Thursday, June 26, 2008

Being "green", circa 1970

A book called The Greening of America by a Yale law professor named Charles Reich was published in 1970 and became a best-seller, as well as a topic for serious intellectual discussion. Unless you're at least 45, chances are good that you've never heard of it. The "greening" of the title meant more than environmentalism, although the environmental movement as we know it today was well under way by then. Its front-cover blurb summarized the contents this way:

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. This is the revolution of the new generation.
For defenders of the established order of various stripes in 1970, this was hippie-pinko-bomb-throwing-long-haired-dope-smoking-radical-peacenik-friendly-to-Negroes talk. And it predictably drew their scorn.

What did the book actually say to induce the antibodies of conventional wisdom to swarm against it? Funny you should ask.

Lots of stuff is changing, Reich wrote. People are choosing new lifestyles. People feel all alienated by modern society, which he fashionably calls the "Corporate State". (Alienation, a popular topic at the time, meant to most people something like a generalized dissatisfaction and unhappiness; the popular concept had little or nothing to do with Hegelian dynamics in the economic system which Karl Marx made a central part of his philosophical system.) Society has to adjust to fast-moving new developments in Science and Technology. Mr. Technology was an awe-inspiring figure even in 1970, though "high tech" hadn't yet entered the vocabulary. We have to learn to make science and technology our servant rather than our master and live more in harmony with Nature and develop "non-material values".

People need to have a strong sense of personal values, he argued. Careers are becoming more dynamic and flexible thanks to Mr. Technology. Rock music is cool. Question authority. We need to have work-life balance, self-realization and a greater sense of community. "Pop art" is also cool. (Think Andy Warhol's soup cans.) We need continuing education throughout life. Being open-minded and mystical is good. People aren't getting married so early as they used to. Workers would prefer not to have boring jobs. Careers are likely to vary more over a worker's lifetime than before. Natural foods sound like a good idea. Violence and war generally aren't such good ideas.

That was Reich's basic argument. It was mostly a commentary on emerging trends and fashions, with particular emphasis on "youth culture". Yes, he threw in a few lines to shock the stodgy-minded of all ages, e.g., "Economic equality and social ownership of the means of production are assumed, but they now only a means to an end beyond". But all that can happen by a peaceful morphing of Consciousness, he asserted. No storming of Winter Palaces or expropriating the expropriators or Marxist-sounding stuff like that would be necessary.

This is one thing that makes me sometimes look back at the period circa 1970 and wonder how people could have gotten outraged over stuff like this. The prose is more interesting than Reader's Digest. But what pleasure it induced in readers who liked it must have been very similar to that of Reader's Digest, saying something mildly, informative about familiar topics without inducing a great deal of disturbing thought.

New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse was one of several writers that the New York Times invited to discuss the book on their op-ed page. In his article of 11/06/1970, he wrote:

If you read a critical essay in The New Yorker, you can be reasonably sure of at least three things: 1) It is beautifully written; 2) it comes very close to the truth; 3) you are satisfied: no reason to-get frightened, everything will be all right - or beyond your (and anybody else's) power.

Take as example the by now classical piece on "Hiroshima": there is to my knowledge no better, no more moving description on what happened, and all this appears like a natural catastrophe, an earthquake, the last day of Pompeii - there is no evidence, no possibility of crime, of guilt, of resistance and refusal.

The most recent example is Charles A. Reich's long piece, The Greening of America, a condensation of the book with the same title. (my emphasis)
For a short description of the book, it would be hard to improve on that.

Now, if the book was fluff, it was at least pleasantly organized fluff. There was a theoretical framework involved postulating three historical stages of Consciousness, which he shortened to "Con". So there was Con I, Con II and Con III, corresponding more-or-less to, respectively, pre-Industrial Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the new age just beginning around 1967. From a marketing point of view, I would have worried that calling my signature theory "Con III" would have suggest a reader of "con" as in "con-game". I'm just saying.

Reich noted that in the future, we could look forward to Con IV, Con V, ad inifinitum. What the Roman numerals may have implied, I don't know.

Basically, Reich takes pieces of ideas from substantial thinkers here and there, including John Kenneth Galbraith, Marcuse, Robert Jay Lifton and Kenneth Keniston, dumbs them down and stuffs them into an essentially simple-minded suburban utopianism. All seasoned with references to popular novels and movies and, of course, Bob Dylan songs. Dylan, Reich tells us, was "from the very beginning, a true prophet of the new consciousness". The results are not always charming. Here, for instance, he airbrushes white racism and police misconduct out of the picture of the urban riots of the previous years:

When police lawlessness is revealed, such as the "police riot" in Chicago or unnecessary brutality at a university, everyone is shocked as if this were an aberration in our society. But the police have always been brutal and lawless to the powerless; we know this from how blacks were and are treated by the police in the South, and from the way young people, the poor, blacks, and outcasts are treated in the North. The cry of police lawlessness misses the point. In any large city the bureaucracies are also lawless; the building inspectors make threats and collect bribes, the liquor licensing authority is both arbitrary and corrupt, the zoning system is tyrannical but subject to influence. An individual in a small town criticizes the mayor and the zoning board rezones his house, the assessor raises his taxes, the police arrest him for minor violations, and the sanitation department declares his sewage system unsafe. Impossible? No, it has all happened to unpopular and powerless people. An aberration? Not at all. It is not the misuse of power that is the evil; the very existence of power is an evil. Totalitarianism is simply enough power, of whatever sort, to exercise full control over those within the system. (my emphasis)
The only thing notable about that analysis is that it quickly takes a real-world problem and redefines it as a vague problem of bureaucracy that would only be solved by the return of the Garden of Eden which Con III would bring by people doing their own thing and going with the flow. And for all his sympathetic platitudes about alternative lifestyles, he polemicizes against liberals and the left but hardly at all against the Nixonian right:

In summary, we think that both the liberal and the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society, a leading New Left group] theories of how to bring about change in America are wrong. The liberals (the true liberals, that is, not the Establishment liberals) see change coming only after a massive effort at organizing: an effort directed at politics and law. We think that such an effort, even if it elected a President and a Congress, and appointed a majority of the Supreme Court, would end as the New Deal ended, with reforms that proved illusory. SDS and other believers in class struggle would engage in a hopeless head-on fight against a machine that could work for them instead, and against people who could be their allies instead of their seeming enemies.

The activist political radicals of the New Left are wrong in many ways. Their picture of the world is wrong; they explain America primarily in terms of the desire of the rich and powerful to keep what they have and to exploit the poor, at home and abroad. They fail to recognize that bureaucratic socialism or communism presents many of the same evils as America, and that in America capitalism is now only a subordinate aspect of the larger evil of the uncontrolled technological state. They make frontal assaults upon institutions which could be given changed values and a changed direction instead. They are basically believers in structural change before a change in consciousness; thus they make the same mistake the liberals made in the New Deal, and they ally themselves with Consciousness II in their belief in the primary reality of structure. They seek to create change by self-sacrifice, by going to endless dull ideological and organizational meetings, and doing endless unrewarding work, by getting arrested, suffering prison sentences, even by the terrible risks of fighting in the streets. Thus, despite their bravery, they fail to offer an example of an affirmative vision. Bob Dylan did what he wanted to do, lived his own life, and incidentally changed the world; that is the point that the radicals have missed. And finally, they frighten and make enemies of those who might otherwise be their allies, the workers and the middle class. The members of the New Left have made their own great contribution to consciousness; some of their tactics have had an extraordinary impact in radicalizing other people, and their life-style provides an inspiration of sorts, if not an altogether happy vision. But they must see that their real target is not a structural enemy, but consciousness. One does not fight a machine head-on, one pulls out the plug. (my emphasis)
Reich is arguing here that political organizing to mitigate or cure real evils in society and the economy is largely misguided, if not downright wrong. He doesn't see the spreading of Con III as part of the informational aspects as normal politics, or even of revolutionary politics. It's really an anti-political argument, not one for supplementing real political activity with attention to developing alternative understandings of the world and humanity's place in it. To put it more in his terms, even though changing the political "consciousness" of the public is necessary to effect large-scale political changes, there often are "structural" enemies opposing necessary changes.

And, my goodness, we certainly couldn't suggest that the wealthy might exploit poor people, here or elsewhere!

I have no reason to think that Reich was anything other than serious and well-intentioned in writing his book. And in the time of the Nixon ascendancy, COINTELPRO and the Wallace "white backlash" movement, a readable plea for general tolerance was not the worst thing. But I have to wonder to what extent Nixonian "culture warriors" thought Reich's book actually represented the perspective of the dreaded liberal-hippie-antiwar-integrationist-free-love crowd. It probably did represent some version of the outlook of what John Robert Howard called "plastic hippies".

But basically it represented only Charles Reich's quirky interpretation of current American social trends in 1970. And it remains today as a curious relic of that period.

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