Three Fold Social Order & Civil Society

Three Fold Social Order & Civil Society

In the social ferment of postwar Europe in 1919, Rudolf Steiner, PhD (1861 – 1925) presented his ideas about reforming the basis of society in three fundamental, autonomous spheres: economic, political/rights, and cultural. For a short time, he worked to bring his ideas into practical application but it soon became impossible to bring about a “threefold social order” and he withdrew from the outer work in this area. His ideas have been worked with over the decades since that time and have proved to be just as valid today as they were then.

rudolf steiner

Rudolf Steiner, PhD (1861 – 1925)

Basically, these concepts have their roots in the ideals of the French Revolution: FreedomEquality and Brotherhood. Since the French Revolution, these three principles have stand model for the Founding Fathers who wrote the American Constitution. Even the text of the Bill of Human Rights show clearly these three principles (the basis for the United Nations which were founded in San Francisco, California in 1949, and not in New York City where the headquarters are presently).

Brotherhood is the area where production and sharing of goods takes place. One’s labor is considered a gift to all and thus, one cannot be paid per hour but each one’s economic needs sould be met by all coworkers together.

It was the sincere wish of Robert Gorter, MD, PhD, to implement these principles of Three Fold Social Order in the way the restaurant Baldur in Amsterdam would function. One of the consequences was that everybody who worked in the restaurant would not be paid per hour and educational background but according to the needs of each. Thus, twice or thrice year, the team would come together and determine how the money that came in was fairly distributed among the team members according to their economic (financial) needs.

Each team member would get a mandate for a certain period of time to carry a certain responsibility, like bookkeeping or buying the bio-dynamic (organic) produce and plan the menu for the week-to-come.

It must be said here that for quite a few years it worked very well. When Robert Gorter immigrated to USA, he put all properties and endeavors in the “Odin Foundation” (NL: Stichting Odin).  He  left the management to all who had been their work for at least three years. To share income according to the needs of your peers is more difficult than one would think. Unfortunately, a few years after the departure of Robert Gorter from Amsterdam, the principles of Three Fold Social Order were dropped.

Five Versions of this work have appeared in English translation, each with its own title. All are complete except the one entitled, The Threefold Social Order which is abbreviated. Other titles include, The Triorganic Social Organism, or The Threefold State, or The Threefold Commonwealth, or Towards Social Renewal. The German language title is: „Die Kernpunkte der Sozialen Frage in den Lebensnotwendigkeiten der Gegenwart und Zukunft“.

The three realms of society are:

1)    It is suggested that the three principles would only become mutually corrective and function together in a healthy way when each was granted sufficient independence. This has become known as “Social Threefolding”.

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. The State should not administer or determine the content or form of education.

Separation between the economy and cultural life: possible profit from the realm of economics (Brotherhood) should flow back to the realm of culture (Freedom).

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. 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 (the phenomenon of Lobbyists). 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.

The solution would be “Cooperative Economic Life”.

2)    Rudolf Steiner advocated cooperative forms of capitalism, or what might today be called 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,[10] 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 a) make State intervention in the economy less necessary or called for, and b) 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.[10] 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.[15] 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.[16] Nothing would work without spiritual, cultural, and educational freedom.

An example of Steiner’s students working toward cooperative capitalism is the RSF Social Finance organization. Among other things, RSF Social Finance has been a supporter of B Lab, a company that is helping drive the national movement in the U.S. for legislation permitting the creation of B-corporations. Such legislation has been passed so far in a dozen or more U.S. states, and is being worked on in many more. According to its supporters, the B-corporation, or benefit corporation, is a new corporate form designed for for-profit entities that want to consider the good of the society and the environment in addition to profit in their decision making process. Benefit corporations are legally protected from lawsuits charging a failure to consider only the maximization of shareholder value. The additional accountability provisions found in a benefit corporation require the director and officers to consider the impact of their decisions not only on shareholders but also on society and the environment. The benefit corporation, supporters claim, seeks to merge the idealism of non-profits with the economic productivity of the profit motive, and is intended to further “stakeholder capitalism” – capitalism concerned with a broader set of interests than are pursued by the traditional shareholder-value-maximizing corporation. When Ben & Jerry’s sold their socially responsible ice cream company, the law on maximizing shareholder value left them little other choice than to sell to whoever came along as the highest bidder. By contrast, the benefit corporation’s legal form, if Ben and Jerry’s could have adopted it at the time, would have permitted and required them to consider a broader set of concerns as well as shareholder value.


3)    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.


4)    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.

“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”


5)    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 (education, science, art, religion, media),

Equality in a democratic political life, and

Uncoerced solidarity 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. 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.

Steiner points toward social conditions where domination by any one sphere is increasingly reduced, so that theocracy, state socialism, and traditional forms 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.

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. 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.

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