We are living at a turning-point. Fear and tensions are increasing everywhere in
the world. How can we find a way forward?

In recent times the degree of violence and conflict in the world has increased with
every year. Figures from 2014 and 2015 indicate that over 160,000 people have died
in situations of conflict, which has not been the case for the last 25 years. Moreover,
there is no sign of a lessening of terror and violence. War may as yet seem a distant
prospect, but violence is not. Even in an otherwise peaceful Germany there were in
2016 alone more terrorist attacks than in the past 20 years together. Not only is the
number of attacks alarming but also the very nature of terror. The focus is no longer –
as, for example, at the time of the assaults by the RAF – upon specific, selected
‘representatives’ of the system but has become devoid of any conscious choice or
purpose. Destruction awaits innocent non-participants such as people present in a
theatre, a train or a Christmas market. This random aspect reveals an especially evil
form of violence.

Roughly 60 million people are implicated in this picture, people who are at
present having to flee from somewhere in the world, desperate, helpless, trying to
reach countries and people who will receive them. Not only is it they who have fear.
Lack of orientation, fear of the future, fear of competition, of immigration, the decline
and loss of what has hitherto been assured have also become entrenched in
countries that are apparently rich and secure, and are increasingly changing the
social climate. And fear fashions narrowness, rigidity and hardness, and engenders
rigid, aggressive and backward-looking answers.

Alongside physical violence, persecution, suppression and terror, violence of a
political and economic nature is also increasingly coming to expression through
thoughts and spoken words. In the Philippines a man is chosen as President who
proudly propagates the view that drug addicts and drug-traffickers should be
assassinated without trial. In Turkey critics of the President are taken away at night,
arrested and released in their thousands, newspapers and broadcasting stations are
shut down, oppositional members of the government are persecuted and locked up.
Russia and China stir up nationalism on a massive scale and pursue power-politics
without any thought of the likely consequences. And virtually every decree of the new
President of the United States contains and conveys violence, as did his election
campaign: from building a wall along the frontier via the humiliation and dismissing of
qualified colleagues and insulting women and minorities to approving methods of
torture, from issuing sweeping entry prohibitions for citizens of Islamic countries to
making massive threats towards certain religions, countries and enterprises.
Although the symptoms of break-down may be extreme in the USA, these
developments are not an exclusively American phenomenon. This movement is
gaining pace around the globe. Also in Europe the number and influence of
nationalistic, chauvinistic and popular groups are growing. They simplify everything
by creating scapegoats, search out people to blame and victims, encourage an
exclusive, egotistic attitude and emphasise popular, national, material and racial
aspects. They live by a backward-looking longing to be ‘great again’. It is like an ever
louder derogatory whistling in an increasingly dark forest.

The rising up of the down-trodden

Why is there this derogatory note of mockery in the forest? How could it reach such
proportions? What has opened up in recent years and come to the surface has for
some while been smouldering down below and is only now becoming visible. Our
world is falling apart. We know – and can apply our knowledge – more than ever
before, we have ever more precise scientific knowledge, more refined technology
and more complex laws than ever. And we have an incredible lot of money. It seems
incomprehensible, but despite this immense world-wide affluence and knowledge
there is so much need, an anonymous, infinite number of poor, deprived,
disappointed and down-trodden people, regions and countries. Ever more
inconceivable sums accumulate in the hands of ever fewer people, firms, funds and
trusts, while at the same time millions of people are deprived and struggle simply in
order to survive. In the past week the relief organisation Oxfam published its latest
calculation of the world-wide distribution of means, based on the figures from Forbes.
According to this calculation, the richest eight individuals possess just as much as
the whole of the poorer half of humanity.

This is an inequality that leaves one speechless. In a world that both through
the media and in a real way is growing ever more closely together, this obscene
disparity between rich and poor is alone sufficient to evoke despair, anger and fury.
People have a growing understanding that this is by no means God-given and
unchangeable and are even less prepared to put up with it. But there is more to it.
Even in the rich and developed countries there are many at present who have no
prospects. I shall merely give some figures about the dramatic extent of youth
unemployment. In France the figure was 24 %, in Ireland 25 %, in Portugal 36 %, in
Italy 42 %, in Greece 51 %, in Spain 54 % (statistics from June 2014, Eurostat). Just
imagine behind the bland figures of the statistics the millions of actual destinies, the
disappointment, the lack of orientation, despair and anger of people with an
educational qualification or training, between a quarter and a half of whom are told
that there is no need for them, no task, no appropriate role in our rich and complex
world. To make it worse, one has the feeling that it is no longer possible to find
anyone who is responsible for this injustice. The notion of responsibility disappears in
a ‘systemic responsibility’. A Swabian mechanical engineer who has been working in
the same firm for decades discovers from one day to the next that he is now working
for a Chinese owner of the business. There are some radical changes and the human
element disappears. It often happens that the managers themselves neither wanted
nor brought about the change.

Thus the feeling grows that cold, mechanistic, system-based forces are taking
hold of one’s own life, even though no one actually appears to be responsible. This
seems to me to have also played a part in the background of the American election.
With Hillary Clinton a woman appeared as a candidate for the office of president who
in the eyes of many was an utterly typical example of this system that has lost touch,
of a world that is intimately entangled with Wall Street and the establishment. Anyone
who followed the speeches that she made during her election campaign often
received the impression that everything was as though staged and programmed,
each of her gestures, every facial movement, every wave and every camera setting
or adjustment were pre-calculated for their effect. This may be no different with
Donald Trump and will perhaps be far more calculating and brutal, and yet the effect
that he had as a type was so radically different, so unruly, furious, reckless and
apparently so authentic, so bereft of etiquette and anti-establishment in tone and
attitude. He seemed to be indifferent to what Washington, the political world or the
Press expected of him, to what is politically correct or not, so that this appearance of
genuineness, of naturalness, tipped the scales for many. Let’s get rid of the old
clique, otherwise nothing will ever change – this was the mood. With every further act
of provocation and flouting of established norms he gave vent to the feeling that here
at last someone is coming who wants to change things in a radical way and who will
drain the accursed swamp. Waking up the following morning was nevertheless a
terrible experience. With bated breath we became witnesses on a daily basis of how
the immaturity, arrogance, egocentricity and hatred of a single human being is
capable of gradually transforming the greatest super-power and, hence, the world as
a whole. There may be many who look with longing at the old system. But that would
also not have been good for humanity and the world.

Two significant causes

In order to understand what is going on here, one needs to delve into the very
specific depths of American politics and democracy; and there is no space for this in
a brief article. Nevertheless, the result of the anticipated break that angry citizens
who have had less than their fair share have made with the hated ‘elite’ is a horrifying
irony: a government emerged consisting of the uppermost 1 %, a cabinet of the
super-rich, millionaires and generals. It is not only disturbing who becomes a minister
but, rather, who is given which job. Thus the prominent coal lobbyist Scott Pruitt
becomes the leader of the Ministry for the Environment, while Rick Perry – who
acquired notoriety through his denial of climate change and his demand that the
Energy Ministry be abolished – is made (of course) Minister for Energy. There are
even more disturbing powerful figures behind Trump and his ministers. For example,
his election campaign leader Steve Bannon, who also runs the right-wing,
conservative on-line magazine Breitbart, has now become the President’s chief
advisor: ‘Darkness is good’, enthuses Trump’s principal advisor in an interview. ‘Dick
Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan: that is power!’ And: ‘If we deliver… we’ll govern for 50
years’. (Interview in The Hollywood Reporter, 18. 11. 2016.)

How does it happen that such thinking meets with approval today? The
answer to this question is decisive for our future. Without such an answer there is no
hope of finding a way forward. It is, I think, essential to note that the problem has
many layers. In another context it will be possible to enter into this further. Anyone
who seeks to reduce a social phenomenon to just one cause will always go astray. It
is indeed impossible to explain everything with one great reason, with a single
formula. I often meet people – and increasingly also in anthroposophical circles –
who think they know exactly how, for example, events in the Ukraine or in Syria are
to be understood. They know without any doubt which side is to blame, who is good
and who is bad or evil in any particular conflict. All phenomena are integrated with
and subordinated to this view of the world. Unfortunately, situations today are for the
most part incomparably more complex than such supposedly clear attributions in
accordance with the friend/foe pattern might suggest. So many layers play a part that
one is unable to penetrate to the inner circumstances but merely arrives at a key
model of explanation. All the same, this should not prevent us from recognising what
we are able to recognise and from acting where through such knowledge we are
capable of acting and have a commitment to do so. Only now that I have emphasised
this would I wish to try initially to highlight two particular areas of the social realm as
they appear from my own perspective.

What really counts here is love

‘Threefolding lives in the facts!’ This is one of the most important indications
emanating from Steiner’s Threefold Impulse. Thus the threefolding of the social
organism is not an abstract system that someone has thought up and which is to be
imposed upon reality. It is observable and exerts an influence in the world, in the
same way as is the threefold nature of the human soul in thinking, feeling and will.
Just as one can observe in the body and the soul an actual threefold nature with its
own respective functionary laws, so does one also find this in human social life. If
one considers economic life, it becomes apparent that it has a tendency towards a
brotherly quality in human affairs which reaches beyond all boundaries of whatever
kind. This is an observable fact. Geographical and political boundaries become of
ever less significance in an economic sense, and instead a world-wide collaborative
impulse extends beyond all boundaries. Only out of the collaboration of ever more
people over the whole Earth can the goods and services available today be
manufactured and sold on the principle of the division of labour. People make their
faculties available to others, and each person lives entirely from what others do for
him – this is what being brotherly means. In modern society we are even directed
towards this brotherly quality, because we would no longer be able to sustain
ourselves in isolation. We can only live in the way we do in our time because millions
of other people are active on our behalf.

This is the reality. At the same time we have forcibly subjected this brotherly
world-wide fabric woven from working for one another to concepts and rules which
have their origin in a totally opposite kind of logic. This claims that if everyone always
pursues his own self-interest, this leads to the greatest benefits for everyone. The
attitude of ‘I am working for myself’ is, so it is thought, the engine and essential core
of economic and social life. It is worth considering this fact in all its implications. What
is actually established as a world-wide endeavour of mutual exchange, what is,
therefore, manifested in globalisation as the power of love, as the power of true
brotherliness, is not something that is experienced, it does not become conscious
and, hence, cannot be lived and brought to fulfilment. Instead, a martial battle of all
against all is raging in the economic world.

That boundaries are losing their validity, that everything is connected with
everything else, that I am no longer able to ascertain who is responsible, is – under
the underlying maxim of egotism – becoming a dramatic threat both to the individual
and society instead of the qualitative next step of humanity in the direction of worldcitizenship.

The rule that everyone should attend to his needs and think only of
himself is the cause of immense damage of a bodily, soul and social nature in a finite,
interconnected and ever more populated world. The contradiction between the actual
realities of brotherliness and rules that are based exclusively on self-interest, profit
and competition leads to ever more violent tensions. And more and more people feel
unconsciously that this is not right. They experience the system in which they are
living as cold, unjust, unsocial and threatening, and they long for change. 51 % of
young Americans and 90 % of Germans say in opinion polls that we need a different
economic structure. But where is it? Socialism in the Soviet Union and neighbouring
countries has failed; and however far one looks no credible alternative is visible.
What has happened to the ideas of socialism, of social democracy? Does it have any
convincing scenarios? There are no ideas to be discerned anywhere. This immense
vacuum of ideas is the real tragedy. There seems to be no alternative. There is little
orientation that might be able to establish trust and confidence.

Spewing forth residues into the ether

Democracy has a particular commitment to there being an open and public space
where people can meet and make exchanges with one another. In such a realm we
are able to learn from one another, adjust our views and arrive at common
convictions. This space no longer exists, for the Internet has taken its place. It is,
however, organised in accordance with different rules. The spaces in the virtual world
are fashioned in accordance with strict economic laws and are formed on the basis of
maximising profit. When I communicate through Twitter or Facebook or make
searches through Google, algorithms are working in the background in such a way
that I always come to see the news or offer that I would most probably want to see.
The calculation is made out of my past behaviour. I am always held, mirrored and
confirmed within my own past. Something deeply backward-looking is at work here
which encourages narcissism. However ‘open’ the Internet may apparently seem to
be, I meet through this structure that is provided mainly those who are similar to me,
who think just as I do. Thus bubbles and echo-chambers arise in which people with
similar views communicate with those with a similar outlook, whereas different views,
world-pictures and life-intentions are totally excluded. Conversation reaching beyond
the boundaries of world-conceptions, which is the prerequisite for learning about
society and for the forming of an independent political will, is completely lost. Thus
the egocentric Internet undermines a democracy oriented towards the ‘you’.

A device for inculcating obscenity

Another effect of the Internet is that level-headed and measured expressions of
opinion are necessarily swallowed up by its noise. Their voice is unnoticed,
submerged beneath the waves of indignation and rage, of both the shrill and the
trivial. We do not notice 99 % of what is said. We never experience it, because it is
not highlighted by the algorithms and shown to us. Our lesson here is that we are
perceived only if we take shrillness to an extreme. This is something that Donald
Trump, for example, understood very early. I have to say something extreme,
express everything in excesses, flaunt rules, cause harm to people, and then this
tickles interest through the brief ‘teasers’ which enable people to judge whether they
want to see something or not. Then the profiteers take notice. And where they take
notice, it goes viral. The Internet has, therefore, become a device for inculcating
shrillness, obscenity, brutality, lasciviousness, arrogance and a lack of tact and
respect. It necessarily involves a loss of empathy. A big part is also played by the fact
that one does not know who is actually indicating a wish to speak – and, on the other
hand, that one must not see what is engendered by one’s own contributions. It often
happens that one does not know whether something that has been posted has been
composed by a human being or by a socially programmed robot.1 Machines have
been programmed to submit opinions and contributions for discussion, while readers
believe that a human being has written them. For example, after the comment made
by a member of the public sympathising with the Democrats, she was engulfed by a
flood of outraged votes. Or: while the television debate between the candidates was
still taking place, millions of Internet users were claiming: ‘Trump has won!’ But
behind such phenomena there are not angry or enthusiastic members of the public
but machines. In the US election campaign a fifth of the comments on social
networks were generated not by human beings but by robots.

As is the case with Goethe’s apprentice magician we have in both areas released a
power that we are clearly unable to contain. Like that apprentice we are astonished
about the buckets that are flying to and fro, and suddenly wake up in horror as we
recognise that we have for the time being lost control of this technology. The same
applies to the Internet as an instrument of social discourse as was said of the
egotism that has been unleashed in capitalism: it seems as though we are not in
control of events; they are in control of us. This helplessness in the face of forces,
systems and dynamics that can no longer be controlled seems to me to be a
generally valid feeling of the present.

Where is the third element?

There are three ways of reacting to the developments that have been indicated – the
first being to hold on to the current modes of thought and mechanisms, muddling
through and using them to one’s own advantage, and hoping that in the end
everything will turn out well. This is – still – the most widespread attitude, and it is the
tacit promise of the ruling parties, institutions and politicians, from Angela Merkel to
Hillary Clinton. It has credence only if one is blind and deaf to the growing number of
those who no longer believe in the justness and meaningfulness of this system.
The second possibility is the way back: we look for scapegoats, accuse them
of being guilty, vote them out of office, chuck them out, build a wall, prevent
foreigners from entering and think only of ourselves, of burning our coal, ignoring
climate change, not giving a damn about the environment, re-arming, ending free
trade and hiding ourselves away in our nation-state. This attitude is embodied not
only by Trump but also by Farage, Wilders, Strache, Orban, Petry and many others.
The third way, on the other hand, would represent a forward step. The aim
here would be that rules for the Internet would not be dictated by companies but
would be developed in accordance with advice from the legal community, in order
that what is now a space for egotistic self-reflection can be transformed into one of
real meeting and mutual learning. A further aim would be to understand brotherliness
in the context of economic life and, instead of resisting globalisation for nationalistic
reasons, to give it a true brotherly form. Additionally, a democracy of spectators
governed by power and money would be transformed into a participatory, deliberative
and direct democracy where each person can have a share in bringing about
significant social decisions.

The problem of the US elections was that there was a candidate for the status
quo and there was a candidate for the march backwards to an authoritarian,
nationalistic and chauvinistic community or polity. But where was the candidate for a
convincing and meaningful way forwards? The third element was absent! And it has
been absent not only in the USA. It is lacking virtually everywhere, also in the heart of
Europe. This is the greatest – and the real – tragedy of our time: we are functioning
far below our true potential. Amidst all the threatening weight of these developments
it is worth asking what we may finally learn through these challenges. What new
capacities are necessary, what future do we need to imagine in order that instead of
further sacrifices something truly constructive can arise amidst these challenges?
If we succeed in understanding the deeper forces underlying economics and
actually build an economic order based on brotherhood, this would engender an
immense healing power which would ray out across all boundaries. For this we need
a new, transformed understanding of money and the enormous forces that lie within
it. In his book Schulden David Graeber has strikingly shown how through money and
through the concept of debt in the nature of money, power enters into human
relationships and how everyone, even those who have to submit to this power, is
inclined to feel this power to be legitimate. Our way of thinking about economics,
money and also democracy has arrived at a dead-end. Without changing the way we
think, without radically new ideas about our cultural, political and economic life, fear
and violence will take hold to an ever greater extent. Democracy, too, must take a
new qualitative step, because it will otherwise cease to be able to function. It is not
only a matter of enabling there to be more transparency or somewhat more public
participation but of a substantially new step in democratic life.

A year of real, substantial change

All the same, our modern world is primarily determined by economics. Everything is
assessed and evaluated according to its price and its profitability. Hence the
economy is the most important point if one is thinking about a new way of living
together. When I buy something today, every product in a globalised world has an
extensive biography. With every item that I purchase there is a long chain extending
from me via the salesman and the manufacturer of the final product to the originator,
whether this be a cotton gatherer in India, a cocoa farmer in Nicaragua or a miner in
the Congo. These chains, which for the most part embrace half the globe, need to be
perceived in their totality and warmed through in a human way. Our task in the
coming years will be to form them in accordance with the viewpoint of brotherhood.
Ultimately it means that I cannot take pleasure in rejoicing either about the product
that I have acquired or the price that I paid for it until I am certain that not only I but
all the people connected through this chain of value creation have been treated fairly
and are able to live adequately from their work. In this way a revolution of
brotherhood comes about.

In the first months of 2017 there is a sense that this will be a year of real,
substantial change. The old order is increasingly unable to cope. There are rents in
its fabric and it is threatened with imminent disintegration. Are we prepared for this?
Will we find the way forward to a better future, or will we retreat to a narrow,
threatening past? It is obvious what needs to be done. When the old is dying, what
needs to happen is to work tirelessly so that something new can emerge from it. But
if this does not happen, if our understanding and courage are inadequate, if credible,
courageous, convincing, enduring, meaningful and essentially human images for the
future are lacking, the dangerous, authoritarian (se)ducers will have free rein.


Published in German in ‘Das Goetheanum’, Volume……Translated by Simon
Blaxland-de Lange with kind permission of the author and the publisher.
1 The author here uses an apparently English phrase ‘social bot’. ‘Bot’ is an Australian and
New Zealand slang word for a scrounger or freeloader, one who is a habitual borrower of
money and, hence, a social parasite (see The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English
Dictionary, 2009). Although this meaning is by no means irrelevant in this context, I have
opted for the above phrase which, I hope, more or less conveys the author’s meaning here. – Translator