The volume The Greening of America by Yale’s Charles A. Reich is keeping the avant-garde busy these days. The flurry of reviews and comments upon the work suggest that our age of confusion is desperately seeking a clue to the meaning of the times, and a possible indication of better political and social weather ahead. This work proposes a philosophy of culture resting upon the analysis of the public mind, with its components from the past and its present shifts.
In a schema reminiscent of Auguste Comte’s nineteenth-century programming of human history into three “stages,” Professor Reich suggests that in an analysis of the historic “consciousness” of America can be found a current category for projecting our future. Basically, he tries to envision a tomorrow that will emerge from the “pop” awareness of our alienated and anguished youth.
The program of the work runs as follows: America’s dream was the result of what is called Consciousness I, seen by the author as being, at best, a small-town, laissez-faire mood, dominated by a work ethic, and marked by the virtues of industry and thrift. He cannot, of course, refrain from identifying it with Puritanism and with the era of the robber barons.
The second stage, shaped by Consciousness II, is identified with the traditional liberal and reformist attitude toward problems. This is seen as something of a blend of the social gospel and the New Deal. It is portrayed as being, at best, revisionist; it is the mood that proposes structural or institutional reforms and solutions. However noble its aims may be, Reich sees its frame of reference to be the organization and the machine.
Consciousness III is the type of human awareness emerging from the hip-culture. Its hallmarks are “the drug scene,” rock music, love buttons, and bell-bottom trousers. It protests—well, nearly everything, but of course insists upon skiing at St. Moritz and surfing at Santa Barbara. In contrast to the “devotees” of Consciousness I, who were willing to defer present advantage and immediate pleasure in the interest of future goals, the “new people” demand pleasure now. In place of the work ethic, they demand a stop to the work-oriented society, and will refuse to do what they consider to be meaningless and “irrelevant” work.
Opposing the domination of the Consciousness II mentality and the society it has shaped, the Con III people inveigh against and reject “the machine” (while of course reserving the right to use machines for their own pleasure). Against a society with time clocks and assembly lines, they demand the right of each to “do his own thing.”
Consciousness III will, it is said, shape a new society in which pot and LSD are free, hip life-styles are dominant, and love reigns supreme—except perhaps when its representatives find it “their thing” to “go trashing,” i.e., systematically stoning plate-glass windows. Youth of this frame of mind are not only making a new way for man, the author says; their way is the only way.
How society is to be organized and managed after Consciousness III becomes the dominant mood is not specified. Evidently all that is needed is that the “new people” shape society in the psychological and behavioral sense. Fundamental economic changes will then come by the peaceful method in which one day, all the Con III people will simply fail to report for work. Then the managerial and technical groups who now manage the machines will scurry away, and a totally new order will emerge.
What shall the Christian think of all this? It goes without saying that such a schema has no place for a sovereign Lord of History, who will one day announce “Closing Time” on all human enterprises. Nor does it have any place for the ordinary restraints upon human instinct that are minimal for a decent and ordered society.
Reich is virtually silent about the large numbers of American youth who are moral and industrious and imbued with seriousness of purpose, and who practice a work ethic and reject many or most of the trappings of the Con III people. This is a serious limitation of the work.
More serious still, the entire proposal seems to be loaded with a romantic view of human nature and human society. The Con III person is held to have an inside track upon truth—a “new knowledge” that is hidden from the “Puritan” or the “Reformer.” Evidently he has discovered the clue to the real course of what is “natural.” (One wonders whether the amplified and raucous blaring of rock music is any more “natural” than the sound of an SST.)
Not only so, but the Con III people have had their consciousness expanded by mind-distorting drugs, says Reich, so that their perspective upon “reality” exceeds that of Con I or Con II people. This statement, made by a man in his early forties, seems to reflect a form of youth worship that overlooks the rather evident fact that the drug scene frequently produces persons who are actually senile at twenty-one or twenty-five.
Those who remember the Hitlerian times are frightened at the retreat into the irrational, this talk of a kind of heightened awareness within a mass consciousness. No doubt the Hitler youth also felt a sense of wonder, and viewed the “triumphs” of Nazi mysticism with a breathless, “Oh, wow!” This sort of a mystique of the collective self, designed to destroy the “corporate state” and to produce upon demand a community in which performing the complex tasks of running a sophisticated economy in a fantastically complicated world is sheer joy, is scarcely believable. To suppose that a condition can be reached in which all who perform such work find it to their taste—this is almost too much. After all, the Con III person will still need food: can every operation of producing, processing, and marketing food become so joyous that each who chooses to do this can celebrate “doing his own thing”?
Deeper still, it seems that Reich forgets that alienated youth are geared into the “consumer-oriented” economy. They do not propose to give up their Hondas. Not only so, but youthful alienation does not seem likely to yield to any such easy solution as Professor Reich suggests. The Street People whom the writer sees daily in Harvard Square appear lonely, bewildered, and sad. To conceive of them as blossoming suddenly into the architects of a lovely technology to which their “heightened consciousness” can relate with joy seems like taking Alice in Wonderland seriously.
That the Con III people will develop into a gentle folk, totally tolerant of one another, seems a rather remote possibility, especially when one recalls that some of them at this present moment actually ritualize violence. It is not easy to see how such action, even upon the part of a fraction of them, can do otherwise than invite strong public reaction. One wonders how such behavior can alter the whole order so profoundly that a change of political structure will occur merely as “a final act.”
True, Con III persons will, it is said, never engage in a revolution against people—only against machines. But even campus violence has shown the impossibility of this. To hold that violence against property is a mere trifle in comparison with the ills of our society is folly. To speak thus is to show a loss of respect for law, whether that law protect property or life, that will lead to a Hobbesian “state of nature” in which every man is a wolf to his neighbor. Peace and love, anyone?
Is Consciousness III really a pure state of mind? Or is the mentality of every person an amalgam of what has gone before him, including the Fall of man? And can such a consciousness be improved by an LSD trip? May it not rather be that that segment of the alienated who, having been pampered at home, find life in actual society unbearable and thus take refuge in mind-distorting drugs, will form a back-eddy in American life, expensive to society and a burden to themselves? This may be a providential way of setting to one side those who would otherwise make of our republic a sort of socio-economic vegetable, easy prey to any predator.
Even Herbert Marcuse, who for some years now has been trying to create a “new proletariat” out of alienated youth, is critical of Reich’s volume. In his editorial in the New York Times (Nov. 6), Marcuse accuses Reich of being soft and impractical. One can only try to imagine Marcuse’s real objection at this point.
But he does raise good questions, such as, “Nobody in control of the armed forces, the police, the National Guard?” Evidently he sees that no such generation as that of Con III could manage a revolution. What is more probable is that such a turned-on generation would issue in a social flabbiness in which people would go on sublimating their problems through drugs so as to live with alienation and frustration. To the Christian, the typical Con III appears to accept voluntarily a status of something less than a person
Harold B. Kuhn is professor of the philosophy of religion at Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He received the Ph.D. from Harvard University and has done post-doctoral work there.
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