New Economy Journal

The Associative Economy: Work and Social Sculpture

The Ecological Economics Issue

Volume 1, Issue 4

July 4, 2019

By - Nigel Hoffmann PhD

Piece length: 1,719 words

Share article

In my previous article I presented a picture of the threefold social organism, focussing on the meaning and creative function of capital. An associative economy, as Rudolf Steiner describes it, can come about when the three spheres – the economic, the cultural-spiritual and the political-legal – are consciously articulated, each autonomous yet organically integrated with the others. Looking from this “whole picture” gives context to the many different forms of social action which may take place at the grassroots level.

What Steiner means by an “association” is a mutually caring relationship of producers, distributors and consumers. As such it bears a similarity to the Fairtrade system which has emerged in recent times. Steiner’s outlook is radical; he conceives the entire economy as being structured associatively rather than by the “invisible hand” of the competitive market which has ended up concentrating untold wealth into the hands of the few. Importantly, Steiner’s solution to economic inequality is not Marxist socialist because it doesn’t view the state as the key economic instrument. “The threefold social order frees economic life from the bonds of the state. Therefore it can consider only those measures that evolve naturally from within the economy itself” writes Steiner.[1] That is to say: what is fundamental to the associative economy is people’s relationships with each other, not regulations and determinations from on high.

His point is that all tasks and regulations necessary for production must be based on the free initiative of those actually involved in the economic process – for example, in coming to agreements about right price in terms of the needs of producers, distributors and consumers together. It takes place, in other words, through free individual wills. But it will be asked: surely individual wills will only want to maximise their personal profit which is the whole basis of capitalism? That is a very jaundiced view of human nature. People need to be free, and not just cogs in the state machine, in order to develop the kind of love for others which gives them the motivation to work in the economic sphere. And their love of their work, carried out for others, will develop when labour comes to be understood as a right.

When labour is understood as a rights phenomenon, belonging along with capital to the political-legal (or politico-rights) sphere of the threefold social organism, then a new picture takes shape. A person’s labour is not a commodity and cannot be purchased or even hired, as takes place through the wage system. That is a kind of modern-day slavery as Marx rightly pointed out.[2] The Marxist solution to this is purely economic: simply to do away with the employer class and allow the state to run the economy. In a factory situation, what the owner actually wants and pays the workers for is their product, not their time. Steiner indicates that labour must more and more come into the sphere of rights because, in truth, every individual has a right to work and fulfil the capacities which have been allowed to come forth in a free cultural-spiritual sphere and genuine education for freedom. That is exactly why he founded – a century ago this year – the first Steiner/Waldorf school which was for the children of workers at a cigarette factory.

Certain cooperatives go a long way in the direction of the associative economy. A prominent example is the Mondragon Corporation in the Basque region of Spain, founded by a young Jesuit priest José María Arizmendiarrieta after the Second World War. This today is a flourishing group of 261 enterprises, including a bank and a university, which currently employ about 80,000 people. All workers participate in management processes on a democratic basis and business managers earn around five times as much as workers. It is the tenth largest business group in Spain. People from around the world visit the Mondragon cooperatives in order to witness an alternative to capitalism.

Capital is “distilled” from the substances and living processes of the Earth through the cooperative work of very many people in the economic sphere; this is how I described it in my previous article. In other words, not just investors (as in traditional capitalism) but workers, the environment and educational institutions are the sources of capital. Mondragon Corporation is administered in a way that reflects consideration for these many stakeholders. It cannot be sold off by investors, since the cooperatives are not merely the creation of investors. Mondragon Corporation is a business enterprise, but one element of Jesuit practice  in particular found its way into its business ethic and this sets it apart from the normal methods of worker participation in cooperative management. It is what they call “the sovereignty of work”. In their principles they state that “the systematic recruitment of salaried workers has been abandoned” and that capital is considered “an instrument subordinate to labour”. The way the cooperatives are run promotes work being honoured and valued as a way of individual and social transformation. This accords with the idea of an associative economy articulated by Steiner in which labour comes from within the sphere of rights and is not something which can be manipulated to allow the few to reap maximum profits.

An example of an initiative which works more broadly and specifically in relation to the idea of a threefold social organism is Sekem, north of Cairo in Egypt, which has been developing for forty years. It was founded by Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish who had learnt about the work of Rudolf Steiner when studying in Austria to be a pharmacologist. Sekem now includes biodynamic farms, a number of trading companies, a medical centre, a Steiner school, a community school for disadvantaged children, a research institute, and Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development.

Sekem is founded on what they call an “economics of love”. Now, while this may suggest a religious orientation it is actually only referring to caring relationships between human individuals – the producers, traders and consumers – in a conscious practice of associative economics and humanistic management. Within the whole assemblage of institutions embraced by Sekem the threefold social order has been carefully articulated – so that workers in the trading companies, for example, all take part in personal development within the cultural-spiritual organisation, especially through the arts, to realise their individual potential. And a rights organisation has been created to ensure that workers experience work and capital as a right and that added value from business operations is fairly distributed along the supply chain, to the local community, to education, and to research into sustainable practices.

The economic model of Sekem, which incorporates input from researchers in  Switzerland, is what they call the “sustainability flower”. In it we see the three spheres, autonomous but intimately related (they term the political-legal sphere “societal life”, given its ideal of equality). This threefold social organisation is set in a flower to express a total dedication to sustainability, not just in their economic and agricultural practices ,but in their educational orientation and societal life too. It is a model which they are endeavouring to share with others throughout Egypt and the world through the Sekem Development Foundation.

Sekem’s sustainability flower

Sekem’s sustainability flower


Social Sculpture

Idealistic though it may seem, we are all seeking a way towards a society which is just and good; which, in a sense, is a thing of beauty. Otto Scharmer, working out of Steiner’s threefold picture, talks about the three root questions alive in the minds and hearts of people across cultures and civilisations.

  • How can we create a more equitable global economy that would serve the needs of all, including today’s have-nots and the future generations?
  • How can we deepen democracy and evolve our political institutions so that all people can increasingly directly participate in the decision-making processes that shape their context and future?
  • How can we renew our culture so that every human being is considered a carrier of a sacred project—the journey of becoming one’s authentic self?[3]

It’s all about what it means to be an individual. When we consider the idea of an associative economy, shaped through the caring relationships of individual human wills, not by collectivist state directives or by the fluctuations of an impersonal “market”; when we consider the “sovereignty of work” of individual human beings who are allowed to take responsibility for their labour – then we are building a picture of how the world can change through individual action, or individuals choosing to work together, as opposed to dependence on political “masters”.

This is why the cultural-spiritual sphere of the threefold social order is so important. It is here that young people can be educated to be free, and not just servants of the state; it is here that individuals undertake the “sacred project” of becoming their authentic self. The conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, a long-time student of Steiner’s social ideas, developed the idea of “social sculpture” (which is also called “social architecture”). His famous statement was: “Everyone is an artist”. Beuys was concerned about liberating human creativity for social transformation. Something similar is expressed by Sir Ken Robinson in his well-known TED talk in which he laments how we are educated out of our creativity as we grow older.

I will conclude with a longer quote from Rudolf Steiner in which he indicates how a true associative economic life can only come into existence through a liberated cultural-spiritual sphere. He is pointing to the inspiration and task of the social artist:[4]

“The threefold social order aims at establishing within an independent, self-sustaining cultural life a realm where one 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.”


  • [1] Rudolf Steiner, The Renewal of the Social Organism (Anthroposophic Press, NY, 1985) 20.
  • [2] See Karl Marx, Wage Labour and Capital, an essay, 1847.
  • [3] Otto Scharmer, Theory U, Society for Organisational Learning, Cambridge, 2007, p.95. Scharmer acknowledges the strong influence of the ideas of Steiner on his work. For example, he wrote the forward to the new edition of Steiner’s lectures on world economy, Rethinking Economics, SteinerBooks, Great Barrington, 2013.
  • [4] Rudolf Steiner, The Renewal of the Social Organism, op. cit,, p.82.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.