Steiner Shorts #5: The Political in the Threefold Social Organism


The threefold social organism relies on the distinction of politics, economics, and culture, arguing that each area should pursue a particular social concept and that while the three spheres of social life maintain a relationship, they should not interfere with one another. Until now, the essays in this series have not yet considered the three areas of social life individually. The aim of this essay is to explore politics in the threefold social organism, drawing out Steiner’s ideas for the political realm in the pursuit of equality and a dignified life for all. This takes the reader through Steiner’s comments on democracy, rights, and law and serves to highlight points of connection to the other spheres of social life. Previous essays have highlighted the establishment of specific relationships in each of these areas of social life: intrapersonal relationships in culture, and relationships to the material world in economics, and these relationships form the launching point for this essay.

In politics the relationship at work is that between individuals: human-to-human relationships that concern our interactions with one another not only at the personal level, but at the societal level (Steiner, 1972). For Steiner this relationship between humans is too often dominated by the economic sphere and so these interpersonal relationships become shaped by economic concerns for profit. A further impact of these economically-oriented interpersonal relationships is that they are then determined by the economic power of those involved: this is particularly problematic as it places a large number of people in subordinate positions to others (Steiner, 2002). Such a hierarchy, which is always already present in interpersonal relationships shaped by economics, runs against the concept of equality which is central in the political sphere of social life.

To better understand these interpersonal relationships as they occur in the sphere of politics we need to unpick what Steiner means when he uses the term ‘equality’, and what the foundation of Steiner’s equality is. In a previous piece equality was introduced to the reader as based upon the establishment and promotion of a dignified life. A starting point for this understanding is that all humans are equal because they are humans: “All are equal, solely in light of their humanity” (Dahlin, 2010). It is this shared humanity which forms the basis of equality in Steiner’s work and is then manifested through the language of universal human rights. While there is no definitive list of rights included in this notion, there are clues throughout discussions about the political sphere of the threefold society, with the most central right being that of dignity (Preparata, 2006) (Roesch, 2013). From this central tenet other rights unfold which concern both the economic and the cultural areas of society, importantly though, in each case while the right is concerned with these different areas, they are determined and agreed upon in the political realm. Those rights relating to the economic area are connected to the right to share in the capital derived from the earth (Hoffmann, 2019). This is not to be misconstrued as a right to an equal share of that capital, as individual access to capital is still to be determined by the work the individual completes, and capital can be accumulated by an individual over the period of their life and for a limited time, passed on to another (Steiner, 2002). A second human right identified in connection with the economic realm of society is the right to work: each individual has the right to work and contribute to their own dignity and well-being, as well as the well-being of wider society (Steiner, 2002). Each individual who is not capable of work for whatever reason, pensioners, etc., have the right to be supported by society as part of their right to dignity (Steiner, 2002). This corresponds to previous discussions around the source of social change being rooted in the recognition that individual and community prosperity are intimately linked and an individual cannot look after one without looking after the other. Finally, crossing into the cultural area of society, Steiner makes it clear that everyone has the right to an education derived not from the political impulses of the day, but from the free designs of cultural workers such as teachers (Steiner, 2002). Bringing this collection of identified rights together acts to highlight the distinction between, and the interplay of, economics and solidarity, culture and freedom, and politics and equality.

The equality of human rights that form the centre of the interpersonal relationships of the political sphere are established through two primary means: the political system itself, and law. By the political system we are referring to Steiner’s claimed necessity of democracy over authoritarian and totalitarian systems, and by law we are referring to the legislation which is established in the pursuit of human rights, but not the judgement and punishment of individuals who break those laws.

Dealing first with the political system, democracy holds an important place in Steiner’s vision of a threefold society and it becomes clear from his writings that he considers it the inevitable form of political administration and organization: “In modern times the democratic principle has become the sign and seal of human social endeavor and has grown out of the depths of human nature. The demand of modern humanity for this principle of democracy is elemental force” (Steiner, 1945). Here democracy is explicitly connected to an innate human impulse, in much the same way as the distinction of economics, politics, and culture. Writing following the First World War Steiner cast democracy in the role of an unstoppable force and the only political future on offer, a necessary form of political organization which will have to come into being in nations around the world as it is only through democracy that equality in the political sphere can find its truest expression (Steiner, 2019). The belief in democracy, and those leaders espousing democratic principles, becomes clear in Steiner’s mentions of Woodrow Wilson and his support for Wilson’s criticism of the contemporary social order which concentrated too much power in the hands of those with great economic wealth, while arguing that all individuals must have free access and development in economics, politics, and culture (Steiner, 2019). This was not, however, a full-bodied support of the democratic ideals enshrined in the Wilson’s 14-point plan. For Steiner, Wilson’s post-war vision of peace was based on a specific anglo-American vision of peace and democracy that was not suitable for the conditions and contexts of central Europe (Steiner, 2018).

While it is clear that Steiner has an important role for democracy, it is not immediately clear what form this democracy is to take. Two options appear to be offered, that of a direct democracy in which individuals are directly involved in the decision making processes which determine the laws designed to uphold human rights, or that of a representative democracy in which a limited number representatives are assigned to some form of parliament to make these decisions on behalf of their fellow citizens. At times, when discussing the organization of the political sphere of society Steiner refers to the process of law making and notes that “[…] these resolutions can only be adopted on any matter when every single individual is in reality the equal of every other. That is, democratic resolutions can only be passed when every adult is entitled to vote because he [sic] is an adult and therefore capable of judging” (Steiner, 1945). The claim here appears to be that law can only be passed if every adult has the possibility of an input into that law, whether they avail themselves of that chance or not. This argument is made again at various points in Steiner’s work with only minor modifications as he repeatedly points out that each adult “must share equally in the regulatory process” (Steiner, 1985) and that it is this collection of individual wills working together which gives law its strength (Steiner, 2019).

This understanding of the establishment of law can be read to prioritize direct forms of democracy in which each individual partakes in the decision-making processes which impact them, but this initial impression is called into question elsewhere as Steiner states that “law, politics, and affairs of state should be administered in a democratic parliament” (Steiner, 1945). Further bolstering this claim the critique of contemporary parliamentary systems is that they could not function effectively precisely because of the unitary nature of the State in which they operated. Therefore, in order to secure the proper democratic and rights-based operation of the political system parliament and its role needs to be separate from the concerns of economics and culture (Steiner, 1945). Indeed, Steiner’s clearest statement regarding the democratic system which should operate in the political area of society is as follows: “Every adult citizen must share equally in the regulatory process. Administration and representation must provide a climate in which a healthy consciousness of rights and responsibilities is allowed to unfold” (Steiner, 2019). And so it appears that while Steiner certainly pushes for democracy as the only, and inevitable, means of governing interpersonal relationships, the form that democracy takes maintains the familiar character of a representative and parliamentary democracy, all-be-it one removed from the influences of economics. In either case, whether Steiner is advocating for direct or participatory democracy, it is through the democratic political system that laws are established to ensure the regulation of the interpersonal relationships of humans. This system of laws is established to protect the equal status of all humans on the basis of their universal human rights, and is to be done through majority decision making. Indeed, it is the establishment of laws that is cast as the only role for the political sphere of society: “In that domain of life where one man meets another on equal terms, the only thing to be considered is the making of laws which shall regulate the rights of the public by the decisions of a majority” (Steiner, 2019). This last quote introduces another detail into Steiner’s vision for the political sphere. His is not a democracy by consensus, but one in which a majority carries the day. Steiner was not advocating for a radically non-hierarchical directly democratic model. His aim, with hindsight of the 21st century, was more restrained: a form of parliamentary democracy the likes of which we can now identify in most western European countries.

As above, the role of parliament is to establish law which protects the human rights of all. The passing of those laws is to occur in the political sphere, but the target of those laws are the economic and cultural areas of society. The separation of politics and equality, economics and solidarity, and culture and freedom comes to the fore in the consideration of law, as it is only in the political sphere where individuals meet as equals that fair law regarding issues such as economic remuneration for work can be made. The separation from economic concerns is vital here as it ensures that those with greater economic power cannot then use law as a means to secure ever-greater economic advantage through the mistreatment of workers. Such an influence of economic concerns runs contrary to Steiner’s social law in which society benefits from the interdependence of individuals and the sharing of achievements to meet the needs of all. If interpersonal relationships are to be influenced by economics there will always already be an inequality present between people involved in the relationship, and so the need for equality in politics cannot be satisfied. As a result of the detachment of economics and solidarity with politics and equality, law becomes self-generating and independent rather than a superstructure built on top of, and therefore dependent on, economics (Steiner, 1945).

With the separation of politics and law from economics also comes the separation of politics and law from judgement and punishment: while law itself is the realm of politics, when someone wishes to appeal to that law in the pursuit of justice the decisions move from the political to the cultural sphere. Decisions of judgement cannot be made in the political realm as the judgement is dependent on the environment of the accused and so cannot be held equal for all individuals (Steiner, 2018). It is the role of the cultural sphere to appoint judges and ensure they have the mental and spiritual capacity to independently reach a judgement. Alongside this the accused individual should be given the option to select a judge who shares similar circumstances with the accused and is therefore able to determine a judgement using their shared knowledge of the environment of the accused (Steiner, 2018). Likewise, it is not the role of the political realm to administer the punishment set by the judge, but only to ensure that the punishment is carried out in accordance with the judgement and the law.

This consideration of democracy and law, and particularly the separation of the making of law from the pursuit of law, brings our attention to Steiner’s understanding of the State as an entity in the threefold social organism. A distinction is needed between two versions of ‘state’ before proceeding as Steiner uses the term in his work in different ways and to refer to different political elements of society. There is the ‘state’ as an entity with borders, a population, relationships beyond its borders, etc., which is used as a term to describe a contemporary nation-state as a group of people brought held together as a group. Alternatively, there is the ‘state’ which is the administrative and bureaucratic entity concerned with the establishment of law and the adherence to human rights. In this latter understanding the state takes on the role of a mediator between the economic sphere and the cultural sphere of society. In Steiner’s threefold social organism with the establishment of specific relationships in specific realms there is a tension between the communal solidarity underpinning economics and the individual freedom underpinning culture and spiritual development. Between these two realms and mediating the tension of communality and individuality is the state as the political organization holding everyone as equals (Hoffmann, 2019). The importance of the state in the political realm comes to the fore here through the consideration and focus on equality as the basis for establishing interpersonal relationships without the interference of economic power nor worrying about securing freedom for individuals.

In this distinction of ‘state’ as an entity with defined border, populations, etc., and ‘state’ as an administrative and bureaucratic practice it appears Steiner ultimately wishes to leave the former version of the ‘state’ behind as it represents the unitary state of economics, politics, and culture which is at the heart of the social problem. Evidence of this can be seen in Steiner’s work on international relations under the threefold social organism: “People endeavour to construct political entities whose boundaries are those of their nationalities. And then this endeavour is carried further – namely, an attempt is made to turn the closed national state into a closed economic domain as well” (Steiner, 1985). Steiner argues that when a threefold social organism is achieved within some form of current state boundaries it will also then determine the international relations of peoples along the same lines, for example, with the economic sphere only interacting with the economic spheres of other areas, putting aside issues of politics and culture (Steiner, 1972). As these three areas of society continue to develop and grow around the world traditional territorial borders associated with statehood will cease to hold any significance.

For those who might decry the end of nations, languages, and specific cultural and spiritual practices, Steiner argues that contrary to contemporary forms of state in which people are grouped together with little regard for cultural diversity, language and cultural practices will in fact be bolstered in the threefold society as these are areas belonging to the realm of culture, and as such will be protected and developed by the cultural sphere without the interruption of political or economic interests (Steiner, 1972). Indeed, political interests from different geographical areas will unite around the importance of human rights, while economic associations will be free to form their own connections and relationships without the interference of state interests.

This form of international relations aligns with the revised understanding of the state as the administrative and bureaucratic realm of politics, concerned only with establishment and protection of equality through law and the support of other state structures in doing the same. Steiner’s approach to the state is emblematic of the threefold social organism and the distinction of economics, politics, and culture, and the establishment of specific relationships in each of those areas. What this essay has sought to provide is a more detailed look at the politics of the threefold social organism. There is no claim that this is an exhaustive account of Steiner’s understanding of the political but it serves as a reference point for future essays in this series to explore certain elements in more detail.

Andy (


Dahlin, B., 2010. Steiner Waldorf Education, Social Three-Folding and Civil Society: Education as Cultural Power. Research on Steiner Education, 1(1), pp. 49-59.

Hoffmann, N., 2019. World Economy and Rudolf Steiner’s Social Threefold. New Economy Journal, 1(2).

Preparata, G. G., 2006. Perishable Money in a Threefold Commonwealth: Rudolf Steiner and the Social Economics of an Anarchist Utopia. Review of Radical Political Economics, 38(Fall), pp. 619-648.

Roesch, U., 2013. We are the Revolution! Rudolf Steiner, Joseph Beuys and the Threefold Social Impuse. Forest Row: Temple Lodge.

Steiner, R., 1945. The Social Future, New York: Anthroposphic Press.

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. Memoranda of 1917. In: Rudolf Steiner. Social Threefolding: Rebalancing Culture, Politics & Economics. Forest Row: Rudolf Steiner Press.

Steiner, R., 2019. Rethinking the Social Organism. Selected Writings. Kindle ed. Ann Arbor: Keryx.