By Seth Jordan
When we look to Rudolf Steiner’s work for help in social and societal transformation, we find that his focus in this work is primarily on society itself — understanding the living, dynamic lawfulness of the “social organism.” In the process, he also describes how individuals can develop social capacities, as well as how healthy dynamics can be fostered in the workplace, but his main concern is always with the healthy transformation of society as a whole. (We will look at all three of these aspects in an upcoming course with the Biodynamic Association, Healing Society, Healing the Earth.)
Steiner is no utopian. As he describes the illnesses that plague society, he also describes how we can remedy them, but he’s always clear that these remedies can, and will, take many different forms. He is also crystal clear that our social problems can’t be solved once and for all, the best we can hope for is to create the conditions whereby people can solve them for themselves as they arise. A healthy society is fundamentally regenerative (always in a state of renewal) and grassroots — it is born out of the inspirations, initiatives, and needs of the living generation.
What do such regenerative, grassroots conditions look like? What should we be striving to create? One of the most obvious examples can be found in the processes of direct democracy where people participate in the making of those laws that govern their lives. Because democracy has become more or less synonymous with this impulse for grassroots empowerment, we see its application to other realms outside of the legal realm such as democratic schools and cooperatives run on principles of “economic democracy.”
One of Steiner’s key insights is that what it means to be “grassroots” — to draw directly from the people on the ground — changes in the different areas of social life (and is, therefore, not simply synonymous with democratic). For instance, vital capacities can emerge when what is taught in education is not prescribed by a community through democratic processes, but when a living recognition arises in the relationship between teacher and student (“If you are a pedagogical artist, it is not so easy — you cannot teach yesterday, today, tomorrow and the next day according to the same norms and methods, but each time you must learn from the child himself how you teach him.” (Rudolf Steiner, from Understanding Society, Forest Row: Rudolf Steiner Press, 2017. p. 25.)) And economic life can give birth to true solidarity when the people who are immediately producing, distributing, and consuming goods are able to work cooperatively together, directing their own activities, and drawing motivation from those they serve.
Although Steiner describes economic life in great detail throughout his works (especially in the 14 lectures he gave to economic professors and students entitled Rethinking Economics), we can get an important understanding of his approach from what he says in the first lecture of the Agriculture Course:
“No one can judge agriculture who does not derive his judgment from field and forest and the breeding of cattle. All talk of economics which is not derived from the job itself should really cease. So long as people do not recognize that all talk of economics — hovering airily over the realities — is mere empty talk, we shall not reach a hopeful prospect, neither in agriculture nor in any other sphere…
There, for example, is the beetroot growing in the earth. To take it just for what it is within its narrow limits, is nonsense if in reality its growth depends on countless conditions, not even only of the earth as a whole, but of the cosmic environment. The men of today say and do many things in life and practice as though they were dealing only with narrow, limited objects, not with effects and influences from the whole universe. The several spheres of modern life have suffered terribly from this.” (Rudolf Steiner, from Agriculture Course, Forest Row: Rudolf Steiner Press, 2004. pp. 19-20.)
The second part of this passage provides an important window into why society needs to be grassroots. On the one hand, we can feel that it’s simply a requirement of our times — people need to have a say in governing their lives and can’t simply be treated like a cog in a machine. But on the other hand, it is people on the ground who are connected to the full reality, and especially the spiritual reality of their task. They have planted their roots in the ground of that activity; they are working out of its source. We can, of course, treat the world as dead and unchanging — that children are all the same, so a standardized education is fine, and that producing food is simply a mechanical process best left to corporations and economic experts — or we can see that it is important for a teacher to strive to be fully awake to what is living in a child, and for a farmer to strive to be fully awake to the land.
The poet William Stafford once wrote “your job is to find what the world is trying to be.” This means learning to listen. It means waking up to the forces that come to expression in the beetroot, and it means coming to know people as they are and not just as we want them to be.
We could say that our job is also always threefold: we have to connect with the spirit of our work (“what the world is trying to be”), we have to bring it into being (into its healthy expression or fruition), and we have to work peacefully with others in the process. It is in the harmonizing of these three elements — in our individual lives, in our organizations, and in our society — that society will find healing.
Seth Jordan has been working with Steiner’s social ideas, often called “social threefolding,” for the last 14 years. Inspired by the deep clarity of insight that they contain, he has asked, How can we develop our social practice so that these insights become lived experience?
Seth co-founded and directed Think OutWord, a peer-led training for young adults in social threefolding that ran intensive workshops and conferences for eight years. Seth has worked with various initiatives including Free Columbia (an arts initiative) and The Nature Institute (a natural science initiative). He has also worked with a number of musicians around the question of bringing support to culture and the arts.
Join Seth and Anthony Mecca, along with guest speaker Lisa Romero, for the online course, Healing Society, Healing the Earth, September 14 - November 2.