This past September the New Yorker published a long article, “The Greening of America,” by Charles A. Reich, associate professor at the Yale Law School, setting off thereby an extraordinary literary and political event. The size of the event can be gauged impressionistically by any reasonably literate Easterner, who need only recall the number of his personal telephone conversations in which one party or another has asked: “Have you read the ‘Greening’ article?” But the dimensions of this event can also be confirmed objectively. Copies of the issue of the New Yorker in which the article appeared are unobtainable; the number of letters about the piece received by the magazine is reported to have reached unprecedented highs; and one reliable indicator of ideological interest, the amount of space given by the New York Times to so evanescent a cultural phenomenon as a magazine article, registers that within a short period that newspaper carried three articles by Reich himself summarizing his own work, four pieces about it (by Marya Mannes, J. K. Galbraith, George F. Kennan, and Herbert Marcuse), one long news story complete with a photograph of the author, and two reviews of the booklength version published shortly after the appearance of the article.1 At this writing, the book version is just beginning to show up in the stores and the limits of public interest are not yet in sight. The Reich article, which explores America’s immediate cultural-political situation and the relationship of youth to it, has clearly touched a national nerve center.
Before going on to discuss those larger questions, however, I ought to acknowledge my own debt to Reich. Thanks to him, I find myself for the first time able to comprehend the meaning of three personal events involving young people which have been puzzling me, one for as long as three years. The first of these occurred shortly after the riots in Newark and Detroit had killed people, burned buildings, and made a shambles of the homes of many of the poorer Negroes in those cities. In December of that year I visited the University of Hawaii to give several talks on urban problems. In the course of my first lunch in the student union, a young undergraduate whose glistening cheeks and braided hair might have advertised malted milk or Juicy Fruit gum, told me with surpassing enthusiasm how lucky I was to be living on the mainland United States. Her eyes brimming with what I will swear was philanthropic fervor, she said: “Weren’t the riots just beautiful?”
The second episode came some six months later when, with a young New York City planner, I was discussing the case of the Columbia gymnasium—the issue which triggered the famous trouble there—before an audience attending the convention of the American Society of Planning Officials at San Francisco. My colleague took the position that stopping the construction of the gymnasium had been a great triumph for the oppressed minorities of America. When I asked him which, in his view, were the oppressed minorities in America, he answered: “The blacks, the Indians, the Chicanos, and the college students.”
Finally, only a few weeks ago, I was testifying before the New York City Council, about the rent increase recommended by the Rent Guidelines Board, of which I am chairman, for permanent guests living in apartment hotels in the city. In answer to a question about whether the guests could afford the 8-per-cent-per-year increase that our Board recommended, I replied that we could not possibly study their income, even if we had the staff for such an assignment, because that would constitute an invasion of their privacy, and that in any case our job, under the law, was to mandate the smallest increase possible that would keep the apartment hotels in the same relative economic position that they had been in on the date when rents were frozen. “If your Council believes that tenants can’t afford the rent the hotels need,” I said, “then you must find a way to supplement what they can pay, or the hotels will simply deteriorate to the point where they go out of business.” This seemed to enrage the young Councilman who was interrogating me: “Don’t you see that this kind of old-fashioned regulation which doesn’t take into account the whole human picture is just what we’re not going to put up with any more?” he demanded.
Reading Mr. Reich, I now see that the words that had puzzled me were mere snatches of a major, if unoriginal, oratorio, and I am grateful to him for the look he provides at the full libretto. The world, we learn from The Greening of America, was once a verdant bower in which men and women could be truly whole and truly human. Something corrupted it utterly, and in the fall people lost their previous sense of wholeness, not to speak of their natural humanity. Miraculously, however, a savior has now appeared who will drive out the corruption and restore the world to a state of primeval verdure.
With this simple scheme in mind, it was relatively easy for me at last to understand why the young Hawaiian undergraduate found the riots “beautiful”; not, let us recall, “politically promising” or a significant portent of social change The riots derived their aesthetic quality from the fact that they suggested the beginning of a return to a world of “natural” behavior, in which everyone would throw off the bonds of legal inhumanity. My colleague who identified college students as an oppressed minority could be understood only in the recognition that they were the saviors of the world; since the world had not yet recognized them in this role, and was, indeed, refusing to let them play it without opposition, non-recognition itself constituted a form of oppression. Finally, of course, the young Councilman who demanded that my part-time Board investigate the income of each of 30,000 individual apartment-hotel tenants before setting the rents needed for the hotels to pay their expenses, was promising me that the corrupt society which I clearly represented would soon be replaced by a saved government capable of taking a holistic view of every individual person involved in each and every case of decision.
In literal terms, Reich’s argument is directed toward the present inadequacies of American life: the continuance of the war in Vietnam; the swift erosion of the natural qualities of the environment; the apparent tension, un-happiness, and uncertainty in American homes; the cheapness and vulgarity of so many American products, from television commercials to new buildings. Reich ascribes these shortcomings to the actions of what he describes as a “corporate state” in which technology has superseded sensibility. The corporate society came about because the simple, rather wholesome frame of mind in which Americans happily settled this continent proved inadequate to the process of industrialization. This original frame of mind Reich calls “Consciousness I.” The process of industrialization made necessary a new socially-oriented frame of mind, at first intended to control the inequities of industrialization. Reich calls this frame of mind “Consciousness II.” Instead of controlling industrialization, however, Consciousness II succumbed to it, utterly corrupting the human condition. But all is not yet lost, for the present generation of young people in America exemplify an entirely new and entirely healthy state of mind—“Consciousness III”—which will, without resort to law or administration or the other corruptive devices introduced by the possessors of Consciousness II, set things right again.
If by nature man is, as Reich tells us, whole and good, needing no controls on his behavior outside the dictates of his own desires, how did he become corrupted? Reich, eschewing such familiar symbolic answers to this question as the serpent, draws on the by now equally familiar idea that it was the introduction of high technology which brought about the fall of mankind, or at least the fraction of it which lives in the United States of America. This has the look of history rather than of myth or religion, and one can therefore fairly subject it to the test of observation. When, then, did high technology arrive and begin its destructive work? To this simple question Reich has no very clear answer. It is hard, he acknowledges, “to say exactly when” our society assumed its fallen shape. “The major symptoms of change started appearing after the Second World War and especially in the Nineteen Fifties. The expenditure of a trillion dollars for defense, the destruction of the environment, the production of unneeded goods—these were not merely extensions of the familiar blunders and corruption of America’s past; they were of a different order of magnitude.”
These sentences would seem to mark the beginning of the fall as practically coextensive with the Eisenhower administration (1952-60). The mention of the spending of a trillion dollars for defense, however, introduces a certain ambiguity for those old enough to remember John F. Kennedy’s campaign for the Presidency in 1960. One of Kennedy’s most persistent criticisms of his predecessor was that Eisenhower had permitted a missile gap to grow between the U.S. and Russia—i.e., that the nation was spending too little on armaments and had been allowed to stop moving, a rather vague statement which Keynesian economists like Robert Lekachman explain as meaning that the money supply had not expanded fast enough to provide full employment.
But other passages in The Greening of America seem to put the fall earlier. Thus, shortly after mentioning the trillion dollars for defense, Reich inveighs against the United States government’s shipbuilding subsidies which, he claims, differ from the local public services provided in 1776 in “principle as well as degree.” If we were to take this statement at face value, we would have to conclude that the fall from grace occurred in the year 1936, when the shipbuilding fiscal subsidies were enacted. But perhaps Reich means the early days of the Republic when Congress limited seaborne domestic interstate commerce to American-built bottoms.2 Yet some paragraphs later, he changes dates once again by telling us that the industrial mergers of post-Civil-War America “resulted in gradual destruction of the free market and . . . a conquest of the American nation.” (Can this be the same competitive market system which elsewhere he execrates?) He adds that the American people who had fled the monarchies of Europe now found themselves conquered by a new set of tyrants. These, of course, were the “robber barons” whose responsibility for the inhumanity of the period of capital accumulation in American industry has become standard background information for every high-school student in the country. Reich, however, who ascribes to these men the unusually greedy state of mind which he calls Consciousness I, excuses them from final responsibility for the American downfall. Rather it was the triumph of “organization, efficiency, technology, planning—the forces of modern rationalism and scientific management.” That is, Consciousness II.
Reich’s description of what America was like before the fall is as imprecise and contradictory as his fixing of the date when everything changed for the worse. There is, he says in another connection, “a quality of wilful ignorance in American life” which protects majority-group Americans from knowing about the problems faced by black Americans and from being sensitive to the problems of “the world.” Reich’s own description of the American Eden certainly proves that he himself shares in the general in-sensitivity. The account begins with the statement that “the American people of 1789 were promised that each individual would be a free man, each having the right to seek his own happiness; a republican form of government in which the people would be sovereign; and no arbitrary power of people’s lives.” This passage seems to confuse the Declaration of Independence (1776) with the Constitution (ratified finally in 1789). Although the people through their representatives accepted the Constitution establishing a new national government to “insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare,” Reich believes that in the early days of the nation “each newly sovereign individual could be the source of his own achievement and fulfilment.” Actually, of course, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, a large number of Americans were held in slavery, their freedom to be won only through a bloody and brutal war.
In fact, the Constitution of the United States was not originally intended as a guarantee of freedom—the guarantees were added by the first ten amendments—but as an administrative charter setting forth how this unprecedented government was to function, to deal with the problems of its citizens, and to provide an authority capable of meeting the challenges of a hard life—capable, to repeat the document’s own words, of promoting the general welfare. While it is currently fashionable to imagine this pre-industrial world of the European settler in America as idyllic (“There was no separation between work and living,” says Reich. “Ties to the community were strong and were seldom severed; each man lived within a circle that depended on action by him, that began before him, and that lasted beyond him”), its dissatisfactions were great, its dangers frightening, its class consciousness severe, the sense of powerlessness of its inhabitants in the face of natural disaster and human holocaust very serious indeed, and its involvement with the political and economic events of Europe so intricate that American lives were lost in every major European war from the beginning of the 18th century onward. Although it is surely true that in America, as in any other nation during the period of its capital formation, vast industrial fortunes were built through the conscienceless exploitation of workmen and natural resources, it is hardly sufficient to ascribe this to the triumph of the mindless machine that placed man “under the rule of laws that were not human.” The impulses to industrialization came, inter alia, from the demand for a higher standard of living on the part of men and women generally; from the increase in population caused by the beginning of sanitary science; from the demand by workers for a more equitable share of the products; from the clear dangers of population concentration in pre-industrial structures served by pre-industrial transportation of water, waste, food, and other necessities of life. As late as 1850 the life expectancy of the average American (at least in sedate Massachusetts) was not even forty years.
It is also a fact that the early American population was grossly wasteful of its natural assets; possibly far more wasteful, per capita, than the present population. As early as the 17th century, the Collect Pond in Lower Manhattan was noxiously polluted, and ultimately it had to be filled in to abate its nuisance. A description of how the 18th-century farmers in the Connecticut Valley harvested Atlantic salmon to fertilize their fields will still trouble the squeamish. And, to skip a hundred years or so, it is another fact that a typical New York household ingested more carbon monoxide per annum in the mid-19th century than it does today: the inefficient coal burners that heated New York’s homes produced more of this gas than do the present automobiles. Surely it is true that the small population limited the impact of humanity upon the natural environment; but it is also true that the lack of adequate technology forced the population westward to avoid the effects of its own wastefulness. This migration was as much a part of the original American state of grace as the flocks of passenger pigeons that darkened the sky, and the herds of bison that covered the plains.
The second underlying proposition in The Greening of America sets forth that America has become a “corporate state.” The corporate state, in Reich’s view, proceeds on the theory (which he labels Consciousness II) that men are weak, if not base; and that social controls are necessary in order to prevent them from damaging themselves and their environment. Reich tells us that this suspicious view of human nature is repressive, and that a common taste for repression unites the controllers and the controlled within the corporate state. Having come into being to repress, this state goes on to establish its own technical schemes which stimulate hungers in people that are inessential to life, and then stuffs them with foods that do not even adequately satisfy the artificially-created appetites. When such activity begins to pall, and fails to keep everyone busy enough, the state resorts to war. The Vietnam war, according to Reich, was provoked not by mistakes in American foreign policy, nor by an urge to dominate Far Eastern markets, nor to abort the colonial revolt of North Vietnam; it came about just because the American state is a corporate state, and must therefore behave madly. In a discussion of political action, the charge of corporate insanity is as useless as the explanation often proffered by the Germans for their acceptance of Hitler: we were all hypnotized. The listener bulges with questions. Why were you hypnotized in 1933? Why hypnotized by Hitler, and not by Gustav Stresemann? Are you susceptible of being hypnotized again? When and by whom, and why not this morning? And so one wants to demand of Reich, that if madness produced the present war, why a war in Vietnam? Why not a war in the Middle East? Why are the Koreans fighting with us in Vietnam? Are they a mad corporate state too? Why isn’t Russia fighting in Vietnam? Isn’t Russia a corporate state? And so on.
Much of Reich’s account of the corporate state in the throes of Consciousness II reads like the description of a foreign country by someone who has studied road maps but has never actually been there. Thus Reich, like many other commentators on man’s present political condition, indicts the corporate state because of the many powers that have been produced in the modern world, powers to affect the way in which men and women are able to live. His catalogue of these powers is not intended to be all-inclusive, and it omits what is certainly the most frightening power of all—the power to start a war using nuclear weapons—but it is instructive by virtue of its very selectivity.
Many of the powers he attributes to the corporate state are almost coeval with human history, like the power to change the culture of a foreign country. About others he can be both coy and inaccurate. Someone in America, for example, now has the “power,” says Reich, to give away only certain magazines on airplanes. I used to be afraid that I wouldn’t be allowed to read unpopular magazines; Reich complains that American Airlines doesn’t give him the magazines he wants to read. Be that as it may, the example does not prove that cultural homogenization is upon us in America. In many respects, as Daniel Bell and others point out, America is less homogeneous in taste than it was thirty years ago, and much of the homogeneity now being imposed derives from the very counter-culture of which Reich is a part and which, if his version of things were correct, could not exist. It is not the little dissenting magazine which has disappeared from the newsstand, as once generally predicted, but rather the Saturday Evening Post. Thirty years ago, New York City had many more daily newspapers than today; today, however, it has many more weekly newspapers which, in the name of radical, sexual, political, and aesthetic dissent offer a homogenized opposition to the corporate state. The bigness which terrified in prospect has turned out to be weak as well as strong; and those who told us some years ago that in 1970 we would be prevented from voicing dissent are now claiming instead that they are being repressed, not because they cannot speak, but because their fellow citizens do not follow.
For those who are interested in sandwiches, not magazines, Reich also denounces the alleged power to ordain that natural peanut butter shall not be manufactured, forcing the reluctant to eat hydrogenated peanut oil, or the chunky style peanut butter whose fragments intrude between your teeth instead of clinging to the roof of your mouth. (Someone may indeed have the power to prevent the manufacture of the old-fashioned peanut butter—whose oil separated out, leaving a scarcely swallowable precipitate in the bottom of the jar—but whoever he may be, he is not exercising it. The health-food store in my building carries natural peanut butter under three different brand names.)
Reich does not suggest, anywhere, that the highly technologized society possesses new powers that are in fact wholly beneficent. There is, for instance, the power to provide vaccine against epidemics in distant countries at a moment’s notice; the power to provide medical help and food for the victims of an earthquake; the power to reduce infant mortality; the power to save the lives of victims of heart attacks. And still more troubling is Reich’s unwillingness to deal with the new powers which may be either good or evil—the ability to control conception with a pill, or to terminate pregnancy at will. If good, they may offer men and women freedom which their ancestors sought in vain; if bad, they may reduce human relationships to a barren level. Should one rejoice or tremble in the light of these new powers? Not surprisingly, Reich, whose work bears no trace of ambiguity or irony, doesn’t say. To him this country can simply and unambiguously be described as “a society which is unjust to its poor and its minorities, is run for the benefit of a privileged few, lacks its proclaimed democracy and liberty, is ugly and artificial, destroys the environment and the self, and is, like the war it spawns, ‘unhealthy for children and other living things.’”
What are we to make of so sweeping an indictment? Confining myself to the single subject of housing the poor, with which I am daily familiar, I find the statement almost no help at all in explaining what the problems are, or in suggesting what might be done about them.
If Reich believes that democracy and liberty are lacking in the housing market, and that, therefore, most Americans demand something different, I wish he would step forward and tell me what it is they demand. We who are involved in housing are stumped by the refusal of the great majority of Americans, democratically expressing their will, to spend public funds on housing. In 1965, when the voters of New York State had an opportunity to voice an opinion on the use of public funds for housing, a plurality of well over one million rejected the proposition. Is it democratic to overrule these wishes? Is liberty served when the central government overrides the opposition of a local government to build housing for rich or poor, black or white? Such are the practical questions that face administrators in the “corporate state.”
I wish also that Reich would identify for me the “privileged few” for whose benefit present housing policy is set. Life was simple in the days when we believed (at that time, perhaps correctly) that wicked landlords held back the public-housing program in order to sustain and magnify their profits. But among the “privileged few” who have more recently opposed housing projects in New York City I could include the following: myself, on the ground that specific projects could not, in the locations proposed, provide decent housing; resident poor people, on the ground that several hundred of their apartments would be destroyed to make room for two-thousand new low-rent units; local shopkeepers, who claimed that a particular project would drive them out of business; the PTA officials of a local public school, who claimed that the children from the unbuilt housing would overcrowd the classrooms; white (and black) single-family home-owners who claimed that low-income neighbors would depress the value of their property; local so-called community leaders, who claimed that (a) the housing would destroy a low-income neighborhood that had liveliness, variety, and human scale (as well as rats, faulty plumbing, disappearing landlords, and too many fatal fires), or (b) that they did not want a low-income enclave which would amount to something they somewhat loosely call a “ghetto,” although they gave very little advice as to how non-poor families could be persuaded (i.e., forced) to move into the area, or (c) that housing developments are run bureaucratically (with relative efficiency as compared with most tenements), robbing people of their dignity and independence.
Since Reich levels many of these same criticisms, he himself must be one of the “privileged few” who are determining that we shall not have a housing policy adequate to provide decent homes for the poor and the minorities. Of what use or interest, then, is his description of the treatment of the poor and the minorities as “unjust”? I suspect that much of our present social unrest springs precisely from the shifting definition of what is unjust. To avoid treating the minorities unjustly in the traditional sense, it is necessary merely to agree to admit non-white workers, tenants, and students to jobs, housing, or universities if they rank equally with whites in skills, income, or examination grades. Yet this surely falls short of the measures Reich would advocate for the establishment of racial harmony or even of racial peace. The measures he would no doubt advocate—lower admission standards for non-white students, special rent subsidies in some cases to promote “integration,” and minimum quotas for non-white workers—may be valuable, and even necessary. But they are not defined by a simple call for the end of injustice. They can be determined only after painstaking study in the midst of conflict, and they may well be stigmatized by other citizens as themselves “unjust” in a perfectly legitimate sense of that word.
The point is that something other than justice may be necessary to bring an unjustly delayed equality to black and other minority Americans. Moreover, the achievement of practical equality depends not on more liberty, as Reich seems to say, but on less, including perhaps less liberty for those who would impede the black man’s orderly progress, and less liberty for those who would infringe other people’s rights to listen to patient discussions of the complex nature of modern problems and their historical antecedents. If this sounds like a plea for Consciousness II—the acceptance of social responsibility and social constraints intellectually analyzed in a crowded world—so be it.
Even so, if the measure Reich himself gives us—treatment of the poor and the minorities—is an index of corruption, America, the so-called corporate state, must rank as less corrupt than other nations hardly brushed by industrialization, including India with untouchables and Burma, whose resident Indians live in filthy little ghettos on the outskirts of the villages.
At one point in The Greening of America, Reich seeks to widen the basis of Marxism so that the Marxian class struggle can, as though metaphorically, be extended to include the struggle in terms of which Reich comprehends the present situation. Marx saw the last stage of capitalism as a struggle between the industrial proletariat and the bourgeoisie; so, Reich suggests, the present period can be understood as a struggle between men and women on the one side and the machines of the technological corporate state on the other. The champion of the men and women in this case are the young, together with a few added starters, who, like the young, have attained to Consciousness III. The possessor of Consciousnes III can be recognized from the clothes he wears at work and the clothes he wears at play; he accepts no differences in rank or position, owing no one respect, nor having the right to hold anyone in contempt; he is prepared to dedicate his body totally as a measure of his personal responsibility. Everything he does is of a piece.
Reich cites a splendid example of this type of all-inclusive commitment: the refusal of the athletes of eight college teams to participate in the heptagonal track meet at Yale in 1970, until one of their number had read a public statement attacking the “invasion of Cambodia, the persecution of the Black Panthers, and other issues.” He imagines, Reich tells us, that the alumni must have been displeased by this “intrusion of reality” onto the playing fields of Yale. I am, as it happens, a Yale alumnus, and must confess myself not displeased but startled by the belief in magic which seems to persist in undergraduate circles and which has now penetrated into the faculty. In my day, the rhythmic chanting of a chorus from Aristophanes was deemed to inspire the muscles of the football team. Now, apparently, moral miracles are believed to result from the recital of a list of political concerns. Is this a demonstration of personal responsibility? Is it suggested that every member of each of the participating teams freely reached an identical view? As a historical event it seems to me not only as frivolous as the pledges never to bear arms which my contemporaries and I were busy circulating in the mid-1930’s, but as meaningless as the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” before every baseball game.
To Reich, the appearance of such young people is a miracle—they are flowers which have grown in and through the concrete—and indeed if the corporate state were as homogeneous and as powerful as he says, nothing less than a miracle would be able to explain the emergence of an opposing force from within its very heart. For my part, sharing neither of his preconceptions about the state or about the young, I do not find the youth of present-day America so mysterious. I suggest that they are the products of a new form of deprivation and a new type of neglect. They have been deprived, all too often, of the very real pleasure of battling against parents and teachers who do not accept them, still unformed and uninstructed, as the only hope of the world. And in failing to provide the resistance of superior knowledge against which the young might push and test their strength, their parents and teachers have neglected them, leaving them in the natural order of things to search for or engender resistance—real resistance, sometimes bitter, sometimes ugly—elsewhere. This has been enormously complicated by the Vietnam war, which, even if someone could ultimately justify its horrors after a revisionist calculation of alternatives, appears wholly unnecessary to many of those who have been asked to fight, die, or be mutilated in it.
I see nothing miraculous, then, in the arrival on the American scene of a generation of young people without respect for rank and stature, exceedingly cheerful in their day-to-day affairs, free of long-held inhibitions about the use of drugs, rather contemptuous of those who should have been providing them with an opposition that would have made their youthful exuberance part of a process of maturation. I can see that they would believe that the acquisition of knowledge and technique is unnecessary, even moldy. And I can see that they would believe—having been brought up generally in the notion that restrictions on conduct are destructive of the self—that total liberation and psychic unity are the tools through which health is restored to the state.
I can also see that a teacher like Reich, comparing his theory metaphorically to the class struggle, would follow Marx in not bothering to work out the details of the paradise that the overthrow of the fallen world will usher in. Marx told us that the machinery of the state would disappear once the workers owned the means of production; but there the machinery is, bigger than ever. Reich tells us that when Consciousness III takes over the world, all men will be free. It is fascinating that even after all of us have seen the future, so many people seem to believe him, including J. K. Galbraith who has praised Reich for succeeding in saying what he, Galbraith, has only been trying to say. If this is true, Galbraith either has not tried very hard, or I must be a very poor reader. I had thought that The Affluent Society was a stunning example of Consciousness II, which Reich characterizes as the wrong sort of thinking altogether. And it seems to me that the selective price and wage controls Galbraith has recently been talking about are just the sort of sticky legalistic control device by which in Reich’s cosmogony nasty autocratic liberal types impose their notions on others.
Perhaps, when he complained in The Affluent Society that too small a part of the Gross National Product was being spent in the public sector, Galbraith meant that the proportion was to be changed by some internal shift of consciousness in tune with the rock music which Reich thinks is the major cultural contribution of the current period. Perhaps. But my impression is that Galbraith hoped to bring about this change in the corporate state through the “system”—i.e., the political system as most particularly embodied in the Left wing of the Democratic party. This is not what Reich “succeeds” in saying; he tells us that once you have reached the level of Consciousness III you write off the political system as a means of significant change. You also write off violence as a means of change. You depend on yourself to change things—which seems to me almost as often a promise of change for the worse as for the better.
Both Galbraith and Reich dislike advertising, a reaction which Galbraith may consider to be more of a fraternal handclasp than I do. I find that dislike of advertising is widespread among us Consciousness II people, but I bolster myself with faith in the complexities of all forms of consciousness. I believe that men and women can laugh with television commercials without rushing to buy the products sponsoring them; can refuse to develop appetites for products even when they are cleverly advertised; and that running a successful enterprise, whether industrial, governmental, or revolutionary, involves difficulties which are not overcome by consciousness, but by talent, knowledge, judgment, and luck.
What then is it about The Greening of America that has captured the imagination of so many people? To ask the question conjures up a view of today’s America, a land doubtful of its destiny, as singleminded now in deprecating its achievements and its liberties as it was not long ago in chanting its own praises. The characteristic American poet of the day is Walt Whitman standing on his head, singing immoderately, O Manhattan, of the desecration of the environment, of death in Vietnam, of the maltreatment of the blacks. The music produced in this position makes the nation all the more uncomfortable for its upright elders, thus widening the gap between the agents of Consciousness III and the rest of the population, and hardening the very conditions of which the singer complains. In the end, those still caught in Consciousness II find themselves turning over Eldridge Cleaver’s by now too-often-quoted words to describe their tormentors in Consciousness III: if you are absolutely convinced you are part of the solution, then you probably are part of the problem.
The war in Vietnam, as we are told by our intuitions no less than by the public-opinion polls. comprises only one of the present causes of the American malaise. There is the drug matter; the constant mutter of violence; the reappearance in public dress, let us admit it, of the old-line Stalinists who for years had been indistinguishable from our other friends; the pictures in the windows of 42nd Street, provoking in many of us the feeling that despite everything we have ever believed, there is something to be said for censors, even as there has been something to be said for undertakers. This constantly accelerating buzz of irritants and the constant ambiguity of judgment as to which is worse, which promises less, the particular problem or the particular cure, impel us together to accept a single explanation that unifies all complaints, that establishes a polar right and a polar wrong, and that, if it does not put Walt Whitman back up on his feet, at least tips us too in his direction.
But these remarks would apply to any systematic explanation of the state of the American world; one must ask why Charles A. Reich’s explanation has appeared particularly satisfying. I suggest that it is because his view seems to heal the breaches that are most troublesome. In promising that the young people about whom we worry so much will turn out to be not drug addicts, nor mendicants, nor undereducated, overpowered motorcycle maniacs, but on the contrary the saviors of the world, he absolves the elders from the nagging sense that they are guilty for having raised their children badly, either through having set a bad example, or for having imposed insufficient discipline, or through being what it has become fashionable to call hypocritical (an offense which sometimes consists merely in the admission that men are a bundle of conflicting and sometimes contradictory impulses). And, of course, it simultaneously absolves the young of any responsibility for certain of the consequences of their behavior. Reich tells us that the good people of Connecticut fell in love with the young who came to attend the banned rock festival at Powder Ridge; he neglects to mention that 985 of them had to seek emergency treatment for hallucinogen after-effects, and that one young man was alleged by the State Police to have grossed $13,000 in drug sales during the festival.
The special attractions that are provided by Reich in lodging salvation in consciousness include the assertion that joyfulness is blessedness: you are joyful because you are blessed; you are blessed because you are joyful. I do not quarrel with the ascription of happiness to the consciousness which will save the world; I am dubious only of our ability to distinguish a genuine Messiah by the quantity of self-satisfaction produced in him by his exaltation. The solemnity with which Reich discusses the clothes of those who have achieved the stamp of Consciousness III also echoes religious history, as well as youth movements which sprang up in the past with a similar reliance on distinction of dress to mark a distinction of thought. (Writing in these pages last year, Walter Laqueur3 had much to say on this point.)
Certainly there was never a revolutionary movement which made fewer hard demands on its partisans than this revolution of consciousness—and this too may help to account for its great attraction. I do not mean that some young people have not suffered terrible anguish in the past few years at the hands of their elders or of the nation as a whole; nor do I mean to condone random acts of foolishness and brutality by police and other authorities, or the harshness of sentences for draft evasion; and, without supporting the legalization of hallucinogens, I agree that prison terms meted out for possession of marijuana have sometimes been outrageously unjust. I do mean that these hardships and outrages were not intrinsically incurred because the victims had achieved Consciousness III. During World War II, before Consciousness III ever flickered in Reich’s heart, young Americans—defying not only their elders but the overwhelming majority of their scornful contemporaries—refused service, even non-combatant service, and underwent imprisonment or, sometimes, became fugitives, and suffered deeply. They suffered from the social, political, or religious conscience that was part of Consciousness II. So, presumably, do those who now undergo similar hardships in refusing to participate in a war they detest. Surely they are acting in line with Reich’s own definition of Consciousness II, not with Consciousness III.
But for all his talk of Consciousness III as wholeness of being, Reich consistently implies that Consciousness III is really a matter of the political opinions one holds. One can, it seems, attain to Consciousness III simply by agreeing with him, for example, that the Federal Power Commission took a fractional view of man when it granted Con Edison a license, for the second time, to build a water storage pumping-and-generator station on the Hudson River in-and-through Storm King Mountain. So that my own view may be fairly appraised, I wish to make it clear that I do not agree with him on this subject, seeing no possibility of cutting down the use of electric power by my fellow citizens without inflicting hardship on them. Even Reich himself complains about power breakdowns, which are particularly annoying when you are riding in the subway or playing “Rockin’ Chair” on an electric guitar. Reich seems to me to suggest that those who have penetrated to Consciousness III should solve the power problem by making love, not war, on the electric generators. This is certainly a great deal easier than mastering the complexities of electrical engineering, wildlife biology, and resource evaluation, and weighing with some accuracy the true comparable destructiveness of generating power.
The deepest fear of all wealthy revolutionists of the past—that someone would challenge them on the barricades to prove their bona fides by a demonstration of their calluses—has been entirely overcome by the approach adopted by Reich: a turtleneck sweater and bell-bottom jeans will serve today as well as a workingman’s hands in the past. And if consciousness is the issue, one need not worry about the contradiction involved in talking happily about destroying the Establishment even while one thrives on it: destroying the Establishment is, in Reich’s summary, primarily a state of mind. One can damn the industrial order without so much as a pang of guilt over having more than one’s share of the material benefits such an order confers. Wealthy or not, material benefits or not, one is oneself a victim of this order. (Tom Wolfe in “Radical Chic” casts much light on this affinity between the rich and the famous and the New Left embodiment of Consciousness III.)
Simple explanations work best when they sound complicated and the reader is surprised finally that he gets the point. The ultimate appeal of Reich’s oratorio is that it reduces all unhappiness to a single cause, but does this with a special vocabulary that sounds as scientific to the unwary as the works of astrology. Reich decries a “corporate state” without defining it; he gives no hint as to how it might be avoided or ended. He has absolved us from studying law and administration, the methods of control which men have found helpful in the past. In effect, he is suggesting that control be placed directly in the hands of those best equipped by nature to exercise it: those who enjoy the consciousness that “everybody” enjoys. One surmises that by “everybody” he means everybody who has the same background as his own (Reich informed a New York Times reporter that he went to an Eastern prep school, an Ivy League university, and an Ivy League law school “just like everyone else”). While Reich probably means to decry snobbish distinctions of rank when he tells us that the liberated college students who have attained Consciousness III do not treat full professors with respect, what he actually tells us is something quite different: he is telling us that rank cannot be attained by achievement, but only by birth and natural endowment.
In his sympathy for the natural elect, and his sense of their supreme consciousness, Reich clearly prefers the innocent, self-confident greed of Consciousness I to the pietistic Consciousness II, with its insistence on a social measure of value. Curiously, his romantic affection for the young melts into a romantic affection for heroes of the past; his faith in the heroic communicates to youth the message that they should sacrifice themselves for their mission, by refusing instruction, by refusing discipline, by cherishing their consciousness and all that romanticizes and colors it. In other words, like all other tales of fall and redemption, this one ends in the sacrifice of the hero.
The willingness of every generation to sacrifice its youth in war stains every page of history; the modern world is distinguished only because its wars are so much bigger and deadlier, and because its military leaders have given up the effort of convincing the conscript soldier that he is in for something other than a hard, dirty, boring, terrifying, and deadly experience. Even this bit of purification leaves us, the elders, as singleminded in our dedication of the young to our duty as Abraham on his way to Moriah; if our hand is stayed at the start of the sacrifice, intervention, not our mercy, has stayed it.
But the sacrifice of youth for the ends of their elders is not only found in the violence of war. The role Reich is calling on youth to play—an anti-intellectual leadership which must maintain its purity of consciousness—seems painlessly easy. It remains a sacrifice. Though a populous world cannot live without technology, Reich urges a generation of young to abandon this learning, perhaps even to abandon their lives in the pursuit of expanded consciousness. The sacrifice is no less tragic because it is made on the altar of joy, of fraternity between teachers and taught, not out of service or duty.
How, having by its new consciousness destroyed the corporate state, does the young generation create a better one? This is the bitter question that remains always in the embers after the sacrificial act is over. It is made all the more bitter for me by the photograph of a dead young woman—the name was Helena Szapiro, I believe—which I saw only a few weeks ago in the Museum of the City of Warsaw. She had been a pleasant blonde girl, wearing a dark suit and a round felt hat with a few wisps of hair straggling out at the bottom and over the forehead. In the photograph she is smiling. She looks straight at the camera. In the margin below the photograph are her dates: 1923-1943; below them, her false identity papers.
On the same wall hang other puny mementos of the Polish underground in World War II: newspapers mimeographed on tissue paper; photographs of disfigured German signs; homemade armbands from the 1944 insurrection. Ranged across the room stand mementos of the German occupation: proclamations of the permanent closing of universities and high schools; announcements of labor drafts; photographs of mass executions; a whiff of the chilling memory of executions in the streets, cellar tortures, midnight arrests, silence, betrayal. No William Kunstler was needed to tell the university students that they were being repressed: the evil of the times was unambiguous.
Yet the heroism of the Helena Szapiros alone did not bring the evil to an end. Without the help of the engineers and strategists, what would her sacrifice—in blind hope of a better world—have accomplished?
To make a better world in a time of great tragedy, one girl’s life was shattered; I merely happened to see her picture. But a bit of the same sense of waste rises in me at the thought that new millions of young men and women—appalled by a war they do not want and a social order that desperately needs their schooled enthusiasm—lured by men my age, wearing beads, might be gamboling down a trail that equally leads nowhere.
1 Random House, 399 pp., $7.95.
2 Although Reich can be read to suggest that the shipbuilding subsidies are not only a radical break with best American practice but a deviation from the practices of other nations, it might be pointed out that each of the following devices is in use to promote shipbuilding in nations throughout the world, though, of course, not all of the devices are in use in every nation: direct building and operating subsidies, mail subsidies, tax concessions, low-interest government or government-guaranteed loans, contributions to seamen's wages and pensions, special exemption from fees and other preferential treatment for national vessels or discrimination against foreign shipping, exchange and license controls, tariffs, quotas, reservation of certain trades and special navigation and other international treaties and agreements.
3 “Reflections on Youth Movements,” June 1969.