George Walford: Steam Engine Time (40)

Charles Fort [1] used to maintain that an idea would spread when its time had come, and although truistic the idea is difficult to resist when one finds what seem at first glance to be partial accounts of systematic ideology appearing incidentally in books on other subjects. The present example occurs in The Greening of America by Charles A. Reich [2]:

Defining his specialised use of “consciousness,” Reich says:

[it] is not a set of opinions, information or values, but a total configuration in any given individual, which makes up his whole perception of reality, his whole world view. It is a common observation that once one has ascertained a man’s beliefs on one subject, one is likely to be able to predict a whole range of views and reactions. Ask a stranger on a bus or airplane about psychiatry or redwoods or police or taxes or morals or . war, and you can guess with fair accuracy his views on all the rest of these topics and many chers besides, even though they are seemingly unrelated. If he thinks wilderness areas should be ‘developed’ he is quite likely to favor punitive treatment for campus disruptions. If he is enthusiastic about hunting wild animals, he probably believes that the American economic system rests on individual business activity, and has an aversion to people with long hair…

Quite evidently the individual cannot allow any part of his consciousness to be challenged without feeling that the whole configuration is threatened. Thus a person who believes in ‘free enterprise’ as part of his total perception of reality may resist, despite an overwhelming showing, the conclusion that ‘free enterprise’ no longer serves to produce the same social consequences that it used to…

Included within the idea of consciousness is a person’s background, education, politics, insight, values, emotions and philosophy, but consciousness is more than these or even the sum of them. It is the whole man, his ‘head; his way of life. It is that by which he creates his own lift and thus creates the society in which he lives.

Defined in this way, a consciousness is remarkably close to what s.i. terms a major ideology. Reich even speaks of “levels of consciousness,” Walsby’s original term for what later became the hierarchy of ideologies, and he recognises them as attributes of society rather than of individuals, saying “We would not expect any real individual to exhibit in symmetrical perfection all the characteristics of one type of consciousness.” He goes on to distinguish three types:

Consciousness I is the traditional outlook of the American farmer, small businessman, and worker who is trying to get ahead. Consciousness II represents the values of an organizational society. Consciousness III is the new
generation.

Reich’s publishers claim his book to be “No. 1 Best Seller.” Most works making that claim have long been forgotten, but this one made a more enduring impression, although its ideas did not sweep through to victory. The conclusions Reich draws from his undoubted insights are not altogether dear, partly because he is a fast man with a saving qualifier. When he says: “Every evidence we have is that youngsters in high school are potentially more radical, more committed to a new way of life, than their elders in college,” if that “potential” be taken seriously it defuses the driving certainty of the rest of the sentence. He predicts continuing rapid growth of the hippy culture, expecting parents to come to share the life-style and politics of the young. He speaks of the speed with which the change is taking place, sweeping the high schools and the streets, beginning to humanize and transform the landscape. Without directly committing himself on the issue whether Consciousness III is to displace I and II he suggests this expectation. The state has begun to destroy itself, Consciousness I and II offer nothing to their devotees, everybody really wants what Consciousness III offers.

Nothing in the book anticipates the collapse of the hippy sub-culture, the transformation of the consciousness-changing drugs from an alleged means of liberation into a chemical plague, or anything like the repeated election of President Reagan. Mr. Reich’s theory lacks predictive power and it is not only hindsight that reveals its limitations. The book did not come to the notice of IC on its first appearance, but had it done so the s.i. analysis would have led us to point out that it contains no systematic attempt to account for the presence of his three levels of consciousness, does not ask whether they may be functionally interdependent and has little to say about appearances of any of them before the 18th Century. Studies of the ideological past and present which remain so grossly incomplete can hardly be expected to provide ground for reliable prediction. The perceptiveness displayed in the early part of the book leads one to expect more than the conventional trendiness in which it ends up, and it is difficult to avoid the thought that we have here a thinker capable of better things who chose to fudge his conclusions to please his intended audience.

NOTES:
[1] Author/editor of Lo!, The Book of the Damned, and other collections of reports of strange events in the natural world, from which he drew disturbing conclusions.
[2] Bantam Books, New York, 1971.

See also Steam Engine Time from Ideological Commentary 54.

from Ideological Commentary 40, July 1989.