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Social threefolding is a social theory which originated in the early 20th century from the work of Rudolf Steiner. Of central importance is a distinction made between three spheres of society – the political, economic, and cultural. The conviction here is that when economy, culture, and polity are relatively independent of one another, they check, balance, and correct one another and thus lead to greater social health and progress. This should not be confused with laissez-faire economics, however. Steiner was concerned rather that businesses should not be able to buy favorable laws and regulations, and that governments should regulate the economy and protections for workers impartially and not be corrupted by participating in business. “A sphere of life calls forth interests arising only within that sphere. Out of the economic sphere one can develop only economic interests. If one is called out of this sphere to produce legal judgements as well, then these will merely be economic interests in disguise.”. Social threefolding aims to foster:
- equality and democracy in political life,
- freedom in cultural life (art, science, religion, education, the media), and
- uncoerced cooperation in a freely contractual economic life.
In 1917, during the First World War, Steiner first proposed what he often called the "threefoldment of the social organism." Then in 1919, during the German Revolution following the end of the war, Steiner was asked by several colleagues to lead and did lead a public campaign for threefold social ideas. In 1922, he gave a series of lectures on economics from the threefoldment perspective.
Steiner suggested the cooperative independence of these three societal realms could be achieved both through relatively gradual, small-scale changes in individual enterprises, as well as by relatively rapid medium- and large-scale changes in whole economic regions or even in whole societies. Steiner insisted that large-scale changes could only be implemented if accepted by the will of the majority in society, i.e., democratically.
Steiner rejected all ideology, characterizing it as a restriction and imposition on what lives in people.
Instead, Steiner sought to create conditions whereby people themselves could act creatively within the economy (through what he called associations, as well as through what today is sometimes called steward-owned business and stakeholder capitalism), within politics (through more participatory forms of direct democracy), and within culture (through the autonomy of teachers and other cultural workers). “All ideal programs are to be dismissed, all prescriptions are to be dismissed, everything is placed into the immediate impulse of the individual ability.”
Steiner described how the three spheres had been growing independent over thousands of years, evolving from ancient theocracies which governed all aspects of society; then, gradually separating out the purely political and legal life (beginning in Ancient Greece and Rome); then again, the purely economic life (beginning with the Industrial Revolution).
Steiner saw this trend as evolving towards greater independence of the three spheres in modern times. However now this evolution must be taken up with conscious intention by society.
Steiner held it socially destructive when one of the three spheres tries to dominate the others. For example: - "Theocracy" occurs when a cultural impulse dominates economy and politics; - Unregulated and socially irresponsible capitalism allows economic interests to dominate politics and culture; and - State socialism means political agendas dominate culture and economic life.
A more specific example: Arthur Salter, 1st Baron Salter suggests governments frequently fail when they begin to give “discretionary, particularly preferential privileges to competitive industry [hence fascism].” The goal is for this independence to arise in such a way these three realms mutually balance each other, providing healthy cultural equilibrium.
Many concrete reform proposals to advance a “threefold social order” at various scales have been advanced since 1919. Some intentionally cooperative businesses and organizations, mostly in Europe, have attempted to realize a balance between the three spheres, given existing local structures. Waldorf schools deserve special mention in this regard. Another application has been the creation of various socially responsible banks and foundations. Bernard Lievegoed incorporated significant aspects of social threefolding in his work on organizational development.
Prior to the end of World War I, Steiner spoke increasingly often of the dangerous tensions inherent in the contemporary societal structures and political entanglements. He suggested a collapse of traditional social forms was imminent, and every aspect of society would soon have to be built up consciously rather than relying on the inheritance of past traditions and institutions. After the war, he saw a unique opportunity to establish a healthy social and political constitution and began lecturing throughout post-war Germany, often to large audiences, about his social ideas. These were taken up by a number of prominent cultural and political leaders of the time, but did not succeed in affecting the reconstitution of Germany taking place at the time.
After the failure of this political initiative, Steiner ceased lecturing on the subject, except for a series of economics lectures given in 1922. The impulse continued to be active in other ways, however, in particular through economic initiatives intended to provide support for non-governmental cultural organizations. Banks, such as:
- the GLS Gemeinschaftsbank (Community Bank) in Bochum, Germany,
- Triodos Bank in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium,
- RSF Social Finance in the United States,
all were later founded to provide loans (and sometimes grants) to socially relevant and ethically responsible initiatives. Steiner himself saw the continuation of this impulse in the Waldorf schools, the first of which also opened in 1919. RSF Social Finance has also played a role in support of B Lab, the non-profit corporation that has developed third-party standards by which thousands of businesses have become socially responsible in a way that is independently verified.  RSF Social Finance also played a major role in the creation of a steward-ownership structure for one of the largest independent organic produce distributors in the U.S.
Three realms of society
Steiner distinguished three realms of society:
- the economy;
- politics, law, and human rights; and
- cultural institutions, including science, education, arts, religion, and media.
Steiner suggested the three would only become mutually corrective and function together in a healthy way when each was granted sufficient independence. 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 the others, as they had frequently done in the past. Among the various kinds of macrosocial imbalance Steiner observed, there were three major types:
- Theocracy, in which the cultural sphere (in the form of a religious impulse) dominates the economic and political spheres.
- State Communism and state socialism, in which the state (political sphere) dominates the economic and cultural spheres.
- Traditional forms of capitalism, in which the economic sphere dominates the cultural and political spheres.
- Liberty in cultural life (education, science, art, religion, and the press),
- Equality of rights, democracy, in political life, and
- Cooperation in a decentralized, freely contractual, economic life outside the state and operating within the legal and regulatory boundaries, including labor laws, set by the democratic state. Economic “cooperation,” for Steiner, did not mean state socialism, but cooperative types of capitalism, such as are sometimes referred to today as steward ownership and stakeholder capitalism.
According to Steiner, those three 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 and their respective values to check, balance and correct one another. The result would be a society-wide separation of powers.
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. Concerning children, Steiner held that all families, not just those with economic means, should be enabled to choose among a wide variety of independent, non-government schools from kindergarten through high school.
Separation between the economy and cultural life
Examples: The fact that places of worship do not make the ability to enter and participate depend on the ability to pay, and that libraries and some museums are open to all free of charge, is in tune with Steiner's notion of a separation between cultural and economic life. Efforts to protect scientific research results from commercial manipulation are also in tune with the idea. In a similar spirit, Steiner held that all families, not just those with the economic means, should have freedom of choice in education and access to independent, non-government schools for their children.
Separation between the state and the economy
Examples: People and businesses 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 said, “In the old days, there were slaves. The entire man was sold as commodity... Today, capitalism is the power through which still a remnant of the human being—his labor power—is stamped with the character of a commodity.” Yet Steiner held that the solution that state socialism gives to this problem only makes it worse.
Cooperative economic life
Steiner advocated cooperative forms of capitalism, or what today is sometimes called steward ownership and stakeholder capitalism, because he thought that conventional shareholder capitalism and state socialism, though in different ways, tend to absorb the State and human rights into the economic process and transform laws into mere commodities. Steiner rejected state socialism because of that, but also because he believed it reduces the vitality of the economic process. Yet Steiner disagrees with the kind of libertarian view that holds that the State and the economy are kept apart when there is absolute economic competition. According to Steiner's view, under absolute competition, the most dominant economic forces tend to corrupt and take over the State, in that respect merging State and economy. Second, the State tends to fight back counter-productively under such circumstances by increasingly taking over the economy and merging with it, in a mostly doomed attempt to ameliorate the sense of injustice that emerges when special economic interests take over the State.
By contrast, Steiner held that uncoerced, freely self-organizing forms of cooperative economic life, in a society where there is freedom of speech, of culture, and of religion, will 1) make State intervention in the economy less necessary or called for, and 2) will tend to permit economic interests of a broader, more public-spirited sort to play a greater role in relations extending from the economy to the State. Those two changes would keep State and economy apart more than could absolute economic competition in which economic special interests corrupt the State and make it too often resemble a mere appendage of the economy. In Steiner's view, the latter corruption leads in turn to a pendulum swing in the opposite direction: government forces, sometimes with the best of intentions, seek to turn the economy increasingly into a mere appendage of the State. State and economy thus merge through an endless iteration of pendulum swings from one to the other, increasingly becoming corrupt appendages of each other.
Steiner held that State and economy, given increased separateness through a self-organizing and voluntarily more cooperative economic life, can increasingly check, balance, and correct each other for the sake of continual human progress. In Steiner's view, the place of the State, vis-a-vis the self-organizing, cooperative economy, is not to own the economy or run it, but to regulate/deregulate it, enforce laws, and protect human rights as determined by the state's open democratic process. Steiner emphasized that none of these proposals would be successful unless the cultural sphere of society maintained and increased its own freedom and autonomy vis-a-vis economic and State power. Nothing would work without spiritual, cultural, and educational freedom.
Economic support for culture
A central idea in social threefolding is that the economic sphere should donate funds to support cultural and educational institutions that are independent of the State. As businesses become profitable through the exercise of creativity and inspiration, and a society's culture is a key source of its creativity and inspiration, returning a portion of the profits made by business to independent cultural initiatives can act as a kind of seed money to stimulate further creative growth.
In this view, taxes sometimes serve as an unhealthy form of forced donation which artificially redirect businesses' profits. Since taxes are controlled by the state, cultural initiatives supported by taxes readily fall under government control, rather than retaining their independence. Steiner believed in educational freedom and choice, and one of his ideals was that the economic sector might eventually create scholarship funds that would permit all families to choose freely from (and set up) a wide variety of independent, non-government schools for their children.
Education's relation to the state and the economy
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, from kindergarten through high school, should be provided for by private and|or state scholarships that a family could 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 an absolute minimum, would be necessary and justified.
Institutions of civil society—non-profits that for the most part are independent of both the State and the economic life—are globally on the rise. See also this. And this. There has been a debate among students of Steiner's sociology whether this means the cultural realm as Steiner understood it is developing greater independence from governmental and economic institutions. Nicanor Perlas has argued in the affirmative. Gary Lamb has argued otherwise.
A number of reform movements whose leaders and members may never have heard of social threefolding or Rudolf Steiner still unintentionally advance one or another of its three aspects, for example movements seeking to 1) reduce the influence of money in politics by increasing governmental transparency, 2) develop cooperative and socially responsible forms of capitalism (for example, here: and here:), and 3) make it possible for all families, including poor ones, to have educational freedom and the right to choose among independent, non-government schools for their children (for example, here).
- The Renewal of the Social Organism, Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophic Press, 1985, page 26.
- “Where the old conditions still exist, these can be taken as the basis from which to work towards the new separation of functions. Where the old order has already melted away or is in process of dissolution, individuals and small groups of people must find the initiative to start reconstructing along new lines of growth. To try in twenty-four hours to bring about a transformation in public life is recognized by thoughtful socialists themselves as midsummer madness. They look to gradual, opportune changes to bring about what they regard as social welfare.” Threefold Social Order, Chapter 1
- “To-day we should, after all, be learning to see, how at bottom nothing is to be accomplished except by treating things on a big scale, as I might say.” (...) [S]o long as we cannot find a sufficient number of people with the courage at last to say, 'A new day will have to come, with new people! There must be a clean sweep of everything to do with these horrible old parties; something quite new must come to life!’ — Until we can do this, all discussion as to the most effective ways of [threefold] propaganda is so much talk for the cat! We are not living to-day in an age when anything whatever can be done by little measures. We are living in an age when it is an urgent necessity, a sufficiently large number of people, holding the same language and the same ideas (values), should be capable of throwing themselves actively into the thing (action), — not merely being 'quite enthusiastic' about it.” The Threefold Order of the Body Social - Study Series II
- Albert Schmelzer, in his doctoral thesis, The Threefolding Movement, 1919, pp. 132-133: "The conquest of political power was necessary, but if it was to be enduring, he [Steiner] said, it had to be supported 'by the knowledge and insight of the actual majority of the population.' Without a change of consciousness, a longer-term transformation would not be possible. With this rejection of coups and revolutionary violence, and with the commitment to democracy--a commitment completely in line with the threefolding idea--the question was of course raised anew as to how to achieve political power in democratic fashion. An answer is not present in the conversation transcripts--a problem still to be revisited. In place of an answer came an appeal [from Steiner]: 'A question of will must be raised and not merely a theoretical question such as: How do we get the majority? I say: We must have it! And therefore we must work to get it. It must be a question of will. Otherwise it won't happen.'" The Threefolding Movement, 1919, Albert Schmelzer, Rudolf Steiner Press, 2017.
- “No circumstances of party, no schemes of party, have any share in what comes before the world today as the impulse for the Threefold Social Order. Nothing has any share in this impulse, save what can be acquired in the course of a life spent in learning to know the needs, the demands, the conditions and circumstances of all the many human beings living side by side in the various classes. When a practical way of life is then sketched out today on premises such as these, then one is told this practical way of life is a 'Utopia,' an 'ideology!'” The Threefold Order of the Body Social - Study Series I
- Steiner, Rudolf (1921) “The Central Question of Economic Life”.
- Steiner, Rudolf (1996). Threefold the Social Order. New Economy Publications. pp. 10–22.
- “The most significant aspect of the rising forces of our more recent times is humanity can no longer remain stuck on mere instinctive will impulses. That’s simply out of the nature of development it must prepare the form of the social structure out of a (deliberate) conscious will.” “The Social Will as the Basis Towards a New, Scientific Procedure.”
- Salter, Arthur (1933). Recovery. G. Bell. p. 341.
- Lía Tummer, Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy for Beginners, Writers and Readers Publishing, 2001, ISBN 0-86316-286-X, pp. 123-126.
- Johannes Hemleben, Rudolf Steiner: A documentary biography, Henry Goulden Ltd, 1975, ISBN 0-904822-02-8, pp. 117-120. (German edition: Rowohlt Verlag, 1990, ISBN 3-499-50079-5).
- According to Bart Houlahan, co-founder of B Lab, which has been central to the national drive for legislation permitting the creation of B-corporations, “RSF has been a pioneer in B Lab’s work from day one.” See http://rsfsocialfinance.org/2012/09/b-lab-movement/ See also https://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2011/03/16/corporate-responsibility-nonprofit-b-lab-shows-strong-growth/ And see http://www.bcorporation.net/what-are-b-corps/the-non-profit-behind-b-corps
- "Organically Grown Company Pioneers Groundbreaking Ownership Structure to Maintain Mission & Independence in Perpetuity". 9 July 2018.
- Steiner, Rudolf, Toward Social Renewal, Rudolf Steiner Press, 4th edition, April 2000.
- Preparata, Guido Giacomo (Fall 2006). Perishable money in a threefold commonwealth: Rudolf Steiner and the social economics of an anarchist Utopia. Review of Radical Political Economics, 38(4):619-648. Reprint copy
- A few of many possible examples from Steiner's work: “...there is no reason why the free spirit in man should defer to any stereotyped pattern in the interest of the state; it [the free spirit] is not to be limited by the condition that only those shall receive education who can command economic resources,” -- from Lecture V of Steiner's, The Social Future. In the same lecture, he says, “everything relating to the spiritual and intellectual department of life should be detached from the political or equity state, and the spiritual organization should be independently administered in freedom.” In his main work on social questions, Toward Social Renewal, Steiner repeatedly says society needs freedom for all the activities in the cultural sphere -- education, science, art, religion -- they must be independent of state and economic power. He argues that education, like other cultural activities, should no longer be administered by or under the authority of the State, and should be based on pedagogical freedom for teachers, as well as for the families who will choose freely among teachers and schools. With regard to independence from economic power, he writes, for example on page 92 of his main sociological work, Toward Social Renewal: Basic Issues of the Social Question, that all “children shall have the right to receive an education,” i.e., not just those children whose parents happen to have sufficient economic power to afford decent schooling. In the same book, on pages 3-4, he writes that “education, from which all spiritual and cultural life emerges and develops, must be administered by the educators, without any interference from political or economic quarters.” Toward Social Renewal, Rudolf Steiner Press; 4th edition (April 2000), ISBN 1-85584-072-3; ISBN 978-1-85584-072-0.
- Toward Social Renewal, Rudolf Steiner, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1999, page 46.
- Toward Social Renewal, Rudolf Steiner, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1999, page 80.
- Toward Social Renewal, Rudolf Steiner, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1999, page 88.
- Toward Social Renewal, Rudolf Steiner, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1999, page 49-51.
- Toward Social Renewal, Rudolf Steiner, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1999, page 69
- Toward Social Renewal, Rudolf Steiner, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1999, page 76.
- Toward Social Renewal, Rudolf Steiner, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1999, page 50.
- Toward Social Renewal, Rudolf Steiner, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1999, page 93.
- Toward Social Renewal, Rudolf Steiner, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1999, page 60.
- Drs. A. H. Bos; Dr. D. Brüll; Mr A.C. Henny, Maatschappijstructuren in beweging, Vrij Geestesleven, 1973, ISBN 90-6038-042-8
- Mason, Andy (2009). The Barefoot guide to working with organisations and social change. South Africa: Barefoot Collective. p. 21. ISBN 9780620432405. OCLC 915122389.
Works by Rudolf Steiner
- Rudolf Steiner, Toward Social Renewal: Basic Issues of the Social Question, Steiner's central book on social questions.
- Rudolf Steiner, World Economy: The Formation of a Science of World-Economics: fourteen lectures given in Dornach, 24 July-6 August 1922', Rudolf Steiner Press, 1972, ISBN 0-85440-266-7
- Rudolf Steiner, The Social Future (lecture series), Anthroposophic Press, 1972, ISBN 0-910142-34-3
- Three Lectures by Rudolf Steiner on Social Threefolding
Works by others
- Christopher Houghton Budd, The Right-On Corporation
- Christopher Houghton Budd, Freeing the Circling Stars: Pre-Funded Education
- Christopher Houghton Budd, Finance at the Threshold
- Travis Henry, Solving Burning Conflicts through the Separation of Culture and State
- Gary Lamb, The Social Mission of Waldorf Education: Independent, Privately Funded, Accessible to All
- Gary Lamb and Sarah Hearn, Steinerian Economics: A Compendium
- Gary Lamb, Associative Economics: Spiritual Activity for the Common Good
- Martin Large, editor, Free, Equal, and Mutual: Rebalancing Society for the Common Good (a 2018 anthology by various authors)
- Martin Large, Common Wealth: For a free, equal, mutual and sustainable society
- Richard Masters, Rudolf Steiner and Social Reform: Threefolding and Other Proposals
- Nicanor Perlas, Shaping Globalization: Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding
- Guido Giacomo Preparata (de), "Perishable Money in a Threefold Commonwealth: Rudolf Steiner and the Social Economics of an Anarchist Utopia". Review of Radical Political Economics 38/4 (Fall 2006). pp. 619–648
- Johannes Rohen, Functional Threefoldness in the Human Organism & Human Society
- Albert Schmelzer, The Threefolding Movement, 1919, A History: Rudolf Steiner's Campaign for a Self-Governing, Self-Managing, Self-Educating Society (published in English in 2017)
- Michael Spence, After Capitalism
- Edward Udell, A Curious Conversation about Social Threefolding
- Guenther Wachsmuth, Threefold Social Order (From The Basic Ideas of Rudolf Steiner on the Threefold Social Order). Anthroposophic Press, New York, 1920
- Folkert Wilken (de), The Liberation of Capital
- Folkert Wilken, The Liberation of Work
- Social Science Section at the Goetheanum, Switzerland
- Institute for Social Threefolding, Berlin
- Social Impulses - Initiative Network Threefolding, Stuttgart
- Centre for Associative Economics, UK
Articles and Resources
- The Whole Social, articles on current events and threefolding
- Owen Barfield Literary Estate, articles on threefolding
- Social Issues Section at the Rudolf Steiner Archive, an online e.Library
- Transforming Society, a distance-learning course on threefolding
- Overview of Societal Threefoldment
- LILIPOH, a quarterly magazine featuring occasional articles on anthroposophy and threefolding