Breakthrough Action Research Questions for co-creating a threefold commonwealth society.

‘What kind of society we want, and how do we get there?’ were the burning questions that emerged from a November 2016 US Lecture tour. This took me from New York City, through NY State, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, then California to finish in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the Biodynamic Association Conference.

This research and lecture tour was originally about Rudolf Steiner’s social threefolding vision for society and land trusteeship. However it was ambushed by the surprise election of Trump on 8th November. Just as the Brexit referendum shocked Britain on June 23rd, the Trump election also shocked many Americans. People even talked of ‘8/11’ as a follow up to ‘9/11.’

So with a Sacramento audience we discussed the relevance of Rudolf Steiner’s social threefolding at a seismic time. We asked, ‘ What kind of society do we want, and how do we get there?’ We explored what they saw as the Trump, Clinton and Sanders’ visions for the USA, and then relevance of Rudolf Steiner’s threefold commonwealth.

They contrasted Clinton’s neo liberal, market fundamentalist, business as usual, establishment approach with the Trump xenophobic, macho, racist, narcissistic, tax avoiding, protectionist, ‘America first’, approach. The Sander’s vision of free higher education, better healthcare, jobs, fair taxes, social inclusion, affordable housing and solidarity was seen as different, as positive, as was his personal integrity.

For me, a breakthrough light bulb moment was on the one hand to distill the comment, opinion, and analysis coming from the Brexit shock with the 11/8 Trump election, and Steiner’s social threefolding vision into four action research questions. Individuals can then choose to answer these questions, or a particular personal reformulation of a question question. So, instead of feeling powerless and confused, we can   take constructive action. The questions are as follows:

How are we developing a generative, mutual economy that works for all?

How are we caring for the earth?

How are we engaging politically for human rights, a more participative democracy, social justice, social inclusion, equity and peace?

How are we enabling creative, dynamic cultural life where every person can develop, and maintain, their whole human potential-so that they can freely contribute?

At Sacramento we also discussed the historic opportunity offered by the collapse of the neoliberal ideology to draw on Steiner’s seminal social thinking. Inquiring using the above four action research questions as individuals, as groups and organisations can make a difference culturally, politically, environmental and economically at a local, city and state level. We can start, or build further, from where we are. The Burlington, Vermont ‘model’ where Bernie Sanders had been the mayor came up as an example close to social threefolding. Some people said that we face such dangerous times with the Trump election that we consequently need to prepare realistically for the worst, yet also prepare for the best.

takingcareofearthourselves

However, I saw signs of hope everywhere I went, the ‘blessed unrest’ of individuals, groups and movements making a difference. There were thriving social businesses, biodynamic farms, creative schools, community gardens, and social movements like the Dakota pipeline protest, innovative housing schemes, civic initiatives and impressive evidence of good old American ‘can do’. In New York, the cityscape has been changed by the work of green guerrilla gardeners transforming waste lots, city parks, growing good food, addressing food poverty, increasing human security and community building. In small towns, you can see things like co-ops, community farms, free medical and dental services and signs of a thriving cultural life.

These green shoots can be seen as openings for a ‘commonwealth society. ’ This is happening all over the world. We only need to see what is happening, inquire, understand what is emerging, and connect up the dots. We live in a creative, enterprising age, and the lid just cannot be put on this social ferment. Just think how the invention of community supported agriculture, an application of Steiner’s associative economics, by Trauger Groh and others at Temple Wilton Community biodynamic farm in New Hampshire, has gone viral round the world? CSA offers a radical alternative economic model to the ‘free market’, where consumers, distributors and growers agree to associate together for fair prices for growing good food, guided by clear agreements.

Why a ‘commonwealth society’? ‘Commonwealth’ is an old word for society or state, meaning much more than just money. Massachusetts and Canada are formally called commonwealths. ‘Commonwealth’ includes our commons, such as land, air, water, language, relationships and culture, as well as industry, the economy, health service and our democracy. ‘Commonweal’ is connected, meaning common good.

farmworkerscanaries

I observed how social threefolding lived in the will of many people- seemingly just below the surface. They had an intuitive grasp of boundaries between culture, politics and economy and how to clarify these. This was expressed by proposals such as, ‘Lets get the money out of politics’, or ‘Get the state and corporations out of education’. The shared understanding of the threefold separation of powers in the US Constitution, of the judiciary, legislature and executive, led to a similar distinguishing of the tripartite dynamics of the political, economic and cultural systems.

Therefore, as we British and Americans need to see how things work, a number of people whom I met are writing up case studies for a 2017 anthology of how they are working with Steiner’s social threefolding in practice, for example on their biodynamic farm, in their school or bank[i]

However, the threats Trump poses also need recognizing. Just as it is hard for us to now view a film of Hitler speaking at the 1930’s Nuremberg rallies and not think, ‘How could they be taken in?’ so our grandchildren may view Trump in the same way. How can we understand those who voted for Trump? (Note: i.e. only 24% of the electorate voted for Trump, Clinton got 2.75 million more votes, and just less than 50% of the US electorate actually voted)

To answer the question of why people voted for Trump, it is vital to analyze the role of the corporate and social media. These were expertly used to manufacture consent and votes. Many people now get their news and ‘information’ from the social media, from friends‘ recommendations, and from the automatic recommendations of algorithms. ‘If you like this, then you will like this.’ Many people see uncritically through the lenses of their social media and personal ‘filter bubbles. ’ Just as with the Brexit campaign, it was possible to ruthlessly spread malicious, unfounded rumours, factoids, lies and half-truths. The more vicious and shocking, like the allegation Hilary Clinton was a paedophile which originated with some Macedonian youths, the more people clicked and forwarded their friends with a message, ‘Have you seen this?’ And the more negative the information, the angrier and ‘pumped up’ people got in their social media echo chambers. This was ‘post truth politics ‘ in action.

But such social media manipulation by Trump would not have resonated with people if there had not been real grievances to address. His campaign targeted a  mixture of social conservatives from all backgrounds- some with white supremacist and racist views, and ‘left behind’ working class people who were economically more radical. Many jobs had gone to China and   to Mexico, communities were run down, people were afraid for their jobs, health, houses, security and their children’s education. Trump was able to get through to such people and successfully blame the liberal capitalist elite such as Clinton for the loss of jobs.

From a deeper point of view, Trump also tapped into the many people who are suffering both psychologically and spiritually. [ii]They feel they have ‘failed’ to achieve the American dream, they feel losers, half human. Having internalized the neo liberal ideology of competitive individualism and Social Darwinism, they have no one to blame but themselves. Secondly, there is a deep lack of self worth, self-respect and human dignity coming from not feeling that their work, if they have any, is respected and has value. In any case, their labour is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold on the market, a point Steiner makes strongly in Towards Social Renewal. Consequently, they feel bad, self-hurting, afraid, failures. Moreover ‘the liberals’ try to make them ashamed of their socially conservative values. For example, this is a pivotal September 2016 quote (gaffe?) by Hilary Clinton, that was used with deadly effect by Trump:

‘You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric.’

Trump was able to mobilise ‘left behind’ peoples’ spiritual and psychological injuries, and direct the hurt and anger at   scapegoats such as the immigrants, liberals, big Washington government, Muslims, even war heroes like Senator John McCain and ‘crooked Hilary’. The use of social media, where you get constant confirmation of your views and grievances, really ‘pumped up’ people. We saw the same phenomena here with Brexit, where the Gloucestershire millionaire Arron Banks spent £7.5 mn on a toxic social media campaign that pumped up enough people to swing the vote to Leave.

neoliberalsocietydiagramDiagram of the Capture of Politics and Culture by the kleptocratic Plutocracy, Corporatocracy, Mediocracy for the Acquiring Private Wealth and Power. [iii]

So, from Steiner’s analysis of the social question, a key part of the answer to these deep human spiritual injuries is profoundly cultural. We need a dynamic renewal of creative education, the arts, sciences, spirituality, health, and our food culture so that people can develop and maintain their spiritual, creative, human, and social potential. If you think of the cost of this, consider the huge costs of not educating people for creative human freedom and dignity.

Creative cultural life is breaking through, despite the capture of large areas of culture by the corporate media and by government. (If you want to control people, command the pulpit, the schoolroom and the media.) But until we see culture, such as free creative education as centrally important, then the conditions for proto fascists like Trump and Farage will continue.

And the immediate future of the US looks dangerous. Firstly, Trump appointed the ruthless Steve Bannon as his chief of staff. He is ex-Harvard and Goldman Sachs, and an architect of the white supremacist leaning Breitbart website. Secondly, Trump has the police and military on his side. Thirdly, he can bypass an anyway Republican Congress if necessary with executive orders to push things through. And it only takes a ‘Reichstag fire’, a terrorist incident to exploit, so as consolidate power.  I already heard several personal stories of racist and sexist intimidation before I left the USA, as indicators of a conflictual, fragile social climate.

What are the positive ways ahead?

There is hope in the dark, as Rebecca Solnit writes so movingly. [iv]Preferring not to react by becoming an alcoholic or committing suicide, I choose to remain an optimist. People across the USA told me that its time to wake up more, to keep creating positive alternatives, whether in our own lives, with those we meet, with biodynamic farms as green oases for social, cultural spiritual, economic and ecological renewal, or creative Waldorf schools, ethical banks and our various projects.

We have significant capabilities, not least to address the spiritual and psychological questions of people seeking creative personal renewal. And the current situation offers an opportunity for us to answer in our own different ways the four action research burning questions that emerge from Steiner’s societal thinking:

How are we developing a generative, mutual economy that works for all?

How are we caring for the earth?

How are we engaging politically for human rights, a more participative democracy, social justice, social inclusion, equity and peace?

How are we enabling creative, dynamic cultural life where every person can develop, and maintain, their whole human potential-so that they can freely contribute?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: My US lecture and workshop tour, 1-23rd November, took in New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, California and Santa Fe New Mexico, was made possible by friends and hosts. One outcome will be a Collection of articles about social threefolding to be published in Sum

[i] For more details contact martin@hawthornpress.com.

[ii] See also Rabbi Michael Lerner in http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/psychopathology-in-the-2016-election-3

[iii] Large, M., Common Wealth, 2010

[iv] Solnit, R., Hope in the Dark, 2016

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Beyond Future Shock and Building Commonweal

Landing in New York on the 1st November, I have been giving lectures on Building Common weal, and how to build a Common wealth society, drawing on Rudolf Steiner’s social threefolding.

So I was shocked, though not surprised at hearing of the Trump victory in New Hampshire on the 9th. Not surprised because I had already met several pumped up Trump supporters, who reminded me of the passion  of the Brexit supporters. Saddened, as I had met many Clinton and Bernie supporters who had worked hard to make a difference. And one New York waitress told me the story of how Trump’s Atlantic City Casino bankruptcy had badly affected hundreds of small business contractors, including her father….

This is a turning point for the USA, and maybe the world order, a hundred years on from 1917 when the USA entered the First World War so decisively.

A friend, Barton Kunstler, wrote this article, which is worth reading

http://www.nationofchange.org/2016/11/10/beyond-future-shock/

And Sarah Churchwell wrote on 10th November in the Financial Times:

This was an election carried largely on spite, which is no basis for a system of governance. Too many of our reactions have become infantile, and the leader America just chose exemplifies the worst of that infantilism: howling selfishness, preening narcissism, deathless ignorance.

So first we must grow up. And the most important lesson America must teach itself again is  that tolerance, progress, compassion, equality, security, even the common bloody decency that has been trampled in the gutter during this filthy election campaign, are not trophies we win. We used to speak of the commonweal, common well being…. Any attempt to build a commonweal, a greater good rather than merely greater wealth, is a constant process, and it comes from the willingness of the heart.

How can ‘commonwealth’ provide an original alternative to narcissistic, acquisitive economics and politics?

Preparing for coming back to the USA in November 2016, I recalled that the first time that I visited was March 1972, at the height of the Vietnam War, amidst the Great Society programmes such as  Head Start, which I volunteered on in Kansas City, Missouri. It was a time when working and middle class incomes were good, people were prosperous, but have fallen in real terms ever since.

So I asked an old friend, Barton Kunstler, what he thought of the current situation and this is what he wrote about how I could get more informed.(Quite a book list!) I thought  was well  worth sharing, as his insights helped my steep learning curve:

“ Counterpunch has a web site Counterpunch.org, while nationofchange.com and opednews.com have many good articles. Our Massachusetts senator, Elizabeth Warren, is the most outspoken public figure on banks and government, even more extraordinary as a first-term Senator. The thinkers and doers are numerous, especially in the area of alternative food sources. I see food as the US millennials’ keystone issue from which they attack corporatism, environmental degradation, etc., which is the class Millennial combination of Baby Boomer idealism and the pragmatism of so-called Gen Xers. In any case, their strength is their energy, pragmatism, idealism, skepticism, and their beautiful minds. The downside to their approach is that  the strictly political side is often distorted by being misinformed, sentimentalized (spikes in concern for feel-good quality of life issues that are important but often isolated from meaningful political context), and frankly, overly simplified.

How the minnows repelled a shark, by Ken Sprague
The fish and a shark:  Ken Sprague

“We can see all of this in the Bernie Sanders campaign which I view as having been a wonderful, almost entirely positive political experience for a nation in desperate need of such. Bernie has pledged to continue the fight for the issues he has raised and that is precisely what we need. The so called “Bernie revolution” will not be furthered by young people turning away from the election or further political engagement. I can deconstruct Hillary’s record with the best of them but she is a rational human being who understands politics and if one disagrees with her (as I do and many other Sanders supporters), then elect her and other Democrats and hold their feet to the fire. This is one more area where the social three-folding idea is helpful: by distinguishing the boundaries between activism in the three spheres. Some issues are primarily cultural but when advances are made they are seen as great political advances when in fact the political and economic power elites can adapt to liberal advances, for instance, in regard to legalization of marijuana, gay marriage, and transgender use of bathrooms.

The social media, digitized aspect is very powerful, obviously, in terms of both the younger generation’s approach to political and economic change and a more general social evolution, but it can also be over-stated. These kids still have strong friendships, great empathy, and so on, but the mediating impact of the on-screen life is profoundly unsettling, even to many of them. Yet as the Obama campaign showed so well, and in doing so was only the tip of the iceberg, public discourse in all realms is being transferred to the digital environment and the implications are vast and unreadable.

If real change is going to come, it will have to include those cyber-channels, as it has been in the mis-named Arab Spring, Occupy, and most happily, Bernie’s campaign. The Millennial generation in the U.S. grew up under the grotesque presidency of George W. Bush. Obama initially inspired but ultimately disappointed them by his lack of vision and his inability, even in his first two years, to marshall his political mandate, although in the past year or so he has somewhat redeemed his promise. Nonetheless, eight more years of war, Guantanamo, a weak and shaky economic recovery, and runaway corporate and financial power has disillusioned most young people on politics to a degree that older activists have trouble grasping, however iconoclastic we may have been.

My read on the US is that it is an absolute singularity in terms of historical conditions, not just “unique” as all societies arguably are, but utterly singular, operating according to laws that no one has ever observed before. The combination of wealth, technology, complexity, size, and military power alone—the sort of inorganic variables—would make it so. But the organic variables are toxic. By those I mean the distinctly cultural and historical qualities embedded in human experience: the anti-intellectualism, medieval religiosity, racial animus, swaggering self-image of the self-made gun-toting male. Also: celebrity culture which is really about everyone being their own celebrity and their identity being the primary object of worship; the decline in schools and public discourse; the way the right wing has managed to “tar and feather” the notion of a common good or common-wealth”; the sheer narcissism—weird in itself but how it has utterly saturated the political and economic functions; and so much more.

Our unique position after WW II, when we were the sole engine of economic and military power, the heroic colossus that saved the world (in our minds), gave rise to the American myth of ever-expanding personal and national wealth. The de-regulation of the stock market and financial operations shifted the notion of wealth from affording the luxurious counterparts of items that everyone had—luxury cars, a house valued at maybe 10 times the average, a selection of excellent suits or gowns—to a horizon-less greed for the next power of ten: the ten-millionaire realizes how limited they are beside the 9-figure honcho, and once one can see the billionaire brand up ahead, one must achieve that. With the disparities in wealth the system begins to fracture and the values shift towards the narcissistic self-worship not of wealth but of oneself as a modern Sardanopolis. Not to mention the real cost as no economy can produce enough wealth to support that kind of greed without sucking dry the poor and middle class.

Globalization hit the US particularly hard, especially as we were so used to being isolated from its effects given three oceans to our east, west, and north (Canada is the northern ocean! haha), and poor broken Mexico and the fragemented Caribbean to the south. Today global events really matter. Even during Vietnam, when I was a very argumentative person, so many people would angrily tell me they were tired of us being pushed around by little countries and we should therefore bomb the hell out of Vietnam. I would ask for examples of these terrible bullies. Needless to say, they didn’t know of any actual cases or they’d rant about Castro and Cuba.

Is it possible that the American experience simply was designed to make people stupid? People who are intrinsically nicer or more delicate than I am go on and on about the middle class feeling betrayed and abandoned, etc., and I do understand how such devastating blows to one’s social and psychological self-worth can lead to the Tea Party or Trump. But that’s still too kind because face it, these movements are saturated with racism and with irrational attachments to politicians and policies that run contrary to their members’ self-interest. There is a simmering violence just below the surface and a mad infatuation the phallic compensation of firearms that is terrifying, especially when one poll indicates millions of Americans may go to the polls carrying a gun, though I’m skeptical of that. So it’s hard for me to adopt the condescension of those who would explain away these proto-fascist (I no longer use the term “crypto-fascist” as the “crypto” part seems outdated) reactions as largely reflexive. We are human beings and we have minds in order to avoid self-destructive, pathogenic behaviors.

At any rate, why does societal uncertainty result in such a bizarre set of responses as we see in the US today? Perhaps we are a singularity with a lack of models or orientating “memes” to guide us in such circumstances. Thus people who do initially have well-functioning brains with a strong potential to cultivate a mind wind up desperately seeking validation from the most “amygdala-friendly” sources: the repetitive rants of a Hitler or Rush Limbaugh or the venting of a Trump. In time, this does have a neurological effect, especially as there’s so little in the culture to counteract it. The myelin sheathes around the neuronal paths that feed amygdalic gratification grow thicker. Instead of many branching dendrites the brain is dominated by one or two superhighways leading direct to the red button. Violence and genocide are the result of the button being pushed over and over. (I use “amygdala” advisedly, as a schematic short-hand for whatever aspects of the brain are drawn into this closed-loop). Part of the disdain for Hillary, and the disappointment in Obama, is that people want authentic, clarion voices that can lay out a vision not only of hope but of effective action (Occupy). Most politicians can’t offer it because that’s not who they are. Why is Obama so adamant about the Trans Pacific Pact? It’s a horrible idea but his agenda, aside from wanting everyone to be nicer, splits off from those of most Americans on that sort of globalist issue.

I’m reading a great book that just came out, “White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg. I’m on page 50 and it’s already had an impact on me. \Two others are Takaki’s “A Different Mirror” about the immigrant experience, already 20 years old, and a book that’s been around about 30 years, Beyond Geography by Frederick Turner (not the late 19th c. Frederick Turner).

A book that was co-written/edited by a Stonybrook professor that I bought when it came out in the very early 70s is Rothenberg and Qasha’s “America: A Prophecy”. It’s a collection of primary sources that does something of what Galeano did in his books, presenting the sources in such a way as to create an alternative narrative of American history, unearthing hidden currents and showing what might have been and, at the time it came out, what people thought might still be. Speaking of currents, one of the all-time masterpieces of American historical writing is a book that was sidelined by the Cold War backlash against all the progressive scholarship of the 20s and 30s (even in the field of classics): Vernon Parrington, “Main Currents in American Thought”, which I have in the form of one of my father’s old college text books, though it’s not a “textbook”. Parrington presents diverse voices from the scope of US history with a brilliant commentary on each. It’s a unique, profound book and as a traveling companion in America, as good as a book can be.

The “self” itself is in play in US society, which is not only unique but still a pacesetter in many cultural developments world-wide. The self has devolved\ from an identification with “god” and cosmos and tribal or civic affiliations, etc. over the course of millennia. In the post-Marcuse world (one way to reference it), the self has become a profoundly unstable notion of an identity. The individual self is, when in balance with more extensive, “inorganic” frameworks, a wonderful engine of creativity and guardian of human dignity and social justice. In narcissistic contexts, the self cannot bear the full burden of all that is demanded of us as members of a complex society. We may worship the idea of ourselves, spend much of our income in enhancing the self and its image and most of our mental energy thinking about it, but the energy expended is a measure of the anxiety this multi-tasking selfhood inflicts upon us.

In addition, there is something essential in human beings’ projection of the ego into and through the things we can control—mates, territory, possessions—and our deities usually reflect something of th nature of what we admire and how we control it (mingled with the natural forces we cannot control). So a weather god is also a god of laws that protect property and state power, or the post-Newtonian deity is basically a clockmaker whose work embraces nature and the human mind. In a consumerist, market-driven society the self and the deity both become dispersed through our objects, with some, such as houses and cars, most eminent in the pantheon, but all in all, the deity and the ego are fragmented and fractured throughout countless objects. This is interesting as the deity who is chopped up and distributed among the community in a feast or other fable-like catastrophe is as old as myth.

Anyway, this hits us from two directions at once: anxiety over each piece of ourselves out there (he stole a cookie from the store, he deserved to be shot!) and anxiety over the hollowness at the core of being. But we have entered a new era in which the proliferative self-image is taking precedence over the objects. Hence “information is power”, “quantum physics is about information, not energy”, etc. All nice sounding concepts but in the popular agora it means that the construction of a data-rich image of one self (see all the high-tech product ads for the idealized image of cutting-edge, liberated, gorgeous (of course!), people all living on the same screens using the same software) becomes the ultimate product. This is obvious in politics but is more insidious in human relationships and in all manner of exchange, such as currency, commerce, and communication. In the end, this leads people to grasp at the most illogical, irrational, amygdala-driven images, the Trump or the Militia Defender of the Republic or the “I’m not Left or Right, I’m Middle of the Road” vacuity, or just an unending stream of violent or trivial media images or actual acts of violence themselves.

 

How the minnows repelled a shark, by Ken Sprague
How the minnows repelled a shark, by Ken Sprague

The notion of “commonwealth” seems to me to have immense potential because it is far older, with a much richer history and legacy, than acquisitive economics and politics. Even the US militia movement resonates with it on some level. Black and Hispanic and Asian cultures, not to mention Native American, are still largely committed to it. It offers the vocabulary and the genetic and tribal resonance to offset, to some degree at least, current ideologies and compulsions. It is also, oddly enough, encouraged by the cyber-social-media revolution, an irony so massive it can define our civilization for the next century or so if it can survive that long. It is also squarely in the mind-set of the Millennial generation.