Self-governance as basic principle of modern social structures

Christoph Strawe

The term “self-governance” still occurs infrequently in this context. Yet it is precisely the principle of self-governance, if only it were properly understood and consistently practiced, which could provide new answers to many current social questions and problems.

In places where self-governance is already practiced – in whatever imperfect form – an alternative which can apply to the whole of society is already being anticipated in reality on a small scale. This creates a major opportunity, albeit a challenging one, for the practitioners who work in self-governed institutions – such as schools, homes for the elderly, kindergartens, curative education institutions – or are helping to found such initiatives. It consists of learning to handle self-governance in such a way that it is never experienced as an obstructive burden but always as a help in solving the major tasks which the people who work in self-governed communities have set themselves.

Responsibility, self-governance and social structures

A signature of the modern age is the growing self-awareness of modern individuals who are demanding and increasingly practicing their right to make their own judgements and take the initiative. In parallel, the economy is breaking out of its inward looking self-sufficiency and turning into a global network of division of labour and cooperation. States are moving from authoritarian structures to structures governed by the rule of law – but where that new role is rejected and the old authoritarian principles are asserted new sources of conflict arise.

The old unitary, top-down community structures are being cracked open in three respects in a development which is reaching its culmination today: all the tasks of the spiritual, intellectual and cultural life can only meaningfully be tackled on the basis of individual liberty; it is the job of the state – governed by the rule of law – to protect the equal freedoms of each person; and the economy must ensure that the needs of people are met through a reciprocal and fraternal approach. A threefold structure of the social organism is becoming more and more of a necessity – not as a finished “solution” of the social question but as a social structure which is so permeable for the impulses and initiatives of people that they can solve their problems themselves and develop the way they coexist socially.

Social responsibility

Neither the return to authoritarian control nor the permanent appeal to self-interest will get us any further today. On the contrary, they only make matters worse. The future lies solely in the development and activation of the forces of responsibility which are inherent in people. There must be social structures which create the space for these forces – which cause us to act because we know something is right – to develop. Because, in contrast to the antisocial forces of egoism, utilitarianism and profit maximisation, these forces will only develop today if they are consciously cultivated.

The capacity to take responsibility is created where the social structure provides the opportunity to take and practice responsibility. The creation of spaces where responsibility can be taken is an alternative to traditional top-down “problem solving”. The former path must be taken by anyone who takes the mature responsibility of modern human beings seriously. The argument that people are not ready to take responsibility is a self-fulfilling prophecy: anyone who prevents independence in a controlling way ensures the perpetuation of a lack of independence.

Self-governance means a space in which we can learn in our everyday lives, in which the ability to take responsibility and develop individual insight can grown. Anyone who takes concrete responsibility for an organisation as a teacher or carer, kindergarten teacher or parent, and who wrestles for solutions to the problems of the organisation in collegial dialogue, can experience that directly.

Initiative and self-governance

The principle of initiative and the concept of the modern age belong together. The legal instrument by which today we recognise the mature responsibility of the individual and his or her individual competence to make judgements is the instrument of general human rights. Although we have defined them as the basis of our communality, all the consequences arising from them have not been considered by a long chalk. That people have freedom of thought and can say what they like in public by no means indicates that they are also allowed to do what they think. Free schools are still not the rule but are deemed to be private alternative solutions – the “real schools” continue to be thought of as a task which should remain within the province of the state. An education which is guided by the developing human being grows in success the more the teachers themselves can determine what happens. In 1920, Rudolf Steiner said in this regard in his book Towards Social Renewal: “Within the structure of the state, the spiritual and intellectual life has grown to become free; but it cannot properly exercise that freedom unless it is given full self-governance. By its nature, the spiritual and intellectual life needs to form a completely independent part of the social organism. Education and teaching, which, after all, are the source of all spiritual and intellectual life, must be handed over into the management of those who educate and teach. Nothing which is at work in the state or the economy should interfere with or seek to govern such management. Every teacher should only spend so much time on teaching to give them enough time to be an administrator in their field as well. In this way they will undertake the administration in the same way that they undertake education and teaching.”

We must get to a point where the state and society no longer place obstacles in the path of initiative, i.e. individual action based on insight, anywhere but protect, enable and support it everywhere and in all respects. The state should only set limits through general rules where the freedom of one person touches on the freedom of another. In all situations where that is not the case, space must be given for the development of the social relationship by the people concerned themselves. Where initiative institutions are created on the foundation of the legal system and freedom of contract, state institutions become superfluous. That will no more lead to chaos than the replacement of traffic lights by roundabouts, which, as we know, make traffic flow more smoothly as a result of their flexibility. A differentiated and thus liveable culture of involvement cannot exist without self-governance.

Self-governance – managing responsibility

Self-governance and the principle of initiative belong together: anyone who takes an initiative is also responsible for its consequences. Any freedom which aims to be more than arbitrary therefore leads to self-organisation and self-governance. Self-organisation and governance is the quintessential form in which responsible people order their own lives and the way they live together with others. That is resisted by all the forces of inertia in society and the individual. It makes life so much easier, as Kant already knew, not to have to take responsibility. A certain degree of autonomy, yes; but comprehensive autonomy – without standards and controls as to what that should include, limited only by the foundation of human rights in the community and the watchdog role of the state regarding the law? That makes many people flinch.

The principles of self-governance are self-regulation by all those involved, balance of interests, responsibility, contract formation based on the intent of the active parties instead of outside regulation, trust based on stability and openness, capacity to act through the creation of organs, control from inside instead of external bureaucratic determination and wheeling and dealing.

If we do not want to place the design of economic processes in the hands of anonymous market mechanisms or a planning bureaucracy, then manufacturers, traders and consumers must develop their forms of cooperation themselves.

If we want a real legal system, then citizens must be fully democratically involved, not just through an improved right to vote but through initiatives, petitions and referenda – this too a form of self-governance.

Self-governance is not a niche organisational principle but the only possible way of tackling social problems in a modern way. It should therefore not be reduced to forms which already exist under this banner such as local self-government or, indeed, the forms already practiced in some schools and other independent institutions. On the contrary, these forms and approaches should be examined before anything else with regard to the rigour with which the principles of initiative, own responsibility and cooperation are applied in them.

It is of general importance with regard to the principle of self-governance in these approaches that they are about observing public tasks on a basis which is largely free of direction and only subject  to the control by the state or superior instances of their legality, but not of their content. In other words, the state only defines the legal framework with which initiatives have to comply (environmental protection laws, working hours regulations, etc.) and examines and approves the arrangements for self-governance with regard to their general compliance. Apart from that, the only question remaining is whether and to what extent the larger community can and wishes to make resources available for a specific field of activity. How those resources are to be spent specifically is then decided within the organs of self-governance.

About the author:

Dr. Christoph Strawe, teaching activity including at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart (Seminar for Waldorf Education). Lecturing and seminar activity throughout Germany. Chief executive of the Institut für soziale Gegenwartsfragen Stuttgart, editor of the journal Sozialimpulse - Rundbrief Dreigliederung des sozialen Organismus of the Initiative Netzwerk Dreigliederung.