Social Threefolding

There are three global forces that shape the quality and direction of globalization today. These are government, business and civil society. Governments and businesses have been contending for global power since the 1980s. The Battle of Seattle and the defeat of the World Trade Organization (WTO) agenda, among others, show that civil society has now joined these two as a third global force. The emergence of global civil society changes the world from a uni-polar or bi-polar world to one that is tri-polar.

We now live in a tri-polar world where the forces, capacities, and resources to change the world are clustered in the hands of business, government, and global civil society. In many countries, cities and towns are also characterized by this constellation of forces. Three global powers are now determining the understanding and fate of burning social issues.

Threefolding as the New Language of the Tri-Polar World

We need to become familiar with the new social landscape of the tri-polar world. We need to know the key words of the language spoken in this new tri-polar world.

The word threefolding has a central place in this new language. Threefolding is key to understanding the new social landscape and what goes on within it. The term integrates and sheds light on many of the new concepts in the tri-polar world.

But first we need to understand why our world is now tri-polar. It is so because, as we saw, there are now three contending institutional powers that reside in the world–global civil society, government, and business. And there is something else. Though its emergence, civil society also gives birth, consciously or not, to cultural life as an autonomous realm within larger society.

Second we need to connect the three institutions to the three realms of society. From social science, we learn that there are three realms in social life or three subsystems in society–cultural, political, and economic.  The interactions of these three realms determine what kind of social life or society we have. We live in a healthy society if the three realms mutually recognize and support each other and develop their initiatives with awareness of their potential impacts on the other realms. We live in an unhealthy society if one realm dominates and tries to subjugate the others. For example, in that destructive form of globalization we call "elite" or "corporate globalization," one sphere of society, the economic, dominates over the justified concerns of the political and cultural realms. In addition, economic and political institutions, in general, have only a vague understanding and appreciation of culture and the role it plays in social life.

Businesses as institutions derive their force from their work, destructive or otherwise, in the economy. Their natural habitat is the economy. Governments as institutions gain their power, legitimate or not, from political life. They naturally inhabit the realm of polity. And the institutions of civil society derive their strength, deserved or not, from their defense and articulation of the worldviews and values of cultural life. Their natural habitat is culture. Businesses have economic power. Governments have political power. And civil society organizations have cultural power. None has a monopoly of power.

This is the reason why we can now say that civil society, government, and business are the three key institutions of social life. Each of these powerful institutions has the potential to "represent," in its own way, the realm of society from which each is active–civil society represents culture; government represents polity; and business, the economy.

The three institutions may be "institutional powers of a tri-polar world," but they are not necessarily aware what social realms actually constitute this "tri-polar" world. Nor do the institutional powers necessarily know which social realms they inhabit and have affinity with. They may only be aware of their opposition to each other and not necessarily whether they come from the economy, polity, or culture.

For example, if a civil society activist thinks that civil society belongs to the political realm, then this indicates a usage reminiscent of being an "institutional power" in a tri-polar world. Civil society, in this case, is merely aware of its power but not which social realm it comes from. Or worse, none of the three may think that the cultural realm is of any importance and all three would therefore prefer to inhabit either the political or economic realms only.

The term key institutions of social life, on the other hand, implies that the actors within these institutions have a definite and clear idea as to what the three social realms are and which one their institution belongs to. Business, for example, is aware that the three social realms are economy, polity and culture and that its realm is the economy.

In terms of time sequence, it is normal for civil society and the other institutions to be aware first that they are an institutional power in a tri-polar world. Later on, they become aware that they are key institutions of social life. And, as we shall see, this makes a big difference in societal transformation and evolution, in general, and in threefolding, in particular.

Threefolding in Essence

Generally speaking, threefolding means the autonomous interaction of the three realms of society, through any of its three institutional powers or three key institutions, to advocate for or to achieve genuine or comprehensive sustainable development.

Conventional sustainable development often just means environmentally sound economic development, which entails the almost impossible attempt to make neo-liberal economic models of development compatible with environmental concerns. Granted that this attempt is doable, success is highly unlikely because of structural defects in neo-liberal economic theory. This synthesis is still not enough and is too narrow. Often business concerns dominate the discourse on conventional "sustainable development."

Comprehensive sustainable development, on the other hand, starts with the premise that there are three key institutions that represent the three realms of society, and thereby potentially the wholeness of social life. These three realms will bring perspectives appropriate to the realm to which they belong. Business will bring economic concerns. Government will bring political concerns. Civil society will bring cultural, social, ecological, human, and spiritual concerns. Comprehensive sustainable development therefore considers seven dimensions of development: economic, political, cultural, social, ecological, human, and spiritual.

Two Aspects of Threefolding: Process and Substance

Having clarified the general idea of threefolding, we can now focus on an important related aspect of threefolding: the connection between threefolding process and threefolding substance.

The autonomous interaction of the three institutions (process) is just a means to the end of genuine or comprehensive sustainable development (substance). No abstract program (substance) can be created by any one institution of society. In threefolding, the concrete program is created in conflict, dialogue, or partnership, that is, in active processes between the three institutions of society. Out of these processes will come the concrete measures needed to achieve genuine or comprehensive sustainable development.

Threefolding is first and foremost a social process. Out of this social process, the substance of threefolding emerges. Without a genuine threefolding process, there can be no authentic threefolding substance. This is the reason why the term, threefolding, is used in an active sense denoting a process, a social activity, not a finished social product.

A threefolding process is complete and authentic if there is meaningful and true participation by all three key institutions of society, all of which are aware of the social realm from which they come. A multi-stakeholder process is not necessarily a threefolding process, since all three key institutions are not always represented in such a process. There can even be a multi-stakeholder process whose participants belong to various sectors of the same realm–government, for instance, or business. But this is not a threefolding process, because all three key institutions are not represented. The very term multi-stakeholder leads to fuzziness and an unhealthy mixing of the representatives of the different realms of society.

In threefolding, substance is complete if the different dimensions of development are present. As we have seen, business brings in the economic dimension. Governments bring in the political dimension of development. And civil society brings in the cultural, social, ecological, human, and spiritual dimensions of development. Of course, all the dimensions of development cannot be achieved in the very beginning. But they must be consciously taken into account in the process and substance of threefolding.

Kinds of and Stages in Threefolding

Threefolding, as described above, cannot manifest in a complete way during its first appearance in social life. There are different kinds of threefolding and there are different stages through which authentic threefolding will have to pass. Threefolding, like a human being, passes through the stages of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood and therefore the actual concrete manifestations of threefolding can vary with time and place, depending on the actual conditions of social life.

According to this analogy, advanced threefolding (adult phase) will have to first pass through two earlier phases: de facto threefolding (childhood phase) and conscious threefolding (adolescent phase).

De facto threefolding results when one of the three global institutional powers asserts its autonomy and defends its realm from perceived or real invasions from the two other powers and realms of society. In recent history, de facto threefolding initiatives came almost exclusively from civil society. In the past decade, civil society has been defending the cultural realm from the increasingly totalitarian tendencies of various governments and businesses. In any region, country, or global arena where civil society successfully asserts its autonomy, de facto threefolding emerges.

In de facto threefolding, civil society is in a critical and often "rejectionist" mode. The Battle of Seattle is one of the best examples of de facto threefolding.

While de facto threefolding may not be perfect, it is, however, an important sign that a real possibility for threefolding has emerged and that there are inherent possibilities in the situation that can be harnessed for the greater ends of humanity.

Conscious threefolding results when the three institutional powers recognize that society has three realms and that they are the three key institutions of these three social realms. In conscious threefolding, the three key institutions are aware that they have consciously entered into a social process that mobilizes the unique perspectives, strengths, resources and capacities of the cultural, political, and economic realms of society. The three key institutions know that, in conscious threefolding, they place their respective talents towards the pursuit of comprehensive sustainable development, balancing economic, political, and cultural, social, ecological, human, and spiritual imperatives of development.

The substance of conscious threefolding will increasingly include consideration of the seven dimensions of development. Politics and economics will remain as important considerations. But increasingly ecological, social, cultural, human and spiritual considerations will enter into the program details of comprehensive sustainable development efforts.

In conscious threefolding, civil society is in a critical engagement mode. Philippine Agenda 21 is an exemplar of conscious threefolding at work.

Advanced threefolding is the adult phase of threefolding viewed from a developmental or evolutionary perspective. In advanced threefolding, mutual trust and respect are established and institutionalized, something that still has to be continuously worked for in conscious threefolding. In advanced threefolding, the substance of the different realms represented by the three key institutions is so well understood that creative, albeit radical new initiatives start to increasingly determine the substance of the threefolding process.

For example, in conscious threefolding, many aspects of neo-liberal economics will still be active in the debates on threefolding substance. And the same will be true with many conventional approaches to governance. In advanced threefolding, only true empirical discoveries of neo-liberal economics will be retained, and these will be placed within the context of an economics of solidarity or associative economics and not an economics of competition. Thus the concept of an open market will be retained, but price and profits as signals for economic decision-making will be removed from their central position. Instead, price and profits will be among the considerations for economic associations as they try to ensure that the human needs of all are adequately satisfied by the economic system.

In advanced threefolding, process concerns are mostly understood, implemented, and institutionalized. Thus advanced threefolding is preoccupied with mobilizing threefolding processes to further elaborate and implement advanced threefolding substance. One test for entry into the phase of advanced threefolding is whether the government voluntarily removes its control over education, which is the responsibility of the cultural realm. Another test is whether businesses stop the commodification of labor and stop speaking of "labor markets," as if the work capacities of human beings were just like dead commodities to be bought and sold in the market and subject to the "law" of supply and demand. A further test, a tough one indeed, is whether nature, including land, is no longer commodified in the economic system. Instead, in advanced threefolding, the far-reaching vision of land trusts is understood and implemented on a wide scale.

In advanced threefolding, civil society is not only critically engaged. Its role and task is widely recognized and institutionalized. As such, gift money from economic surplus goes directly to civil society as a right, not out of the arbitrary kindness of business institutions. Both business and government fully understand and appreciate the role of civil society in, among others things, the formation of social, human, and ecological capital that is so essential for the continued vitality of both business and government.

Kinds of Threefolding Not Mutually Exclusive

There is no inherent conflict between the three different kinds of threefolding. De facto threefolding is an essential task of civil society. Just as, without a child, there would be no adolescent; without de facto threefolding, conscious threefolding cannot take place. Existing business and government powers often have to be forced to yield the cultural space that they long to occupy. These political and economic powers often need to be awakened by a demonstration of cultural power in order to appreciate the reality of civil society and the cultural realm.

Even when conscious threefolding is being undertaken, de facto threefolding is often still taking place. Because institutions are inhabited by people, there are such things as institutional habits. And problematic institutional habits often die hard and need to be countered by the activism of civil society.

Similarly, when de facto threefolding has been achieved, it is important to try to work towards conscious threefolding, where appropriate. For no amount of de facto threefolding can create a new world that moves towards comprehensive sustainable development. There has to be a genuine understanding that there are three realms in society and that none of the key institutions can dominate the other. This understanding is fundamental to conscious threefolding and, in turn, the pursuit of comprehensive sustainable development. Only conscious threefolding has the power to truly shape globalization away from elite globalization and towards comprehensive sustainable development.

Again, the maturing process is similar to that of a child. He or she must pass on to the adolescent phase and not want to remain in the phase of childhood. Otherwise, all kinds of psychological pathologies manifest themselves and the child cannot fully mature as a productive, loving, and creative adult

Table 1 summarizes the similarities and differences of the kinds of, and phases in, threefolding.


Table 1. Characteristics of the different types of threefolding


De Facto



Autonomy of culture established, consciously or unconsciously. Yes Yes Yes
Consciously recognizes the 3 realms of society. No Yes Yes
Consciously recognizes the 3 key institutions in the 3 realms of society. No Yes Yes
Consciously includes the substance of the 3 realms although not completely harmonized. No Yes Yes
Consciously alters substance of 3 realms towards comprehensive sustainable development. Substance of 3 realms finally harmonized. No No Yes

Threefolding and the Creation of a New World

Threefolding is a balanced way to bring about social healing and social wholeness. Threefolding brings in an integral and holistic approach to the process and substance of development. As a social process, threefolding can either increase or harmonize the conflict between the three global forces that inhabit the tri-polar world. The quality of the social interaction of the three global forces–now understood in threefolding as the three key institutions of social life–will determine the directions of globalization and whether or not this interaction will be able to resolve the burning social issues of our times and those of the generations to come.



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