical survival. However, as long as the self-centric model of survival is the overall goal and objective, our current form of reasoning and rationality is incapable of resolving our personal and social problems because self-preservation trumps all other objectives. This schema is best expressed by the world’s religions, the suppression of human dignity overall and the unprecedented greed of capitalism with its disregard for the well being of others.

        I’ve written and published a book on my findings but have not released it for public consumption; maybe I will someday. Good luck Matthew, I find your essays to be insightful…..

  3. You asked for constructive criticism, so here is my final comment….

    My main concern for any academic such as yourself is this Matthew: Do you really believe that a schema such as a version of Steiner’s social three-folding is the solution? One must take into consideration that the implementation of Steiner’s modality or any other social schema will require the incarceration or extermination of those individuals who choose not to comply. With that impending outcome, are we not once more faced with the full circle of reasoning that ends where it all began, one which results in the oppression of the powerless?

    Would it not be best to be the lone voice in the wilderness who is willing to point a finger at the real problem instead of being an active willing participant in the unfolding of circular history? There is a genetic defect in the underlying form of reasoning and rationality; and unless or until that genetic defect is addressed, nothing will change.

    Be at peace professor……

    1. I must have failed to adequately convey in this draft that the use of force to implement threefolding would be fundamentally at odds with the whole approach, which is anarchist in orientation. There is no place in threefolding for a “they” who would implement, via incarceration or extermination, the “plan.” This is an approach to social transformation that can only spread via dialogue and persuasion from individual to individual, community to community, and would begin by associations of people building organizations in parallel to the existing order in the hopes that others would notice it working and voluntarily take up the idea themselves.

      What you call the self-centric model of survival and admit is basic to animality is what Steiner would call the anti-social nature of our existence in the economic sphere. This is just part of being an organism among organisms who needs to consume to live. At the other extreme is our asocial nature as individual spirits, each a microcosmic recapitulation of the One, which is the creative source that drives the evolution of the cultural sphere. To generate true social relations these two extremes need to be mediated, which is where the political sphere comes in, allowing us to take a true interest in the well-being of others.

      As I see it, reality is not a simple unity. It is a dynamic polarity, which drives an evolutionary process of increased complexity and deeper consciousness.

      1. “To generate true social relations these two extremes need to be mediated, which is where the political sphere comes in….”

        And just who will make up this body of unbiased righteous mediators? Isn’t this political sphere which does the mediating Nietzsche’s infamous master/slave morality, a blueprint for corruption and abuse of power? As long as human nature remains unchanged, there will always be the oppressor and the oppressed. Furthermore, no schema no matter how much intellectual fluff is applied to that naive idea will ever change the brute fact that human nature is self-serving.

        “As I see it, reality is not a simple unity. It is a dynamic polarity, which drives an evolutionary process of increased complexity and deeper consciousness.”

        And what “exactly” is that polarity and why does that polarity drive the evolutionary process of increased complexity?

        We find ourselves suspended in the SOM paradigm, a world of duality. For the Cartesian there is I, the locus of consciousness; that’s one thing and then there is everything else. For the theist there is the creator; that’s one thing and then there is the creation which is another thing. For the idealist there is the mind of the One which is one thing then there is the thought of that mind, which is another thing. In direct contrast to the SOM model, Reality is a simple unity whereas the Appearance is the dynamic polarity and yet, the Reality and the Appearance are one and the same. RAM is a metaphysics which does not divide Reality into parts…….

        There is a reason why Whitehead insisted that all of philosophy is nothing more that a footnote to Plato and Aristotle. This is because those two fellows along with their other Greek cronies gave us subject/object metaphysics, a paradigm that still dominates both eastern and western thought today. Reality/Appearance Metaphysics is a revolutionary paradigm shift that is in direct contrast to SOM.

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