Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A Slender Hope for Salvation

The Greening of America has achieved a success somewhat comparable to that of The Outsider. The Outsider, since you probably don't recall, was the work of a bookish young Englishman named Colin Wilson who identified with every exemplar of alienation in the history of literature. Apparently, he believed that to describe a series of these constituted a theory of modern society. His conclusion: individual Outsiders, inspired by figures as diverse as Nietzsche and Madame Blavatsky, could resolve their dilemma (and by implication the world's) in a prophetic religious reawakening. Writing in The New Yorker, Dwight Macdonald described Wilson as "a Philistine, a Babbitt, a backwoods revivalist of blood-chilling consistency." Nevertheless, or consequently, The Outsider was popular among campus intellectuals in the late 50's; for some of them, in fact, it was almost holy writ. Nobody reads it any more. Wilson is a successful writer in England.

The striking parallel between these two books accentuates their differences and reminds us (if we need reminding) how quickly times change. Like Wilson, Reich takes for his theme nothing less than the redemption of the modern world, and like Wilson, he suggests that this can only be attained through individual salvation, a process he dubs "revolution by consciousness." Like Wilson, Reich is a popularizer who borrows ideas quite candidly from respected authoritie. End of parallel. Wilson claimed to be an optimist, but like all good 50's intellectuals he wallowed in anger; the pessimism of Reich's analysis extends far beyond existentialist brinksmanship, yet in the end he is sanguine to the point of fatuousness. Wilson was an individualist who scorned politics and the hoi polloi, while Reich's vision, as befits a forty-two-year-old Yale law prof, is more humane, partaking of none of the ugly elitism of Wilson's arrogant Übermenschlichkeit. Reich is also a superior writer. His style is pedestrian rather than barbarous, and he has taken the time to digest his influences. The resulting cud has a curious bland consistency. This may be why The New Yorker, which panned The Outsider, devoted most of one issue to a 39,000-word precis of Reich's book.

Another reason is that people are scared. In the 50's, apocalyptic thinking enjoyed a certain modishness, but it could be dismissed for just that reason as avant-garde chic. Now the daily editorial page reads like the Revelation of St. John the Divine. People are scared about Indochina, about racial strife, about the ecocrisis, but the most visible and consciousness-provoking source of their fear is the very phenomenon that motivates Reich's optimism: the polarization of young people. How neat--the young, that inescapable proof of our dissolution, will save us all. If the world is indeed saved, of course, then the young will save it. No one else will have the chance. But the likelihood that it will be saved as Reich predicts is, unfortunately, small.

Reich believes that states of mind, not social and economic classes, are basic to the politics of change in America: "There is no class struggle; today there is only one class. In Marx's terms, we are all the proletariat, and there is no longer any ruling class except the machine itself." The core of this strange idea is presented in a formula likely to be his one enduring contribution to the way we talk about ourselves: the concepts of Consciousness I, II and III. Consciousness I is rugged individualism, self-reliant at best and rapacious at worst. Consciousness II is the New Deal, organization man mentality which Reich takes to pervade the corporate state. Consciousness III, youth consciousness, is the key to our future, simultaneously self-directed and communitarian, adventurous, anti-hierarchical, and above all open to continuous change. It would be otiose to criticize this scheme as crude--it is a convenient popularizing device, nothing more, and Reich acknowledges its drawbacks. Anyway, its weaknesses transcend crudity. For once it is granted that Reich's book is not in itself an epochal work, then the real question of quality concerns its effect: who reads it for what reason and what do they do about it?

The admirers of this book are young (or wish they were) and (Vaguely) radical. They especially like its delineation of the development of Consciousness II from Consciousness I and the description of Consciousness III which took up much of The New Yorker version. He falters, they feel, in his analysis of how Consciousness II becomes Consciousness III. I think it is just the opposite. Reich's analysis of the corporate state combines the popular sociology of the 50's (Reisman and Whyte, especially) with jeremiads about American imperial power. Not that much of what he says isn't true, although his description of ye olde organization man sometimes seems a little quaint. But it's so familiar that it's lost its information value. Only his presentation of the identity of state/corporation/foundation/union/university contains insights that are at least second-hand. What's the point of disseminating concepts already available in Time and Newsweek, and even more, what's the point of exulting over one more rehash of the old truisms?

The Consciousness III section--called "The New Generation," naturally--is not so much a description as it is a celebration, and its major fault is obvious: it is inspired by possibility and rhetoric rather than reality. Reich does warn against hip chauvinism and youth chauvinism, but his rendering of Consciousness I and Consciousness II is flawed by both sorts of condescension. (Since Reich is forty-two, the first predominates). Even worse, he fails to make explicit the fear, anger and isolation that lie on the other side of liberation for most of the young. Fear, anger and isolation are not unreasonable responses to the paradoxes of life in America, but they do mar the reality of Consciousness III, and they do affect the accuracy with which Consciousness III people analyze their homeland. It would seem likely that the same syndrome is to some extent responsible for the contradictions of Reich's presentation, all of which boil down to one: like so many dissidents throughout American history, he cannot decide whether he loves this country or hates it.

It is not surprising that Reich's most fundamental ambivalence concerns material things, for of course it is in the realm of objects--the power to reshape the physical environment--that American culture is most specifically itself. The America-is-bad part of the book is full of the usual stuff about technology and materialism--production as pollution, consumption as self-definition, ownership as status, electric toothbrushes as hydrogenated peanut butter. Reich even goes so far as to suggest that if America is to reorder her priorities in a way that is both just and economically sound, liberal shibboleths about military spending will crumble. The military budget, he says, will barely cover the cost of an effective educational system, much less clean up the environment and cure the rest of the social ills he acknowledges. To do all that, a vast decrease in consumer spending will also be necessary.

At the same time, Reich shares with Marx the notion that utopia can only be achieved through technology and offers a rather original suggestion as to the material basis of Consciousness III. The new consciousness, he says, results from a contradiction in advanced corporate capitalism. In order to expand the gross national product, citizens must on the one hand produce and on the other hand consume. The best producer is a self-denying automaton; the best consumer is a healthy hedonist. Inevitably, these two functions collide. Even among Consciousness II people, the authenticity of whose pleasure he somewhat gratuitously challenges, the hedonistic impulse sometimes produces quasi-dropouts like Reich himself. For young people, who consume with gusto before they must take on the realities of production, dropping out is a natural solution.

This way of explaining the children-of-affluence idea is the one instance in which Reich's popularization elevates itself to synthesis, which is really what popularization should do. It is a concise and sane interpretation of ideas implicit in thinkers like McLuhan and Fuller. That it has received scant attention even from Reich's fans indicates how deeply ingrained the Consumer Society cliché, which it contravenes, has become among American nay-sayers. This in turn suggests the Europeanization of institutionalized dissent, expecially within the university system: legitimate criticisms of consumerism are almost invariably inspired by a certain down-the-nose disdain for the nouveau vulgarity consumption usually entails. What Reich understands is that the demeaning lust for still more upward mobility that so often powers conspicuous and compulsive consumption is a transitional phenomenon. The children of affluence show a unique ability to consume selectively, to define their enjoyment rather than allowing it to define them. Since Consciousness III reacts against the common American decision to be spic-and-span even at the cost of fertility--that is, to be sterile--this means in practice that hip young people buy goods which help them contact themselves and their environment. They purchase a stereo, which they program themselves, before a television set, and a motorcycle, which provides cheap and immediate transportation, before an air-conditioned automobile.

Critically, however, this ability depends on the very class system Reich dismisses so peremptorily. In order to react against a pattern of consumption, you must first experience it, and the simple fact is that even among the young, sophisticated, autonomous consumption is deviant behavior common only in the urban well-to-do--upwardly mobile middle-class kids, professional families, and the wealthy. The exceptions are numerous--a remarkable number of young factory workers, for example, tend to save up a bankroll and take off for a while--and the relative flexibility of class barriers in the United States can't be denied, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. Even more important, the class relationship of the United States to the rest of the world is impossible to overlook--unless, like Reich, your vision of the coming world is shaped in the cafeterias of Yale. What kind of conclusions might he have drawn at a Peace Corps project in India, or a ghetto high school, or a community college in Queens?

For Consciousness III does have a material base, and it can't flatten out too far. Abundance and affluence are myths, or anyway, metaphors--there just aren't enough expensive stereos and steamer trips around the world to go around the world.Nor is there any reasonto believe that Consciousness III encourages a realistic estimate of one's share. Reich, like many Consciousness III folk, has a rather cavalier attitude toward what more pessimistic thinkers refer to as suffering, or oppression: he doesn't like to dwell on it. But oppression is more than just a drag. The economic well-being of each of us depends on it, and it is built into our psychology. It will never be excised by vague good wishes. Reich ventures no hard-headed projections of what sort of economic reorganization might provide the world with an effective educational system, and his blithe assumption that once America adopts Consciousness III it will simply abandon imperialism ignores fair and serious questions--first suggested by someone named Lenin--about how such a withdrawal might affect our own wealth. Reich throws an occasional compliment towards black people for their heavy contribution to Consciousness III, but seems unaware that many blacks doubt that racism will be expunged by soul-searching. And he never even refers to women as a group with grievances. Feminism hadn't hit the newsmagazines when his book was being written, and you don't pick up that sort of insight at Yale.

The reasons for this gap are obvious: it avoids thorny questions about concerted political action. In fact, I get the crawly feeling that the purpose of this book is just that: to offer a cop-out on politics. It is Reich's explicit message that you can change the world just by doing your thing. Now, as most leftists admit, politics are a bummer. Yet as long as people are dissatisfied they must be dealt with, and what the best of the left is trying to do--however gross and neurotic its failures--is create a world in which everyone can achieve something like Consciousness III. Affluence has been good for American young people in a spiritual way by enabling them to achieve new kinds of selfhood, and it's good to read a writer who understands that--but only if he also understands the paradoxes of smugness and myopia the new spirituality entails. This Reich refuses to do, maybe because it would be too much like work.

The best way to judge popular art is by its effect on its audience: who reads it for what readon and what do they do about it? Reich describes a possibility that may be present--America has always confounded its pessimists.

Los Angeles Times, Nov. 29, 1970

Postscript Notes:

Subsequently reprinted as "Reich as Popularist" in Philip Nobile, ed., The Con III Controversy (Pocket Books, 1971).