Wednesday, May 04, 2005

What Is Social Threefolding?

Libertarianism, Socialism, Anarchism, Conservatism, Liberalism -- many a reader could probably come up with a whole zoo of additional political isms, but is there a harmonious equilibrium point where all perspectives are resolved into a unified view that accords each single perspective its due?

That ultimate synthesis is probably always destined to be out of reach. But a relatively new and little known social change paradigm that arguably makes progress in that direction has been a stimulus for much creative activism in recent years by Nicanor Perlas, winner of the 'alternative Nobel' prize, and was decades ago elaborated and put into practice by the philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).

Threefold Social Order and Rudolf Steiner

For a period after World War I, Rudolf Steiner was extremely active and well-known in Germany in part because in many places he gave lectures on social questions. A petition expressing his basic social ideas (signed by Herman Hesse, among others) was very widely circulated. His main book on social questions, Die Kernpunkte der Sozialen Frage (available in English today as Toward Social Renewal) sold tens of thousands of copies. Today around the world there are a number of innovative banks, companies, charitable institutions, and schools for developing new cooperative forms of business, all working partly out of Steiner’s social ideas. One example is The Rudolf Steiner Foundation, incorporated in 1984, and as of 2004 with estmated assets of $70 million. RSF provides "charitable innovative financial services". According to the independent organizations Co-op America and the Social Investment Forum Foundation, RSF is "one of the top 10 best organizations exemplifying the building of economic opportunity and hope for individuals through community investing."

Steiner's Outlook on Social History

In Steiner's various writings and lectures on social questions, he held that there were three main spheres of power comprising human society: the cultural, the economic and the political. In ancient times, those who had political power were also generally those with the greatest cultural/religious power and the greatest economic power. Culture, State and Economy were fused (for example in ancient Egypt). With the emergence of classical Greece and Rome, the three spheres began to become more autonomous. This autonomy went on increasing over the centuries, and with the slow rise of egalitarianism and individualism, the failure adequately to separate economics, politics and culture was felt increasingly as a source of injustice.

The Three Kinds of Separations Steiner Wanted Strengthened

1) Increased separation between the State and the economy

Examples:
A rich man should be prevented from buying politicians and laws. A politician shouldn’t be able to parlay his political position into riches earned by doing favors for businessmen. Slavery is unjust, because it takes something political, a person’s inalienable rights, and absorbs them into the economic process of buying and selling. Steiner also advocated more cooperatively organized forms of capitalism (what might today be called stakeholder capitalism) precisely because conventional shareholder capitalism too often absorbs the State and human rights into the economic process and transforms them into mere commodities. Further, when the State fuses with the economy, the latter withers.

2) Increased separation between the State and cultural life

Examples:
A government should not be able to control culture; i.e., how people think, learn, or worship. A particular religion or ideology should not control the levers of the State. Steiner held that pluralism and freedom were the ideal for education and cultural life.

3) Increased separation between the economy and cultural life

Examples:
A corporation should not be able to control the cultural sphere, for example by using economic power to bribe schools into accepting ‘educational’ programs larded with advertising, or by secretly paying scientists to produce research results favorable to the business’s economic interests. The fact that churches, temples and mosques do not make the ability to pay a criterion of the ability to enter and participate, and that libraries and museums are open to all free of charge, is in tune with Steiner’s notion of a separation between cultural and economic life. In a similar spirit, Steiner held that all families, not just rich ones, should have access to independent schools for their children and freedom of choice in education.

Education's Relation to the State and the Economy

Steiner’s view of education’s social position calls for special comment. For Steiner, separation of the cultural sphere from the political and economic spheres meant education should be available to all children regardless of the ability of families to pay for it and, on the elementary and secondary level, should be provided for by private andor state scholarships that a family would direct to the school of its choice. Steiner was a supporter of educational freedom, but was flexible, and understood that a few legal restrictions on schools (such as health and safety laws), provided they were kept to a minimum, would be necessary and justified.

"Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" and Three Examples of Macrosocial Imbalance: 1) Theocracy, 2) Communism/State Socialism, 3) Conventional Capitalism

Steiner held that the French Revolution’s slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” expressed in an unconscious way the distinct needs of the three social spheres at the present time: liberty in cultural life, equality in a democratic political life, and (uncoerced) fraternity/sorority in economic life. According to Steiner, these values, each one applied to its proper social realm, would tend to keep the cultural, economic and political realms from merging unjustly, and allow these realms to check, balance and correct one another. The result would be a society-wide separation of powers. Steiner argued that increased autonomy for the three spheres would not eliminate their mutual influence, but would cause that influence to be exerted in a more healthy and legitimate manner, because the increased separation would prevent any one of the three spheres from dominating. In the past, according to Steiner, lack of autonomy had tended to make each sphere merge in a servile or domineering way with the others.

For example, under theocracy, the cultural sphere (in the form of a religious impulse) fuses with and dominates the economic and political spheres. Under communism, the political sphere fuses with and dominates the other two spheres. And under the typical sort of capitalist conditions, the economic sphere tends to dominate the other two spheres. Steiner points toward social conditions where domination by any one sphere is increasingly reduced, so that theocracy, communism, and the standard kind of capitalism might all be gradually transcended.

For Steiner, threefolding was not a social recipe or blueprint. It could not be "implemented" like some utopian program in a day, a decade, or even a century. It was a complex open process that began thousands of years ago and that he thought was likely to continue for thousands more.

Apart from his central book on social questions, Toward Social Renewal, there are at least two others available in English: World Economy (14 lectures from 1922) and The Social Future (revised edition 1972).



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