Book Reviews

Charles Reich, R.I.P.


- June 22nd, 2019
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Remember Charles Reich? Probably not. But you probably do know the phrase “the greening of America.” It is Reich’s coinage, the title his fruity 1970 bestseller that began life as a 39,000-word essay in The New Yorker.

I hadn’t thought about Reich for years. When the news came a few days ago that he had died, age 91, I was surprised to hear that he still had been with us. Fatuousness must have a life-extending effect.

Of all the silly pseudo-sages of the 1960s counterculture, Reich was surely one of the silliest. No single figure or theme captures the totality of the countercultural revolt of the period. But few figures better embody its ethos and the new sensibility it incarnated than the sometime tenured Yale law professor turned guru of higher consciousness. His book The Greening of America, published when he was 42, was both a blueprint for America’s cultural revolution and a paean to its supposedly glorious results.

The Greening of America long ago took its place beside incense, love beads, and bellbottoms as part of the stale, slightly comic cultural paraphernalia of the 1960s. Looking back at the book’s nearly 400 pages today, it is difficult to appreciate the enormous sensation it created when it first appeared. Did the country suddenly go mad? Quoth 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.

Finally, speaking of the “ultimate sign of reverence, vulnerability, and innocence” of the liberated youth consciousness that he celebrates, Reich says: “Oh wow!”

“Oh wow!” Do not think that 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, Charles Reich is one author who actually benefits by being quoted out of context. The more context you give him, the more preposterous he sounds.

And yet the late William Shawn, then the editor of The New Yorker, thought the book important enough to excerpt in his magazine, thus reminding us that his publication of Jonathan Schell’s hysterically alarmist book The Fate of the Earth in The New Yorker some years later was not simply a loopy aberration. Whatever his virtues as an editor, William Shawn had a large soft spot for unhinged left-wing drivel.

Does that sound too severe, too judgmental, too hard? Read on.

The New Yorker was still an intellectually respectable magazine in 1970, and the appearance of The Greening of America in its pages in September of that year gave the book tremendous advance publicity and cultural cachet. It also shows what tremendous inroads the long march of America’s cultural revolution had already made. When The Greening of America was published by Random House in October, it instantly became a best-seller: more, 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, 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 the critic 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 Reich and his publishing phenomenon. 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 are a couple of brief examples of 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?

The wisdom of the new generation is simply this: buy bread at the store when you want to spend your time in some other way than baking; bake your own bread when you feel the need to get back to basic things like dough and yeast.

Not that the responses to The Greening of America were uniformly admiring. Many, maybe most, serious responses were critical. Roger Starr wrote a long and politely devastating anatomy of the book in Commentary (a piece that we can only hope Caws read, since it patiently makes mince-meat of Reich’s historical claims). The poet L. E. Sissman wrote an even more polite criticism of the book in The Atlantic Monthly. Sissman remarked on the curiosity that the first-person singular pronoun never appeared in a book asserting that “the individual self is the only true reality.” Who or what is the “we” that 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.” (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.”

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. 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 Journal 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 weather vane 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,” Reich tells us.

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 imbecility or its prophecy. Whether or not the revolution Reich describes was “necessary and inevitable,” it certainly did occur, and largely along the lines he delineated. 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, the consequences of which we are still reckoning.

Con Games
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 Reich formulated consists essentially of two parts: first, an attack on contemporary life in America; and second, a utopian rhapsody about the emergence of a new, liberated consciousness. Neither part is distinguished by subtlety.

“America,” Reich tells us, “is one vast terrifying anti-community.” (Sounds like AOC, doesn’t it?) 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. There is no lack of meaningful projects that cry out to be done, but . . . our working days are used up in work that lacks meaning: making useless or harmful products, or serving the bureaucratic structures. For most Americans, work is mindless, exhausting, boring, servile, and hateful.

More succinctly, “the majority of adults in the country hate their work.” In 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 chapters called “The Failure of Reform” and “Anatomy of the Corporate State,” Reich makes some stabs at explaining how we came to be in such dreadful spiritual torpor. He speaks of the failure of the New Deal, the rise of multinational corporations, the insidious influence of advertising and the media, war, of 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 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 Reich made his most indelible impression upon readers. Some went into ecstasies over it; others ridiculed it, twisting Reich’s talk of “Con III people” into “Con-game,” “Con-manship,” and the like. Everybody remembered it.

According to Reich, Consciousness I originated in the 19th 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, Reich explains, “Consciousness I types” include “farmers, owners of small businesses . . . AMA-type doctors . . . gangsters, Republicans, and ‘just plain folks.”’ (Gangsters, Republicans: you can see what a master of subtlety Reich was.) But just as other ’60s radicals abominated the mainstream liberal establishment more than they hated any conservative orthodoxy, so Reich saves his bitterest words for the liberals who embody Consciousness II.

Consciousness I he regarded as a crude anachronism, no longer much of a threat to the emergence of paradise. 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 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.” (Reich did have a talent for making 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: 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.”

“I’m Glad I’m Me”
Like many radicals, Reich was both terrified and obsessed by power: “It is not the misuse of power that is the evil,” he assured us; “the very existence of power is an evil.” Don’t bother raising objections: objections, arguments, qualifications, evidence: all the paraphernalia of rationality belongs to the unenlightened domain of Consciousness II. Reich has no time for any of that. He is interested in the supposedly higher Con, Consciousness III. Introducing Consciousness III, 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 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. 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 Reich had in mind when he praised 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, Reich was certainly correct to see the American university as one of the chief breeding grounds for the revolution he envisioned. He speaks in this context of the “conversions” that are “constantly seen on campuses today”: “a freshman arrives, his political views are hometown-Consciousness I, and suddenly he is radicalized.” Reich was correct about this. “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, 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.

The Greening of America is in part a paean to sexual liberation and polymorphous sensuality, an obvious heir to the thought of countercultural gurus like Herbert Marcuse, the other Reich—Wilhelm—and Norman O. Brown. “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.” But in The Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef, Reich tells us that he left Yale in December 1971 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 43.

Revolutionary Bell Bottoms
Charles Reich’s sad and tawdry 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 Reich surely presents an extreme case. From the perspective of the 1990s and beyond, 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. 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, which were achieving critical mass just as his work was published. (At one point he writes that “the hard questions—if by that is meant political and economic organization—are insignificant, even irrelevant.”) 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 Reich’s gospel is an indictment of rationality coupled with a profound craving for extra-rational modes of experience. His celebration of drugs —which he described as “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 Reich, rock music possesses “a complexity unknown to classical music”; it offers “the mystical transcendence of ordinary experience.” In comparison to rock, he said, “Beethoven seems like a series of parallel lines.” Without drugs and rock music, Woodstock and the sensibility it celebrated—the sensibility that Reich eulogizes in The Greening of America—would have been impossible. Allan Bloom was quite right when he observed in The Closing of the American Mind: “Nothing is more singular about this generation than its addiction to music.” Bloom continued:

Rock music provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like “the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially produces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors—victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion, and discovery of the truth.

What rock offers is a prefabricated Dionysian ecstasy, blatantly sexual, conspicuously nonrational.

The rejection of rationality has many advantages. For one thing, it relieves 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. 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, . . . AMA-type doctors . . . gangsters, Republicans, and ‘just plain folks’” 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 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 “lifestyle.”

We see something similar in his rejection of “the whole concept of excellence and comparative merit.” Reich goes pretty far, far enough to suggest that he might have had a successful career as a politically correct college administrator 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 Reich was being “nonjudgmental” in a highly selective fashion. To take just one example: reflecting on traditional morality, Reich assured 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 believed “there is no situation in which one is entitled to act impersonally . . . with another human being.”

Reich did make a few gestures toward common sense. But they were only gestures. Early on he acknowledged that his categories of Cons I, II and III “are highly impressionistic and arbitrary.” And yet he proceeded to build his entire argument around them. Again, he said 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 Reich insisted each individual must “create” for himself?

With the passage of time, the mushiness of Reich’s diagnosis has become painfully obvious. Sometimes, it is downright funny, as when Reich tells us that bell bottoms and other certified articles of countercultural apparel “deny the importance of hierarchy, status, authority, position, and they reject competition”—unless, that is, they come from a New York designer: “Bell bottoms fashioned by New York stylists do not have the revolutionary potential of Consciousness III culture.”

What made the mush scary, as Stewart Alsop discerned, was Reich’s moralistic pretension to special virtue and a knowledge that transcends “mere” facts. It is here that he remains in perfect continuity with today’s champions of political correctness. (One inevitably thinks of that other graduate of the Yale Law School, Hillary Clinton, who before she became a presidential candidate was a champion of the “politics of meaning” in the mid-1990s.) 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 regulation.

“Consciousness III people,” 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,” 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 millenarian enthusiasms. In his classic book The Pursuit of the Millennium, the historian Norman Cohn noted that “at the core” of certain Medieval millenarian 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. Hannah Arendt observed in The Origins of Totalitarianism that the claim to special insight 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.” (One recalls Susan Sontag’s contention that the North Vietnamese “are ‘whole’ human beings, not ‘split’ as we are.”)

Charles Reich assured us that “the consciousness of the liberals had proved inadequate to the task” of restoring the lost wholeness he sought. Nevertheless, the liberal establishment was delighted to conspire in its own disparagement along the lines Reich suggested. The path to enlightenment that Reich extolled was a path to nowhere —to “utopia” in its etymological sense. That did not prevent it from becoming a major highway “for the long march through American life.” The unhappy example of Charles Reich—his silly book, his 15 minutes of celebrity—should not distract us from the malevolence of the message he helped promulgate. He himself was rather like the unfortunate Seth, emperor of Azania, whom Evelyn Waugh described in his novel Black Mischief:

The earnest and rather puzzled young man became suddenly capricious and volatile; ideas bubbled up within him, bearing to the surface a confused sediment of phrase and theory, scraps of learning half understood and fantastically translated.

Although Reich managed pretty well to destroy his own life, he was too fuzzy-headed and inept to find many real disciples. In this respect, he was more a symptom than a cause. In the hands of people like Timothy Leary, however, the nonsense that made up Reich’s pseudomystical “philosophy” damaged countless lives and insinuated itself into the inner fabric of American life. Requiescat in pace.

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Photo Credit: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

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