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Reordering of Society - Requirements of Spiritual, Social and Economic Life
GA 24

In the social movement of the present day there is a great deal of talk about social organization but very little about social and unsocial human beings. Little regard is paid to that ‘social question’ which arises when one considers that the arrangements of society take their social or antisocial stamp from the people who work in them. Socialist thinkers expect to see in the control of the means of production by the community what will satisfy the needs of the wider population. They take for granted that under such control the co-operation between people must take a social form. They have seen that the industrial system of private capitalism has led to unsocial conditions. They think that if this industrial system were to disappear, the antisocial effects must also end.

Undoubtedly along with the modern capitalistic form of economy there have arisen social ills to the widest extent; but is this any proof that they are a necessary consequence of this economic system? An industrial system can of its own nature do nothing but put men into situations in life that enable them to produce goods for themselves or for others in a useful or a useless manner. The modern industrial system has brought the means of production into the power of individuals or groups of persons. The technical achievements could best be exploited by a concentration of economic power. So long as this power is employed only in the production of goods, its social effect is essentially different from when it trespasses on the fields of civil rights or spiritual culture. And it is this trespassing which in the course of the last few centuries has led to those social ills for whose abolition the modern social movement is pressing. He who is in possession of the means of production acquires economic domination over others. This has resulted in his allying himself with the forces helpful to him in administration and parliaments, through which he was able to procure positions of social advantage over those who were economically dependent on him; and which even in a democratic state bear in practice the character of rights. Similarly this economic domination has led to a monopolizing of the life of spiritual culture by those who held economic power.

Now the simplest thing seems to be to get rid of this economic predominance of individuals, and thereby to do away with their predominance in rights and spiritual culture as well. One arrives at this ‘simplicity’ of social conception when one fails to remember that the combination of technical and economic activity which modern life demands necessitates allowing the most fruitful expansion possible to individual initiative and personal worth within the business of economic life. The form which production must take under modern conditions makes this a necessity. The individual cannot make his abilities effective in business, if he is tied down in his work and decisions to the will of the community. However dazzling the thought of the individual producing not for himself but for society collectively, yet its justice within certain bounds should not hinder one from also recognizing the other truth, that society collectively is incapable of originating economic decisions that permit of being realized through individuals in the desirable way. Really practical thought, therefore, will not look to find the cure for social ills in a reshaping of economic life that would substitute communal for private management of the means of production. The endeavour should rather be to forestall the ills that can arise through management by individual initiative and personal worth, without impairing this management itself. This is only possible if the relations of civil rights amongst those engaged in industry are not influenced by the interests of economic life, and if that which should be done for people through the spiritual life is also independent of these interests.

Genuine interests of right can only spring up on a ground where the life of rights is separately cultivated, and where the only consideration will be what the rights of a matter are. When people proceed from such considerations to frame rules of right, the rules thus made will take effect in economic life. Then it will not be necessary to place a restriction on the individual acquiring economic power; for such power will only result in his rendering economic achievements proportionate to his abilities, but not in using this to obtain privileged rights ... Only when rights are ordered in a field where a business consideration cannot in any way come into question, where business can procure no power over this system of rights, will the two be able to work together in such a way that men's sense of right will not be injured, nor economic ability be turned from a blessing to a curse for the community as a whole.

When those who are economically powerful are in a position to use their power to wrest privileged rights for themselves, then among the economically weak there will grow up a corresponding opposition to these privileges; and this opposition must as soon as it has grown strong enough lead to revolutionary disturbances. If the existence of a special province of rights makes it impossible for such privileged rights to arise, then disturbances of this sort cannot occur. . . One will never really touch what is working up through the social movement to the surface of modern life, until one brings about social conditions in which, alongside the claims and interests of the economic life, those of rights can find realization and satisfaction on their own independent basis.

In a similar manner must one approach the question of the cultural life, and its connections with the life of civil rights and of industrial economy. The course of the last few centuries has been such that the cultural life itself has been cultivated under conditions which only allowed of its exercising to a limited extent an independent influence upon political life — that of civil rights — or upon economics. One of the most important branches of spiritual culture, the whole manner of education, was shaped by the interests of the civil power. The human being was taught and trained according as state interests required; and state power was reinforced by economic power. If anyone was to develop his capacities within the existing provisions for education, he had to do so on the basis of such finances as his place in life provided. Those spiritual forces that could find scope within the life of political rights or of industry accordingly acquired the stamp of the latter. Any free spiritual life had to forego all idea of carrying its results into the sphere of the state, and could only do so in the economic sphere in so far as this remained outside the sphere of activities of the state. In industry, after all, the necessity is obvious for allowing the competent person to find scope, since all fruitful activity dies out if left solely under the control of the incompetent whom circumstances may have endowed with economic power. If the tendency common amongst socialist thinkers were carried out and economic life were administered after the fashion of the political and legal, then the culture of the free spiritual life would be forced to withdraw altogether from the public field.

But a spiritual life that has to develop apart from civil and industrial realities loses touch with life. It is forced to draw its content from sources that are not in live connection with these realities; and in course of time it works this substance up into a shape which runs on like a sort of animated abstraction along side the actual realities, without having any practical effect on them. And so two different currents arise in spiritual life ... Consider what conceptions of the mind, what religious ideals, what artistic interests form the inner life of the shopkeeper, the manufacturer, or the government official, apart from his daily practical life; and then consider what ideas are contained in those activities expressed in his bookkeeping, or for which he is trained by the education and instruction that prepares him for his profession. A gulf lies between the two currents of spiritual life. The gulf has grown all the wider in recent years because the mode of conception which in natural science is quite justified has become the standard of man's relation to reality. This mode of conception proceeds from the knowledge of laws in things and processes lying outside the field of human activity and influence, so that man is as it were a mere spectator of that which he grasps in the laws of nature ...

A spiritual conception that penetrates to the being of man finds there motives for action which ethically are directly good; for the impulse to evil arises in man only because in his thoughts and sensations he silences the depths of his own nature. Hence social ideas arrived at through the spiritual conception here meant must by their very nature be ethical ideas as well. And not being drawn from thought alone but experienced in life, they have the strength to lay hold on the will and live on in action. For true spiritual conception, social thought and ethical thought flow into one ...

This kind of spirit can, however, thrive only when its growth is completely independent of all authority except such as is derived directly from the spiritual life itself. Legal regulations by the civil state for the nurture of the spirit sap the strength of the forces of spiritual life, whereas a spiritual life left to its own inherent interests and impulses will reach out into everything that man performs in social life ...

If the life of the spirit be a free one, evolved only from impulses within itself, then civil life will thrive in proportion as people are educated intelligently from living spiritual experience in the adjustment of their relationships of rights; and economic life will be fruitful in the measure in which men's spiritual nature has developed their capacities for it ...

Because the spirit at work in civil life and the round of industry is no longer one through which the spiritual life of the individual finds a channel, he sees himself in a social order which gives him, as individual, no scope civically nor economically. People who do not see this clearly will always object to a view of the social organism divided into three independently functioning systems of the cultural life, the rights state and the industrial economy, that such a differentiation would destroy the necessary unity of communal life. One must reply to them that this unity is destroying itself, in the effort to maintain itself intact ... It is just in separation that they will turn to unity, whereas in an artificial unity they become estranged.

Many socialist thinkers will dismiss such an idea with the phrase that conditions of life worth striving for cannot be brought about by this organic membering of society, but only through a suitable economic organization. They overlook the fact that the men at work in their organization are endowed with wills. If one tells them so they will smile, for they regard it as self-evident. Yet they envisage a social structure in which this ‘self-evident’ fact is left out of account. Their economic organization is to be controlled by a communal will, which must be the resultant wills of the people in the organization. These individual wills can never find scope, if the communal will is derived entirely from the idea of economic organization ...

Most people today still lack faith in the possibility of establishing a socially satisfying order of society based on individual wills, because such a faith cannot come from a spiritual life dependent on the life of the state and of the economy. The kind of spirit that develops not in freedom out of the life of the spirit itself but out of an external organization simply does not know what the potentialities of the spirit are. It looks round for something to direct it, not knowing how the spirit directs itself if only it can draw its strength from its own resources. For the new shaping of the social order, goodwill is not the only thing needed. It needs also that courage which can be a match for the lack of faith in the spirit's power. A true spiritual conception can inspire this courage; for it feels able to bring forth ideas that not only serve to give the soul its inward orientation, but which in their very birth bring with them seeds of life's practical configuration. The will to go down into the deep places of the spirit can become a will so strong as to bear a part in every thing that man performs ...

The experiments now being made to solve the social question afford such unsatisfactory results because many people have not yet become able to see what the true gist of the problem is. They see it arise in economic regions, and look to economic institutions to provide the answer. They think they will find the solution in economic transformations. They fail to recognize that these transformations can only come about through forces released from within human nature itself in the uprising of a new spiritual life and life of rights in their own independent realms.

Taken from: “Understanding the Human Being”, selected writings of Rudolf Steiner, Edited by Richard Seddon, Rudolf Steiner Press, Bristol, 1993, ISBN: 1 85584 005 7. From: Chapter 7 - Reordering of Society:

Essay Source = Anthroposophy, 1927 Vol. II, No.3, “Renewal of the Social Organism”, 1919, GA 24.