The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Renewal of the Social Organism
GA 24

Twenty Articles from the Newspaper The Threefold Social Order

10. Economic Profit and the Spirit of the Age

There are conflicting views on the profits made by economic entrepreneurs. Its defenders say that human nature is such that we will engage our talents for the good of the whole only when induced to do so by the expectation of profit. It is true, they say, that profit is the offspring of egotism; yet profit performs a service to the community — a service the community would have to do without were it to eliminate profit from the economic process. The opponents of this viewpoint say that production should not be pursued with a view to profit, but rather with a view to consumption. One must devise institutions that will motivate men to continue to employ their powers for the benefit of the community even when not enticed to do so by the expectation of profit.

When there are such conflicting opinions in public life, usually people do not think them out to the end, but rather let power decide. If one is democratically-minded, one thinks it quite right that institutions should be established (or allowed to remain) that correspond to the interests and wishes of the majority. If one is single-mindedly convinced of the legitimacy of one's own interests, then one's aim is an authoritarian central power that shall develop institutions to conform to these particular wishes and interests. One then desires only to obtain sufficient influence over this central power to ensure its accomplishing what one wants. What is today called “the dictatorship of the proletariat” stems from this attitude. People who demand this “dictatorship” are motivated by their wishes and interests; they make no at-tempt to think correctly so as to discover whether their demand entails institutions that are in themselves really possible.

Humanity is presently at a point in its evolution when it is no longer possible to conduct human affairs simply by insisting upon what is wished. Quite apart from what this or that person, this or that group may want, from now on in the sphere of public life only efforts proceeding from ideas that have been thought through to the end will promote social health. However strongly human passions may resist it, in the end people will be obliged to introduce into social life these thoroughly considered ideas demanded by the spirit of humanity, because people will see the pathological consequences that result from their opposite.

The view that a threefold structuring of the social organism is a necessity is one such idea thought through to its logical conclusion. In light of this intent, it is certainly odd that many of its opponents think the idea an unclear one. The reason for this is that these opponents are interested not in clear thinking, but merely in agreement with their interests, wishes and prejudices. When faced with ideas that have been fully and concretely considered, they can see nothing in them but opposition to their preconceived opinions; they justify themselves unclearly in their own eyes, by saying that the opposition is unclear.

In estimating the economic significance of profits, im-pertinent opinions often intrude. Certainly profit-making is an egotistical aim. However, it is unjustified to use this egotism as an argument for eliminating profit from economic activity. For there must be something in the economy that can serve to indicate whether there is a need for a manufactued article. In the modern form of economics, the only indicator of this need is the fact that the article yields profits. An article can be manufactured if it yields profits that, in the economic context, are sufficiently large. An article that yields no profits must not be produced because it will upset the price balance of articles in actual circulation. Profits may represent what they will in ethical terms; in conventional economic terms, they represent an indicator for the need to produce an article.

The further evolution of economics does require the elimination of profits, but for the following reason: because they make the production of articles dependent on accidents of the market, which the spirit of the age demands be abolished. One clouds one's judgement if one argues against profit because of its egotistical nature. Real life demands that within any field one must mount arguments appropriate to the particular situation. Arguments drawn from another field of life may be perfectly true in themselves, but they cannot guide one's judgement toward the real facts.

What is necessary for economic life is that profits as indicators should be replaced by groups tasked with establishing a rational correspondence between production and consumption that will abolish accidents of the market. The change from profits-indicator to a rational coordination of production and consumption, if correctly understood, will result in the elimination of the motives that have hitherto clouded judgment on this issue by removing them to the legal and cultural spheres.

Only when people recognize that the idea of the threefold social order has been shaped by an effort to create sound bases for realistic and practical conduct in each of life's different spheres, will they begin to do this idea justice and to have a proper estimation of its practical value. So long as motives proper to the legal and spiritual-cultural spheres are expected to proceed indiscriminately from the administration of economic life (which can be practical only when ruled solely by businesslike considerations and transactions) — so long will social life remain unhealthy. Today's party groupings are still quite removed from what the spirit of the age is shown here to demand. Thus it is inevitable that the idea of the threefold social order should meet with much prejudice stemming from opinions prevalent in these party groupings. However, it is time to put an end to the belief that any change can be effected in today's unsound social conditions through further activity along the old party lines. The very first thing to be considered is rather a change in these party opinions themselves. The way to do this, however, is not by splitting off sections of existing par-ties and establishing ourselves as representatives of “true” party opinion, while reproaching others for deserting “the true party views.” This only leads from fighting over ideology to a much worse struggle for the power of specific groups of people. What is needed now is not this, but rather an unprejudiced insight into the demands of the “spirit of the age.”