15:   Separating Work and Income

Rudolf SteinerI

In this article, attention is drawn to Rudolf Steiner’s challenging observations about the relationship between work and income. The Austrian seer and philosopher, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)] His idea - of separating work and income - is radical and complex. Steiner reiterated it many times in his life, and especially in the period at the end of World War One, when, in his view, a new opportunity existed to change the way society was understood and organised. It remains to be seen how it could be given expression in current circumstances. In part, this depends on whether anybody tries to do so; but it rests also on what one makes of two particular aspects of Steiner’s idea. He focuses on ‘wage earners’, but to whom does that refer today? And he speaks of income coming from "other sources".

But what are these sources? If we are to live from the work done by others, for example, that suggests that we live from what others sell to us, and they from what we sell to them. Elsewhere Steiner speaks of a ‘true price’ being the amount needed to be paid for the person supplying a good or offering a service to be able to live therefrom until he again produces a like good or service. In that case, the key would seem to lie in paying the true price for things. One effect of this, of course, would be to eliminate the need for people to turn to the state or look to charities to supplement their income.

A central theme of Rudolf Steiner’s work in economics is the idea that our income should be a separate matter from the work we do. In 1906, he expressed this as a ‘fundamental social law’: (1) "In a community of human beings working together, the well-being of the community will be the greater, the less the individual claims for himself the proceeds of the work he has himself done; i.e., the more of these proceeds he makes over to his fellow workers and the more his own requirements are satisfied, not out of his own work done, but out of work done by the others."

…as a matter of fact, it will be found … that every human community that exists, or ever has existed anywhere, possesses two sorts of institutions, of which the one is in accordance with this law, and the other contrary to it.

Matters would stand very differently if non-self-interested labour were the general rule... Nothing would then compel me to undertake anything which may be of detriment to someone else. Then, I would place my powers not at the service of myself, but at the service of the other people. And as a consequence men’s powers and abilities would take quite a different form of development.

The important point is that working for one’s fellowmen and the object of obtaining so much income must be kept apart, as two separate things… [For] if the individual’s share of weal and woe is measured by labour [we will not induce] each person, of his own free will, to do that which he is called upon to do according to the measure of his particular powers and abilities.

Division of Labour

Steiner’s idea derives from the fact that modern economic life rests on the division of labour, meaning no-one works for himself, he only works for others: (2)

… the more the division of labour advances, the more it will come about that the individual always works for the rest of the community in general and never for himself. In other words, with the rise of modern division of labour, the economic life as such depends on egoism being extirpated, root and branch. I beg you to take this remark not in an ethical but in a purely economic sense! Economically speaking, egoism is impossible. I can no longer do anything for myself; the more the division of labour advances, the more must I do everything for others.

…We must find our way into the true process of modern economic life, wherein no-one has to provide for himself, but only for his fellow human beings. We must realise how by this means each individual will, in fact, be provided for in the best possible way.

…To a large extent, nowadays, people are providing for themselves. That is to say, by virtue of the division of labour, our economic life is actually in contradiction to its own fundamental demand, [albeit] in a hidden form… Wherever - though he by no means makes his products for himself - someone has little or nothing to do with the value or price of the products of his labour, when he simply has to contribute, as a value to the economic life, the labour of his hands. It amounts to this: Every wage-earner in the ordinary sense is someone who provides for himself. He gives only so much as he wants to earn, for which reason he simply cannot be giving as much to the social organism as he might.

In effect, to provide for oneself is to work for one’s earnings, to work ‘for a living’. On the other hand, to work for others is to work out of social needs. …in the case of the ordinary wage-earner we generally fail to notice the fact. For we do not ask ourselves:- what is it that values are really being exchanged for in this case? The thing which the ordinary wage-earner produces has after all nothing to do with the payment for his work - absolutely nothing to do with it. The payment - the value that is assigned to his work - proceeds from altogether different factors.

…thus one of the first and most essential economic questions comes before us: How are we to eliminate working for a living from the economic process? Those who to this day are still mere wage-earners, how are they to be placed in the whole economic process, so that they work because of social needs?

Must this really be done? Assuredly it must. For if this is not done, we shall never obtain true prices but always false ones. We must seek to obtain prices and values that depend not on human beings but on the economic process itself - prices that arise out of the fluctuation of values.

"We cannot live on money."

In late 1918, Steiner stressed again the need to delink work from income and how the value we place on what someone does must not proceed from what he does, but from "other sources": (3)

…If people ask themselves, for example, "What do I live on?" – for the most part, they do not do this, but if they did it once, they would say to themselves, "Why, on my money." Among those who say to themselves, "I live on my money," there are many who have inherited this money from their parents. They suppose they live on their money, inherited from – their fathers, but we cannot live on money. Money is not something on which we can live. Here it is necessary at last to begin to reflect. This question is intimately connected with the real interest that one individual has in another. Anyone who thinks he lives on the money he has inherited, for example, or has acquired in any way whatever except by receiving money for work, as is the custom today - whoever lives in this way, and supposes that he can live on money, has no interest in his fellow men because no one can live on money.

We must eat, and what we eat has been produced by a human being. We must have clothing. What we wear must be made through the labour of people. In order that I may put on a coat or a pair of trousers, human beings must expend their strength in labour for hours. They work for me. It is on this labour that I live, not on my money. My money has no value other than that of giving me the power to make use of the labour of others. Under the social conditions of the present time, we do not begin to have an interest in our fellowmen until we answer that question in the proper way, until we hold the picture in our minds of a certain number of persons working for a certain number of hours in order that I may live within the social structure.

But the thought that a certain number of persons labour in order that we may possess the minimum necessities of life is inseparable from another. It is the thought that we must recompense society, not with money but with work in exchange for the work that has been done for us. We feel an interest in our fellow men only when we are led to feel obligated to recompense in some form of labour the amount of labour that has been performed for us. To give our money to our fellow men only signifies that we are able to hold our fellowmen on a leash as bound slaves and that we can compel them to labour for us.

…How many people really see clearly that they could not even exist in this physical world but for the labour of other people upon which they depend for what they demand for their lives? The feeling of obligation to the society in which we live is the beginning of the interest that is required for a sound social order.

…During recent centuries, men have gradually formed the habit of developing a real interest in the matter of social impulses only with regard to their own respected persons. In greater or lesser degree everything has borne in a roundabout way only upon one’s personality. A wholesome social life is possible only when interest in one’s own respected personality is broadened into a genuine social interest.

…Everything that a person acquires in such a way that it is received in exchange for his work within the social system has an unwholesome effect. A wholesome condition results within the social system only when the human being has to support his life, not by his own work, but from other sources within society. …What will render work valuable will be the fact that it will no longer be remunerated.

The goal toward which we must work must be that of separating work from the provision of the means of existence. I have recently explained this. When no one is any longer recompensed for his work, then money will lose its value as a means for acquiring power over work. There is no other means for overcoming the misuse that has been perpetuated with mere money than by forming the social structure in such a way that no one be recompensed for his work.


In 1921, Steiner spoke further about how society should be organised as regards economic life: (4)

…Historical necessities of human evolution were at work in the formation of the world economy. But the institutions introduced into this development have been influenced to a high degree by political motives that run counter to economic necessities. The currency processes that now paralyse and distort every aspect of economic life would not have arisen on a basis of a world economy unthwarted by political thinking.

The development of world economy called for the creation of administrative bodies for the economic life that worked only out of the conditions of the economy itself. These institutions can only be associations, arising out of the processes of the production, consumption and distribution of goods. Only the associations can so relate these three aspects of the economy that, for example, unhealthy production on one side does not, on the other, result in the denial of production possibilities for countless human beings. Unemployment can only be the result of unsound administration of the economy.

This is not to claim that unemployment can be overcome through the use of one or another theoretically-devised formula. To think in this way would be utopianistic. The point is that, were associations to arise of themselves out of the needs of the economy, their living functioning would give rise to a way of thinking that of itself would lead to healthy conditions.

Moreover, only on the basis of an economy administered according to its own nature can healthy politics also unfold. As long as there was no world economy, political purposes were able to exist unhindered in the old way, because the economies of the nations were shaped according to them. But world economy can only develop in a healthy way out of its own conditions.

(1) See Lucifer-Gnosis No. 32, 14 August 1906

(2) Lecture 3, Economics – The World as One Economy, New Economy Publications, Canterbury 1996

(3) Lecture 2, Changed Conditions of the Times, Anthroposophic Press, New York

(4) Unemployment. Translated by C Houghton Budd & P Evertz. In Rudolf Steiner, Economist. New Economy Publications, Canterbury 1996

– from Associative Economics Monthly, May 2006

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