FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Higher Consciousness Won’t Save Us

by NORMAN SOLOMON

Autumn 2010 is a time of disillusionment for many who deplore the USA’s current political trajectory. Some who’ve been active for progressive causes are now gravitating toward hope that individual actions — in tandem with higher consciousness, more down-to-earth lifestyles and healthy cultural alternatives — can succeed where social activism has failed. It’s an old story that is also new.

From economic inequities to global warming to war, the nation’s power centers have repulsed those who recognize the urgency of confronting such crises head-on. High unemployment has become the new normal. Top officials in Washington have taken a dive on climate change. The warfare state is going great guns.

When social movements seem to be no match for a destructive status quo, people are apt to look around for alternative strategies. One of the big ones involves pursuing individual transformations as keys to social change. Forty years ago, such an approach became all the rage — boosted by a long essay that made a huge splash in The New Yorker magazine just before a longer version became a smash bestseller.

The book was “The Greening of America,” by a Yale University Law School teacher named Charles Reich. In the early fall of 1970, it created a sensation. Today, let’s consider it as a distant mirror that reflects some similar present-day illusions.

On the front cover of “The Greening of America,” big type proclaimed: “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.”

That autumn, I was upbeat about Reich’s new book — including its great enthusiasm for “the revolution of the new generation.” (Hey, that was me and my friends!) The book condemned the war, denounced the overcapitalized Corporate State, panned the rigidity of schools, lauded the sensuality that marijuana was aiding, and dismissed as pathetically venal the liberalism that had driven the country to war in Vietnam.

At the time, I scarcely picked up on the fact that “The Greening of America” was purposely nonpolitical. Its crux was personal and cultural liberation — in a word, “consciousness,” which “plays the key role in the shaping of society.” And so, “The revolution must be cultural. For culture controls the economic and political machine, not vice versa.” In effect, the author maintained, culture would be a silver bullet, able to bring down the otherwise intractable death machine.

Let’s freeze frame those two dreamy claims and mull them over. Consciousness “plays the key role in the shaping of society.” And culture “controls the economic and political machine, not vice versa.”

Reich combined those outsize tributes to “consciousness” and “culture” with disdain for some plodding struggles. “The political activists have had their day and have been given their chance,” he wrote. “They ask for still more activism, still more dedication, still more self-sacrifice, believing more of the same bad medicine is needed, saying their cure has not yet been tested. It is time to realize that this form of activism merely affirms the State. Must we wait for fascism before we realize that political activism has failed?”

In his 1970 book, Reich laid it on the line: “The great error of our times has been the belief in structural or institutional solutions. The enemy is within each of us; so long as that is true, one structure is as bad as another.” And Reich added a fanciful theory of “liberation” that would leave behind the corporate liberal constraints of the era.

Liberation, he wrote, “comes into being the moment the individual frees himself from automatic acceptance of the imperatives of society and the false consciousness which society imposes.” His optimism sprang from the belief that “the whole Corporate State rests upon nothing but consciousness. When consciousness changes, its soldiers will refuse to fight, its police will rebel, its bureaucrats will stop their work, its jailers will open the bars. Nothing can stop the power of consciousness.”

Fast forward a quarter century.

In 1995, the same Charles Reich was out with another book — “Opposing the System” — his first in two decades. Gone were the claims that meaningful structural change would come only as a final step after people got their heads and culture together. Instead, the book focused on the melded power of huge corporations and the U.S. government.

Reich’s new book was as ignored as “The Greening of America” had been ballyhooed; no high-profile excerpt in The New Yorker or any other magazine, scant publicity, and not even faint controversy. Few media outlets bothered to review “Opposing the System.” A notable exception, the New York Times, trashed the book.

In his 1995 book, Reich challenged what he called “the System” — “a merger of governmental, corporate, and media power into a managerial entity more powerful by reason of technology, organization, and control of livelihood than any previously known form of rule.” Reich astutely noted that “we deny and repress the fact of corporate governmental power,” and he pointed out: “There will be no relief from either economic insecurity or human breakdown until we recognize that uncontrolled economic forces create conflict, not well-being.”

In sharp contrast to his flat assertion a quarter century earlier that “the whole Corporate State rests upon nothing but consciousness,” Reich now emphasized the egregious imbalances of financial power: “It is economic deprivation that comes first, dysfunctional behavior second, in the true cause-and-effect sequence.”

The author saw a much fuller social context for the yearning and euphoria that had animated “The Greening of America” and the era it celebrated to excess in 1970. Far wiser in 1995, he wrote: “Most of the important things in life, the things we truly desire, such as love, joy, and beauty, lie in a realm beyond the economic. What we do not recognize is how economics has become the destroyer of our hopes. It is economic tyranny that cuts off our view of a better future.”

Today, even more, we live in a time of economic tyranny. The mantra of “hope” has proven hollow when directed toward a political leader; some react to disappointment by pinning their hopes on individual consciousness or cultural transformations. But deep patterns of economic predation, ecological destruction and endless warfare cannot be effectively undermined by transcendent consciousness or cultural radicalism. Realistic hope is not in a political star or in the mere transformation of our individual selves. Our best strategies and our futures are bound together with political engagement that embraces all of humanity.

NORMAN SOLOMON is the author of Made Love, Got War.

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, where he coordinates ExposeFacts. Solomon is a co-founder of RootsAction.org.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Peter Lee
The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious madness in Ulster
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
Wayne Clark
A Reset Button for Political America
Chris Welzenbach
“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World
Patrick Hiller
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance?
Ron Jacobs
Singing the Body Electric Across Time
Ann Garrison
Fifty-five Years After Lumumba’s Assassination, Congolese See No Relief
Christopher Brauchli
Swing Low Alabama
Jon Hochschartner
The Five Least Animal-Friendly Senate Democrats
Pauline Murphy
Fighting Fascism: the Irish at the Battle of Cordoba
Louis Proyect
Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Robert Coover’s “Huck out West”
January 19, 2017
Melvin Goodman
America’s Russian Problem
Dave Lindorff
Right a Terrible Wrong: Why Obama Should Reverse Himself and Pardon Leonard Peltier
Laura Carlsen
Bringing Mexico to Its Knees Will Not “Make America Great Again”
John W. Whitehead
Nothing is Real: When Reality TV Programming Masquerades as Politics
Yoav Litvin
Time to Diss Obey: the Failure of Identity Politics and Protest
Mike Whitney
The Trump Speech That No One Heard 
Conn Hallinan
Is Europe Heading for a “Lexit”?
Stephen Cooper
Truth or Twitter? Why Donald Trump Is No John Steinbeck
Binoy Kampmark
Scoundrels of Patriotism: The Freeing of Chelsea Manning
Ramzy Baroud
The Balancing Act is Over: What Elor Azaria Taught Us about Israel
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail