To prepare for the New Inquiry’s upcoming screening of 1968 teen exploitation film Wild in the Streets, I have been reading The Greening of America, a 1970 book by Yale law professor Charles Reich that sought to explain the righteous ways of teenagers to the rest of society. Reich actually mentions the film in a chapter about how the “Corporate State itself is generating rebellion,” calling Wild in the Streets “truly subversive.”
In Wild in the Streets, teenagers secure the right to vote, vote themselves into power, and have all adults imprisoned in camps where they are kept high on LSD until they die. In The Greening of America, Reich explains how most Americans are trapped in Consciousness II — his jargon for the organization-man mentality, for the technocatic meritocratic Corporate system that made everyone into uptight, status-seeking drones with no “real” self — whereas the new youth movement is attaining Consciousness III, authentic and self-actualized beings who take the “individual self as the only reality” and groove on genuine “experiences.” Reich represents these stages of consciousness as progressive, heading toward inevitable overturning of the social structure, but it’s interesting how closely they parallel Boltanski and Chiapello’s three successive “spirits of capitalism” — the hegemonic ideology that justifies capitalism and neutralizes critique. What Reich sees as “mind blowing” becomes the basis for ideological corrections; his Consciousness III is the new spirit of post-Fordist capitalism, wtih its championing of flexible, liberated worker-entrepreneurs who scorn stability and embrace openness to new challenges.
But as far as Reich was concerned, capitalism was going off the rails; the machine was breaking itself. The consumer system, he argued, is compelled to create dissatisfaction through massive advertising campaigns to maintain demand for products people don’t need, but “dissatisfaction is no mere toy; it is the stuff of revolutions.” The Greening of America was a best-seller in its day, which is somewhat hard to fathom now, and not merely because of its revolutionary posture. It’s more that the analysis has become so dated in a way that more sophisticated 1960s polemics (and Wild in the Streets itself, maybe) haven’t.
Reich offers a simplified synthesis of sentimental conservative nostalgia for the lost folkways with the Frankfurt school critique of instrumental reason, the critique of capitalist growth for its own sake, and contempt for the self-evident evils of the totally administered postwar society. He’s not big on data and has nothing of the dilettante social scientist about him; he’s more a polemicist who prefers to level unsubstantiated accusations against the system and try to make them persuasive through sheer rhetorical force. (Incidently, I frequently worry that this is how my writing comes across.)
The limits of his approach show in the book’s historical myopia. There was nothing entirely new about the kind of individualistic rebellion that Reich was diagnosing. Christopher Lasch and Jackson Lears (among others) wrote books about the obsession with finding “real experience” and authenticity among middle-class youth, but they linked it with what Reich calls Consciousness I, the self-abnegating mentality of the Protestant work ethic, as well as the Weberian cage of bureaucracy.
But the real problem is that he mistakes Consciousness III as some kind of genuine escape from the system rather than a further refinement of its mechanisms of control. (Consciousness III is sort of like Web 2.0, a phony protocol of personal engagement and empowerment.) He basically accepts at face value the analysis that 1960s society was full of “squares” who needed to rid themselves of their personal hang-ups in order to free society as a whole. “The new consciousness is also in the process of revolutionizing the structure of our society,” he writes. “It does not accomplish this by direct political means but by changing culture and the quality of individual lives, which in turn change politics and, ultimately, structure.” This is the consumerist logic of “greening” we still have today; become a more responsible consumer in your individual life and the broader political problems, the fundamental class antagonisms, will simply solve themselves. Reich condemns traditional activism as boring and misguided; people, he writes, should be like Bob Dylan, live their own lives and “incidentally change the world.” “That is the point the radicals have missed,” he sagely reminds us.
Reading this book, I can see why the cultural studies scholars of the 1980s were so bent out of shape about “hydraulic” theories of influence and false-consciousness critiques of “mass man.” Reich is almost insufferably patronizing to the “blue-collars” who have been brainwashed into Consciousness II and can’t accept the validity of boys with long hair and free love, who haven’t progressed to level where they embrace, among other things, “bare feet” and “the aesthetic enjoyment of food.” His analysis of society is rife with assumptions that the populace is intellectually passive by nature and readily duped into believing ideas that are patently against their interests. “Vast powers” are set against the population to indoctrinate them into the American way and secure their obedience. Like Adorno, he claims that the cultural product that people seem to have actually been enjoying were in fact “numbing the individual’s ability to be conscious.”
It has since become a prevalent fantasy among the overeducated that we can somehow escape being snobs through force of will — that a personal effort of broad-minded considerateness can obviate class gaps and conflicts. This seems no less patronizing, the pose that someone believes that they are never “too good” for anything else. It threatens to take a proper irritation at connoisseur windbaggery and broaden it into anti-criticality. This is an implicit problem with Consciousness III’s tolerant, laissez-faire attitude. It may be that the worst snobbery is the pretense of being beyond snobbery, of being too good for snobbery about art or food or music or anything else. The whole anti-snob attitude is driven less by a desire to withhold judgment than by a belief that one has the power to validate everyone else, and moreover, that it’s one’s duty to exercise this power continually. Social media institutionalizes this attitude of faux-tolerant “liking,” reinforcing the narcissism of benevolent approval.
What’s missing in Reich’s account of administered taste is a recognition that Consciousness III is no more genuinely individualistic than the kind of consumption he condemns. Reich describes “consumer training” in a way that seems totally backward. For Reich consumer training is a matter of enforcing conformity: “Consumer training in school consists of preventing the formation of the individual consciousness, taste, aesthetic standards, self-knowledge and the ability to create one’s own satisfactions,” he asserts. If that was ever the case, it certainly isn’t now, when consumer training is precisely the development of an individual taste that can be broadcast over social media, that can add value to the brands that people latch onto and “co-create.” Consumer training is learning how to insist on having it your way (and then see that as the limit of politics). Highly personalized consumption has been incorporated as part of the innovation and marketing process by producers, overcoming the “consumer-worker contradiction” that Reich expected to blow up the system. Instead off-label modes of consumption and efforts to publicize alternative ways of living generate new commodification opportunities for capital. The self is not recovered, rescued from consumerism; rather, more of one’s creative impulses are enlisted in perfecting consumerism, innovating for it. When Reich claims that the clothes the young generation “express freedom” over the course of ten excruciating and embarrassing pages, it becomes obvious that he fails to see how “freedom” is not something that one symbolizes with gestures. And such “free” gestures are precisely what advertising is intended to prompt us to. How creative you are is not political statement. The degree to which we think it is political is the degree to which capitalism is winning. The terms of creativity already have consumerism inscribed into them. (That is how I read Adorno, anyway.)
Really? The machine world and its media saturation and glut of commodities are part of what has allowed us to conceive of some missing true self in the first place, outlining the contours of what that missing self is supposed to be, the sort of spontaneous and unprogrammed “experience” it is supposed to revel in and recognize as “real.” The authentic self, absent or not, is a product of that bourgeois culture; that culture isn’t snuffing it out but defining it. Even if the institutions of consumer society are only interpellating us as mediocre consuming subjects, that still creates the baseline against which spontaneity and truth are measured; by rejecting the straw mass man we learn what “real” is supposed to be and how to be ingratiated by it. Or to put it another way, the true, authentic self is merely another false need inculcated by the system. (Identity is only experienced as a deficit once captialism renders aspects of it subject to our choice.) It’s at that point that the system has lifted us all to Consciousness III. We consume to become our real selves, not as compensation for the self the system obliterated. That self is constituted by means of the goods capitalist society produces in excess, and by means of the communication and distribution systems it articulates. Reich’s error is in mistaking that new “false need” of identity for a mode of liberation that was beating the system somehow.
Because Reich thinks that there’s a genuine self that gets corrupted by prolonged exposure to the system, he tends to regard youth not in terms of its ignorance but its innocence. He admires the young for the purity of their insights and their untainted wisdom, the same attitude that Wild in the Streets is broadly satirizing. Reich posits a youth politics that is based on unfettered enthusiasm and general disentanglement from the system.
Of course, the system is perfectly happy to have us worship youth; that makes fashion and status anxiety that much more biting. Heralding youth as the end-all and be-all helps enshrine novelty as the quintessence of value. And because youth lack experience, they are easily disillusioned from political commitment when they encounter the hard rock of entrenched interests, the intractability and indifference that is endemic, as well as the real differences of opinion between factions that may be unresolvable. This is largely what happened in the U.S. in the wake of The Greening of America. If we are supposed to be following youth, we end up returning to apathy ourselves.