Free, Equal and Mutual: Rebalancing Society for the Common Good

Frances Hutchinson

The subtitle - “Rebalancing Society for the Common Good”- promises much. A glance at the cover suggests that answers to the frequently asked questions (FAQs) of today are to be found within the text. As is apparent to any student of society today, ordinary men and women “feel precarious and angry, and afraid for their jobs, homes, children, health, wellbeing, identity and lifeways.” The neoliberal consensus has undoubtedly justified “the brutal implementation of market fundamentalism” resulting in massive human insecurity and inequality. Free, Equal and Mutual is worth buying for several key chapters, which require to be considered in depth by all who are engaged in the study and implementation of Steiner’s social threefolding concepts.

Each chapter stands alone, each telling a different story from a different perspective. Martin Large explores the concept and practical workings of Community Land Trusts, as a means to make land available for affordable housing, sustainable farming and development of community facilities. He quotes Mark Twain: “Buy land, they aren’t making it any more”. This raises profound questions about the nature of money and rights of access to the resources of Nature. How and why can land be bought ? Where does that leave families who have no land and no money with which they might buy it? Glen Saunders, former CEO of Triodos Bank, explores Steiner’s concepts of gift, loan and exchange money in the context of the ongoing financial crisis. His answers to the questions “What is money actually? How is it created? How does it actually work?” nevertheless assume the existence of a capitalist market financial system based upon the paid employment of propertyless labour.

At this point the reader may turn back to the earlier chapter entitled “Images of the Human Being and Their Effect on Humanity’s Relationship to Power”. Andrew Scott presents individual students and study groups with an essential resource for exploring the hidden assumptions behind public and private policy decisions. Drawing upon a study published by the Center for the Study of Social Policy at Stamford University in 1982, he outlines the five “noisy images of human being”, the firmly held beliefs that lie behind the seemingly intractable problems currently faced by humanity and the Earth. [1] Humans as Separate from God and Nature. [2] Humankind over Things [3] Economic Man [4] Humankind as Beast [5] Human as Mechanism. The purpose of the chapter is, in the words of its author, “to help the reader to make the connection between their individual self and social threefolding, with the aim of providing new insights and new drive to make a difference”.

The chapter on SEKEM is well worth close study. Christine Arlt tackles head on the dire ecological, social and practical problems facing Egypt, where the SEKEM initiative is based. SEKEM presents “A Model for Sustainable Holistic Development”. Started 40 years ago, and sited 60 miles north of Cairo, the project has made the desert green with biodynamic farming, creating social businesses, providing arts, cultural development, health care and education from kindergarten to university. In this beautifully crafted chapter, Arlt demonstrates the scope for good practice under capitalism in a country with the odds stacked against it in terms of war, poverty and chronic man-made water-shortage. SEKEM today houses 1,500 people in a living, learning and working community, which reaches out to 40,000 others across Egypt and is cited in official documents worldwide. SEKEM’s secret lies in giving space, time and trust to the people, helping it to become: 

“a living and learning community where every human being can unfold his or her individual potential, where mankind is living together in social forms reflecting human dignity, and where all economic activity is conducted in accordance with ecological and ethical principles.”


Under capitalism, such projects are possible. In order to make the desert bloom as in SEKEM, water was necessary and that was only to be found through the use of expensive drilling equipment secured by SEKEM’s founder, Ibrahim Abouleish, through his family’s prominent position in the Egyptian business community. However, other contributors to Free, Equal and Mutual call for fundamental social change, pointing out the urgent necessity to establish a different economic structure by challenging the very foundations of “market fundamentalism”, as Christopher Shaefer aptly terms the current malaise.

In his Foreword, Nicanor Perlas declares that the world is “in chaos”. He raises the fundamental issue of our times: how do we create a ‘free, equal and mutual’ society in a world well on its way to being dominated by the artificial intelligence of the Machine? His list of causes for concern include climate change, species extinction, terrorism, poverty amidst plenty, economic instability and irresponsible governance. We are living, it appears, in a ‘VUCA’ world, i.e., a world that is “Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous”, a world in which Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI) has progressed beyond human control and may well, if unchecked within the next 10 to 20 years, lead to the “all-out extinction” of humanity. Experienced in practical politics, Perlas makes a startling assertion: “No one in the world currently knows how to solve the challenge of making sure that AI goals are aligned with human values and goals”. Smarter versions of AI can now change their own programming “in a non-transparent manner”. Perlas looks to the role of ‘civil society’ in curbing the excesses of power and control exerted by corporate businesses and centralised governments.

Gerald Häfner describes the great longing to put the clock back and be ‘great again’, a longing which takes the form of “an ever louder derogatory whistling in an increasingly dark forest”. By inventing the money system and the internet, we have created tools with uncontrollable power, so that, like Goethe’s apprentice magician, “our way of thinking about economics, money and also democracy has arrived at a dead end”. Häfner speaks with the authority of years of experience in practical politics. Founder member of the Green Party in Bavaria, he has served as a Member of the German Parliament for ten years, as an MEP (2009-2014) and has set up several foundations for education and training. He calls for all to develop a deeper understanding of the forces underlying economics. Through the money and price system we are all interconnected by a complex network of supple chains. These need to be studied and understood if we are to “build an economic order based on brotherhood” on a world scale. Such a world must be founded upon democratic principles. However, democracy requires an open and public space where people can meet and have exchanges with one another, so that we can learn to appreciate another’s point of view and, where necessary, be able to adjust our own views. This space no longer exists, for the Internet has taken its place. As we use the Internet, unknown to us, algorithms work in the background, so that what comes to us is aligned with our past searches and preferences. Different world views and life intentions are totally excluded. We don’t notice, or even know of, 99% of what is being said, because it is not highlighted and brought to our attention by the algorithms. Brief ‘teasers’ test out what people want to see. Hence the Internet also inculcates shrillness, obscenity, brutality, lasciviousness, arrogance and a lack of tact or respect. For Häfner, the urgent task is for each of us to study our own role in the economic order. Every purchase links us with the lives of individuals across the world, through established supply chains determined by powers currently beyond our comprehension. The task is to examine our assumptions about the legitimacy of the power by which these chains are constructed. Through this process we can cooperate in establishing social threefolding.

All human societies have sets of rules, agreed ways of working together, and a common cultural heritage. The capitalism of the so-called ‘developed’ world, which is throwing up all the problems listed in this volume of essays and elsewhere, remains nevertheless entirely dependent upon the Fundamental Social Law that states:

The well-being of a community of people working together will be the greater, the less the individual claims for himself the proceeds of his work, i.e. the more of these proceeds he makes over to his fellow-workers, the more his own needs are satisfied, not out of his own work but out of the work done by others.

Throughout the history of capitalism farmers have produced food by working with the forces of Nature. And mothers have devoted their unpaid time and labour to the rearing of every one of us citizens. Without the free gifts of Nature, and the freely-gifted unpaid time of all our mothers, there would be no society, balanced or unbalanced. Thus the “new kind of gift economy”, the development of Community Supported Agriculture as summarised by Robert Karp, paves the way for individuals, in their households and communities, to take the best from the new technologies whilst taking the best also from the wisdom teachings of ancient texts. See, e.g., Galatians 5: 16-25. The self-less love of a mother for her infant, and of the farmer for the land, remains eternally central to what it is to be human.

Somewhat wearily, as he writes of the evils of capitalist methods of school management, Richard House calls for a “sane, child appropriate way of educating our children”. And that must come – is coming – from what Robert Karp terms the “food movement”. This “emergent economic revolution” is based, at the deepest level, on:

“a new and growing human capacity for profound empathy and compassion with other beings. Indeed, I think it could readily be argued that the driving force behind the food movement is in fact a kind of spiritual awakening, a shift in consciousness, a change of heart that results in new ways of seeing and being in the world. This inner shift can lead one to feel the Earth and her creatures as part of one’s own, essential being, and extend one’s sense of responsibility to include the whole planet.” 

This necessitates discussion of the role of the individual in his or her own household, set within a particular local community and taking account of the natural world as a whole. In order to educate our children we must educate our mothers and fathers in holistic ways of living on this wonderful planet.

Currently, the dominant narrative is the market fundamentalism of capitalism. As John Maynard Keynes once noted: “Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all”. The hard fact of life, spelled out in these essays, is that we can no longer maintain ourselves in isolation, but only live because millions of others are active on our behalf. The belief that we, as individuals, can and should work for ourselves, under the orders of an employer, for as much money as we can get hold of, is destroying the natural world and undermining the very fabric of society. Free, Equal and Mutual provides an excellent starting point for study of the theory and practice of social threefolding. The contributors to this volume are to be thanked for laying down the foundations for study of viable alternatives to market fundamentalism.

Free, Equal and Mutual: Rebalancing Society for the Common Good, by Martin Large and Steve Briault (editors), Hawthorne Press 2018, ISBN: 978 1-907359-94-1, Pb. 280pp. £20

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