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Charles A. Reich’s The Greening of America
by Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr. & Allan Carlson
Some biblical translations footnote the word “fool” in Proverbs as “one who is morally deficient.” Charles A. Reich was this kind of fool. Certainly no intellectual fool, he wrote well and readably, with considerable emotion. All the same, Reich’s often biting and accurate diagnoses of 1970 America’s cultural and political ills in The Greening of America eventually run afoul of his famed, rootless, and morally anarchic “Consciousness III.”
“There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear”: The opening words to Buffalo Springfield’s 1967 hit “For What It’s Worth” capture the astonishing, perhaps unprecedented, confusion sweeping through American life during the late 1960s. Existing verities, authorities, and moral codes faced mockery, and were in rapid retreat. Driven by a potent new form of rock’n’roll, and abetted by hallucinogenic drugs, many youth were in rebellion. Appearing shortly after the August 1969 Woodstock Festival, where a new age with its own culture seemed to jell, The Greening of America sought to make sense of and give historical context to these bewildering changes.
A Sixties Book
Reich’s analytical framework focused on three distinct forms of “consciousness” (a term by which he essentially meant worldview). Consciousness I, Reich said, was suited to the agrarianism, small towns, and simple virtues of pre-industrial America. It cherished innocence, optimism, community, and self-reliance.
Consciousness II was the product of industrialism, where social reformers sought to tame the robber barons and the machines. It stressed “the necessity for living under domination,” where life would be fulfilled through discipline, hierarchy, and meritocracy. The socially engineered world of Cold War America was its clearest embodiment.
Consciousness III, Reich argued, emerged in the summer of 1967, “when the full force of the cultural revolution” became visible. Skeptical toward linear and analytical thought, contemptuous of excellence and comparative merit, this worldview exulted in “experience.”
Reich clearly adapted his analytical scheme from earlier writers. Acknowledged precursors included Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse, and economic historian Karl Polanyi. The latter’s narrative of the industrial revolution actually frames Reich’s own historical tale.
Unacknowledged, the first two of Reich’s “consciousnesses” strongly parallel David Riesman’s “inner-directed” and “other-directed” men found in the 1950 pop-sociology classic, The Lonely Crowd. In addition, Consciousness II closely resembles the mindset described in The Organization Man, William Whyte’s also unacknowledged dissection of conformity within corporate America.
The Greening of America has peculiarities that fix it as a product of the 1960s. The style remains pre-Boomer, for Reich is not himself a member of the generation he praises so profusely. He quaintly uses “man” for “humankind” and the generic “he.”
Reich wrote at a moment following the “hippie revolution” and “sexual freedom” waves, yet before the subsequent waves of equity feminism and gay rights rose to any degree. In his telling, women shall apparently remain mostly housewives; and while he once mentions homosexuality favorably, it is only as part of a general interest in sexual variety. All the same, these second-wave changes proved more lasting than the first: the hippie ethic has become a joke in an era of “bling-bling” materialism, and hippie “free love” seems almost chaste in comparison with an age of “hooking up.”
Absent from most of the book is direct attention to religion. Reich seems to have internalized the 1966 message on the cover of Time: “God Is Dead.” He does say that Christianity “has failed over and again for two thousand years.” Offered a better life after death, “men have always chosen the here-and-now instead of the promise.” And yet, when he finally defines his “grand strategy,” it is curiously close to at least a plausible iteration of the Christian ethic: “Resist the state when you must; avoid it when you can; but listen to music, dance, seek out nature, laugh, be happy, be beautiful, help others whenever you can . . . take them in, the old and the bitter as well as the young, live fully in each moment, love and cherish each other.”
Indeed, there are other promising passages in The Greening of America. In one remarkable section, for example, the author anticipates by six years Daniel Bell’s classic neoconservative work, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. The American system, Reich states, wants to have disciplined, contented, unquestioning employees; however, in order to sell its products, it also wants undisciplined and free-standing consumers who indulge their desires at will. A quarter of a century later, David Brooks would announce that the synthesis had been achieved: the Bourgeois Bohemian!
Moreover, Reich’s indictment of the American Corporate State as “a single vast corporation, with every person as an involuntary member and employee” of an entity at once “mindless” yet “relentlessly single minded,” strongly resembles “the Servile State” prophesized by the early-twentieth-century Catholic author Hilaire Belloc.
Other parts of the book resonate with social conservative themes. Reich’s critique of consumerism, environmental degradation, loss of community, and even bad food resembles contemporary agrarian writing. He asserts that the family “has probably suffered the greatest destruction at the hands of the Corporate State. . . . The family has no work to do together, no education.” He sees that “the [Corporate] State wants its consuming units as small as possible,” with the ideal being the “solitary individual.” Sounding like an advocate for homeschooling, he repeatedly condemns state schooling for separating children from their parents and for the “stupid mindlessness” that crushes the creativity and imagination of the young.
Reich’s critique of the New Deal could find a place in a libertarian textbook. He argues that this political regime returned no power to the people. Instead, power went to “the man from the Harvard Law Review” as the New Deal cemented the marriage of the Corporate regime to the Public State. He also underscores that a “truly successful culture must be one in which education, work, and living are integrated. A man’s recreation should be part of his work, and vice versa, as it was before the days of industrialism.”
In addition, Reich contributes his concept of the New Property. He argues that an ever increasing proportion of our living and social standing is based not on real or personal property, but on status in relation to organizations: one’s job involves a relationship with an employer; one’s license, public pension, or entitlement means a relationship with the state.
These forms of property, he notes, are not protected by the Constitution as are the older versions. For example, a worker could lose his job for exercising free speech, or a person could lose a license for arbitrary administrative reasons. Landowners and corporations now make rules of their own, without the limitations imposed on the state. Reich’s essential point seems to be that any true theory of governance must be holistic: not merely about the authority of the state, but also considering the parallel authorities of family, business, church, and custom.
Confusion & Silliness
However, these valuable insights soon get lost in a fog of confusion and absurdity. Reich claims to know his Marx well, but he appears to have forgotten his dialectic: “Today there is only one class,” he reports. “In Marx’s terms, we are all proletariat, and there is no longer any ruling class except the machine itself.”
This curious denial of human agency in the crisis of 1970 is echoed in his elevation of technology into a new god. Earlier insights into the destructive power of technology give way to statements such as: “Consciousness III could only have come into existence given today’s technology,” and “technology may provide a new basis for generating and guiding the energies of man.”
Silliness overtakes The Greening of America in assertions that the rock group “Cream” produced music more complex in structure and emotion than Mozart or Beethoven did; that “bell bottoms have to be worn to be understood”; that rock bands form the “most successful” communities; and that the college dining hall is a fine model for Consciousness III living. Not surprisingly, Reich holds up J. D. Salinger’s fictional character Holden Caulfield, with his wearying rejection of “phonies,” as “the first young precursor of Consciousness III.”
As most readers of 38 years ago will remember, The Greening of America was also about sex and drugs. Reich implicitly longs for the acceptance of “extramarital sex, premarital sex, sex exchanged between two couples, communal sex, homosexuality, and polymorphous sexual expression.” He explicitly longs for the “subtle and delicate experience” of marijuana, which he labels “a truthserum that repeals false consciousness.” He also admires the “much more powerful” experience of LSD, and even praises the “lasting” effect of psychedelic drugs, where “the user finds his awareness and sensitivity” increasing.
It is sobering to compare Reich’s fanciful hopes for Consciousness III with what actually happened. Reich summoned “a clearing wind” and “a lifegiving power”; indeed, “the historic time for man’s transcendence over the machine has come.” Diversity and “tolerance,” displacing forgiveness and mercy, are the hallmarks of the society established by the Consciousness III Boomers.
In regard to race, and perhaps in some respects to women, this brought some improvement. At the same time, income inequality has increased since 1973, at least in part due to the impact of new waves of technological innovation. The machines are ever more ubiquitous. University towns such as Madison and Berkeley are still haunted by aging hippies, who fried their brains on chemicals in the quest for the new consciousness. More broadly, today’s world is hardly in the image of Consciousness III.
The ablest critique of Reich’s thesis is actually found at the end of the 1970 documentary film, Woodstock. It features a Consciousness I rural redneck, affable and generous toward the young, who drives a Consciousness II sanitary truck, which he uses to clean up the mess left behind by stoned Consciousness III celebrants. His gentle words, fundamental decency, and simple actions restore moral order to Max Yasgur’s trampled dairy farm.
In the end, though, Reich’s analysis does provide one valuable lesson for contemporary Christians. The author asserts that change will not come through the political process. Rather, it can come “only by change in individual lives” and, as the last act, in cultural change. Reich points to the troubadour of Consciousness III, noting that “Bob Dylan did what he wanted to do, lived his own life, and incidentally changed the world; this is the point that the [old] radicals have missed.”
It is also a point commonly forgotten by Christians today. While political action may be necessary to protect families and religious liberty, the effort by the Religious Right to change the culture through political means has been an abject failure. Christians bearing the ultimate Consciousness need remember, borrowing words from Reich, that “the revolution must be cultural. For culture controls the economic and political machine, not vice versa.”
Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr., holds degrees in economics and linguistics, has worked in commercial real estate development, and now spends most of his time on philanthropy, specializing in stewardship, including financial and philanthropic ethics, profamily advocacy, religious liberty, and cultural pre-evangelism and transformation. In 1986 he married journalist Roberta Green, who works with him on his philanthropic interests. He is an advisor to the John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation, and an advisor to the Christian Community Development Association, a network of nearly 400 inner-city ministries nationwide.