A Half Century After Its Publication, What Can “The Greening of America” Tell Us About the United States Today?

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It was 50 years ago this week that the New Yorker published “The Greening of America,” a 70-page article by a Yale Law School professor named Charles Reich. The article launched an unlikely best-selling book and prompted an extended debate over its account of American society and embrace of the student counterculture.

“The Greening” was published at a convulsive time: Richard Nixon had won a bruising presidential election two years before, the Vietnam War had expanded a few months earlier with the invasion of Cambodia, and college students protesting at Kent State and Jackson State had been shot and killed in clashes with authorities.

Political division, unrest in the streets—add a global pandemic, and you have all of the ingredients for a timely reconsideration of the relevance of Reich’s work. There is a tendency today, especially by conservatives like editorial writers for the Wall Street Journal, to dismiss “The Greening of America” as no more than a professor’s paean to his hippy students. This is caricature.

What did Reich actually say in “The Greening”? Why did it generate such a strong response? And what does “The Greening” have to say about the fractures of our current moment?

Re-Reading the New Yorker Article

Reich graduated from Yale Law School in 1952, clerked for Justice Hugo Black, and joined the faculty in 1960. After writing a number of insightful law review articles criticizing certain aspects of the liberal administrative state and proposing legal reforms to improve it—his most well-known article is the canonical “The New Property”—Reich became interested in the student counterculture.

In 1967, he spent the summer in Berkeley, California. When Reich returned to Yale in the fall, he resumed work on a book that he had started earlier in the decade. Originally Reich envisioned that book, entitled “The Coming of the Closed Society,” as a lament for the loss of civil liberties in the United States. Now, with the student revolution in full swing, Reich had cause for optimism. Reich completed his manuscript in 1970 and gave it a new title: “The Greening of America.”

Through a serendipitous turn of events, the book was given an enormous boost when the New Yorker published its lengthy excerpt as a “Reflections” article in its September 26, 1970, issue. Reading the article today as it was published in the magazine is a journey through the past. The issue cost 50 cents. It was 144-pages long and featured advertisements for exotic travel (China Airlines promising “the Ming Dynasty” to passengers on flights to Tokyo), liquor, and a “new color portable” TV sold by Sony promising a “brighter, sharper” 9-inch “picture, measured diagonally.”

The New Yorker article began: “There is a revolution under way. It is not like revolutions of the past. It has originated with the individual and with culture, and if it succeeds 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 structures are changing in consequence. Its ultimate creation could be a higher reason, a more human community, and a new and liberated individual. This is the revolution of the new generation.”

Much of the article consisted of social science criticism in the manner of David Riesman and John Kenneth Galbraith. Reich explained how the self-reliant individualism of early America (“Consciousness I”) yielded to the status-driven conformity of the corporate state (“Consciousness II”); criticized consumerism as a dominant, yet unsatisfying, form of self-expression; and described the failures of the modern corporate state, citing the Vietnam War, poverty, and destruction of the environment.

Reich contrasted Consciousness III with Consciousness I and Consciousness II. While I and II “subordinate man’s nature to his role in the economic system,” III “seeks restoration of the non-material elements of man’s existence, the elements like the natural environment and the spiritual that were passed by in the rush of material development.”

Reich’s description of American society was interdisciplinary. He drew on Karl Marx and Herbert Marcuse, history and literature, popular music and film. Moreover, in employing the term “consciousness,” he suggested everything was connected: “Ask a stranger on a bus or an airplane about psychiatry or redwoods or police or taxes or morals or war,” Reich wrote, “and you can guess with fair accuracy his views on all the rest of these topics.”

Had Reich ended “The Greening” with his sociological account of the economics, law, and politics of American society, it likely would not have been published in the New Yorker and become a best-selling book. This type of analysis was familiar. What distinguished Reich’s argument was his celebration of Consciousness III, which “emerged out of the wasteland of the Corporate State, like flowers pushing up through a concrete pavement.” Reich waxed eloquent on jeans, natural peanut butter, and rock music.

The Response to “The Greening”

Reich struck a powerful nerve at what turned out to be a transitional time. He captured the counterculture at its peak and articulated the students’ values and beliefs to their parents. Immediately after the book’s publication, “The Greening” was debated for weeks on the opinion pages of the New York Times, sold millions of copies, and was reviewed by writers across the political spectrum.

Galbraith gave the book a favorable review in the New York Times and wrote a letter to Reich complimenting him for “tak[ing] ideas, including ones with which I have been struggling, and mov[ing] them a quantum step. . . Your use of Consciousness I, Consciousness II, and Consciousness III is not only brilliant but it gives form to what many people feel.” Nicholas Von Hoffman of the Washington Post also reviewed the book favorably, noting that “Reich gives us a way of looking at our divisions without construing the groups we don’t belong to as devils and without concocting a false reality.”

To be sure, not all of the reviews were positive. In 1970, the culture war was generational. Reich’s siding with the students earned the contempt of critics who defended the economic and political systems designed and administered by their parents. Stewart Alsop of Newsweek dismissed “The Greening” as “scary mush.” George F. Kennan—the foreign policy expert, who, writing as “Mr. X” in Foreign Affairs in 1947, championed the strategy of containment of the Soviet Union—accused Reich in the New York Times of exaggerating the “various evils to which [he] calls attention.” Kennan added that “[s]uch exaggeration of admittedly existing evils has regularly formed the initial ideological basis for fanatical political movements, including the totalitarian ones.”

The Relevance of “The Greening” Today

The most common criticism of “The Greening” was that it was naïve. Gary Wills, for example, criticized Reich for “swoon[ing] over the kids” and “giv[ing] us a rosy-colored politics of Disneyland.” Over time, this criticism has persisted.

It’s worth noting that while the excerpt of “The Greening” in the New Yorker largely tracked the book, there were differences between the two texts. Notably the first sentence in the magazine article was more optimistic than in the book. Compare: “There is a revolution under way” with “America is dealing death, not only to people in other lands, but to its own people.” In his book, Reich seemed clear-eyed, not naïve, in describing American society at a fractured time.

As inevitably is the case with books that aim to provide a comprehensive diagnosis of society, the record of “The Greening” 50 years later is mixed. In describing Consciousness III’s concern for the environment, Reich helped shape the emerging environmental law movement.

On the other hand, Consciousness IIII did not transform society. The activism of the 1960s gave way to the self-improvement movements of the 1970s. Nine years after “The Greening,” before the malaise of the Carter administration gave way to Reagan’s “crusade to make America great again,” Christopher Lasch encapsulated the decade in The Culture of Narcissism. This book also became a surprise best-seller.

In re-evaluating “The Greening,” it must be noted that although the struggle for racial equality was a defining feature of the 1960s, Reich did not discuss race in detail. Today protests over racial injustice are critical to understanding our political turmoil.

Nonetheless, as we approach the presidential election in November, “The Greening” continues to resonate in ways that have to do with more than just the popularity of natural peanut butter. In 1970, the Vietnam War divided American society. Consciousness III, Reich suggested, could heal this divide, changing our political structure in its final act.

Today one of our greatest challenges is the coronavirus pandemic. In response to the urgency of the ongoing public health and economic crises, we long for recovery and stability. As in 1970, however, political lines are sharply drawn. The promise of a new consciousness is as alluring—and may be as illusory—as it was then.

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Tags: Charles Reich

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