The Renewal of the Social Organism
by Joseph Weizenbaum
History often provides insight into the present. Consider the American South one hundred and fifty years ago, for example. There human rights and economic servitude were compressed into a single domain for black Americans. They became a means of production that could be bought and sold as a commodity. In many parts of the South it was forbidden to teach blacks to read. Control by law of education, part of culture, was found necessary to subordinate human rights to economics. The domain of rights and economics thus also engulfed culture.
Today we recognize rights which are independent from economic power, at least in principle. Modern workers must accept the authority of their superiors but only in matters directly related to their employment. Human beings no longer can be treated as mere means of production. We have separated economic power from civil rights at least to the extent of making slavery illegal.
If we can perceive how law, economics, and culture grew independent of one another relative to their nearly complete interdependence one hundred and fifty years ago in the South, then we can imagine the possibility of their even greater separation. This greater separation of the three domains - economics, law, and culture-forms the core of Steiner's social thought. Written in 1919, the essays contained in this volume address the reconstruction of a shattered Germany. They call for a proper separation of these three spheres of activity arguing that only this would allow each to express its essential nature and thereby enable human society to revitalize itself.
To understand this separation we must understand the component activities. For law the essential characteristic is human equality. Law both guarantees and limits rights, and it does this equally for each person. It governs the democratic political process in which each person's vote carries equal weight. Inasmuch as rights must be protected and the law enforced, it encompasses both the police and the military. The state is its administrative body. The modern national state, however, oversteps its essential boundaries, creating a kind of social indigestion in its attempts to legislate both in the domains of economics and of culture. Economic interests, in turn, influence legal judgments, often making a sham of human equality.
In the United States an important barrier to this overstepping is the constitutional doctrine of the separation of Church and State. The reasoning behind this doctrine has received considerable interpretation by legal experts and by the Supreme Court. Part of the discussion revolves around the ways in which people are considered equal. Thomas Emerson 1Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment (New York: Random House, 1966). argues that we are equal in one way through our need for self-fulfIllment or self-development, a fundamental aspect of which is belief formation. Consequently each individual has the right to form his or her beliefs without government interference. From this follows the separation of Church and State.
Religion is one pan of cultural life; another part is education. The separation of the three activities of society implies that education should be as independent of the state as is religion. In “The Separation of School and State” Stephen Arons presents a legal argument for this separation in the context of U.S. Constitutional law. He states that the case would have “for its central principle the preservation of individual conscience from government coercion. The specific application of this principle to education is that any state-constructed school system must maintain a neutral position toward parents' educational choices whenever values or beliefs are at stake. If schools generally are value-inculcating agencies, that fact raises serious constitutional questions about how a state can maintain a sufficiently neutral posture toward values while supporting a system of public education:” 2“The Separation of School and State: Pierce Reconsidered,” Harvard Educational Review, 46 (February 1976):1, pp. 96–97. In other words public schools as a matter of course tend to transmit those values deemed appropriate by the majority of the public. This implies choices among such conflicting values as competitiveness and cooperation, intellect and wisdom, and the status of manual work vis-a-vis intellectual work. Parents not accepting the majority view have the right to alternatives.
Current rulings protect the existence of private schools and their right to determine their own curricula with minimal state interference. These rulings exclude “any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.” 3United States Supreme Court, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. at 535 (1925). 4. National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform; A Report to the Nation (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983). Arons feels that their implications go further than is generally accepted. First, they can be interpreted as prohibiting state financing systems from favoring those who are in agreement with public school values. In effect every child has the right to the same educational support at the school of his or her parents' choice, whether public or private. Otherwise constitutional rights are reserved for the rich. Second, state regulation of private schools cannot effect value transmission unless there is legally compelling justification given by the state. Putting these implications into effect would increase the separation of school and state.
Steiner argues for separation of culture and state in order that the essential nature of each can find a healthy form. To understand the essential nature of the state we must recognize that people may differ among themselves with respect to musical and other talents, but that the same people are equal with respect to voting rights. The state will be healthy when it concerns itself strictly with those matters wherein people are equal. This human equality is fundamental to the state.
Freedom is the quality fundamental to the life of culture. It is interesting that freedom is often thought to be the characteristic of the political system. On reflection, however, it becomes clear that what is usually meant by freedom is equality under the law. Indeed, by majority consensus absolute freedom is limited. For example, a person is not free to murder or steal. A little reflection also reveals that people are not equal culturally. Few would deny the cultural superiority of Mozart, Hilbert, Schweitzer, or Emerson. Thus superiority does not effect the essential equality of all before the law. It does suggest that the highly gifted ought to be given more space and time than the merely moderately gifted to unfold their capacities for the benefit of society.
To understand Steiner's thinking consider briefly what is involved in a cultural creation, be it KeKule discovering the benzene ring, Saul Bellow writing a novel, or Joan of Arc planning a battle. Each of these activities originated in the creative depths of a unique individual. It issued forth from soul and spirit under the guidance of his or her own volition and intentionality. No external compulsion can bring forth inner creative activity. The individual does it freely or not at all.
Steiner's thinking about cultural life was directed more toward this inner activity than to its result or product. For him culture is that realm of society in which people acquire inner activity and mobility through interaction with others who have developed this mobility. In the essay “Cultivation of the Spirit and Economic Life” he says that cultural life
“aims at a form of cooperation among men to be based entirely on the free intercourse and free association of individualty with individuality. Here human individuality will not be forced into an institutional mold. How one person assists another, how one helps another advance will simply arise from what one, through his own abilities and accomplishments, is able to be for the other. It is no great wonder that presently many people are still able to imagine nothing but a state of anarchy as a result of such a free form of human relations in the social order's spiritual-cultural branch. Those who think so simply do not know what powers of man's innermost nature are hindered from expanding when man is forced to develop in the pattern into which the state and economic system mold him. Such powers, deep within human nature, cannot be developed by institutions, but only through what one being calls forth in perfect freedom from another being.”
As Steiner mentions above, real freedom in culture need not result in chaos. He provided an example of this in the Waldorf School, which he founded in Stuttgart in 1919. Based on that impulse the Waldorf Schools have grown in number to a worldwide confederation of over 350 independent private primary and secondary schools. The teachers in these schools retain complete control of the activities within their own classrooms, as well as of the operation of the school as a whole through a collegial administrative body. The heart of the pedagogy is a developmental picture of the child compatible with that of Piaget, whom Steiner predated. The developmental phases that are outlined in the essay “The Pedagogical Basis of the Waldorf School” provide a context for the Waldorf teacher's interaction with children of different ages. This interaction follows a structured curriculum, where subjects are chosen to assist the developmental process of each child. The curriculum and the concept of the developmental phases can be compared to an instrument that the teacher creatively plays in order to help the students actualize their potentials. In this way the schools provide an example of free creative activity within a structure. It is not chaos. Being personally acquairited with a number of Waldorf students, I can say that they come closer to realizing their own potentials than practically anyone I know.
This is in striking contrast to what one finds in the public primary and secondary schools in the United States. A recent study points to a catastrophic situation. The report titled A Nation at Risk 4National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform; A Report to the Nation (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983). literally states that if a foreign power had imposed our current educational system on us, we would have taken it as an act of war. Just how bad conditions are can be deduced from the results of an English proficiency exam, given this September to incoming freshmen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with a standard of passing which was embarrassingly low. Of 1131 students who took the exam, about 800 failed. Considering that MIT is among the highest quality institutions in the country, receiving applications only from top students and accepting only the best of them, it is clear that standards of mastery of their native language among average students in our secondary school system must be very low indeed.
The report goes on to urge that something must be done to improve this situation, giving two compelling reasons. The first is that without a better educated public the United States will be unable to compete with foreign economies in the struggle for markets. This is an economic reason. The second is a political one. Lacking an educated public America will not be able to keep up its military strength. In Steiner's terms the report suggests that we nurture the germ which is the underlying cause of the problem. It should be clear that if these two are the primary reasons for improving the educational system, then they will influence how it is “improved.” In reality it is exactly such influences from the state and from economics that have caused the current catastrophe.
Unhealthy connections and influences among the several activities of
society have caused catastrophies in economic life as well. Two cases
which illustrate this are developments in the American rail and steel
industries since the second world war. At the beginning of the war the
U.S. railroad system was quite superb. It covered the entire country and
was fast and comfortable. But then companies like New York Central
started examining themselves and decided the business they were really
in was making money and providing dividends for their shareholders. On
this basis they took their surplus funds and bought companies which were
unrelated to railroading but which were judged more profitable than
rail. Today we call this diversification. The deterioration of the
railroads' infrastructure was the consequence. Within a decade the
system was in disarray. Similar events took place in the U. S. steel
industry. American steel became uncompetitive. Those foreign steel
manufacturers who had decided that making steel was their business, and
who consequently invested in renewal and improvement of their plant,
became even more efficient while the American steel-making plant
The decline of American rail and steel can be traced to neglecting the essential nature of economic life: meeting human needs. They turned, instead, to the rights of owners, myopically pursuing shareholder profit and probably management compensation. This is the “pig principle.” The net impact on society can be found by adding the shareholder's gain to the external effects, such as the cost of finding and using alternatives to rail transportation, which are costs to society. The net, a big negative, is the logical outcome of economic activity losing its primary focus of meeting needs.
To be healthy economics must start from and keep this primary focus. Those at work in economic life concern themselves primarily with the production and circulation of commodities. What is produced is usually not consumed by those who produce it. The product serves the needs of others. For this reason Steiner used the term “brotherliness” (and we should add sisterliness) to characterize economic activity. He stressed that this applies only to economies in which the division of labor is the norm.
But to characterize actual economic life with the term “brotherliness” is to contradict much of modern economic thinking. Human economic activity is more usually characterized by terms like selfishness, personal gain, and survival. Steiner insists, however, that these ideas are inconsistent with fundamental economic realities. Since the division of labor, few individuals have really provided for themselves. We all rely on the efforts of thousands, indeed millions of others to produce the car we drive, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear. The reality of modern economic life is that we take care of one another, i.e., true brotherliness. Thinking that overlooks this fundamental reality is likely to misguide economic decisions, as in the two examples cited.
The proper separation of the three activities of society-economics, law, and culture-would make it possible for economic life to keep its focus on human needs and maintain its true brotherly character. Steiner envisioned this coming about through the working of motivational forces different from those to which we are accustomed. Self interest, profit, and personal gain could be replaced by the satisfaction of knowing one is working for the community good. Steiner argued that this is not a utopian dream; rather it is a motivation suitable to true human dignity. He also described new ways of working with wages, capital, and credit that would aid the advent of this new motivation. The key to its possibility and practicality is again the proper separation of the three activities.
He explains in the essay “Ability to Work, Will to Work, and the Threefold Social Order” that this socially responsible motivation would not arise from the economic life at all, because purely economic work has become inherently uninteresting since the division of labor became the norm. This was not the case for the medieval craftsman who produced his product in its entirety and then, taking pride in it, received thanks from his customer. The modern worker is confined to a task that, taken by itself, i.e., out of the macroeconomic context into which it fits, is meaningless. The existing economic motivation, money, leads people to do whatever is necessary to get paid. But it does not activate their interest in a task that is inherently uninteresting, with the consequence that absenteeism, alienation, and poor performance have reached alarming levels. Steiner recognized that socially responsible motivation could arise only from an independent cultural and political life. In the above mentioned essay he says that within the cultural life the individual
“learns in a living way to understand this human society for which one is called upon to work; a realm where one learns to see what each single piece of work means for the combined fabric of the social order, to see it in such a light that one will learn to love it because of its value for the whole. It aims at creating in this free life of spirit the profounder principles that can replace the motive of personal gain. Only in a free spiritual life can a love for the human social order spring up that is comparable to the love an artist has for the creation of his works.&rdquo
From a separate democratically ordered life of law there would also arise motives to work for society.
“Real relationships will grow up between people united in a social organism where each adult has a voice in government and is co-equal with every other adult: it is relationships such as these that are able to enkindle the will to work ‘for community.’ One must reflect that a truly communal feeling can grow only from such relationships, and that from this feeling the will to work can grow. For in actual practice the consequence of such a state founded on democratic rights will be that each human being will take his place with vitality and full consciousness in the common field of work. Each will know what he is working for; and each will want to work within the working community, of which he knows himself a member through his will.&rdquo
If we attempt to fInd examples of this type of motivation operative in contemporary society, we often fInd negative instances. This is nowhere better exemplified than at the highest levels of computer research at MIT. This research is paid for almost entirely by the military. While it is possible to view it, if one wears just the right kind of glasses, as a pure science and as “value free,” it is, in fact, in the service of the military. Scientific results are swiftly converted to the improvement of implements of mass destruction and of death. Young men and women work in these fields trying to maintain the illusion that they are doing abstract science, a “value free” science. They ultimately have to come to believe that they are not in any way responsible for the end use of their labor. It is often said that the computer is a tool having no moral dimension. Clearly this position can be maintained only if one thinks of human society in abstract terms, i.e. if one denies the concrete historical and social circumstances in which one lives and works.”
The effect of this situation on the researcher needs emphasis. It takes enormous energy to shield one's eyes from seeing what one is actually doing. The expenditure of this energy on the part of individuals is expensive in emotional terms. Ultimately this is the real tragedy, for it reduces the person to a machine.
There is a sort of irony involved, a chilling irony. A fear is often expressed about computers, namely that we will create a machine that is very nearly like a human being. The irony is that we are making human beings, men and women, become more and more like machines. For it is human to find the motive for work, consciously and with conscience and compassion, in the concrete historical and social context in which one lives. When this is not possible human beings are robbed of essential humanity.
The quest for a motive to work befitting human dignity extends from research scientist to factory worker. One might think, for example, that the steel worker, if he were educated to picture the use of the product of his work, would find in the pictures the motivation to work for social good instead of merely for a living. This presumably could be measured in higher quality work and reduced absenteeism. On closer inspection, however, it is doubtful that a look at the actual American context could bring about such motivation. A large percentage of steel manufactured in America is used for nothing but trivia. For example, there are on the order of ten million new automobiles produced in this country every year. If we restricted ourselves to a replacement market without model changes and alterations that are purely cosmetic, then we might easily get by, building, say, half a million cars a year. It is difficult to believe that the steel worker could be proud of his contribution to society if underneath he knew that the car his neighbor bought was unnecessary and that it might have been better to put the resources it required into feeding the 600 million people on the planet who are malnourished.
In a volume to be published subsequently to this one Steiner's concept of “unnecessary production,” i.e., trivia, planned obsolescence, etc., is introduced. With that discussion and much of what is presented in this volume it should be evident that Steiner's ideas will be of interest to those who concern themselves with issues of ecology and stewardship of the earth. In the broader context ecology must also encompass a social dimension, making it a social ecology that considers questions such as right motivation to work. In this sense Steiner's work also relates to the efforts of E.F. Schumacher, who read Steiner, and who tried to introduce us to ideas of appropriate scale and healthy approaches to post industrial society. These connections should help dispel any thought that this volume is dated. Rather, Steiner was far ahead of his time.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1984