Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Henry George: An Unrecognized Contributor to American Social Theory

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Henry George: An Unrecognized Contributor to American Social Theory

Article excerpt


"Reconstructionist" Postmodernity

Deconstructionist postmodernism's critique of modern social theory contends that the formalism and discursiveness of modernity's methods force it to create totalitarian structures that degrade the subject.(1) These are the institutions of bourgeois civil society: religious secularism, individualism, the market economy, and the nuclear family. From a postmodern point of view, these institutions are the "media" which organize the content of the institutions of traditional society: Patriarchal family and religion, traditional authority structures, and natural economy (McLuhan, 1964:8). The modern media are "totalitarian" in an epistemological, if not formally political sense, because of how they organize their material, or content. That is, they organize it into a totality. Modern sociological praxis, by not recognizing the form-giving qualities of its institutions considered as media, accepted the external totalitarian structures as of the subject. Consequently, "modern" sociological praxis lost sight of the subject for, and of, which it is accountable.(2)

Post-modernism appears as a protest against this suppression of subjective expression. C. Wright Mills articulates this protest against the totalitarianism that the modernization of patriarchal, or traditional, institutions has become. His work is a strikingly reasoned response on behalf of the idiosyncratic, the chthonic, the feminine, the exclusion(3) of all of which "modernism" appears to need to achieve as "taken for granted," to initiate its project. That is, modernism can only go to work after silencing all dissenting voices and removing all anomalous presences. Ethnomethodology deserves some credit for formulating the insight that society requires that conventional rules of conduct are taken for granted as "natural" for everyday life to be possible. Weber only hinted that this must be so in his analysis of law and society.

Modern social theory has thus become a "closed canon." Closure of the canon, originally a Platonic-Christian concept, has come to stand not only for the exclusion of heterodox voices, but also, in postmodern terms, for the silencing of the subject. Consequently, not only the subjectivities expressed by heterodoxy, but also the open canon to which they were heterodox, has suffered diminishment. Modernity forgets that it has not achieved the orderly incorporation of the subject into its tidy system, but has obliterated a relationship by eliminating the subject. Post-modernism as I understand the concept, cannot abandon the canon for the subjective heterodoxy; but must reopen the canon to bring it back into relation to its "heresies."

The modern Anglo-American sociological tradition has produced such a "closed" canon. It has, by its closure, authorized an interpretation of its history that gives selected authors the status of rounding fathers, and makes selective interpretation of their corpa the unquestioned basis for further work, thereby making sociology a "cumulative" science. But the subject becomes lost in the clutter of the accumulated things we know about the subject, making it more subservient to instrumental reason. The consensus on the closure of the Weberian canon, for example, is celebrated by the ritual apologies for writing "another book on Weber" that preface recent efforts to reopen the Weberian canon.

Henry George has been relegated to the anomalous status of an idiosyncratic subject by the modern sociological canon. He has, judging by modern (i.e., present-day) introductory texts, been eliminated from the canon of founding fathers. Judging by the canonical history of the discipline, we will, likewise, find no mention of Henry George in the canonical history of sociology.

American sociology's neglect of Henry George betokens much more than ignorance of a colorful historical figure. It betokens the problem that American sociology has not finished assimilating its European founding fathers. …

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