Rudolf Steiner / Associative Economics

Rudolf Steiner 

Rudolf Steiner is not often referred to as an economist, at least not in the Anglo-Saxon world where much of modern economics has its locus, but his 1922 lectures on economics are surely paradigmatic in that Steiner's primary concern is with the need to think economically (see Literature).

The ground for saying this is given if one surveys Steiner's overall work and main ideas in the fields of economics and finance, as well as his experiences in business life. Themes addressed by him both conceptually and practically range from the appropriate way of thinking in economics and the responsibility economists have for society at large, to commentary on the key events of his time – in particular the Treaty of Versailles which in many ways remains the pivot of all subsequent history. 

Steiner's approach assumes the evolution of consciousness, an idea largely absent from economics. For this reason, his contribution to economics has a sophistication that matches the complexity of modern economic life. Introducing ideas that entail relatively little by way of new terminology, Steiner indicates that humanity has entered upon a one-world economy, a development that requires us to grasp the economic process through its inherent dynamic. Today especially, this needs to be done by understanding the nature of money (that there are three kinds, not only three functions) and by working associatively. Understanding what all this means in detail and in practice is a key part of the work of the Economics Conference.

Associative Economics 

Steiner's approach is generally known as 'associative economics' (see, for example, associative, an approach that assumes that since the beginning of the 20th century humanity has entered a new stage of societal development characterised by three autonomously governed spheres (spiritual life, rights life and economic life), the last of which, economic life, transcends the prior but still existing stages of private and national economics.

This development in human affairs requires a rethinking of economic science. Closed and single, the appearance of a global economy marks the culmination of the validity of the approach described by Adam Smith, in terms of mercantilism and opening national economies to world trade. The earth has no extra-terrestrial balance of payments. Instead, the dynamic of a closed economy requires inherent regulation, achieved in particular, per Steiner, by differentiating money into three kinds – purchase, loan and gift money.

It was the failure to recognise and accommodate this change that resulted in World War I. According to Steiner, the remedy for this historical problem lies in autonomous economic governance on a consciously co-ordinated – i.e. 'associative' – basis. This does not require a political programme of any kind, but a more nuanced and precise understanding of actual economic phenomena themselves. For Steiner, insofar as economics has its roots in 19th century emulation of the 'hard' sciences, it cannot be called a true science. For that, an entirely new approach is needed, embracing inter alia methodology, history, sociology, accounting and the insight that money is an articulated not a monolithic phenomenon. Above all, Steiner emphasises the need for human beings to be placed at the centre of economic processes and to draw their understanding of economic life from the experience of their own conduct, rather than the theoretical world of the abstract observer.

The term 'associative economics' describes just such a way of understanding modern economic life. Pointing to the next step after market economics, it describes the landscape that comes into being as and when humanity, individually and collectively, moves towards association. This it can only do, however, when economic life is grasped as a whole, not from the point of view of one person only, and when the way we do business and manage the economic aspect of our institutions matches the exigencies and inherent dynamics of a single global economy.

True Price 

Key to Rudolf Steiner’s thinking as regards economic life is the idea of ‘true price’. This also serves as an essential focus of associative economics, both theoretically and practically. (See True price, instead of basic income.)