One hundred years: In recognition of Rudolf Steiner’s Threefold Commonwealth

By John Bloom

One hundred years ago in 1917, amidst the disasters of World War I in Europe, Rudolf Steiner—an Austrian philosopher, scientist, and leading spiritual thinker—formulated an innovative approach to organizing cultural life, political and economic life in order to prevent a repetition of another destructive war. His social theory, based on his profound understanding of the human being, drew upon the ideals of the 1784 French Revolution liberté (freedom), egalité(equality), fraternité (brotherhood)—yet applied them in an unprecedented way. To develop and maintain a dynamic and just life across all society, he indicated that freedom is the key principle in the domain of culture and spirit, equality in that of rights and agreements, and brotherhood in economics. This threesome of practice is the foundation for organizing an empowered self-governing citizenry that would find its authority, responsibility, and accountability through active civic engagement. Further, such a threefold practice would assure that every person matters, and what matters to each person matters to the whole.

A bit of further definition will help. By freedom, Steiner meant it in the spiritual sense rather than political. Each person must be left free to form her or his identity, free to understand the experience, to create and celebrate rites and rituals with each other in forming culture. By equality, he meant that, in group decision-making, it was one person, one vote. That is, a lasting agreement needs to be made between parties that respect each other as equals. By brotherhood (or sisterhood), economic life concerns itself with the production and circulation of goods and services out of the community rather than self-interest. Economics needs to be managed by all the parties or their representatives (producers, distributors, and consumers) such that all parties needs are met.

What might this idealistic imagination look like in practice? Steiner suggested that each of the domains needed its own governing body, which could engage through its expertise and understanding of its domain. And further, representatives from each domain would meet to be sure that there was alignment and coherence across the sectors. In our current state of affairs in democratic governance, the tendency of government is to truly provide culture in the form of education rather than assuring the right to an education and to manage the economy beyond setting regulatory policy that protects all parties. The government has come to directing economic activity through taxes, incentives, and policy that favours certain industries or constituents over others. In the Threefold Commonwealth, the government’s job as a representative of the people is to create and enforce laws (agreements) and assure the rights of its citizens. That is, of course, a rather restrictive view of government and Steiner himself said that such a change would not happen overnight. To get there will require highly ethical individuals who fully exercise the free cultural life, along with a radical transformation of economic life away from the self-interest competitive drive of a market economy to what Steiner called an associative economy that engaged all parties. This activity would include setting prices and determining the best entrepreneur to use a given means of production for the broader benefit of the whole community as part of building community wealth.

Today, elements of threefolding are applied around the world. Perhaps the most evident is the Community Supported Agriculture movement, which had its roots in Steiner’s idea of associative economics. RSF Social Finance has developed its Community Pricing Approach, in which we bring together investors, ourselves as the intermediary, and borrowers once a quarter to set the interest rate for the upcoming quarter. Further, the tremendous growth of the cooperative movement is one manifestation of the associative economic approach in which the notion of ownership operates from the framework of mutuality and interdependence. The emergence of the Benefit Corporation as a new corporate form is one way in which associative concepts are finding their way into legal structures.

Rudolf Steiner developed his ideas about the Threefold Commonwealth and many other of his practical insights, such as biodynamic farming and Waldorf education, in response to the reality of his times. He sought an evolution of social life and all its aspects and would celebrate, even ennoble, what it means to be human in the face of an increasingly dehumanizing culture.

John Bloom is vice president of organizational culture at RSF and the current General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in America. This piece was first published in August 2017.