Re-enlivening Society

by Michael Warden

Our last two newsletters (available on our website if you missed them) have referred to great polarisations developing in the world between the forces of darkness and light. We have sketched how both have origins reaching very far into the past, how their interplay will continue far into the future, and how from an anthroposophical point of view the present time is an extra-ordinarily critical moment of choice and transformation.

The resulting trials have to do with the development of the free individuality upon which truly healthy and dynamic society must rest.

Closely related to all this is the great archetype of ´Three Fold Society´ explicitly recognized and named by Rudolf Steiner around the beginning of the twentieth century, but in fact developing naturally for thousands of years.

Three Fold Society is based on the great principles of ´freedom´, ´equality´ and ´brotherhood´, but with the deeper insight of recognising specifically in which areas of life each of them is applicable, and in which areas each is specifically inapplicable.

The cultural sphere for instance, which includes the arts, science, education, religious belief and philosophy and which is the realm of the sovereign individual, is the correct sphere for freedom to operate - indeed it is the only sphere which should be completely unbridled. It is the realm of individual talents and intuitions which must be both free and able to compete and develop. Here, we are not equal, but unique, different and competitive.

The sphere of law, which is the proper business of the state, and is the realm in which our fellow citizen must be recognised, is where equality makes its key contribution (though not adequately so today). In any society that can really call itself mature and civilised, access to good lawyers must be as equal as access to good medical services. Which means that the ´profit principle´ is entirely incompatible with the practice of law (as it is with, for instance, the issuance of currency, another ´hot issue´ at the present time). Such things may have practical, present-day implications which are hard to swallow, yet in the long term both are as clearly true as, for example, the need to separate church from state or objective knowledge from tradition.

Commerce, thirdly, is the arena in which teams of individuals may choose to work for each other or against each other. Here the most the important principle is really not competition, but co-operation; working together to ensure that the material needs of all are met. In this realm  both freedom and equality, which belong to the other realms, become  undesirable. One should not be free to  exploit consumers, employees and environment, simply because it is profitable. And with regard to equality, when there is a complex technical problem to solve, it would be better, for example, not to consider  everybody´s opinion equally valid.

The long cycles of evolving society, ever in the direction of ´three folding´, or true participative democracy, have until now moved largely autonomously and unacknowledged - in overlapping and sometimes even regressing waves, but once identified, its trend is clearly visible over millenia.

Humanity has striven long and hard for the church to be separated from the state, for individual economic freedom from kings and military rulers, for education to be independent of both commercial and state interests, for a state whose primary function is the protecting of individual liberty, for freedom of spiritual and religious belief, for science to provide an independent basis for knowledge,. .. and so on.

Yet equally clearly, it remains a ´work in progress´: we have banks which wield more power than governments, governments determining what will and won´t be taught in schools, science controlled almost entirely by commercial interests, subverting its independence, and churches acting as multi-national corporations. At the same time, governments aspire to control commerce, where they have no expertise, and business wields influence in government, where it has no right. Newspapers are organs of commerce and government, rather than of culture. Governments intervene in spiritual and religious life. Both governments and corporations spend billions to manipulate public perception, and to implement programs of social control. We have a rapidly accelerating divide between rich and poor, and in the legal realm, we effectively, and perhaps increasingly, have different rules for the rich and poor.

In reality then, the long-maturing process of separation and right-interaction between culture, law and commerce will take a lot more time again to reach is its full fruition, and clearly, all of this implies substantial shifts of perspective and attitude. That may be an obstacle, but in the long run not as insurmountable a one as it first appears. Why? Because it is not only the three-fold dynamic which evolves. So does the nature of human consciousness and individuality. They are two sides of the same thing: the three-fold social structure is necessary for the rise of creative and truly autonomous individuality, and creative, autonomous individuality is the enabler of a just and fully human three-fold social structure. The last great wave of social change, beginning 600 years ago in the Renaissance, was led by a surge in individual autonomy, self-awareness and objectivity, which in turn led to substantial furthering of the three-fold dynamic in every sphere of life. The very reason for our present crisis is that the systems and institutions which flowed from that (capitalism, present forms of government, and others) are reaching the end of their natural life. We are being called upon to raise individual consciousness yet again, and to create social transformation yet again.

Yet while it seems improbable that three-folding can reach full maturity in the near future (being, as it is, most naturally associated with the coming 6th Post Atlantean Epoch – see last newsletter), it can most certainly be used to navigate. Indeed, Steiner himself made the point that while three-fold developments to-date happened more or less autonomously, we have reached the point in evolution where they must be taken hold of consciously to progress any further. Failing that, regression can occur, as indeed is happening in many areas of life.

There are many examples of this, but a particularly relevant and clear one at the present time is the so-called issue of ´corporate personhood´, in which rights of freedom belonging only in the cultural (individual) sphere, have been granted to the commercial sphere, massively distorting society and causing widespread damage and suffering.  

Like most of our present problems, it has it roots in the past: In 17th century Britain, corporations started to come into existence, not freely, but under cover of Royal charters of specific duration and for specific purpose.  In the 18th century. During the Industrial Revolution, the concept of ´legal person´ was instituted and covered, among other things, such corporations. There were some sound rationales in this such as limiting the (considerable) risk of those seeking to start a major economic enterprise, legally identifying a non-individual owner of assets, and making it possible to sue a corporation in the case of wrong-doing. In America too, corporations started out under state charter.

However, during the 19th and 20th centuries, a series of Supreme Court judgements first prevented the state from revoking corporate charters, and then step by step gave corporations more and more of the constitutional rights which had originally been designed for the protection of private individuals, setting them free to do as they pleased. Some key milestones cited by campaigners against corporate personhood are:

1819, Dartmouth College vs Woodward, US Supreme Court: the court´s ruling prevented a government from revoking a charter by decreeing that this could only be done if a condition allowing it had been written into the original charter. This set a precedent for viewing government charters as contracts like any other and gave corporations standing within the Consitution.

1886, Santa Clare County vs South Pacific Railroad, US Supreme Court: This judgement actually supported the position of the State, and anyway was not a case directly concerned with corporate rights or ´personhood´. However, the judge made an incidental remark, separate from the judgement itself, that he believed companies to be subject to the rights of the 14th amendment. Subsequently, this remark was widely and erroneously (or deceptively) cited as a precedent that corporations are to be considered persons with regard to the 14th Amendment.

1906, Hale vs Henkel, US Supreme Court: Corporations granted protection of 4th Amendment ´search and seizure´protection - again originally intended for individuals. 1919, Dodge vs Ford Motor Company, Michigan Supreme Court: The court ruled that the primary purpose of a corporation is to make profits for its shareholders - by now completely overturning the origninal conception of corporations as undertaking tasks in the public interest.

1922, Pennsylvania Coal Company vs Mahon, US Supreme Court: Corporations given the right, as ´persons´ to the 5th Amendment ´takings clasue´. This meant that regulations impacting a corporation´s ability to make profit might be subject to a claim for lost earnings and resulted in a much greater caution in making laws in the publlic interest when they have implications for the activity of corporations.

1976, Buckley vs Valeo, US Supreme Court: Coporations as ´persons´are granted First Amendment free-speech rights in respect of spending money to influenc elections.

1996, International Dairy Foods vs Amnestoy, Federal Court of Appeals: Corporations were allowed, under the First Amendment ´right to remain silent´ and to avoid self-incrimination, not to disclose in labelling the use of a synthetic growth hormone produced by GM giant Monsanto.

2010, Citizens United vs The Federal Election Commission, US Supreme Court: In upholding the right of a corporation (political advocacy group Citizens United) to produce and air political movies in the days prior to a presidential election, the court overturned certain elements of 2002 legislation aimed at setting limits on corporate electioneering. This was again based on the First Amendment right to the free speech of the individual, and the identification of corporations as ´individuals´. The ruling was controversial, particularly as five judges supported it, and four opposed it. It provoked both new corporate campaigning activities and fierce public debate.

Thus we end up with corporations more powerful than nations. At the beginning of the third millenium, the 200 biggest corporations in the world control more than a quarter of the economic activity on the planet. Their sales exceed the GDP of all the countries in the world minus the top nine. They have twice the economic resources of the lower 80% of the world population. However, they employ less than a quarter of one percent of the world´s population and falling, and those employees are receiving a shrinking percentage of the fruits of their employers. More than half of the biggest economies in the world, are corporations and not countries, with General Motors bigger than Denmark, Ford bigger than South Africa, Phillip Morris bigger than New Zealand1. The world´s corporations are creating not a ´global village´, but a global aparthied´.

Having gone much further than the original intentions of limiting risk and making corporations legally identifiable and accountable, ´corporate personhood´ now empowers companies under the free speech provisions of the First Amendment to lavish their billions on influencing elections, greatly diminishing the influence of genuine ´people´ to do the same. They are empowered also under the First Amendment, to ´remain silent´ and not incriminate themselves, diminishing the right of real ´poeple´ to know, for instance, what they are putting in their bodies. They are protected in various degrees from being ´searched´, and from the passing of new regulations which negatively affect their profits. And their obligation to make such profits has legally transcended their obligation to serve the public good.

All of that describes what has already happened as at 2014 in the realm of ´corporate personhood´. As of that year however, negotiations on another ´free trade agreement´ were set to extend the rights of corporate persons again, dramatically. TAFTA (Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement), also known as TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), driven by powerful industry groups on both sides of the Atlantic in its draft forms contained provisions for bypassing various emission rules, environmental and safety standards, consumer protection legislation, financial regulation, labelling of products and so on, and opening floodgates to controversial practices from genetic engineering to ´fracking´.

More significantly than all of these however, by means of ´Investor State Dispute Settlement´ clauses, it allowed for corporations to sue nation states (i.e. all European and American nation states) for large sums of money for taking any actions which would inhibit their activities. It was also drafted in such away that, once enacted, it would be impossible for any future government to repeal unless all signatory nations agreed.

As a natural movement in the direction of three-fold society, a growing number of organistions and campaigns are seeking to remove from the commercial sphere these freedoms which belong to, and were originally designed for, the protection of individuals and not for the unfettering of corporations: the Occupy Wall Street movement has the repeal of ´corporate personhood´ high on its agenda, and other campaigns with similar objective include ´Move to Amend´, and ´Reclaim Democracy´. Activist William P Meyers has likened corporate personhood laws to early slavery laws saying that while slavery laws were a legal fiction allowing a person to be property, corporate personhood is a legal fiction allowing a property to be a person. The latter like the former, he says, results in gross loss of individual rights and like the former, must therefore be abolished.

Campaigns against TAFTA / TTIP are at present energetic, with extensive public representations being made to the EU against the proposed legislation. (Various sources are available on the internet for adding one´s voice to such representation).

It goes without saying that these responses are all ´Davids´ fighting Goliath, but that is the nature of the times.

All of this of course rather crosses a line between spiritual / philosophical study and activism. However, the ´consciousness soul´ principle – the principle of free individuality which made such a leap at the time of the renaissance/enlightenment – requires, and will increasingly require, personal, conscious participation in the world . The real point, in that respect, is that despite our hightlighting of the above issue as a topical and relevant one, what is called for is for every individual to align with the issues they personally feel strongly about – that is, for all of us to take up the exhortation of that other great champion of freedom and brotherhood Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change that you want to see”. What is called for in other words is a widespread renewal of civil society. Whether it is local initiatives to start taking education back from government, from political-correctness and from corporate agendas, whether it is those who have stood vigil at night to prevent police from illegally removing Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy, or whether it is the kind of environmental projects driven forward in the UK  by groups like Sustrans and Trees for Life. Non-beaurocratic, participative, local, direct- action.

With regard to corporate personhood  ´civil society´ could be as simple as finding and spreading good factual information about TAFTA / TTIP. Or it could take a longer term and more ambitious ´three-fold´ approach to the problem, in which the corporate sphere is regulated by the cultural sphere which it is supposed to serve. With that aspiration, associations of business people from society might initially act to publicise corporate issues not being properly publicised by the general media, lobby local and national governments on the regulation of corporate business, and cultivate new values and public interest. The point would not be the promoting and strengthening of small business, as it is with associations already in existence (a valid activity, but belonging within the economic sphere itself, rather than relating to the social function of regulating the economic sphere). Rather, it would create something as a combination of pressure-group, bridge-builder and vision-setting publicist, within the social/cultural sphere, and concerned with keeping commerce in the service of the social/cultural sphere. Such organisations could have immediate, significant benefit, and it is entirely possible that with passing years and decades they could grow eventually to be the actual regulators of business.

This piece then, has been both about the highly destructive principle of ´corporate personhood´, which is still gathering strength, and about ´three-fold society´ as a context for understanding such problems and which enables us to evaluate and respond to social issues according to neither ´ideology´ nor arbitrary opinions, but according to a coherent, demonstrable and living set of principles.


1. The Rise of Global Corporate Power, by Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh, 2000

RECOMMENDED READING: “The Three Fold Social Order”, by Rudolf Steiner

A central plank in the anthroposophical world-view, which addresses the relationship between the spiritually evolved individual and the society in which he or she lives. Indeed, an analysis of the entire dynamic of society, sweeping from the past into the distant future, which can rightly be called masterful. It is nonetheless short, concise and  entirely accessible to the ´uninitiated´ reader. We feel that the overworked phrase ´essential reading´ is authentically applicable here for all who seek a frame of reference capable of reaching beyond the tired old polarities of left vs right, top-down government vs anarchism, supply-side vs demand-side economics and so on.


Introduction to social threefolding, by Stephen Usher Ph.D:

Free online audio recording of ´The Threefold Social Order´by Rudolf Steiner:

TAFTA as seen by investigative journalist Colin Todhunter:

Collected information and opinión on TAFTA: