Social Threefolding

Social Threefolding

Social Threefolding is a social movement which aims to reform society by increasing the independence of society's three realms (economy, polity and culture) in such a way that those three realms can mutually correct each other in an ongoing process. The movement aims for democracy in political life, freedom in cultural life, and uncoerced cooperation/community in economic life. It is based on the philosophy of Anthroposophy founded by Rudolf Steiner.Johannes Hemleben, "Rudolf Steiner: A documentary biography", Henry Goulden Ltd, 1975, ISBN 090482202-8, pp. 117-120. (German edition: Rowohlt Verlag, 1990, ISBN 349950079-5).] Lía Tummer, "Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy for Beginners", Writers and Readers Publishing, 2001, ISBN 086316286-X, pp. 123-126.] Steiner held that polity, culture and economy had been slowly growing independent of one another for thousands of years, and would continue to do so for thousands more. Thus a "threefold social order" is not a finite blueprint or something that might be "implemented" in the course of a day or even a century. Steiner made many concrete reform proposals, but the threefold social order is a living open direction and process, not a fixed or finite plan.

The movement has resulted in the creation of various socially-responsible banks and foundations. Many institutions, within their own structures, have striven to realize the relative independence of the three social spheres. The work on organizational development founded by Bernard Lievegoed deserves special mention here, as do many aspects of the Waldorf school movement.

Historical Origins

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 that a collapse of traditional social forms was imminent, and that every aspect of society would soon have to be built up consciously rather than relying on the inheritance of the past. 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 extremely 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 that was taking place at the time.

After the failure of this political initiative, Steiner ceased lecturing on the subject. The impulse continued to be active in other ways, however, in particular through economic initiatives that were 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 and the Netherlands; and the "Rudolf Steiner Foundation" in the United States, 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. [Tummer, op. cit., pp. 127-128.]

Three realms of society

Steiner distinguished three realms of society:
* the economy;
* politics and human rights; and
* cultural institutions.

He suggested that the three would only function together harmoniously when each was granted sufficient independence.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] ] This has become known as "social threefolding".

eparation 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.

eparation between the economy and cultural life

"Examples:" The fact that churches, temples and mosques 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. In a similar spirit, Steiner held that all families, not just rich ones, should have freedom of choice in education and access to independent, non-government schools for their children. Other examples: A corporation should not be able to control the cultural sphere 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.

eparation between the state and the economy (stakeholder economics)

"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 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." [Rudolf Steiner, quoted in Preparata, op. cit., p. 628.] Steiner also advocated more cooperatively organized forms of capitalism (what might today be called stakeholder capitalism) precisely because conventional shareholder capitalism tends to absorb the State and human rights into the economic process and transform them into mere commodities.

Three realms of money

Money could be defined as: 'A token or representation of the work done for society by a business or individual; the amount society is indebted to the individual in services'. Money is earned through effort by the individual/business carrying out work for society, i.e. producing a product.


Money used to purchase goods is earned by doing services for society and can be exchanged for services or consumables in society.


Money lent to fund economic ventures has been earned by individuals or businesses who have chosen to use it for this purpose rather than to purchase consumables.


The cultural realm (education, religion, research etc) by businesses and individuals is largely supported by donations.

Steiner suggested that profits from businesses - i.e. from what remains after the workers have been paid and loans and interest have been paid back should be used to support cultural endeavors. According to social threefolding, returning this money to shareholders leads to an unhealthy social organism. In business profits are made through creativity and inspiration. People get creativity and inspiration from the cultural realm it therefore makes sense to plough the profit back into the cultural realm of society. Taxes are a form of forced donation; according to social threefolding for a healthy social organism giving money should be donated in freedom to the cultural sphere.

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 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.

"Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"

Among the various kinds of macrosocial imbalance Steiner observed, there were three major types:
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 and their respective values 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 and state socialism, the political sphere fuses with and dominates the other two spheres.
*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.

Civil society

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. Fact|date=October 2008 This is seen by some observers as a sign of the cultural realm developing independence from governmental and economic institutions.Fact|date=October 2008


Works by Rudolf Steiner

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":

*Rudolf Steiner, "Towards Social Renewal: Rethinking the basis of society", Rudolf Steiner Press, 1999, ISBN 1-85584-072-3
*Rudolf Steiner, "World Economy: The formation of a science of world-economics: fourteen lectures given in Dornach, 24th July-6th August, 1922", Rudolf Steiner Press, 1990, ISBN 0-85440-266-7
*Rudolf Steiner, "The Social Future", Anthroposophic Press, 1972, ISBN 0-91014-234-3

External links

* [ Social Threefolding Discussion Group]
* [ Institute of social Threefolding]
* [ Global Network for Social Threfolding]
* [ Threefolding the Social Organism]
* [ Social Impulses - Initiative Network Threefolding]
* [ Rudolf Steiner's book "Basic Issues of the Social Question"]
* [ Three Lectures by Rudolf Steiner on Social Threefolding]
* [ Center for Alternative Development Initiatives]
* [ Fourfold Social Order (The four-way-path-model of a future democracy)]

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