Steiner Shorts #2: The Threefold Social Organism, An Introduction


Wider knowledge of Rudolf Steiner’s concept of the threefold social organism is limited, despite numerous authors promoting the benefits and pointing to examples of the threefold society around the globe: the work of Nicanor Perlas is often held up as an exemplar here (Perlas, 2019), but he is far from the only person extoling the virtues of social threefolding (Lamb, 2008; Large, 2016; Large & Briault, 2018; Mazzone, 1998; Strawe, 1998; Usher, 2018). For many the threefold social organism is often an unknown concept. This series of short essays aims to introduce the reader to the ideas behind the threefold social organism, and to engage with them in an open and critical way. What is of particular interest is what Steiner’s ideas might offer us as a means of understanding contemporary society.

To take the first steps in this journey this first short essay takes a broad-brush look at the threefold social organism. This is designed to give a starting point rather than an in-depth analysis so is a largely descriptive endeavour. The common starting point for pieces dealing with the threefold social organism is to provide a brief personal history of Steiner alongside a brief overview of his writings and lectures concerning threefold society. Given the availability of these introductions this essay foregoes these historical overviews in favour of getting straight into the ideas. The essay is arranged in three main sections. The first outlines the social problem as Steiner saw it, the second Steiner’s critique of the unitary state and its inability to address the social problem, and third, the threefold social organism as Steiner’s solution. Each of these areas will be treated to a more detailed consideration in following essays.

To understand the threefold social organism we first need to understand the social problem Steiner was addressing. For Steiner this social problem could be characterized rather succinctly as people being prevented from fully developing (Steiner, 1985). There are a number of elements at play here which we can highlight immediately: in the first instance the notion of full human development needs to be considered in greater detail. Here Steiner is drawing on a specific vision of humanity which is underpinned by a concept of human nature in which humans are naturally drawn to develop themselves along their own particular and individual paths to the greatest of their capabilities and capacities. This is more than an externally produced and imposed push for life-long-learning and self-improvement as is currently promoted through neoliberalism, this is a inbuilt desire that all humans possess irrespective of their current social contexts (Steiner, 1985). By way of an example we could highlight leisure activities of all sorts: rarely as an adult is an individual forced to pursue a hobby or activity, these are chosen according to personal taste and pursued as far as the individual desires. It may be that this pursuit takes the form of writing poetry as a process the individual engages in and refines over time without regard to monetizing the hobby (although this is not ruled out as part of development). Another example can be found in participation in a Sunday amateur football league where the guiding consideration is not gaining a position on a professional squad, but the pursuit of enjoyment with others. Again, it is not necessary for the football-playing individual to pursue professional status for them to engage with training sessions, a healthy diet, etc., if they so choose. The point stands that in both cases, poetry or football, individuals can choose to pursue their interests as they wish and develop those interests as far as their desire and capacity allow. To put clear blue water between this understanding of full development and the neoliberal push for constant improvement, poetry and football are not pursued under the guise of correcting perpetual deficits as in neoliberal approaches to life-long-learning, but are activities engaged in for the activity itself. There is not necessarily an external guiding force pushing the engagement, be that implicit societal pressure to continually improve or a direct edict from a powerful other. Clearly this rough sketch and the examples of poetry and football require far more attention to really draw out the nuances and possible issues in Steiner’s understand of full human development, and will be the focus of a future piece.

In the second instance, full human development is not an end-goal in Steiner’s work but an ongoing process. It is better approached as a continual becoming or transformation rather than a final condition. Returning to the example of poetry, it would be disingenuous to suggest that one who engages with poetry out of free choice simply writes a single poem and stops there. In the writing of a single poem they begin a process through which they refine, edit, or entirely rework a piece, they find new subjects to write about, new points of inspiration to draw upon. Similarly, an individual who plays Sunday league football does not do so for a single match and simply stop if they win the game (arguably the logical end-point of a football match), but they return, they train, they work together as a team in the pursuit of more winning matches. Writing one poem does not make you a poet, playing one football game does not make you a footballer. Indeed, if one were to stop after a single poem or a single game it would be evidence that this is not an area of interest the individual has chosen to pursue to the full extent of their capabilities and interests. In this change in perspective of human development from condition to process the social problem can be seen not as something to be fixed with a singular solution (winning a football game), but as an ever evolving set of circumstances which present obstacles to the process of individual development (continual engagement with a process of training and progression).

The obstacles which bring about the social problem lead us to the second section of this short essay: Steiner’s critique of the unitary state. For Steiner the dominant form of social organization which has developed over many years places all elements of society under the umbrella of a single state structure. This is an organization with a government, economy and culture(s) all held together in a defined geographical location and with a defined population. In many cases these defined borders and the populations which fall within them have been created on the basis of conflict and then later solidified through legal norms and regulation. In this process the government, economy and culture(s) within these borders are forged as a unified group. It is precisely this unification of politics, economics and culture that Steiner claims leads to the prevention of human development in two ways. First, Steiner maintains that the roles of politics, economics and culture, while importantly linked, are all distinct as they are all aimed at satisfying different areas of human life. As a result whenever they are brought together in one unified state each must necessarily compromise in order to work with the others (Steiner, 1985). This compromise means that neither politics, economics, nor culture can fully support the specific areas of human life they are meant to, thus introducing some of the obstacles to the process of human development. Second, when these three distinct areas of society are artificially held together in a unified state, they have historically been imbalanced in the amount of power or control they exercise over the population in their jurisdiction (Steiner, 2002). In most cases this has meant that culture has been subservient to politics and economics, and that when one of the three areas has more control over the others all decisions in society are oriented around the priorities of a single area of society to the detriment of the other two. Together the compromises present in a unified state and the imbalance between politics, economics and culture all present obstacles to the process of full human development.

Steiner’s critique was formed in the context of the rise of industrial economy and modern capitalism where he viewed the technological and economic advancements made as a distraction from other areas of social life (Steiner, 1972). While people grappled with the developments in their working life and the possibilities and challenges raised by the new relationships to their labour, economic considerations came to shape social and individual life. Of particular importance in these developments is the central role and status afforded to the accumulation of personal wealth under capitalism. As an example of this interest in personal wealth Steiner points to the interaction between wage labour and egotism: the growing importance of wage labour as the means by which individuals secure their survival promotes an egotistical and economically motivated approach to self and society (Steiner, 2018). As people became distracted by issues of wealth accumulation there was no space left for other social considerations regarding politics or culture: for Steiner the unified state operates as a form of zero-sum game where the strength of one area of social life means the necessary limitation of the others.

To understand this critique of the unified state in more detail and to establish Steiner’s own response to the social problem there needs to be a clearer understanding of what Steiner saw as the roles of politics, economics, and culture. For Steiner these three areas of social life have always and will always be present in societies but until now the unified state has obscured the distinct roles that each area should play. In my reading, these three areas are concerned with sets of relationships individuals have. For politics, this relationship is about the interpersonal relations of one human to another(s). For this reason, the role of politics is about establishing and securing human rights as a set of legal rules through which individuals’ relationships are guaranteed in forms which promote and protect the dignity of life and the development of the individual. The guiding concept here is one of equality. For economics, the relationship is about an individual’s relationship with the material world. In this case, economics concerns the production and consumption of material goods necessary to maintain life and so covers a vast network which includes earthly resources, communities of producers, and communities of consumers all working in collaboration. As no one individual can fulfil their material needs on their own, solidarity is the guiding concept of economics. Finally, the relationship present in culture is of the individual to themselves. It is a personal relationship concerned with self-development along the capacities and capabilities the individual has. The term ‘culture’ captures all endeavours that contribute to personal development and expression, from the traditionally associated arts, to education, and even to issues of judgement following criminal actions. While law is established in the realm of politics, the application of that law concerns issues of personal growth, or hindrance, and is therefore within the remit of culture. As each individual needs to pursue their own understandings of development as far as they are able and willing, there is not a single process which can be set across all individuals, and therefore the guiding concept of culture is individual freedom.

It is these three areas of social life and their guiding concepts which are the grounding of Steiner’s suggestions for the threefold social organism as a response to the social problem caused by the unified state. By entering into a process of reconfiguring society with a recognition of the three areas of social life, their distinctions and their roles in human life, society can begin to transform itself and move to rebalance the tripartite division. In this process of rebalancing politics, economics and culture are untangled from one another breaking down the artificial unity imposed by the unified state and removing the need for each area to compromise. In this untangling politics, economics and culture are not rent asunder, but establish a complex set of interrelationships where each support the other where necessary. Following an example from above, law is established in the political sphere, but judgement of law is conducted in the cultural sphere. A brief detour to explore this example in more detail will bring greater clarity to the proposed interactions of the spheres.

At its heart, law concerns the establishment of rules which promote and protect the pursuit of a dignified life through the regulation of interpersonal relationships. Starting from the basis of equality derived from nothing more than being human (as in, there are no qualifiers or caveats through which this equality can be denied), law should be established through the interaction of individuals starting from this equal basis and directed toward the dignified life. It is only when establishing law from this equal basis that it is possible to avoid the interference of economic concerns which focus on the production and consumption of the products necessary for a dignified life, or cultural concerns which focus on the singular individual and their development. However, if these laws established in the political sphere are broken or infringed upon such an infringement can only be truly judged through a full consideration of the contexts surrounding it. This means that each judgement is a singular exercise, and therefore cannot follow a preestablished pattern or form, but must consider the actions of the individual in the uniqueness of the context in which they acted. Similarly, any punishments assigned on the basis of this judgement can only be applicable to the individual in that case, and therefore specifically concern the development or hindrance of development of that individual. The singular nature of the process of judgement and punishment according to law places it firmly in the realm of culture as it deals directly with the individual and their freedom and cannot be applied across individuals in an equal manner. In this set up, politics, equality and the establishment of law is reciprocally supportive of culture, freedom and the passing of judgement and punishment where one cannot interfere with the other. Culture and individual freedom cannot be the basis by which common law is established just as politics and equality cannot be the basis by which judgement and punishment are decided, but each area relies on the other as part of the symbiotic whole of social life.

At the level of the individual, so crucial in Steiner’s elucidation of the social problem and his response, the threefold social organism does not represent three areas of social life to which the individual can only belong to one. The individual will be present and active in politics, economics, and culture to a greater or lesser extent depending on their own interests and capabilities, and will be able to distinguish their roles and influences in one area from that of another. The individual acts within and across these areas always mindful of the need to pursue balance between them not only for the sake of society as a whole, but in the knowledge that such a balance will allow them to pursue their own development too.

The role of the individual and their understanding of the threefold social organism are central to Steiner’s ideas when they are brought into contact with other attempts to address the social problem. Steiner argues that there are two ways to approach the social problem: either through changes in law and concrete social conditions with the belief that such changes will bring about transformations in individuals too, or changes in the individual which can then bring about transformations in social organization and the concrete social conditions people live in. Through his interest and attempts at the former, Steiner changed his approach to the latter, arguing that while social conditions certainly do impact human behaviour and relationships those social conditions are formed by human behaviours and relationships in the first instance. There is not a pre-existing set of social conditions which have developed independent of people, but only those social conditions which we have been instrumental in creating and re-creating either through direct action or passive acceptance. As a result any attempts to instigate a rebalancing of the three areas of social life must necessarily begin with peoples’ recognition of the imbalance and their own role in addressing the social problem at both the personal and social level.

There have been a wide range of themes introduced here, all of which deserve considerably more detailed pieces in their own right, but the aim of this first essay was to introduce the reader to the broad idea of the threefold social organism in order to provide a foundation for the essays to come. To recap, there is a social problem in that people are prevented from going through a process of development due to the social organization of the unified state. This state holds politics, economics and culture together compromising and limiting all three, and as a result placing numerous obstacles in the way of individual development. To help address these obstacles politics, economics and culture should be enabled to operate according to their own guiding concepts, equality, solidarity, and freedom respectively. In order for this to happen individuals need to recognize the presence of the three areas of social life and acknowledge their role in the continuation of the status quo or the possibility of social change through the transformation of themselves and their actions.

Future pieces will address the notion of human development as a process, the threefold social organism as a form of critique, the role of politics, economics, and culture in greater detail, the claimed incompatibility of equality, solidarity, and freedom in, and more. I hope that this opening essay and the subsequent pieces offer a starting point and insight into Steiner’s work for the novice reader.

Andy (


Lamb, G., 2008. The Threefold Nature of Social Life. Biodynamics, Issue Summer, pp. 39-44.

Large, M., 2016. Rudolf Steiner’s Vision for our Social Future: Openings for Social Threefolding. New View, Autumn(81), pp. 3-9.

Large, M. & Briault, S. eds., 2018. Free, Equal and Mutual. Rebalancing Society for the Common Good. Stroud: Hawthorne Press.

Mazzone, A., 1998. Rudolf Steiner’s Social Theory: How the Waldorf Schools Arose from the Threefold Social Order. Newcastle, University of Newcastle, New South Wales.

Perlas, N., 2019. Shaping Globalization. Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding. 2nd ed. Forest Row: Temple Lodge.

Steiner, R., 1972. The Threefold Social Order. Kindle ed. New York: Anthroposophic Press.

Steiner, R., 1985. The Renewal of the Social Organism. Kindle ed. London: Rudolf Steiner Press.

Steiner, R., 2002. Basic Issues of the Social Question: Toward Social Renewal, New York: Antroposophic Press.

Steiner, R., 2018. Culture, Law and Economy. In: Rudolf Steiner. Social Threefolding: Rebalancing Culture, Politics & Economics. Forest Row: Rudolf Steiner Press.

Strawe, C., 1998. The Threefolding Movement of 1917-1922 and Its Present Significance. [Online]
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Usher, S., 2018. Introduction: Seminal Ideas and Historic Moments. In: S. Usher, ed. Rudolf Steiner. Social Threefolding. Reblancing Culture, Politics & Economics. Forest Row: Rudolf Steiner Press, pp. 1-12.