An Unrecognized Contributor to American Social Theory
Robert Peter Siemens
[Reprinted from the American Journal of Economics
and Sociology, January 1995]
I. "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. This "indigestion" of American sociology
is most acutely felt in its difficulty assimilating Weber's Protestant
ethic thesis. The difficulty of Weber's thesis, we shall contend for
the purpose of this paper, hinges on problems in the modern conception
of "progress." Weber and George are both postmodern(4)
because they recognized the problems in the "modern"
conception of "progress."(5)
Modernity's conception of progress as "the result of fixed laws
. . . which impel men forward" became problematic for George
because it did not explain the persistence, and increase, of poverty
that accompanied the progress of modern material prosperity
(1898A:482). Furthermore, George argued, the modern conception of
progress is predicated on a notion of original natural human equality.
The modern notion of progress fails to explain why European
civilization progressed as it did, and others stood still. This
concern with the modern definition of progress was also central to
Weber's "Protestant Ethic" thesis. Finally, George argues
that the modern theory of progress cannot account for why
civilizations progress to a point and then decline (1898A:482). The
observed facts are inconsistent with the modern definition of progress
as "the result of general and continuous causes," the fruit
of "a long race education, which has become permanently fixed in
mental organization;" and which "tends to go on . . . to a
higher and higher civilization (1898A:481). "The truth of the
matter is that the "anomalies" have been the general rule of
history" (George, 1898B:484). All previous civilizations,
achieving a level of material culture approximately equal to that of
Europe of the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, have not only failed
to achieve "modernization," but have gone into positive
decline (George, 1898A:483, 484).
Having arrived on the scene some hundred odd years before the concept
of challenging modernity's assumptions had been named, George opposed
modernity's grid by substituting a cyclical conception for modernity's
linear conception. He did this by resuscitating the ancient idea "that
there is a national or race life, as there is an individual life -
that every social aggregate has, as it were, a certain amount of
energy, the expenditure of which necessitates decay" (George,
1898A:484). George asks us to consider the truth of the "analogy
which likens the life power of a nation to that of an individual, . .
. that the obstacles which finally bring progress to a halt are by the
course of progress; that what has destroyed all previous civilizations
has been the conditions produced by the growth of civilization itself"
The modern theory of progress, and its underlying philosophical
assumptions, have neglected a most important truth. It is the truth
for which any "valid theory" of progress must account
(George, 1898A:484). The postmodern challenge to modernity's
totalitarianism (i.e., its tendency to obliterate anomaly, or
difference, to create a totality) is to give expression to "the
law which thus operates to evolve with progress the force which stops
progress" (George, 1898A:515). George, thus, calls for social
theory to recognize the existence of an "anti-grid" or "deconstruction"
of modernity's totalization that is taking place, a visible
manifestation of the obliteration (i.e., an organization of the
disorganization) we moderns call "progress." He finds such
an "anti-grid" in "[t]he advance of inequality [which]
necessarily brings improvement to a halt, and as it still persists or
provokes unavailing reactions, draws even upon the mental power
necessary for maintenance, and retrogression begins" (George,
The visible "anti-grid" George has found responsible for
the deconstruction of progress is "the 'internal resistance' or
'counter force'" of resistance by the oppressed to the inequality
in civilized society. "That resistance must be comprehended if
the cycle of civilization is to be explained. It is the resistance,
the conflict that rises because of the growth of inequality among the
members of civilized society" (Geiger, 1933:531). Racial riots
that affected the course of justice in the case of Rodney King provide
the anti-grid, for example, to the police bureaucracy. Drug war-lords
in the Bolivian jungles and junkies lying in New York and Washington
alleys form the anti-grid to modern society's war on crime. Modern
society's structures rest on chaos and anti-structures which it must
repress to maintain its facade.
Our next question is, "How did George come to his astonishingly
postmodern conclusions? His postmodernism was, in a sense forced upon
him, for he made his observations and arrived at his conclusions on
the basis of his experience. He witnessed the social and industrial
transformations that the closing of the frontier brought to
California. He especially noted that every stage of land
monopolization through which Europe had evolved was imposed on the
American continent in his lifetime. Thus, his historical situatedness
created the conditions that he could see the similarities between the
life cycle of civilizations and that of individuals in the "vivid
present" of his lived experience (Geiger, 1933:224).
The key to understanding this law of chaos, according to which all
civilizations follow a course that climaxes, decays, and collapses,
can be found in the concentration of wealth in a few private hands.
This process is so insidious in its effects, George believes, because
it transforms socially created value into privately owned wealth
(Geiger, 1933:535). This alchemy, whereby value, which is originally
social in nature, becomes wealth, is the privatization of land. George
believes he has discovered a universal law because land has been
privatized "under the economic systems of all civilizations"
(1933:535). Modernity's failure to recognize this essential
relationship between civilization and the forces of its destruction
makes it susceptible to the tragic circle of continual
self-annihilation that has been the downfall of all pre-modern
civilizations (Geiger, 1933:535).
Because "land . . . has been privately owned in all our
civilizations" (1933: 534), George, convinced that the rise and
fall of civilization is a function of rent (1933:536), specifically
correlates "the fall of civilization with the private ownership
of land" (Geiger, 1933:533). Several important consequences flow
from George's perception. First of all, his "'economic
interpretation of history' the correlation of the rise and fall of
civilization itself with an economic process" (Geiger, 1933:561)
must be recognized as a significant development independent of Marx's
similar conclusion. Secondly, it represents an American voice
anomalous to the Parsonian consensus on the modern American
interpretation of its European predecessors. George's is an American
voice that, however anomalous at home, is consonant with an
alternative interpretation of the European Fathers.
II. The Congruence between George and Weber's Theses
If we claimed Henry George for postmodernism because he asked us to
reconsider the modern understanding of progress, we are forced to
concede a post-modern agenda to Max Weber as well. In spite of the
consensus of modern sociology, that Max Weber formulated a thesis,
Weber himself organized his subject-matter, "modern bourgeois
capitalism with its rational organization of free labor"
(1958:23) as the central problem of "a universal history of
culture" (1958:24). "(I)n terms of cultural history, the
problem is that of the origin of the Western Bourgeois class and its
peculiarities" (1958:23). Like George, Weber challenges the
modern assumption that modernity is the goal of history. His interest
is to "question . . . the specific and peculiar rationalism of
Western culture" (1958:26).
Furthermore, like George, Weber concedes the "fundamental
importance of the economic factor" in the development of cultural
history. And, like George, he is fully aware of the grid that
modernity imposes on society. So, like George, he creates an "anti-grid"
out of "the opposite correlation" that "the development
of economic rationalism is . . . determined by the ability and
disposition of men to adopt certain types of practical rational
conduct" (1958:26). Interpreting Parsons' translation, "Other
grids besides the modern one have been imposed on men of other times
and places." These "other grids" include "the
influence of certain religious ideas on the development of an economic
spirit, or the ethos of an economic system." Weber challenges
sociological acceptance of the modern grid, and its self-destructive
effect, when he asks us to consider the religious grid "the side
of the [sociological] problem [of modernity] which is generally most
difficult to grasp" (1958:27).
Weber defines the ethos as "that form of ethical conduct upon
which premiums are placed that matter. Such premiums operate through
the form and the condition of the respective goods of salvation. And
such conduct constitutes 'one's' specific 'ethos' in the sociological
sense of the word" (Weber, 946,1958:321). Weber is, in other
words, defining spiritual values, which, when so defined, can be
factored into economic equation, and thus, be "taken into
account," not only metaphorically, but literally. Economics
achieved, with Alfred Marshall, the status of an exact science because
it measures subjective "values" in dollars and cents.
Weber, like George is interested in the relationship between "the
economic man" (1958:174) and his characteristic religious ethos,
which is secularism. This secularism that characterizes modernity has
historically discernible, culture-specific, origins: "That great
historic process in the development of religions, the elimination of
magic from with the old Hebrew prophets and, in conjunction with
Hellenistic scientific thought, had repudiated all magical means to
salvation as superstition and sin, came here (i.e., in modern
secularism) to its logical conclusion" (1958: 105). This
conclusion made technical utilization of scientific knowledge the
authority for social morality, and the technological organization of
social life, reality (Weber, 1958:24-5).
This secularization of the Puritan ethic has brought about a new
relationship between economic activity and its moral guardians. The
secularization process has proceeded through a series of developments
deriving their impetus from religious sources. For example, the modern
labor force was created by depriving "(t)he moral conduct of the
average man . . . of its planless and unsystematic character and
subject[ing it] to a consistent method for conduct as a whole"
(1958:117). The other side of the coin is the privatization of land
that transformed medieval peasants into modern proletarians in need of
such discipline as Puritanism provided.(6)
Weber considers Puritanism the second last stage of a long process of
secularization. This religious ethos culminated in Puritanism creating
a human subject that is dependent on society for its individuality.
The final stage of this secularization process, characterized as
modernity, eliminates God from the cosmological equation, or deifies
society. The meaning of morality becomes problematic for Weber in this
context, because the individual competes in and contributes to a
structure so abstract that there is no longer any personal element to
the competition/contribution. Furthermore, the rules that govern
successful interaction in this way of life are not those of personal
and family life that can be learned as a child and controlled by
religion, but those of science. The concept of morality finally
becomes meaningless, or a luxury for those who can afford the
sacrifices its cultivation demands.
The entire concept of an economic ethos, in Weber's sense of
religious beliefs influencing economic activity, becomes implausible
because it has been obliterated by modernity. The basis of the
economic "ethos" has become meaningless because the dynamics
of the market "determine the lives of all the individuals who are
born into this mechanism . . . with irresistible force" (Weber,
1958: 181), Competition for survival and the conditions of the labor,
money and commodity markets are decisive; "matter-of-fact
considerations that are simply non-ethical determine individual
behaviour and interpose impersonal forces between the persons involved"
(Weber, 1978:1186). "(U)nder capitalism all patriarchal
relationships are divested of their genuine character and become
impersonal" (Weber, 1978:1188).
Under the auspices of modernity ethics becomes subjective and
economic activity, impersonal. This makes it possible for the
financial transaction to escape from ethical, personal, control and
become a powerful tool of exploitation, Suffering is no longer the
result of visible abuse of power in personal relationships, as it is
in traditional societies, but the consequence of structural
inequalities that are accepted as part of the "natural order"
discovered by science, and nobody can be called to account. The
subjective discipline that the Puritans accepted voluntarily, and
which set them apart, has become the ethos of the ruling class in
North America. Its religious motivation has disappeared, but the way
of life that it has produced continues to exist from sheer inertia
Implicit in Weber's analysis is the irony that the Puritan
disenchantment of the world obliterated the traditional assumptions
held by the Hebrew prophets, the basis on which they repudiated "magic"
and "superstition." The Puritan routinization of the Hebrew
prophets' "charisma" substituted a natural science
conception of "magic" and "superstition" for tle
original social conception under the auspices of Evangelicalism.
Evangelicalism (i.e., "modern" spirituality) has substituted
the rules of natural scientific thought for defining "magic"
and "superstition." The Hebrew Prophets, who apparently
initiated the project of modernity by eliminating "magic"
and "superstition" from everyday life, judged magic and
superstition according to the rules of social justice. That is, a
practice was considered "magical" or "superstitious"
if its practice involved social injustice. The difference between
present-day modernism and modernity's origin is that a substitution
has been effected. "Modern" rules that obliterate the
evidence of social injustice have perverted the traditional rules that
are modernity's origin. This, of course, is necessary for social value
to be transformed into private wealth.
Perhaps Weber could not look past modernity in part because of his
historical situatednesss. The difference between Western Europe and
North America as providing points of view is that Western European
economies were dominated by a series of empires beginning with the
emergence of Venice from ethical traditionalism, followed by Calvinist
Holland which liberated the profit motive from its traditional
religious restraints, only to be superseded by Puritan England where
pursuit of the profit motive was transformed into a positive religious
duty, which reached its secular telos in Baptist USA where the
capitalist ethos found unencumbered expression in backwoods New
Backwoods New England had become cosmopolitan by Henry George's time
as the line of the frontier (which Weber visited in Oklahoma, but on
which George lived from the time that he moved to California) pushed
steadily West, pressed by the economic strictures of the modern
capitalism Weber described in his thesis. Weber, in conclusion,
although essentially an analyst of modernity, pointed the way to the
necessity for an "other" to modernity. And, although his
experience is of modernity, his response to it is a call for that "other"
that will avert the living death which modernity become totalitarian
is. George's experience, however, is post-modern. He lived where Weber
only visited! The process of secularization that is presented as
taking the course of centuries in Weber's analysis was compressed into
the experience of George's lifetime. Thus, though George uses "modern"
expression, his impulse is to recover the understanding of "progress"
that was implied in the Hebrew prophets' recognition of the social
nature of the "magic" and "superstition," i.e.,
the omnipresence of injustice and oppression that needs to be
eliminated from economic life that is postmodern.
III. Weber's Failure
Kurt Wolff takes Weber to task for his alleged failure to take
Spengler's concern with the decline of the West seriously. This charge
then becomes the theme of an argument against the canonized
interpretation of Weber's corpus as part of the encumbrance of a
tradition that has led the West to dig its own grave (Wolff, 1991:45).
Wolff critiques Weber's European interpreters, Scheler and Schutz, for
failing to apprehend the West's self-destructive path and lays the
blame at Weber's, the founding father's, feet. We suggest that not
Weber, but his interpreters, constitute the tradition that needs to be
corrected before we can surrender to such an interpretation of Weber,
despite its promise of a sustainable future (Wolff, 1976).
In fact, Weber, George, and Spengler all share a common perspective:
They all seriously considered the West's place in world history as a
whole. Furthermore, all three share a similarly pessimistic vision in
which the Anglo-American dominated West is compared to decadent Rome
of antiquity, and for which all predict a similar decline.
To understand the failure of the tradition Weber engendered to
apprehend the crucial issue of Weber's, and our time, we must
reexamine the basic thesis of Weber's evaluation of the West. This is
the thesis that the Protestant sects rationalized economic life to the
point that ethical considerations enforced by ecclesiastical
authorities are no longer needed to ensure the smooth functioning of
While acknowledging Weber's abhorrence in anticipation of this "new
order," Wolff does not recognize Weber's scenario as a depiction
of the decline of the West. Weber's celebrated thesis comes into focus
as sharing Spengler's concern by considering the separation of ethical
from economic spheres of conduct as the main source of Weber's
apprehension for the future. Weber's concern, so focused, is George's
similar concern, by him couched in a vocabulary that resonates with
Spengler's concern more clearly than do Weber's writings. George's
concern with the separation of ethics and economics was that it made
possible the confusion of land with capital goods, ultimately making
monopolization of land (the force of civilizations' decline) possible
and inevitable. Evangelicalism (secularized Puritanism) provides the
superstitious and magical legitimation of this confusion by accepting
the Hellenistic definition of these terms.
We recognize George's "modernism" as Hebrew, and
relational, rather than Hellenistic and subject-object oriented, from
the fact that his concern with poverty was based on an ethical
interest in the relationship between "poverty and the processes
of economic life," in the "realization that human life, with
all its ideals and hopes, all its 'values' is conditioned by [its]
social setting" (Geiger, 1933:516). Kurt Wolff attributes this
discovery to Mannheim. George anticipated Mannheim's concern as
depicted by Wolff (1991). Not only George, but Giambattista Vico as
well, is conventionally credited with this insight (Gellner, 1985:10).
Weber's defense of the need for ethical regulation of modern economic
life is a de facto recognition of the Viconian principle that civil
society is a human creation and therefore a human responsibility.
Technological authority removed this human creation from human
responsibility. This resulted in Weber's professed dread of a way of
life filled with technical means but lacking moral ends on behalf of
which to exert the available means.
George shares Weber's distinctions and Viconian assumptions, but
avoids self-impalement on the Weberian dilemma by introducing a
mediating third term into his discussion: Society, "the Greater
Leviathan," as he characterized it. And, if economics is
concerned with the production and distribution of wealth, the goal of
sociology, George asserts, is to translate concern with poverty amid
plenty "from terms of political economy into terms of ethics"
(1898A:333). He considered economics a branch of ethics because
economic operations have moral consequences. The destructive
consequences of poverty stem from its distorting influence on the
subject's moral perspective, leading it to antisocial action.
Social injustice, the root of poverty and cause of social decline,(7)
is a problem that was traditionally dealt with by spiritual
(ecclesiastical in the West) authority. In the face of modern
Secularization, "philosophy must be supplemented by the social
sciences; moral problems must be translated into the vocabulary of
social problems" (Geiger, 1933:550-551). Thus, we arrive at the
consideration for which we argue that George should be given "founding
father" status. He formulated the fundamental "law of
society [as] each for all, as well as all for each" (George,
1898A:435). No one is self-sufficient, but all our actions, good and
evil, affect others.
The inequality that flows from private property in land violates this
fundamental "law of society," which is universal, grounded
in justice, and as immutable a law of nature as any of the laws of
physics. George's conception of "natural law" parts company
from that of his modern contemporaries in that he refuses to reduce
the moral expression of this natural social law which "relates to
spirit, to thought, and will" (1898B:437) to its economic
expression. The evidence for this law, George believes, lies in the
consequences of ignoring it, as the experience of all past
civilizations attests. The "social fact" that
institutionalized and structured inequality and injustice bring about
tangible social evils is empirically verifiable. The economic and
moral laws are linked together through the social law that makes
wealth subservient to morality. Social injustice brings economic
consequences that are detrimental to the economic interests of their
This natural social law finds economic expression in the fact that "association
or integration . . . give[s] rise to a collective power which is
distinguishable from the sum of individual powers" (George,
1898:515). Exchange is the source of this "enormous increase of
productive power" (George, 1898B:400). This fact, that "the
whole is greater than the sum of its parts," is expressed by the
law of exchange. Value is created by co-operation, and exchange is one
form of cooperation. Consequently, economic considerations must
embrace all aspects of human life, not merely the material
satisfactions of abstract consuming individual units.(8)
This fact of ethical bearing on economic considerations easily
becomes obscured, George argues, in considering the nature or
production of wealth because no consideration of the ethical ideal of
right or justice is required (1898B:452). "The idea of ought or
duty becomes primary" only when "we turn from a
consideration of the laws of the production . . . to a consideration
of the laws of the distribution of wealth" (1898B:452). Relating
George to Weber, we can see how the Spenglerian or cultural and
historical dimension of Weber's concern came to be obscured by his
preoccupation with the capitalist mode of production, rather than it
would have been had he emphasized the distribution of wealth in
Spengler's postmodern (i.e., in the literal sense of a concern with
modernity's demise) emerges when we recognize, as did George, that the
enormous technological improvement of modern civilization "is not
an improvement of human nature; it is an improvement of society - it
is due to a wider, fuller union of individual efforts in the
accomplishment of common ends" (1898B:20). The Spenglerian "Angst"
comes to make sense as a failure of the moral will when we consider
the "improvement of society" in teleological terms. Does the
history of civilization contain the germ of its decay from its very
conception? Is the separation of economics and ethics, the isolation
of means from ends, the mechanism by which the rational capitalist
civilization of Western European modernity will be brought into
Using this thumb nail sketch of George's social philosophy as a
backdrop (to mix metaphors!), we see several critical Weberian themes
emerge. Sources of despair for Weber, such as the loss of moral
authority in social life, the tyranny of economic forces set free from
the constraints of social ends, however, pose no quandary for George.
Holding the moral, social and economic laws in mutual interdependence,
George formulates the law of freedom as the ground of the laws of
human, social and economic life. "[I]t is only in independent
action that the full powers of the man may be utilized. The
subordination of one human will to another human will . . . must
always where intelligence is needed, involve loss of productive power"
(1898B:393). George uses the examples of "slavery and . . .
governments (as is the tendency of all government) unduly . . .
limit[ing] the freedom of the individual" (George, 1898B:393).
The postmodern interpretation of the Weberian tradition must take
Henry George into consideration. It must recognize the tragic
consequences of separating ethics and economics. The postmodern
sociological imagination initiates its play with the recognition that
our technological mastery of our material environment requires a
corresponding mastery of our intellectual and moral environments as
well. "Greater social intelligence and a higher standard of
social morals" become imperative to ensure that technological
capability is used to meet social ends. The tragedy of Somalia
graphically illustrates how severe the problem George apprehended a
century ago has become.(9) Furthermore, justice and equality are the
preconditions for a healthy moral environment as well as for an
educated populace. Educating the subject to injustice and inequality
it is helpless to alleviate, only breeds cynicism and despair (George,
George's "holistic" approach to the social sciences was, on
the whole, dismissed by the gatekeepers of his day, those who
conferred "founding father" status on those they considered
worthy. The next section of this paper concerns itself with the
sociology of knowledge question of how such a fundamental insight,
consonant with the findings of the European founding fathers, can have
come to be dismissed so completely. For, as George pointed out, this
dismissal of the right of ethical claims over the economy denies "the
'self-evident' truth . . . of the Declaration [of Independence]."
The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness "are
denied when the equal right to land - on which and by which men alone
can live - is denied. Equality of political rights will not compensate
for the denial of the equal right to the bounty of nature. Political
liberty, when the equal right to land is denied, becomes, as
population increases and invention goes on, merely the liberty to
compete for employment at starvation wages" (George, 1898A:545).
IV. The Miscarriage of Political Economy
George considered the unjust distribution of wealth in modern society
to be the result of "the miscarriage of political economy, . . .
[and which he] traced to the adoption of an erroneous standpoint"
(George, 1898A: 162). This miscarriage of political economy" lay
in the failure of the so-called science (i.e., of scholastic political
economy) to define its subject-matter or object-noun"
(1898B:181). Failure to define its subject-matter, wealth, has
resulted in the confusion of wealth and value, of power and
production, of ethics and science. With the result, as we saw, of
ethics being banished from economic considerations. Thus, an ethically
deficient economics has become authoritative for ethical
decision-making by governments and businesses alike.(10)
This failure to clarify its key term has resulted in political
economy making a series of critical errors in its development. The
first of these is a confusion of the terms "natural" and "minimum"
on the part of "both Smith and Ricardo [who] use the term
'natural wages' to express the minimum upon which laborers can live;
whereas, unless injustice is natural, all that the laborer produces
should rather be held as his natural wage" (George, 1898A:163).
Among the most serious consequences of this confusion is that the law
of diminishing returns was only applied to agricultural production.
Consequently, economic teaching produced "'the law of diminishing
productiveness in agriculture.' But the law is not peculiar to
agriculture" (George, 1898B:358). The production of wealth
requires space in no matter what form or mode it takes place. An
increasing concentration of labor-power in a limited space only
utilizes the available cooperative power up to a point, at which
overcrowding begins and the productive power of all present is
diminished with every further increase of labor-power. By generalizing
the so-called "law of diminishing returns in agriculture" to
prove that it is merely an application of "the spatial law of
material existence," George considers himself to have proved that
the physical, economic and moral universes are all susceptible to one
law (George, 1898B:359, 360).
George's theory of natural law is significant for our Spenglerian
concern because George's conception of the law of decline is not based
on an analogy with the life cycles of biological nature. It is,
nonetheless, equally directly empirically verifiable in the economic
consequences of the relations of human social nature. The question
remains, then, why has the Spenglerian concern not been addressed,
tested empirically, and either verified or disproved?(11) Wolff
censures Weber for failing to address this question, and by
implication, all who followed him. Is its failure to be taken
seriously really the result of undetected errors in the formulation of
the founding fathers of political economy? Errors that have become
part of the "family disciplines" of all the social sciences?
The historical evidence supports George's thesis that modern
economics incorporates political economy's flawed origins. The
incorporation of the founding fathers' errors is characterized by the
transition from political economy to "economics," first
recognized in the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1886.(12) The fatal
elimination of ethics from economics is achieved by its practitioners
constantly increasing the importance of statistics in economic
discussion. The moral considerations that were part and parcel of
political economy's original considerations, have been dismissed from
economic consideration because they cannot be expressed by the rules
of arithmetic. Political economy, as modern economics, has been
reduced to the science of calculating commercial transactions, without
regard for their larger human implications.
This elimination of ethical from economic considerations made the
confusion of wealth and value, production and power, possible.
Furthermore, as a result of this confusion, "the writers on
political economy have treated exchange as a part of distribution"
(George, 1898B:400) when "it properly belongs to production. It
is by exchange and through exchange that man obtains and is able to
exert the power of cooperation which with the advance of civilization
so enormously increases his ability to produce wealth" (George,
The confusions George attributes to Smith and Ricardo thus, when we
consider the economy in relation to the totality of human reality,
actually stifle altogether what C. Wright Mills has called the "sociological
imagination." Classical political economy's errors have prevented
social theory from coming to self-consciousness in American society.
By treating the value created by exchange as a part of distribution,
the social nature of exchange-value became obscured. The value of
sociology failed to be realized as a result; and social theory arrived
at its present state of general disrepute from without and self-doubt
V. The History of Sociology's Failure
To understand social theory's present-day failure we must return to
the discipline's modern origins. Although we do not want to commit the
"genetic fallacy" of implying that the "fate" of
modern sociology was written Oedipus-like into its birth, we do concur
with Henry George and Sigmund Freud that the unconscious motives of
our genetic origins (whether cultural or biographical) must be brought
to the surface as a precondition to progress toward the freedom that
is our goal. A "postmodern" social theory must proceed in
consciousness of the unconscious motives that directed modernity to
its characteristic expression.
Our focus is the "fate" of the modern relationship between
ethics and the economy. We have seen that a separation of these two
spheres of life has led to uncertainty as its best expression, and to
totalitarianism and genocide as its worst (Wolff, 1991).(13) This
unhappy state of affairs has taken place, to extend George's argument,
because unconscious forces were repressed by modernism (defined as
external-orientation). For, "despite . . . insistence upon the
'scientific character' of [political economy], the classic writer were
. . . rationalizing their own ethical predilections, or rather those
of their backgrounds" (Geiger:1933:80).(14)
The reason the classical writers produced a flawed theory, in other
words, is because they refused to engage the role of their own moral
assumptions in the development of their theory. Consequently, moral
ideals and economic values were allowed to go their separate ways.
Transposing Freud's insights to the political-economic level, we
encounter Marx's sociology of knowledge dictum that economic interests
determine moral values. And we see, when we examine the historical
records, that economic interests have created the ideal of "interest-free"
sociology. George traces the source of this "repression" of
legitimate demands of the moral instincts to the "constant
tendency" on the part of the canonized treatises on political
economy to assume "that landowners, through their ownership of
land, contribute to production" (1898B:410).
The first significant sociological expression of this fateful
separation of economics and social science from ethics is that of
Herbert Spencer, who repudiated and withdrew his published views when
Henry George claimed him as an authority figure to gain legitimacy in
the academic world. Spencer extricated himself from the Weberian
dilemma by distinguishing "between the 'purely ethical view of
the matter' and the 'political-economical view' and starling] that
they apparently did not harmonize" (Geiger:1933:296).
We recognize Weber's concern with the relationship between personal
ethics and morally neutral economic life. The former are ideal, the
latter pragmatic. "'Social Statics . . . was intended to be a
system of political ethics - absolute political ethics, or that which
ought to be, as distinguished from relative political ethics (Geiger,
1933: 296).'" Furthermore, Spencer shared Weber's dilemma between
the irreconcilability of these two spheres (i.e., the ethical and the
scientific as expressed in economic laws): "'I cannot see my way
toward are conciliation of the ethical requirements with the
politico-economic requirements (Geiger, 1933:297).'"
The implicit tragedy of Spencer's system of absolute political
ethics, which was to be a model for reforming existing institutions
(Geiger, 1933:301), is that when George suggested putting Spencer's
ideal into practice (Geiger, 1933: 302), Spencer not only changed his
mind, but "fail[ed] to justify his completely reversed opinion on
the land question with sufficiently cogent arguments"
(Geiger:1933:309). Spencer, in other words, one of the founding
fathers of sociology, consciously and deliberately participated in the
separation of economics and ethics that became so perplexing to Max
This separation of ethics and economics, with which Weber was so
immensely preoccupied, is characteristic of modernity because it
betokens modernity's partition from feudalism, most specifically in
reference to land ownership. For, as anthropologists demonstrate, the
only ownership of land among primitive (i.e., pre-modern) peoples was
semicommunal (Geiger, 1933:305). Classical political economy retained
vestiges of its "pre-modern" origin by retaining the "classic
distinction between land and capital" (Geiger, 1933:305). The
modern perspective, in which ethics and economics, ideals and reality,
personal and corporate life have gone their separate ways, approaches
the problem of the relationship between land and capital "from
the angle of function, an approach which . . . tend[s] to remove such
a distinction [as] between land and capital" (Geiger, 1933:101).
This separation, however, introduces the confusion that the new
conception of "function" blurs the distinction between
wealth and land by permitting both to "function" as capital.
"'The individualization of ownership . . . eventually affects the
ownership of land. Bought and sold by measure and for money, land is
assimilated in this respect to the personal property produced by
labor; and thus becomes, in this general apprehension, confounded with
it" (Geiger, 1933:291).
Another critical juncture in the miscarriage of political economy, as
George characterizes the fate of ethics in the modern world, is the
quarrel between George and Alfred Marshall, whose Principles of
Economics was probably the most influential work of the classical
political economists' first generation successors. Marshall, because
he believed that "The diminishing productiveness of the free soil
has a greater influence in lowering wages than the payment of rent
fees (Andelson, 1979:64)," represents the errors of the founding
fathers in its second-generation guise.
The fate of ethics in the modern economy was sealed when "Marshall,
whose influence impacted with great force upon the appointed guardians
of the 'new' science of economics (Andelson, 1979:69)," declared
rent from land an economic surplus, on the basis of the similarity of
land to "some of the other agents of production [which] cannot be
produced quickly, so that in the short run their stock is practically
fixed" (Andelson, 1979:65-66). Even though George was vehemently
dismissed by the established academic economic community, "the
disagreement between [George and Marshall] . . . raises questions
concerning the scope and methods of economics that are still alive to
controversy" (Andelson, 1979:69). Not only has George not been
given credit that is his due. His theoretical reasoning that the
minimum wage was determined by what an individual could earn by his
own effort on rent-free land "anticipated the marginalist
revolution in economic theory which is commonly associated with
neo-classical economists like Alfred Marshall" (Andelson,
The problem that remains with Marshall's system is that it rests upon
a compromise between the short and the long run, as Spencer's ethic
compromised between its absolute and relative expressions: - "(I)n
the 'short-run' - to use Marshall's phrase - alternative
reproducibility is no more present in capital than in land"
(Geiger, 1933:109). A short run similarity is used as a heuristic
device to gloss a troublesome discrepancy between economic logic and
economic practice, as well as to obliterate the ethical problem of the
unequal distribution of common goods (i.e., land and benefits from
Marshall's influence, and his influential perpetuation of the
fathers' errors has had ramifications beyond economics. Talcott
Parsons complains that "'[T]he expansion of economics into an
encyclopedic social science by Marshall and his followers was a form
of 'economic imperialism,' which had the effect of 'suppressing the
rights of neighboring sciences to an independent existence in the
society of the sciences'" (Parsons, 1934,522). (Quoted in Levine,
A further testament to Marshall's significance to Anglo-American
sociology is that "a major tradition of work in the social
sciences . . . achieved its prevailing contemporary form with the
elaboration of marginal-utility economics as codified by Marshall.
Accepting the validity of Marshallian economics was the starting point
of Parsons' earliest work.
Parsons believed that Marshall's correction of the previously
prevailing conception of homo economicus was sound. He affirmed
Marshall's attention to the normative and ideal components of action
in addition to the utilitarian propensities previously considered
exclusively by Anglo-Saxon economists" (Levine, 1985:130).
The alienation of ethics is carried over from economic to social
theory by "Parsons . . . [who] had been trained as an economist,
and [whose] first publications appeared in journals of economics - and
for whose achievements he always maintained the highest respect"
(Levine, 1985:120). Consequently, he "yielded to economics the
right to set the terms for organizing the whole universe of knowable
social phenomena" (Levine: 120).
That we have, largely unconsciously, like the founding fathers of
political economy, accepted the modern ethic that sanctifies the
separation of personal and economic conduct is apparent from our
orthodox reading of Parsons. We have forgotten the shadow of the
parental authority of economic founding fathers' errors; have we
eliminated them, or merely absorbed and forgotten them?
Weber, like Parsons, articulated his theory under the domination of
the separation of personal ethics and professional science. "During
the first years of this century Weber still viewed himself as an
economic historian, showing little sympathy for the efforts of
sociologists (Levine:95). Weber, however, did not accept the rejection
of ethics from economics, and attempt to work around the claims of
economic definitions of reality, as did Parsons. He recognized the "irrational"
character that any personal ethos the individual might choose to
practice necessarily has in a "disenchanted" world. An ethos
only has a rationality in a community in which it is comprehended,
respected and reciprocated. Rather than acquiescing to the moral
authority of the economic order, Weber took the pose of the devil's
advocate by arguing that by reducing the individual's personal cosmos
to irrationality the economic order confesses its own
The closed canon of the modern economic order, by obliterating
ethical and social concerns as anomalous to its project, has embarked
on a course of self-annihilation. Self-annihilation that is literal,
and not metaphorical, because the health of the economy rests on a
healthy relationship to the anomalous human subjects whose continued
cooperation constitutes the ground of its existence.
- Kierkegaard lampoons modern "science,"
which relegates "that unfortunate wretch, the personal
(subjectivity) . . . like a naughty schoolboy, to occupy with
shame a place in the corner" (1851/1941:64)."
- C. Wright Mills argues: "We
are at the ending of what is called The Modern Age. Just as
Antiquity was followed by several centuries of Oriental ascendancy
which Westerners provincially call The Dark Ages, so now The
Modern Age is being succeeded by a post-modern period. Perhaps we
may call it: The Fourth Epoch" (Mills, 1963:236). "The
atrocities of The Fourth Epoch are committed by men as 'functions'
of a rational social machinery - men possessed by an abstracted
view that hides from them the humanity of their victims and as
well as their own humanity." "[T]he highly rational
moral insensibility of the Fourth Epoch" are "merely
businesslike; they are not emotional at all; they are efficient,
rational, technically clean cut. They are inhuman acts because
they are impersonal" (Mills, 1963:238). "The post-modern
climax of all three developments - in economics, in politics, and
in violence - is now occurring most dramatically in the USA and in
the USSR" (Mills, 1963:244).
- The "New Age Movement"
is a popular cultural post-modern response to modernity's
suppression of these aspects of human experience. Weber, and
George, needless to say, represent a more responsible attitude to
the postmodern situation.
- [A]fter modernity, or perhaps
at some point during modernity, something new came into being.
This something has often been termed 'post-modernity' (e.g.
Lyotard, 1984); but because the features of aesthetic modernism
also describe its broad parameters, I have called it 'modernism'
(Lash, 1987:368). Lash depicts "a surprising convergence
between the notion of the modern advanced in contemporary social
thought - in Bell, Foucault and Habermas - and in Weber's
classical sociological formulations . . . inaugurated in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth century" contrasted to the
modernity [author's italics] of the Renaissance and Enlightenment
.... Henry George's work qualifies
for consideration as "modernist," or postmodern, because
it was published in the late nineteenth century, and it shares
significantly in the congruence with Weber's classical
sociological formulations Lash has discovered. And, unlike Bell,
and Habermas, George did not have the advantage of Weber's corpus,
which makes the congruence between George and Weber even more
noteworthy than that between Weber, Bell, and Foucault.
.... Furthermore, the culmination of
the trajectory of the congruence in Habermas appears as a lapse
back into the Enlightenment modernity from which "modernism/postmodernism"
is distancing itself. Habermas has been indicted as a defender of
the "liberal enlightenment reason" that has been
subjected to "foucauldean and postmodern attacks"
(Anderson, 1993:263). Lash, in the end, retreats back to the
position from which he began by distancing himself.
- Weber distinguishes between "progress"
as a teleological concept, as in biological evolution's conception
of a species adaptation to an ecological nice, and "progress"
as in the increasing refinement of technical means to the
realization of aesthetic ends (1949:26-38). We can conclude, from
this discussion, that Weber's position on the modern notion of
progress, even though he did not go on to develop an alternative
theory of progress, is consistent with George's.
- Karl Polanyi's The Great
Transformation discusses the process of transforming the medieval
peasants into modern proletarians by systematic privatization of
public land very clearly and in considerable detail.
- "For at the bottom of
every social problem we will find a social wrong" (9). The
reason for this, George argues, is that "in man . . . the
intelligence which increases all through nature's rising scale
passes at one bound into an intelligence so superior, that the
difference seems of kind rather than degree" (2). Thus, "With
the beginnings of society arises the need for social intelligence
- for that consensus of individual intelligence which forms a
public opinion, a public conscience, a public will, and is
manifested in law, institutions and administration" (3).
.... That George considers the
problems facing modernity requiring a sociologic for their
solution is evident from his observation that: "The
intelligence required for the solving of social problems is not a
thing of the mere intellect." "it must be animated with
religious sentiment and warm with sympathy for human suffering."
"It must stretch out beyond self-interest, whether it be the
self-interest of the few or of the many" (9). "[A]
higher civilization is struggling to be born - . . . the needs and
the aspirations of men have outgrown conditions and institutions
that before sufficed." "Natural science strides forward,
but political science lags." "With all our progress in
the arts which produce wealth, we have made no progress in
securing its equitable distribution" (8).
.... Continuing failure to recognize
and exercise our sociological reason, has the result that "strong
as it may seem, our civilization is evolving destructive forces.
Not desert and forest, but city slums and country roadsides are
nursing the barbarians who may be to the new what Hun and Vandal
were to the old" (6).
- Weber criticizes the "extreme
free traders," who conceived of economic theory "as an
adequate picture of 'natural' reality . . . and . . . proceeded to
set it up as a moral imperative . . . whereas it is only a
convenient ideal-type to be used in empirical analysis (1949:44).
- The famine in Somalia, as
famines elsewhere in the modern world system, was the problem not
of production, but of the distribution of food. "With all our
progress in the arts which produce wealth, we have made no
progress in securing its equitable distribution" (George,
1963:8). Weber contributes the observation that assuming the
political unity of the world economic system - as is theoretically
allowable" would require that "criticism should then be
directed against the whole principle as such of market provision
by means of such indicators as are given by the optimal returns,
expressive in money, to the economic units participating in
exchange. An organization of the provision of goods which is not
based on the competitive market will have no occasion to take
account of the constellation of interests as found in the
competitive market. It will not, therefore, be required to
withdraw consumable goods from consumption once they have been
.... When capitalism, like the Coke
commercial insinuates, really takes on responsibility for feeding,
clothing, housing, and educating the world, instead of exploiting
the need that is its possibility, Utopia will be realized.
- Weber points out that "our
science [of 'social-economic' phenomena]" was created for "the
attainment of value-judgements concerning measures of State
economic policy (1949:51)," and its goal is "the
education of judgement about practical social problems" with
the goal of affecting legislation (1949:50).
- Paul Feyerabend, a philosopher
of science, offers a suggestion in another context that is
applicable to understanding the rejection of cyclical theories in
history as well: "Aristotelian dynamics was a general theory
of change, comprising locomotion, qualitative change, generation
and corruption, . . . Galileo's dynamics and its successors deal
with locomotion only, and here again just with the locomotion of
matter. Other kinds of motion are pushed aside with the promissory
note that locomotion will eventually be capable of explaining al
motion" (1978:99100). It is easy to see how cyclical theories
of history or society would fall out of favour with a positivistic
social science modelling itself after the natural sciences.
- Richard Whatly suggested
changing the name of political economy to "catallactics,"
meaning "the science of exchanges" in 1831 (377).
- (19) Lash & Whimster have
discussed the separation of value spheres as a characteristic of
modernity: "Concepts of values and ideals in the sphere of
morality or art are sealed off from societal rationality, a field
predominated by instrumental rationality" (1987:9). Their
attitude toward this situation is diametrically antithetical to
George's and Weber's: "the mature person should recognize the
separation of the value-spheres as a condition of the modern world
that has to be lived with" (Lash & Whimster, 1987:25).
George and Weber both considered this situation in dire need of
changing, lest it bring about the destruction of Western
.... The critical difference between
this paper's and Lash & Whimster's analysis is that between
rejection and acceptance of modernity: "modernist
differentiation of the spheres [of life], worlds and dimensions of
utterance and discourse" in which "unbound subjectivity
. . . the necessary condition of rational critique and of
substantive rationality" exists (Lash, 1987:368). Modern, not
modernist, differentiation of the spheres of life has led to
totalitarianism and moral irresponsibility. Lash & Whimster's
effort must be judged, in the final analysis, as a defense of a "modern"
interpretation of Weber that does not stand up in the light of
critical comparison of George and Weber.
- "Economics was originally
. . . integrated into the great scheme of the natural law and
rationalistic Weltanschauung of the eighteenth century. The nature
of that Weltanschauung with its optimistic faith in the
theoretical and practical rationalizability of reality had an
important consequence insofar as it obstructed [Weber's italics]
the discovery of the problematic [Weber's italics] character of
that standpoint [the 'at least ostensibly unambiguous and stable
practical valuative standpoint: namely, the increase of the
'wealth' of the population."] which had been assumed a
self-evident. As the rational analysis of society arose in close
connection with the modern development of natural science, so it
remained related to it in its whole method of approach"
- Lash & Whimster, for
example, by taking Weber's irony literally, disclose their own
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