It is characteristic of this kind of movement that its aims and premises are boundless. A social struggle is seen not as a struggle for specific, limited objectives, but as an event of unique importance, different in kind from all other struggles known to history, a cataclysm from which the world is to emerge totally transformed and redeemed.
—Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium



… the consciousness of the liberals had proved inadequate to the task.
—Charles Reich, The Greening of America

By the time you read this, the mud of Woodstock ’94 will have been washed away, the sea of brand-name litter deposited by three hundred thousand weekend Corybants neatly disposed of, and the memories of Youth and Excess hardly more than a fading headache. And yet the fact of Woodstock ’94 remains, and it provides much food for thought. Who would have believed that even now, in the mid-1990s, a small city of people could be induced to spend $135 for a ticket entitling the holder to insinuate himself for hours into a traffic jam and then to camp out in a muddy field while off in the distance aging pop stars competed loudly with this year’s epigones for his attention?

Yes, it was easy to poke fun. One cartoon depicted a man on stage gazing out over an enormous crowd punctuated with tents advertising espresso and other yuppie comestibles: “People,” he warned, “there is some bad Chardonnay going around.” And although there were plenty of drug overdoses at Woodstock ’94, there is something ridiculous about a commemoration of the counter-culture that boasted cash machines, promotional tie-ins with Pepsi Cola, and a security force of twelve hundred.

The usual gloss on the event was that it represented an unfortunate “commercialization” of the original Woodstock: a beautiful idea besmirched by contact with the greedy 1980s—that dark time presided over by Ronald Reagan and his minions. One thing that this canard fails to acknowledge is that the promoters—who were the same for both events—tried just as hard to clean up on Woodstock ’69 as they did on the reprise. Only inexperience and bad planning prevented them from making the original celebration of peace and love a commercial triumph. Back in ’69, they hadn’t even thought of marketing Woodstock T-shirts. The reign of Häagen-Dazs ice cream and bottled water was in its infancy.

It was not only a matter of hypocrisy. There was also a large dollop of self-delusion: about the extent to which communal hedonism was the path to enlightenment, for example, as well as the extent to which narcissistic self-gratification was tantamount to existential daring. And yet the champions of the “myth” of Woodstock were right about one thing. The festival really did epitomize the longings, the moral temperature as it were, of a generation. There were the drugs and music and clothes, of course— the LSD, rock, and denim—but there were also the blasé, pre-AIDS promiscuity, the political posturing, the extraordinary combination of naïveté and self-righteousness. Above all, perhaps, there was the arrogant sense of entitlement that presupposed the very affluence and bourgeois economic largess that it pretended to reject. These were the defining elements of the original Woodstock. Its partisans were right in thinking that they added up to a cultural revolution, a “new sensibility” that would radically transform personal and institutional life.

It was this sensibility—the sensibility of the Sixties—that Woodstock ’94 was meant to commemorate in its orgy of nostalgia and regression to adolescence. And its success, both in itself and as a media event—as catnip for the public imagination—suggests the extent to which that sensibility has triumphed in our culture. In this sense, Woodstock ’94 was not so much an elegy for past glories as a reminder of how deeply the basic imperatives of that new sensibility have penetrated. If they no longer seem revolutionary, it is because they have been thoroughly assimilated and are now simply taken for granted: they are part of the air we breathe. But in the event those imperatives touched and profoundly altered everything from decorum and sexual morality to our understanding of liberal education, intellectual inquiry, the life of high art, and the prerogatives of popular culture. Taking the measure of America’s cultural revolution is a complex task. It involves dealing with figures as diverse as Norman Mailer, Paul Goodman, Susan Sontag, Allen Ginsberg, Eldridge Cleaver, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Robert Lowell; it requires that one look back at the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, the drug culture, the canonization of rock music, and the attack on “elitist” standards in art and intellectual life. No single figure or theme captures it all. But few figures better embody the ethos of Woodstock and the new sensibility than the sometime tenured Yale law professor turned guru of higher consciousness, Charles Reich. His book The Greening of America, published when he was forty-two, was both a paean to America’s cultural revolution and a blueprint for bringing it about.

The Greening of America long ago took its place beside incense, love beads, and bell bottoms as part of the stale, slightly comic cultural paraphernalia of the Sixties. Leafing through its nearly four hundred pages today, it is difficult to appreciate the enormous sensation the book created when it first appeared in the fall of 1970. Did the country suddenly go mad? Quoth Mr. Reich: “In the world that now exists, a life of surfing is possible”; “even businessmen, once liberated, would like to roll in the grass”; “all choices are the ‘right’ choice”; “Rationality does not like to blow its mind”; “an examination or test is a form of violence”; and, speaking of the “ultimate sign of reverence, vulnerability, and innocence” of the liberated youth consciousness that he celebrates: “‘Oh wow!’”

“‘Oh wow!’” Do not think that Mr. Reich sounds silly because he is quoted “out of context.” As Thomas Mallon observed in a look back at The Greening of America in The American Spectator a few years ago, Charles Reich is one author who actually benefits by being quoted out of context. And yet the late William Shawn, then the editor of The New Yorker, thought the book important enough to serialize in his magazine, thus reminding us that his publication of Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth in The New Yorker some years later was not simply a loopy aberration. The New Yorker was still a respectable magazine in 1970, and the appearance of The Greening of America in its pages in September gave the book tremendous advance publicity and cultural cachet. When it was published by Random House in October, it instantly became more than a best seller; it became a national preoccupation. The New York Times had just started its Op-Ed page in September 1970, under the editorship of Harrison Salisbury. That fall, Mr. Reich appeared not once but three times on the Op-Ed page with restatements of his argument. In short order, John Kenneth Galbraith, George F. Kennan, Herbert Marcuse, and Marya Mannes weighed in there with commentary on the book. This is in addition to the reviews and feature articles that the Times ran about the book. Everywhere one turned, The Greening of America was being discussed, praised, criticized, often in the most solemn terms.

It was an intoxicating draught for many commentators. Writing in The New Republic, Peter Caws suggested with a straight face that “the genuine strengths of the book are two: its history and its economics.” Just so we have our bearings, here is an example of Mr. Reich’s thinking about economics: “Since machines can produce enough food and shelter for all, why should not man end the antagonism derived from scarcity and base his society on love for his fellow man?”

Not that the responses to The Greening of America were uniformly admiring. Far from it. Many, maybe most, serious responses were critical. Roger Starr wrote a long and politely devastating anatomy of the book in Commentary. The poet L. E. Sissman wrote an even more polite criticism of the book in The Atlantic Monthly. Sissman remarked the curiosity that the first person singular pronoun never appeared in a book which asserted that “the individual self is the only true reality.” Who or what is the “we” that Mr. Reich decorously employs throughout his book? It is, Sissman concludes, “the communal we of ‘all the people of the dining hall’ whose help Reich acknowledges in a postscript, of all the confused and alienated young admirers Reich has become in his thoughts.” (Mr. Reich confides in that postscript that much of his book “was written in the Stiles-Morse dining halls at Yale.”) Perhaps the pithiest critical summary of the book was provided by Stewart Alsop, in Newsweek, who called the book “a bag of scary mush.”

Stewart Alsop was right. But it didn’t matter. None of the criticism mattered. One needn’t be a Hegelian or a follower of Oswald Spengler to recognize the existence, at times, of something like a Zeitgeist. Mr. Reich began work on what became The Greening of America in 1960 when he left his job at a high-powered Washington law firm to go to Yale. His career hitherto—beginning with his editorship of the Yale Law Review and clerkship for Justice Hugo Black —made him seem an unlikely candidate for the post of cheerleader for the cultural revolution. But by the time the book appeared a decade later, he had shed whatever lawyerly sobriety he once possessed and had become a veritable sounding board for the Zeitgeist, breathless-with-starry-eyes department. In an extraordinary passage at the beginning of The Greening of America, he furnishes us with prediction, manifesto, and credo all rolled into one:

There is a revolution coming. It will not be like revolutions of the past. It will originate with the individual and with culture, and it will change the political structure only as its final act. It will not require violence to succeed, and it cannot be successfully resisted by violence. It is now spreading with amazing rapidity, and already our laws, institutions, and social structure are changing in consequence. It promises a higher reason, a more human community, and a new and liberated individual. Its ultimate creation will be a new and enduring wholeness and beauty—a renewed relationship of man to himself, to other men, to society, to nature, and to the land.

This is the revolution of the new generation. Their protest and rebellion, their culture, clothes, music, drugs, ways of thought, and liberated life-style are not a passing fad or a form of dissent and refusal, nor are they in any sense irrational. The whole emerging pattern, from ideals to campus demonstrations to beads and bell bottoms to the Woodstock Festival, makes sense and is part of a consistent philosophy. It is both necessary and inevitable, and in time it will include not only youth, but all people in America.

It is difficult to say what is more remarkable about this testimonial: its fatuousness, or its accuracy. Whether or not the revolution Mr. Reich describes was “necessary and inevitable,” it certainly did occur, and largely along the lines he delineates. His only mistake was in misconstruing the results: for whatever America’s cultural revolution promised, it delivered not a “new and enduring wholeness and beauty” but a cultural and moral catastrophe whose consequences we are still reckoning.

As the manufacturers of successful patent medicines and miracle cures know, what matters is not the efficacy of the potion but the scope and vividness of the claims made on its behalf. The spiritual nostrum that Mr. Reich formulated consists essentially of two parts: 1.) an attack on contemporary life in America; and 2.) a utopian rhapsody about the emergence of a new, liberated consciousness. Neither part is distinguished by subtlety. “America,” Mr. Reich tells us, “is one vast terrifying anti-community.” The source of the problem is the American Corporate State (upper case, please!), that “vast apparatus, working unceasingly to create a false consciousness in people.” Consequently, “work and living have become more pointless and empty. For most Americans, work is mindless, exhausting, boring, servile, and hateful.” More succinctly, “the majority of adults in the country hate their work.” In Mr. Reich’s view, this is not really so surprising, since “beginning with school, if not before, an individual is systematically stripped of his imagination, his creativity, his heritage, his dreams, and his personal uniqueness, in order to style him into a productive unit for a mass, technological society. Instinct, feeling, and spontaneity are repressed by overwhelming forces.” Which presumably means that the instinctive, spontaneous revulsion one feels for writing such as this is merely an illusion.

In a chapters called “The Failure of Reform” and “Anatomy of the Corporate State,” Mr. Reich makes some stabs at explaining how we came to subsist in such dreadful spiritual torpor. He speaks of the failure of the New Deal, the insidious influence of advertising and the media, the rise of multinational corporations, and war, both the Cold and Vietnam varieties. There was nothing new in his diagnosis: scores of left-wing pundits had been decrying these and kindred evils at least since the end of World War II. But The Greening of America did stand out. This is partly because of the extremity of Mr. Reich’s indictment: “America is one vast terrifying anti-community,” etc. It is also because of his quasi-evolutionary model of “three general types of consciousness” that supposedly “predominate in America today.” In fact, although his discussion is laughably crude, it was with his typology of “Consciousness I,” “Consciousness II,” and “Consciousness III” that Mr. Reich made his most indelible impression upon readers. Some went into ecstasies over it; many others ridiculed it, quickly twisting Mr. Reich’s talk of “Con III people” into “Con-game,” “Con-manship,” and the like. Everybody remembered it.

According to Mr. Reich, Consciousness I originated in the nineteenth century. Its hallmarks are the rugged independence and pragmatism of laissez-faire capitalism. Its proponents believe “that success is determined by character, morality, and hard work, and self-denial.” Once upon a time, such homely virtues had their uses. No more, though. Today, Mr. Reich explains, “Consciousness I types” include “farmers, owners of small businesses … AMA-type doctors … gangsters, Republicans, and ‘just plain folks.’” But just as other Sixties radicals abominated the mainstream liberal establishment more than they hated any conservative orthodoxy, so Mr. Reich saves his bitterest words for the liberals who embody Consciousness II. He regards Consciousness I as a crude anachronism; as such it was no longer regarded as much of a threat.

Consciousness II, however, defines the prevailing reality—“the inhuman structure in which we now live,” viz the ACS—the American Corporate State. Although Consciousness II began in the (for Mr. Reich) laudable reforms of the New Deal, its progressive force spent itself long ago. Now it is typified in the mindset of “aircraft employees, old leftists, young doctors, Kennedy men, suburban housewives.” (Mr. Reich did have a talent for lists.) With its “ethic of control, of technology, of the rational intellect,” Consciousness II was the real enemy of liberation. It was the rational intellect, especially, that bothered him, because “when experience is classified or analyzed it is also reduced.” Never mind that some such “reduction” is required if experience is to be articulate, coherent, or publicly communicable: Mr. Reich wants his experience raw and unedited. Consciousness II, he explains, “has been persuaded that the richness, the satisfactions, the joy of life are to be found in power, success, status, acceptance, popularity, achievements, rewards, excellence, and the rational competent mind.” Well, that’s a start, you may say. But the problem is that Consciousness II “wants nothing to do with dread, awe, wonder, mystery, accidents, failure, helplessness, magic.”

Which brings us to the higher Con, Consciousness III. Introducing Consciousness III, Mr. Reich sounds at first like an epidemiologist. It began with “a few individuals” in the mid-1960s; it “sprouted up, astonishingly and miraculously, out of the stony soil of the American Corporate State”; no one foresaw its appearance, but it soon “spread, here and abroad, by means invisible.” Though it spread like the measles, Consciousness III is difficult to describe because, as Mr. Reich notes, the very attempt to say what it is draws on intellectual habits that Consciousness III rejects: “Authority, schedules, time, accepted customs, are all forms which must be questioned. Accepted patterns of thought must be broken; what is considered ‘rational thought’ must be opposed by ‘nonrational thought’—drug-thought, mysticism, impulses.”

Not entirely, though. Mr. Reich does allow that the “foundation” of Consciousness III is “liberation.” He adds that “the meaning of liberation is that the individual is free to build his own philosophy and values, his own life-style, and his own culture from a new beginning.” More generally, Consciousness III comes into being when an individual frees himself from the “false consciousness” that society imposes. People infused with the spirit of Consciousness III do “not believe in the antagonistic or competitive doctrine of life,” they “do not compete ‘in real life.’ … People are brothers, the world is ample for all…. No one judges anyone else.” Also, everyone rather likes himself: “Consciousness III says, ‘I’m glad I’m me.’”

If you are looking for a concrete example of what Mr. Reich had in mind when he praises this higher consciousness, think back to the American campus in 1970. “One of the few places to observe man partially free of the competition and antagonism that are the norms of our social system is in a college dining hall where many of the students are Consciousness III people.” Be that as it may, Mr. Reich was certainly correct to see the American university as one of the chief breeding grounds for the revolution he envisions. He speaks in this context of the “conversions” that are “constantly seen on campuses today”: “In a brief span of months, a student, seemingly conventional in every way, changes his haircut, his clothes, his habits, his interests, his political attitudes, his way of relating to other people, in short, his whole way of life.” Indeed.

One might have thought that the author of these millenarian sentiments must himself be a happy Consciousness III type, full of confidence, optimism, and sassy derring-do. Not a bit of it. In The Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef, an autobiography that he published in 1976, Mr. Reich reveals himself to have been a pathetic soul, paralyzed with nameless fears and unsatisfied longings. The ordinary tasks of daily life filled him with dread; normal human relations were completely beyond him. “The most constant presence in my life was fear and anxiety,” he wrote,

I would wake up in the morning and feel the need to clench my fists and clamp my teeth and squeeze my toes together, which sent tension all through my body as waves of fear and worry came over me. The particular things I worried about changed from day to day or hour to hour or week to week but that terrible feeling of dread remained with me almost all the time. I hated that feeling. It made me afraid of living. It made me not want to wake up, not want to go out, not want to come home, not want to go to sleep.

I worried about getting to work on time. I worried about my clothes and my appearance. A tiny slip in a brief I wrote might cause inconceivable disaster. I feared criticism or pressure from the senior partners. A business trip by plane filled me with worry about reservations and hotels and connections. And yet work was the last of my worries. It was in the rest of my life that I was most overwhelmed. I think I feared most the discovery and exposure of my secrets. All of my sexual feelings were repressed into an intense fantasy world that filled me with unsatisfied desire.

The Greening of America is in part a paean to sexual liberation and polymorphous sensuality. Isn’t it beautiful? “What the new generation has already achieved is a way of being with other people that is closer, warmer, more open, more sensitive, more capable of sharing, than prior generations have known.” In The Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef, Reich tells us that in December 1971 he left Yale for a six-month leave of absence and went to San Francisco. There he responded to an ad placed by a male model, and for $35 the prophet of Consciousness III and “closer, warmer, more open, more sensitive” relationships had his first sexual experience at the age of forty-three.

Mr. Reich’s autobiographical revelations tell us something important about the psychological origins of his profound dissatisfaction with America and his fantasies of inhabiting a “higher,” trouble-free consciousness. What they don’t explain is why this personal diatribe against the world should have struck such a sympathetic chord. Perhaps many other people felt similar frustrations, though Mr. Reich surely presents an extreme case. From the perspective of the 1990s, what is most extraordinary about The Greening of America is the extent to which its complaints, its modes of thought, and its ideals summarized the radical agenda of America’s cultural revolution. Mr. Reich’s insistence that utopia was to be won through “a higher, transcendent reason,” not politics per se, distinguishes his project from the violent activist crusades of the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, and other such groups. But apart from this, The Greening of America offered an impressive inventory of radical concerns and shibboleths, most of which are still very much in circulation. At the center of Mr. Reich’s gospel is an indictment of rationality coupled with a profound craving for extra-rational modes of experience. His celebration of drugs—“one of the most important means for restoring dulled consciousness”—has to be understood in this context, as do his hosannas to polymorphous sexuality and rock music. According to Mr. Reich, rock music possesses “a complexity unknown to classical music”; it offers “the mystical transcendence of ordinary experience.” In comparison to rock, “Beethoven seems like a series of parallel lines.” Without drugs and rock music, Woodstock and the sensibility it celebrated would have been impossible. Allan Bloom was quite right when he observed, in The Closing of the American Mind, that “nothing is more singular about this generation than its addiction to music.” “Rock music,” Bloom wrote, “provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied.” What rock offers is a prefabricated Dionysian ecstasy, blatantly sexual, conspicuously non-rational.

The rejection of rationality has many advantages. For one thing, it relieves Mr. Reich of the burden of producing evidence for his pronunciamentos—e.g., the claim that “the majority of adults in the country hate their work.” Reasons, evidence, arguments: what are they but stodgy appurtenances of the rational intellect? Transcending rationality also allows one to stop worrying about details like contradiction and consistency. Mr. Reich’s classification of people as belonging to one of three types of consciousness is the crudest, most patronizing sort of stereotyping imaginable. And yet in the midst of excoriating “farmers, owners of small businesses,” et al., he tells us that Consciousness III refuses “to evaluate people by general standards, it refuses to classify people, or analyze them.” Of course, it is not that Mr. Reich wishes to stop classifying or evaluating people; by no means; he wishes only to classify and evaluate them according to the essentially subjective standard of “life-style.” We see something similar in his rejection of “the whole concept of excellence and comparative merit.” Mr. Reich goes pretty far, far enough to suggest that he might have a bright future in a politically correct college administration or, indeed, in a Washington administration. “Someone may be a brilliant thinker,” he says, “but he is not ‘better’ at thinking than anyone else, he simply possesses his own excellence. A person who thinks very poorly is still excellent in his own way.” And yet here, too, it is clear that Mr. Reich is “non-judgmental” in a very selective way. To take just one example: reflecting on traditional morality, Mr. Reich assures us that “to observe duties toward others, after the feelings are gone, is no virtue and may even be a crime.” “Crime” is a troubling word, surely, especially when used by a lawyer who believes that “there is no situation in which one is entitled to act impersonally … with another human being.”

Mr. Reich did make a few gestures toward common sense. But they were only gestures. For example, he told us that the “basic stance” of Consciousness III is “openness to any and all experience.” Only later did it occur to him that this might have unpleasant implications. So he hastened to assure us that a “Consciousness III person” will not “engage in actions that violate his basic values; he will never kill or rape to try the experience.” One is glad to know that, of course; but why not? If one’s “basic stance” is openness to “any and all experience,” who’s to say that rape and murder are not among one’s “basic values,” especially as values are something Mr. Reich insisted each individual must “create” for himself?

With the passage of time, the mushiness of Mr. Reich’s diagnosis has become clear. What makes the mush scary, as Stewart Alsop discerned, is Mr. Reich’s moralistic pretension to special virtue and a knowledge that transcends “mere” facts. It is here that he is in perfect continuity with today’s champions of political correctness. (One inevitably thinks of that other graduate of the Yale Law School who has been championing the “politics of meaning” lately.) Again and again we have seen how the demand for total freedom has paradoxically resulted in greater and greater restrictions on freedom. What began in license ends in ever increasing regulation. “Consciousness III people,” Mr. Reich tells us, “see effortlessly what is phony or dishonest in politics, or what is ugly or meretricious in architecture and city planning, whereas an older person has to go through years of education [or perhaps we should say ‘re-education’] to make himself equally aware.” Simply by virtue of having the right attitude, of adopting the correct “life-style,” Mr. Reich’s apostle of Consciousness III is vouchsafed a “new knowledge”: “He does not ‘know’ the facts, but he still ‘knows’ the truth that seems hidden from others.” The hubris of such claims is a familiar ingredient of millenarial enthusiasms. The historian Norman Cohn noted that “at the core” of certain medieval millenarial sects was the adept’s belief that “he had attained a perfection so absolute that he was incapable of sin. … Every impulse was experienced as a divine command.” Cohn also noted that, translated into political terms, the presumption of such “new knowledge” is a recipe for totalitarian arrogance. As Hannah Arendt observed in The Origins of Totalitarianism, it is closely related to “totalitarian movements’ spurious claims to have abolished the separation between public and private life and to have restored a mysterious wholeness in man.” Charles Reich assured us that “the consciousness of the liberals had proved inadequate to the task” of restoring the lost wholeness he sought. Unfortunately, the cultural revolution that he greeted with such fanfare substituted the nihilistic moralism of self-indulgence for the considered strictures of bourgeois liberalism. We have yet to recover.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 1, on page 12
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
newcriterion.com/issues/1994/9/charles-reich-americas-cultural-revolution

Popular Right Now