The Case for a Tripartite Society


Steve Talbott



Notes concerning Shaping Globalization: Civil Society, Cultural Power and

Threefolding, by Nicanor Perlas (Quezon City, Philippines: Center for

Alternative Development Initiatives, 1999).  Paperback, 145 pages.


Note:  This article was written with the first (1999) edition of Perlas'

book in view.  A second edition, greatly expanded, is now available.  See

below for ordering information.


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The 1999 World Trade Organization protesters in Seattle were, on one view,

a bunch of aging hippies looking to get high on a nostalgic reprise of

their glory days.  This may be a minuscule fragment of the truth, but

there is, I think, a much more profound reading of the Seattle

demonstrations and their aftermath:  they are symptoms of a significant

social awakening whereby civil society is becoming conscious of its own

powers and opportunities.  As Nicanor Perlas puts the matter in Shaping



   In its contemporary form, civil society is the most important social

   innovation of the twentieth century.  It ranks in importance with the

   invention of the nation-state beginning in the seventeenth century and

   the creation of the modern market starting in the eighteenth century.


This is a breathtaking statement, and certainly counterintuitive for many

people today.  Perlas makes it the task of his book to justify the

statement.  I think he succeeds.



Gatherings of Power



That an awakening of some sort is going on can hardly be disputed.

Writing in the *New York Times* last December, Alan Cowell remarks on how

the nonprofit Global Witness, employing fourteen people on a budget of

$800,000, confronted the international diamond giant, DeBeers, employing

twenty thousand people on a budget of $3.4 billion.  The result?  DeBeers

reversed its corporate policy and began certifying the provenance of its

diamonds to ensure that they are not helping to underwrite local or

regional conflicts.  Increasingly, Cowell observes,


   with multinational corporations gathering unparalleled power as the

   standard-bearers of freewheeling capitalism -- in many countries, more

   powerful than the governments themselves -- they are being held to

   account by shoestring advocacy groups like Global Witness....


The holding to account may not seem very significant in the overall scale

of things at this point.  Yet, clearly something is afoot.  NGOs (non-

governmental organizations) have been given a greater role in both the

U.N. and the World Economic Forum (the latter held annually in Davos,

Switzerland).  Last July more than fifty corporations committed themselves

to high labor, environmental, and human rights standards by joining NGOs

in signing a U.N. compact.  So-called "sustainable development investment"

in the U.S. topped $1 trillion in 1997, up by 85 percent from the 1995

figure.  For many companies, Cowell writes, the clamor of NGO demands for

corporate responsibility "can seem almost deafening".  These demands,

according to DeBeers spokesman Andrew Lamont, "are part of the twenty-

first century economic landscape".



Liberty, Equality, Fraternity



Most institutions of global governance were designed for representatives

of sovereign states -- a fact noted by last September's State of the World

Forum in New York, chaired by Mikhail Gorbachev.  A Forum announcement

suggested that


   Successful global governance must include not only governments but the

   private [commercial] sector and civil society as peers in a co-creative

   process of discernment and cooperation.  Only when these three major

   sectors of society are included in the deliberations concerning the

   human future will the answers we seek begin to emerge.


Again, a radical statement.  Contrary to the thought expressed here, most

commentators have vested their hopes for the future in just two social

sectors.  As the standard view goes:  if you multiply the number of

democratic political states, and if you then let these states flourish

economically under a liberal capitalist trade and investment regime, you

will be bound to find the world a more harmonious and productive place.


Yet, as Perlas reminds us, "civil society was behind the collapse of the

Berlin Wall and the subsequent demise of communism".  Attempts to aid the

former Soviet Union have also given us ample opportunity to see what

happens when you undertake the fiat creation of a democracy and capitalist

economy without the necessary cultural foundation to support it.  Perlas

cites a World Bank statistic attributing sixty-four percent of the world's

wealth production to "social capital" and only sixteen percent to business



But are there really grounds for considering civil society a co-equal

participant with governments and commercial entities in shaping our social

future -- and, if so, what are the principles by which these three estates

can come into a constructive relationship?  In his book, Perlas cites a

number of theorists who have analyzed an emerging threefold character of

society.  Among them are:


** Michael Mann, “The Sources of Social Power” (Cambridge: Cambridge

   University Press, 1986).


** Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, “Civil Society and Political Theory”

   (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1994).


** Leslie Sklair, “Sociology of the Global System” (Baltimore: Johns

   Hopkins University Press, 1995).


** Rudolf Steiner, “The Renewal of the Social Organism” (Spring Valley NY:

   Anthroposophic Press, 1985).


I am not familiar with most of these works, and have only a casual

acquaintance with Steiner's notion of "the threefold society", which goes

back to the second decade of the twentieth century.  But a certain way of

conceiving the three sectors of society, derived from Steiner, has for

some time seemed decisively important to me.  It's a matter of grounding

our understanding of each sector in an aspect of human nature.  The French

revolutionary slogan, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity", can point us in the

right direction.


The social sphere of equality is that of the political and legal system,

in a narrow sense.  It is the sphere where there must be no respecting of

persons, the sphere where we are all equal before the law, seeking the

same justice.  It is rooted in the fundamental, inalienable dignity of

every individual simply as a human being.


Second, there is what Perlas calls "culture" (overlapping, but not

precisely equivalent to "civil society").  It's law is freedom, and its

accomplishments arise from the abilities of individuals whose

contributions must not at all be regarded as equal.  The great

achievements of science, art, and religion, the institutions of education,

everything creative, everything aimed at truth and beauty, everything

value-driven -- all this constitutes culture.  The values and insights of

culture cannot be legislated or coerced; they can be achieved and

recognized only through the freedom of the individual.  They are what

prevent a society from descending into political totalitarianism or

economic slavery.


In the third place, we have the economic sphere, whose central principle

is "fraternity" -- brotherhood and altruism.  Here is where, engaging the

stuff of the world, one person works to satisfy the needs of another, and

in turn receives from the other the material to satisfy his own needs.

You may think it strange to characterize the "cutthroat, greed-is-good"

world of commerce as essentially altruistic.  But I am pointing only to

the inescapable and defining principle of the matter:  we do in fact work

for each other, and if we do not choose within ourselves to work in that

spirit, then we are adopting a schizophrenic stance.  It may be that the

widespread occurrence of such a stance results from our failure, so far,

to bring economics into proper relationship with the other two domains --

as opposed to letting economics co-opt and degrade them.


Perlas poses the problem of "threefolding" this way:


   We are having a massive global disagreement over dozens of issues

   because the key institutions representing culture (civil society),

   polity (the state), and the economy (the market) have no clear idea of

   how society is constituted and what are their respective legitimate

   roles and tasks within society.  Lacking this understanding, they all

   engage in trying to dominate social life when, in fact, each depends on

   the very vitality of each of the other major subsystems of society they

   are trying to dominate.




Keeping the Three Domains Distinct


Once you begin reflecting on the three aspects of the human being -- and

therefore also on the three aspects of our life in society -- you begin to

recognize how a great deal of social conflict arises from a confusion of

spheres.  To take a rather minor case:  every year or so in the U.S.

there is impassioned controversy over the worth of grants awarded by the

National Endowment for the Arts.  "How can they spend my tax dollars for

such trash?"


Of course, one person's trash is another person's sublimity, and the point

is that people must choose their trash and sublimity for themselves, in

freedom.  When the state makes these choices for us, it employs the power

of the political-legal sphere, where we must all be treated as equal, to

support a few selected projects of the human spirit, about which the

judgments of the rest of us will radically differ.  There will never be

any way to avoid the socially divisive effects of such an overreaching by

the state.


We see similar issues more gravely at work in the Balkans and wherever

culturally engendered ethnic clashes are tearing societies apart.  When

the political state impinges upon cultural freedom, leaving minorities

feeling that state control is essential in order for their own cultures to

find "breathing room" within the society, then ugly clashes for control

become inevitable.


Likewise, I have previously mentioned how bizarre it is for Americans, so

obsessive about freedom of thought and speech, to accept government

attempts to shape the development of our very powers of thought and

speech.  These attempts, of course, take the form of government control

over the educational curriculum -- which is quite different from the

state's proper role in simply assuring equal access to the education of

one's choice.


There are many other failures to respect the differing requirements of the

three social spheres.  What happens when economic and political

institutions enter an unholy marriage is all too evident today in the

susceptibility of politicians to corporate influence and in the lack of a

legal counterweight that can preserve human dignity against compromise by

economic forces.


More positively, there is widespread and growing acceptance that at least

some strictly economic decisions should *not* be placed in the hands of

the state.  The Federal Reserve's independence illustrates the benefits of

leaving such decisions ("What interest rate is demanded by current

economic conditions?") out of the hands of political officials, whose

self-interest could hardly help distorting their economic judgment.


As a final example, problems also arise when economics and culture are not

properly differentiated.  Perlas brings the matter down to the immediately

recognizable, personal level when he cites an economist who was enamoured

of the notion of "opportunity cost" (the value of a foregone alternative



   One day this economist decided not to go to a concert with his wife.

   Since he was a consultant, he argued that he would experience an

   opportunity cost of $200 per hour if he went to the concert with his

   wife because that would be time away from his consultancy work.


To view our cultural life as a trading in commodities is to destroy it.

Cultural values and economic values are by no means exchangeable.  The

attempt to subject culture to economics is, Perlas suggests, reflected in

such things as elevated divorce rates, crime, drug use, and other social

ailments -- none of which, incidentally, is without its economic cost!



Threefold Interpenetration


The easiest mistake to make in thinking about social threefolding is to

picture the three aspects of society in a wooden, either-or sort of way.

One needs to bring a more flexible, imaginative mindset to the issues so

as to recognize interpenetrating realities rather than neat antitheses.


For example, no business is strictly and absolutely economic in nature.

There are matters of right in which every employee should be treated

equally (and the state will doubtless play a role in articulating some of

these matters).  Similarly, there is a crucial place in every business for

the kind of culturally sponsored individual achievement that is a matter

of radical inequality among employees.  Intel would not survive long if it

decided on proposed chip layouts by conducting a democratic vote instead

of by recognizing the unmatched achievements of its most capable chip



The interweaving of the three spheres is also evident in the fact that "a

spiritual culture is the ultimate source of political justice and an

essential prerequisite to the creation of a truly dynamic and productive

and ecologically sound economy" (Perlas).  Each sphere, then, is rather

like an organ system of the human body.  The circulatory system, for

example, needs to be recognized for its own particular character, and yet

the blood's fluid passes out through the capillaries to bathe all our

cells, and is continually exchanging substance through the cell walls.

You cannot say where the circulation ends and other systems begin, but you

*can* recognize that the principles of the circulatory system are quite

other than, say, the principles of bone formation.  A thinking that can

distinguish without rigidly dividing is, I'm convinced, essential to any

productive understanding of society (and is opposed by the much-too-

brittle habits of thought encouraged by our engagement with technology).


There is probably no place you can look in society where you will not see

all three aspects of human nature at work.  The human being is, after all,

a unity.  But this should not lead us to ignore all distinctions.  It is

certainly true that, when you look at a school, you will see, among other

things, an economic entity subject to the constraints and realities of

commerce.  This is trivial.  But the central mission of the school -- to

educate the student -- is not an economic one.  The attempt to place an

economic value upon the student's educational achievement leaves aside all

of our highest striving, which has little to do with our earning

potential.  Only those who fail to see this could make the disastrous

mistake of urging school privatization.  Education should be neither

government-controlled nor commodified; it requires the independence and

freedom so necessary to every undertaking of the human spirit.



Different Forms of Power



How can the educational, scientific, religious, and artistic activities of

the civil, or cultural, sector effectively hold the balance against

globally triumphant, state-reinforced commerce?  It is vital, I think for

the civil sector to remain true to its own character.  While it will

certainly draw on the political and legal apparatus of the state, and

while it will doubtless engage in some forms of commerce, its own peculiar

power hinges on nothing more than its appeal, in freedom, to what is

highest in others.  It's strength, you might say, lies in its weakness.

Possessing no great wealth and no power of the sword, it holds up ideals

that, throughout history, men have been willing to die for.  "Ultimately",

says Perlas, "all forms of power struggles are struggles for meaning" --

so don't discount those whose primary trade is the trade in meaning.


Referring to the persecuted Chinese sect and its leader, Perlas notes that


   Li Hongzli and the members of the Falun Gong movement are very quiet

   and modest people.  Yet they trigger flashes of fear and hatred in the

   hearts of the highest political and economic powers in China.  Why?

   Because the communist leaders realize that they no longer control the

   minds of tens of millions of Chinese.  Li Hongzli has created a new and

   more powerful meaning for many Chinese than Maoism.


In his New York Times article, Alan Cowell writes,


   While corporations are generally able to deploy vastly greater

   resources in public relations, litigation, lobbying and advertising and

   are often skilled at co-opting adversaries, "it's not such an unequal

   power relationship," an executive from a London-based mining

   corporation said.


   "You can be an $8 billion company or whatever," he continued.  "But in

   the court of public opinion the nongovernmental organizations start

   with more credibility than businesses."


In an era when branding is thought by many corporations to be nearly

everything, a smudge on the brand counts for a great deal.  "Consumer

tastes and preferences", Perlas notes, "are primarily formed in the

cultural realm".  The opportunity exists, therefore, for an organization

such as Adbusters "to sow `symbolic pollution' on manipulative corporate

advertising to induce a critical attitude in the consciousness of



Perlas vividly illustrates the power for change emanating from the

cultural sphere.  This power is increasingly acknowledged even in the

boardrooms of the largest corporations.  He cites, for example, a talk by

Stephen Schmidheiny, who is director of the heavyweight World Business

Council for Sustainable Development.  The Achilles heel of the

corporation, according to Schmidheiny, is demand, since without demand

there are no products to sell.  The "new consumers", who are immune to

advertising, hold the corporation's fate in their hands.


Schmidheiny goes on to describe the emerging and unprecedented role of

employee conscience and family conscience.  In Perlas' summary:


   For the first time an increasing number of employees are asserting

   their disrespect for dubious practices of corporations.  Management at

   TNCs [transnational corporations] are increasingly becoming concerned

   that their top corporate secrets may end up in nameless brown envelopes

   handed over to media or the corporation's government regulator.  In

   addition, the children of CEOs are increasingly becoming concerned

   about the public conduct and image of the corporations that their

   father[s] or mother[s] run.  When the CEOs come home from work, they

   find that civil society concerns are now part of their family dinner

   table conversations.


The list of major civil sector campaigns to reign in transnational

corporations continues to lengthen.  It extends from the long and

eventually successful boycott of Nestle to PepsiCo's withdrawal from Burma

to more recent actions against Mitsubishi (to prevent its encouragement of

illegal rainforest logging) and Monsanto (to shut down its "Terminator"

seed technology and keep unlabeled, genetically engineered products out of

the food supply).  Perlas concludes that


   CSOs [civil society organizations] can ... enter the halls of political

   and economic power without feeling intimidated.  They can enter the

   vortex of transformation confident that their advocacy is steeped in

   meaning, that central pivot of human existence and social life, without

   which the world would rapidly descend into chaos.


Perlas, by the way, has been a significant actor in the "threefolding of

society" movement.  He is head of the Center for Alternative Development

Initiatives in the Philippines, and has played a major part in successful

national and Asia-wide efforts to secure high-level recognition of the

role of civil society.  He has received the Outstanding Filipino award, as

well as the U.N. Environmental Program Global 500 Award for Sustainable

Agriculture.  He pursued farming in the Philippines until he realized that

he would have no future in farming if current globalization trends were

allowed to continue.



A Few Additional Observations



There are many aspects of Perlas' valuable book I have not touched on.  I

conclude with a few miscellaneous notes:


** Nothing I have said here suggests that the views or actions of civil

society organizations should automatically be taken as correct or well-

advised.  The requirement is only that society find a way to bring the

civil sector to the table, so that it can wield its particular sort of

influence based on the strength of its insight and wisdom.


** How the three spheres of society should be institutionalized is far

beyond me to suggest.  The main thing is to avoid artificial, schematic

proposals, to watch what is actually happening, and to bring to these

developments a flexible, refined ability to reckon with the different

principles at work in the various social spheres.  This sensitivity can

enable us to recognize, for example, whether a civil society initiative is

being true to its own nature.


** Healthy functioning within the economic sphere depends thoroughly upon

the vitality of continual, dynamic *exchange*.  There are no political or

scientific principles that would enable one to specify, a priori, the true

economic price of a commodity.  The price must emerge from the complex

givings and takings of myriad transactions.  Even if, in special

circumstances, it were deemed necessary to impose prices from outside this

system, one would have to reckon with the inevitable distortions resulting

from the imposition.


This distortion, by the way, is quite a different matter from the

political system setting a minimum wage consistent with the basic

requirements for life in the society.  Such an action will affect prices

without dictating them, much as a severe or lush climate will affect the

prices of agricultural products.  There is no intrusion in the economic

sphere here, but a setting of background conditions that the economic

system must then factor into its prices.


** Referring to recent social science work, Perlas identifies "Cultural

Creatives" as the force behind the emergence of global civil society.

This group is said to uphold a distinctive set of values:


   Ecological Sustainability (rebuilding communities, limits to growth,

   stopping corporate polluters), Globalism (acceptance of cultural

   differences), Women's Issues (against abuse of women and children),

   Altruism, Self-Actualization, and Spirituality (forging a new sense of

   the sacred that incorporates personal growth, the spiritual realm, and

   service to others), and Social Conscience and Optimism.


Perlas mentions a massive social survey in 1990-91 purporting to have

uncovered a "postmodern shift" in North America, Britain, and various

Scandinavian and European countries.  The shift includes "loss of

confidence in all hierarchical institutions; declining trust in science

and technology to solve problems; decline in traditional religious

involvement; greater search for inner meaning and development;

subordination of economic growth to environmental sustainability; cultural

pluralism; greater freedom for women".


Personally, I am never sure what this kind of survey data (or, rather,

interpretation of survey data) really tells us.  Such collections of data

fracture reality so severely that they become a kind of Rorschach blot in

which the observer can see whatever he is looking for.  Perhaps their

greatest significance lies in the way they can be used plastically to

frame a view of the future regardless of the current realities they point

to.  And we will quite rightly embrace or reject such a view in terms of

its intrinsic worth, not in terms of the survey data -- which in any case

can tell us little about the direction we *ought* to move in, as opposed

to the directions we have previously moved in.


On his part, Perlas offers a wonderfully fitting vision of the future when

he concludes his discussion of Cultural Creatives by paraphrasing a

Filipino hero:  in the end, there will be no tyrants because there will be

no slaves.


** Perlas sees the fundamental conflict between cultural creatives and

elite globalization as reflecting a disavowal of the "materialistic

framework" shaping globalization today.  Many activists in the civil

sector share this rejection of materialism, whereby the cultural sphere is

dominated by a shallow consumerism.  And as the cultural creatives enter

not only civil society but also business and government, a powerful,

threefold alliance will emerge "that is destined to change the course of

world history".


** My saying above that political-legal organs of the state should not

patronize the arts does not mean I believe the arts (and other cultural

activities) should remain unfunded.  It's just that the funding must be a

matter of free giving by those who are convinced of the healthy creative

powers of the people and organizations they support.


One hopes that, in a properly threefolded society, there would be much

more support for culture.  Our economic system is currently distorted by

the moral falsehood that gives the owners of corporations *unlimited*

claim to profits.  (See "Who Owns Microsoft's Profits?" in NF #106.)  The

"excess" profits can be viewed as the portion accruing, not from

individual efforts of the entrepreneurs, but from the educational,

scientific, and spiritual resources they have been able to capitalize on

from the larger society.  If you place limits on the personal claim to

profits accordingly, then a fair share of these profits will more

naturally find their way into the civil sector.  This will happen, not

because a central bureaucracy takes the funds and redistributes them, but

rather because every business owner is made, to one degree or another,

into a trustee for a philanthropic effort.


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You can order *Shaping Globalization* by sending US$20 to the Center for

Alternative Development, 110 Scout Rallos Street, Timog, Quezon City,

1103, Philippines.  For further information, send email to

[email protected]


Related articles:


** "The World Trade Organization: Economics as Technology" in NF #106.


** "Do We Really Want a Global Village?" a chapter in *The Future Does Not

   Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst*.



Steve Talbott is the editor of the NetFuture Newsletter. This article is from NetFuture Nr. 120, reprinted with the author’s kind permission.

[email protected]


Note: Rudolf Steiner’s basic book on the tripartite society, "Basic Issues of the Social Question" is available as an e-book from our E-Book Library: Basic Issues of the Social Question