Books: The Metropolitan Critic — The Green American |
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The Green American

News of Charles Reich’s The Greening of America has been filtering across the pond for some time. It has been reported that under its benevolent influence middle-aged pink-rinsed ladies have tossed aside their jumbo tubes of tranquillizers and embraced their hairy lost sons in a fit of understanding, kissing them noisily on the sweat-band. Rolling Stone ran an interview with Reich in which the interviewers seemed as delighted as he was at the possibility of reconciling the generations. The pipe of peace (spiked in this case with sweetly crumbling hash) was being passed, and gnarled, trembling hands were reaching out to take a hit. A piquant scene.

It would be a churl who failed to salute the spirit which informs The Greening of America, and this should hold true even when it is shown — as it quite easily can be — that the book’s theoretical structure is something of a ruin and that its view of the emergent alternative life-style is simplistic and has already been outdistanced by events. A polemical writer is necessarily committed to portraying situations as rather simpler than they really are. It’s the price he pays for the chance to alter them. The effect on the reader is often to convince him that the author is smarter than the book. There are elements in this book which are quite sensationally obtuse. I don’t want to suggest that these elements are reflections of Mr. Reich’s optimum performance on such mental tests as the Stanford-Binet, the Wechsler-Bellevue or the Minnesota Multiphasic: merely that they reflect a tendency to pursue an ideal by donning blinkers, plunging the head into the sand and subjecting the resulting field of vision to a pitiless scrutiny.

There is a great deal to be said for Mr. Reich’s analysis of what has gone wrong with America — his critique is a bit like a large helping of C. Wright Mills with some stiffened Marcuse ladled over the top, but just because it is derivative and somewhat etiolated does not make it irrelevant. In his celebration of the youth movement, however, he is starry-eyed to a degree that can no longer be accepted even by the youth movement itself. He is fixed in time somewhere between Woodstock and Altamont, which means that he has omitted to mention the moment when the joyous tribe of children was joined by a pale rider. He is fixed in space between the separate family encampments of the Californian rock epicentre (Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead) and that other musical commune who solved the challenge of Sharon Tate’s inimical emblematic status by translating her ferociously into oblivion. He waves a gay farewell not just to the bogus rationality which has created misery for so many Americans and caused so many Americans to create misery for so many others, but to rationality itself. He seems to think that the past can be dumped simply by wishing it, and in thinking this he under-estimates the pervasiveness of the American tragedy; it is not timorous or spiteful, it is merely wise, for an intelligent man to insist that the new American consciousness might just pose the same threats to moderation that America has always posed. They apologize for frightening us with their dreams, and in recompense send us another dream.

Of the book’s theoretical basis — Consciousness I, Consciousness II and (jackpot!) Consciousness III — there is much effort to be expended in paraphrase, although little in dismissal. Briefly, Consciousness I is the pioneering, personal property-accumulating spirit which built the Republic and began the work of destroying it through exploitation. Consciousness II is the public spirit which attempted to govern this process but succeeded (principally through the New Deal) only in institutionalizing the destructive processes through codifying them into a corporate state. No degree, however generous and imaginative, of commitment to institutional reform will get you out of Consciousness II: conflicts within it are nugatory.

Consciousness II believes that the present American crisis can be solved by greater commitment of individuals to the public interest, more social responsibility by private business, and, above all, by more affirmative government action — regulation, planning, more of a welfare state, better and more rational administration and management

Silly old Consciousness II. Consciousness III is the youth culture which knows (just as Lenin’s peasants mysteriously ‘knew’) that none of this is going to work.

At this point Mr. Reich’s argument, and most of his prose along with it, collapses quickly into self-deceiving rhetoric, although I should in fairness add that a lot of the rhetoric is very forceful and never less than humane. Mr. Reich says that the youth culture (and the older generations when they, too, are persuaded) will reject system, reject the idea of a career, and will use technology instead of being used by it. But clearly if this new Consciousness is to become the body of the animal, instead of the parasite, it will have to organize the appropriate changes; and equally clearly it can only organize these changes through rediscovering a rational public spirit.

To take only one example, what follows from Mr. Reich’s analysis of the law’s lawlessness except the conclusion that the law will have to be made law-abiding? To take another, does Mr. Reich seriously suppose that high-grade technology can be turned towards humane purposes in any other than a planned way? Or even run down in any other than a planned way? However, this is merely reasoning.

Conceptually, then, Consciousness III is part of Consciousness II and cannot be otherwise. There will either be a reform of institutions or the whole show will go under. Once the notion of seizing power is abandoned (and Mr. Reich very sensibly sees that the whole force of the youth movement is to set an example rather than to coerce) the revolution becomes a reformist movement willy-nilly. There has simply been a change of emphasis, although it is, of course, an enormous change of emphasis and quite probably already decisive.

Correctly viewed, the youth movement is a turning away from impersonal power and towards politics. Incorrectly viewed (and Reich’s enthusiasm aids this view), it is a turning away from politics itself, towards a dream world in which identity will be painlessly recovered in a magically recrudescent Eden. In the land of Consciousness III/There ain’t no apples on the Knowledge Tree.

(Observer, 1971)
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The last paragraph is a mess because it is trying to wrap up a parcel already wrapped: like most last paragraphs, and nearly all first paragraphs, it never needed to be there. If I seem suspiciously well informed about marijuana, it was because I was smoking more than enough of it at the time to affect my capacity for self-criticism. When I realized that fact (it gets harder, because it takes self-criticism to do it) I turned back to ordinary cigarettes and overdid those instead. In Australia I was brought up never to use ‘however’ at the beginning of a sentence. The only reason I did so here was that I was quoting, without acknowledgment, from the Fortean magazine Doubt. (Without sharing his hyper-sceptical view of the world, I was a fan of Charles Fort’s books and rather surprised that the counter-culture did not rediscover them along with The Glass Bead Game.) As with all my writings about these then fashionable subjects, I regret the stylistic lumpishness of the piece, but I am quite proud of its general tendency. My prediction that the youth culture would influence the ruling élite’s world view in the next generation turned out to be right: twenty years later, Bill Clinton was in the White House. By my calculations, he and I must have puffed our first joint at about the same time — with the difference, of course, that he didn’t inhale.