In 1919, Rudolf Steiner began to share his research into the threefold nature of social life, resulting outwardly in his description of society as made up of three interdependent spheres: spiritual life, rights life and economic life. Each has its own logic or governance, with unity arising from a conversation between them, rather than from any one of them dictating to the others. He described all this in a best-selling book at the time, called, in German, Die Kernpunkte der sozialen Frage (Cardinal Aspects of the Social Question).This has been variously translated into English – inter alia, The Threefold State, The Threefold Commonwealth, Towards Social Renewal – but a clearer rendering of its meaning would be The Threefold Nature of Social Life, for that makes a very clear statement regarding Rudolf Steiner’s place in the social sciences generally and sociology in particular.
‘The threefold nature of social life’ is a description of what is, implying that its user directly perceives what is being referred to rather than relying on someone else’s perception (in this case, Rudolf Steiner’s). It also guards us against thinking in terms of abstractions and theories, requiring us to speak instead in terms of our own perceptions of this threefold nature in the social surroundings and institutions where we live.
And yet, the threefold nature of social life is hardly news. Plato had three groups – guardians, auxiliaries, producers. The Middle Ages had three estates – clergy, nobles, peasants. Montesquieu sought the separation of Judiciary, Legislature, Executive. Even non-Marxists speak of upper, middle and lower classes.
Since Steiner’s time, other threefold constructs have been created. The so-called First, Second and Third Worlds – meaning white capitalism, communist regimes (especially the Soviet Union), and those (sometimes fictitious) countries that experienced twentieth century wars of national liberation, mainly former colonies of nineteenth century empires. Believing, after Woodrow Wilson, self-determination of all peoples to be a sacrosanct principle of the West, they sought to elect their own governments and re-appropriate their own resources, only turning to Marxism when this aim was frustrated by erstwhile imperial powers. Then there is the threefold concept of business, government and civil society.
So… what is novel when Rudolf Steiner speaks of the three spheres of spiritual life, rights life and economic life? Firstly, not the spheres so much as their autonomy one from another. The shift from monolithic thinking to differentiation. In his view, this perception of modern social history was ripe to supplant the imperialisms of the nineteenth century, which culminated in the catastrophe of World War 1. Ducking such a challenge to modern ideas of hegemony, humanity has ever since staggered along from crisis to crisis, caught on a capitalist/socialist divide that need not be there because Die Kernpunkte is both a sociological and an economic text.
Its central concern is the ‘social question’, which at the time was the term generally used to refer to the socialist challenge to capitalism. In other words, the relationship between labour and capital. Steiner’s threefold analysis of society unfolds from his treatment of the ‘cardinal aspects’ of this problem.
If this problem remains unresolved, the social life of humanity will not only continue to be a social disaster, but will be increasingly invaded by merely financial considerations. To overcome this, one can conceive the working of the three spheres (and their representative ‘categories’ of capital, labour and land) through the simple thought that social life is about using one’s capacities (spiritual life) to serve the needs of others (economic life), all the while respecting the dignity of everyone (rights life).
Whether one puts the emphasis on one sphere or another, none can exercise its own autonomy without respecting the autonomy of the others. Some would begin with education, others with rights, yet others with economic change. In reality, each presupposes the other. But first the hold of mere finance has to be overcome.
Nowadays, one hundred years on and in the middle of a continuing global financial crisis, it is here, too, that Steiner’s threefold analysis again comes into its own. For economic life, he pointed out, is also threefold, witness the three functions of money, his ‘upgrading’ of that to three kinds of money (purchase, loan and gift), their reflection in today's global financial architecture (trade, capital and central banking), and their correspondence also in the threefold structure of bookkeeping: Income and Expense Statement, Balance Sheet and Closing Entries.
One may question such an emphasis on finances, but if one is to get traction in our times, whether by focusing on spiritual or rights or economic change, this is arguably the key. It also has the merit of putting ground beneath one because ‘money as bookkeeping’, as Steiner put it, is not antithetical to the modern financial system, based as it is on double-entry bookkeeping. On the contrary, a deeper understanding of accounting is not only relevant to all three spheres, every domain and every individual; it provides a way for modern finance itself to resolve its own contradictions.