Three Essays on the Social Question

Frank Thomas Smith

III. Motivation and Reality

"The well-being of a working community is that much greater the less each individual claims of the proceeds of his efforts for himself; that is, the more he cedes to his fellow workers, and the more his needs are not satisfied by his own efforts but by the efforts of the others. All activities within a community which contradict this law must, in the long run, cause suffering and misery."

Rudolf Steiner2

The above statement requires some reflection. Steiner called it a social law, and compared it to a law of nature. Should it indeed have the authority of a social law, much of the suffering and misery being experienced in the world today can be understood as the result of this law being contradicted in an extreme manner. Although tax systems require us to cede a portion of the "proceeds of our efforts" to the community, in the case of the rich as individuals and corporate organizations it is a small portion and contributes little or nothing towards the just distribution of wealth. Nor can it be taken for granted that a graduated income tax system is intrinsically beneficial. It is no secret that the wealth of the world is concentrated in the hands of very few and that the majority of the human beings currently alive live either in poverty or abject poverty. The capitalist prediction that an increase in production will bring prosperity to all has been disproved by reality, just as the Marxist prediction that a social utopia can be obtained by the worker state expropriating the means of production (capital) and administering it has been disproved by the same inexorable judge. Although it is true that the populations of certain more favored countries of the "first world" have benefited materially from increases in production, it is also true that economic activities are no longer national, but worldwide. Therefore while Switzerland and Sweden prosper, Somalia and Guatemala suffer in inverse proportion.

The "mixed" economy, part state owned, part privately owned, seems only to incorporate the worst of both systems. The state is eminently incapable of operating economically viable enterprises. As governments are obliged to reduce losses, the tendency is towards "privatization", thereby strengthening the capitalist system and increasing the size of the gap between rich and poor.

The principal argument in favor of capitalism is motivation. The entrepreneur (capitalist) is motivated by profit. The manager is motivated by his high salary, the worker by whatever he earns plus fear of losing his job.

An incident from my own work experience illustrates the absurdity of this proposition. As manager of a branch office, I received a call one day from my boss in head office. He informed me that he had received instructions from the president of the company (who in turn was instructed by the board of directors) to reduce management personnel in his section by 25%. I was safe, he hastened to assure me, although my heart had already jumped to my throat, but he had to decide immediately which ten people would be let go. He wanted my opinion concerning his shortlist. Although we were scattered around different cities of the world, all the people concerned were, if not intimate friends, at least friendly colleagues. I had no desire to share the boss's anguish at having to decide. A quick calculation of my income, which was far in excess of my needs, reduced by 25%, led me to make what seemed to me to be a logical suggestion. Why not ask everyone if they would voluntarily take a 25% cut? The result in company saving would be practically the same. This was, by the way, long before the concept of lean management was introduced by necessity into corporate thinking. For us, the work was there and we were already lean in relation to it. The reduction in personnel was dictated by purely financial considerations and was instigated by a new financial director anxious to make a name for himself. There was a long pause at the other end of the line as my superior calculated his own reduction. Then he said that he doubted the idea would be accepted higher up, but that he would consult and let me know. He called back the same day to inform me that my suggestion had been seriously considered at the highest level, that my interest was greatly appreciated, etc., but that the idea had been rejected. The reason given was that a person was considered to be worth what he earned and if we reduced management salaries it would mean that we were all worth less, would be that much less motivated and our production would be reduced accordingly. I told him that was absurd. He agreed, but that's the way it was.

But what if motivation is not merely a function of money and greed? What, then, is the true motivation? In order to know, it is necessary to also know something of human psychology, not the psychology derived from the study of the behavior of rats, but from the observation of human beings outside the laboratory. If we believe that the human being is the most developed animal, we are at a dead end and the carrot and stick social Darwinists are right. But if man is more than that, if he has a soul and spirit and is capable of acting from motives which exceed those dictated by instinct, then we are obviously on the wrong track when we suppose that he will react to the same stimuli as a laboratory guinea pig. If some reader expects me now to "prove" that man has a soul and/or spirit, I must disappoint him. I cannot cite one single laboratory experiment that provides such proof. Nor, however, can anyone prove the contrary. Neither intelligence nor education can provide the answer, as there are many very intelligent, educated people on both sides of the question. If their training and intellectual capacities were decisive, they would all agree, one way or the other, but they don't.

Are we at an impasse? Not necessarily. In order to show why, I will explain what I mean by "soul" and "spirit". The soul is that part of the human being which feels and is conscious. I see a beautiful landscape with my eyes, but the pleasure it brings me is felt by my soul. Inversely, the pain I feel at the sight of starving children is also a function of my soul. That another might not feel pain, but pleasure, or might even enjoy torturing another human being, merely indicates that his soul has developed differently; has taken an abnormal, sub-human or pathological path. Even the "physical" pain felt as the result of receiving a blow is, in reality, felt by the soul. (When consciousness is absent, there is no feeling.) Sensation and consciousness are shared however, to a lesser degree, by the animals, and if our thesis is that there is a fundamental difference between them and human beings, it is necessary to define this difference. The spirit in this context is the immortal "I", or self, of each individual. This individual self not only thinks, an attribute of man alone, but also intuits. Intuition is hard to define and in any case has several meanings. Here I mean that unconscious knowledge which dimly emerges into consciousness at dispersed, short-lived intervals. It tells us that such things as soul and spirit do exist and that life has a far greater meaning than we have ever guessed. It is sparked by a chance encounter, a piece of music, a poem, a book, a tree. For an instant we are different, we know, we intuit; then it disappears like the flame of a candle blown out by someone behind us. Motivation is a function of soul and spirit. At the soul level, I want recognition, decent working conditions and pay, the possibility to share in decisions and organize my own activities, a friendly social atmosphere. The spirit is more demanding. It wants to know the meaning of my activities, it wants responsibility towards others. It wants to work for others more than for myself. That these desires are unconscious does not make them less real, only more difficult to realize.

This is an existential question. Some may agree that intuition tells us that the above or something similar is true. Others may reject such an assumption outright. But a third possibility also exists, along the lines of Kierkegaard's Either/Or. If my intuition tells me nothing (or if I can't hear it), I should weigh the consequences of acting on the one hand as though it were not true and on the other as if it were. If I act according to a rejection of the spiritual nature of man I can, if I dedicate some thought to my situation, only end in despair, for life has no meaning and death is the end of the road. But if I act according to the hypothesis that I have a spiritual nature, then that spirit is immortal and this has far-reaching consequences. It could even result in the conviction that my Self is destined to reincarnate on the earth in order to continue its development. In any case, it means that life has meaning and each of us has a need to know, or at least intuit this meaning. And it means that our neighbor also has a spiritual nature and is striving for the same development as myself. In this case, do I help him or do I exploit him?

If I want to help him and he is my subordinate in the work place, I must give him the opportunity to develop his Self and to take the first steps along the path to freedom.

My motivation and my perception of the motivation of others change radically. No longer is it possible to believe that motivation is governed by self-aggrandizement. The real human motivational needs are rather related to the need to help others. If this sounds like hopelessly muddled idealism unrelated to reality, I suggest that we look again at Steiner's social "law" and try to envisage an expanded world community in which this law applied. The well being of all would doubtless increase immeasurably. The objection that man is intrinsically an egotist and would never be able to put such a law into practice brings us back full circle. It must be tried before it is rejected.

1.     Steiner, R. (1919) Basic Issues of the Social Question. Translated by Frank Thomas Smith. Available as a free ebook at the above link.

2.     2. Steiner, R. (1905) Anthroposophy and the Social Question. 3rd of three essays first published in Luzifer-Gnosis, October 1905. GA 34. Mercury Press, New York, 1982. ISBN 0-936132-42-6