Following our ideals
MLK's life, threefolding, and what I'm trying to do — some reflections after two years of writing for The Whole Social
I recently read Jonathan Eig’s fantastic new biography of Martin Luther King Jr.and was struck by King’s total commitment to his work — his burning need to see society transformed. He so badly wanted to rest, he dreamed of becoming a college professor, but he just couldn’t turn from his work. And the work was so crushing. And the scope of it kept growing.
King was not popular in the last few years of his short life.Many of his admirers — many in his own movement and even a number of his closest collaborators — turned their backs on him. He had become a hero, a celebrity, in standing up to racial segregation in the South, but he wouldn’t stick to the script. When he traveled to Northern cities and saw Black people living in slums, their children attending derelict schools — when he saw the economic segregation of the North — he had to stand up to that as well. When he saw the abject poverty — not just of Black people but of all people — he had to stand up to it. When he saw the American bombing of innocent civilians in Vietnam, he had to stand up to it. He couldn’t stand up against some forms of violence, but sit back for others. And his persistence was too much for people. One white woman from the North ridiculed him in the newspapers saying he should settle for an “installment plan.”
And of course, this is what we all do. We settle for incremental change. But King refused to. He wanted to build his “Beloved Community.” Here. Now. He wouldn’t stay quiet. He’d put his body on the line to bring about the change of consciousness, the “revolution of values,” that is needed. And in the end, his body and his life would be taken away.
He reached so far, which is why his actual social and political goals seem so at odds with his life’s work, at least as they’ve been described by Peniel Joseph, one of his biographers:
I’d say King is a radical social democratic activist, along the lines of those folks in Scandinavia… He felt we had to take wealth from the top to give people a safety net at the bottom. And he wasn’t saying he wanted a communist country. He wanted redistributive justice. It still was going to be capitalism.
King’s methods were so revolutionary, his heart was so huge — is it possible his most revolutionary idea for transforming society-at-large was just maintaining the current system, but imposing higher taxes on the rich? It would seem that that’s as far as he could imagine, at least according to Peniel Joseph. It would seem he would have been content if America was more like Sweden.
Isn’t this strange? King was so radical, but when people describe his larger political agenda, the most radical idea they cite is that of a universal basic income — that every citizen should get regular cash hand-outs from the government. But even Nixon and the conservative economist Milton Friedman supported that idea. Was free money really going to restore dignity, heal the violence, help us understand and love one another?
I don’t doubt King could have come to more dynamic ideas — ideas that could actually address the different social ills we face — if he’d only lived long enough and if anyone at all was actually discussing such ideas. I’m not pointing this out to diminish King’s monumental contribution, but to point to what’s still blatantly missing. And really, to point to the importance of social threefolding.
Social threefolding strives to perceive the dynamic, organic relationship between the different areas of social life — it strives to see society whole. In so doing, it also seeks to understand the relationship between all the different social ills we face. There is no silver bullet to solve our problems. A better “safety net” won’t fix them. They’re systemic. We need to change our systems.
How do we do this?
First, we have to break out of our ideological straightjackets. No party program will ever be completely right or wrong. There is truth in both the left and the right, in both capitalism and communism. As King said:
Truth is found neither in traditional capitalism nor in classical communism. Each represents a partial truth. Capitalism fails to see the truth in collectivism. Communism fails to see the truth in individualism. Capitalism fails to realize that life is social. Communism fails to realize that life is personal. The good and just society is neither the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of communism, but a socially conscious democracy which recognizes the truths of individualism and collectivism.
Second, we have to take social phenomena seriously. The problem with identifying with any one party — with taking sides — is that it blinds us to what is. We leap immediately to following this leader or that program, and don’t do the most basic work of just looking at social phenomena and asking, What is your nature, your purpose, and how can you become healthy?
For instance, have you ever heard anyone at all discuss the deeper nature of human labor and why we have a labor “market”? Slavery and serfdom were once the norm — human beings were bought and sold — but now we have wagery — human labor is bought and sold. People were once commodities, now only their work is. But how does that affect people? Is it good for our social relationships, for people’s sense of dignity? And more fundamentally: Is it true? After centuries of struggle, we now know that a person isn’t a commodity. But are we really so sure that labor is?
And how about private ownership of land and capital? Are these things really commodities too, and is it really the healthiest way to work with the resources we all depend on?
Why not look at these things, discuss these things, experiment with these things until we feel we understand their nature — their function in the body social — and that the social forms we’ve created agree with their nature, that ‘form follows function.’
If you think about it, it’s strange that we never ask such questions, that we so readily accept our current system (even though we feel it’s broken) and are generally disinterested in the most basic social forms that we inhabit every day of our lives. It’s easier to cheer for a team and leave it to someone else to put things right.
But that’s not a picture of social health; it’s not what we’ve come here to do. We’ve come into the world to develop our individual gifts and viewpoint to the full, to self-govern (along with the whole community), to find our right work — the place where we can contribute our gifts. The society we need, the society our hearts yearn for, is one that is radically participatory in every aspect, a society where each individual matters.
And when we begin to see this — when we begin to see there’s an actual lawfulness to society based on the unquenchable longing in our own hearts for the ideals of freedom, equality, and solidarity — then we’ll also begin to see what social forms could fit those ideals. Then our apathy will fall away, and societal transformation will become a burning need because we’ve finally glimpsed a way out of this mess!
At this point, I want to say a word about my own work.
Threefolding is for me a burning need. The ideals of freedom, equality, and solidarity call to me, and I try to follow them. This means working to really understand them and to bring them about.
How to understand threefolding isn’t so difficult at an elementary level — it lacks the pointless complexity we’ve built into our current systems (financial derivatives, anyone?) — but it quickly becomes more challenging. In reality, it’s a radically new approach to social science, one that is holistic (understands every part of society in relation to the whole) and phenomenological (understands social phenomena and dynamics as having their own nature and lawfulness). So one can immediately grasp the basics of threefolding (it strives to find the healthy relationship between culture, politics, and economics and how freedom, equality, and solidarity can come to expression in these areas) but taking hold of threefolding and really understanding it requires dedication.
How to do threefolding is another can of worms. You can work towards it in your own life (for instance, you can work to decommodify your labor), but for society to find its full, healthy threefold expression we’ll need a world-wide movement. How to build such a movement?
I’m currently focusing on two possibilities: one local, one national. Locally, I think we can prototype a new, more holistic form of community organizing. We can ask, How is the relationship between business, government, and culture in my own town or region, and what can I do to help it become healthy? This might mean supporting existing initiatives or creating new ones. And nationally, I think we can create vocation-based groups who seek to understand how their field of work can become healthy and work to create broad-based coalitions to bring it about. I’m working with colleagues on both paths, though there’s not too much to show for it yet. It’s all in its infancy, but as this work bears fruit I plan to share it on The Whole Social.
After two years of writing for The Whole Social, this has become my main outlet for both understanding and doing threefolding. Every article continues to be a source of illumination for me — it gives me an opportunity to dig into social phenomena and work to understand it more deeply. And it’s useful for movement building, because it gets the word out and hopefully inspires others to take up the work. It connects us. It’s still only doing this in rudimentary ways — it’s not yet the bustling platform for community discussion and other people’s writings — but it’s steadily growing.
As you might notice, I’ve got 0 paying subscribers on Substack. That’s because I think Substack’s giving threshold is too high — the minimum possible donation is $50 — so for the last year I’ve asked people to support me on Ko-fi where the giving threshold is only $3. Since I’ve asked, a number of you have supported me with generous one-off donations and 32 of you support me every month with a recurring donation. That support makes a profound difference. It’s true it’s not a huge amount of money, but it does have a real impact on my ability to do my work. And more importantly, knowing that there’s a growing circle of support for this work gives me courage to keep walking what can at times feel like a pretty lonely, and somewhat crazy, path. (If you’d inspired to support, you can do so here!)
Really, the fact that you’re reading this, and that you’ve read any of my articles over the last two years, is wonderful. I deeply appreciate it. Besides that, the emails that you’ve sent to me, the comments you’ve made, the ‘likes’ you’ve given, the articles you’ve shared with friends, and the donations that you’ve contributed have all made this work possible. Thanks so much for taking it up with me.
My hope this year is to strengthen my writing — to show more and more how relevant threefolding is — and to continue growing this work, to continue building The Whole Social into a bustling platform that can serve all of us, including those who have not yet discovered it. Here’s to another year of work!
(One last thing! Of course there are other people working on threefolding in various places around the world. As I come across their initiatives, I’ll try to share them — as well as any other resources that I find for this work — in the new Notes section of The Whole Social. You can find that here.)
There’s much to praise in this book, especially its scope — how much it’s able to draw together, and seemingly without effort. The book is masterfully written, it flows almost like a novel; it’s certainly one of the most superb examples of narrative nonfiction I’ve ever read. In addition, I listened to some of it as an audio book, and this was excellent as well. The reader captures much of the power of King’s voice, which is no small feat.
And a tip: if you’re like many people who have a hard time reading these days, and prefer to listen to books, you can get audio books for free at your local library (at least in the U.S.) by using the “Libby” app on your smartphone (if you’ve got a smartphone). Just ask your librarian about it.
The intense struggles of King’s last few years come through vividly in the 2018 documentary “King in the Wilderness.”
From the Higher Learning podcast: “Martin Luther King Jr., the Revolutionary With Dr. Peniel Joseph” (17:25 minutes in).
I definitely don’t mean to knock Sweden or any of the Scandinavian countries (they’re some of the places I’ve most enjoyed working and visiting), but it’s strange to imagine this could possibly be the fulfillment of what King strove for. Yes, they have strong safety nets and they appear quite stable and their cultures are beautiful, but all existing societies are in a state of decline. One must imagine King’s “Beloved Community” to have something radically alive to it. It must have the spiritual potency, the vibrancy, with which King himself lived his own life. A healthy society is one where we are deeply engaged with one another, where we support one another, and where we’re free to become fully ourselves; not one where the government simply takes of all of us.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (from the chapter “World House” of Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?).