The Triumph of Consciousness III by John J. Reilly.
A few years ago, Diarmaid MacCulloch reminded us at great length in his historical survey, The Reformation, that the 16th century was a century of "reformations," of reforming councils and statements of faith, of polemics and scandal. That was almost as true of Catholic as of emerging Protestant Europe. To note this fact is not to imply that there was nothing to choose between the two sides (or three sides, or more in some places); it does imply that the people of that time had a characteristic way of doing things. The point is of wider application. It is not unreasonable to characterize Robespierre as "Left" and Burke as "Right," for instance; they lived in the first generation to which those terms may be applied. However, that very opposition meant that the opponents were part of a single conceptual system. Burke's idea of tradition was inflected in a way that made it comprehensible to the Left of his generation, even if they found it repulsive. Left and Right are positive and negative particles that have been circling around each other since they separated during the Enlightenment, and they will continue to do so until modernity ends.
These observations are exercises in historicism. That is to some extent an acquired taste, one that many worthy persons never acquired, C.S. Lewis not least among them. For him, the Zeitgeist was the sort of spook that the critic should seek to exorcise from an historical account, especially when received opinion about the spirit of a past age got in the way of a direct assessment of what the people of that time were trying to say. Nonetheless, he also had a lively sense that one of the uses of the past is to make us skeptical about the present. As he noted in Surprised by Joy:
"Owen Barfield made short work of what I have called my 'chronological snobbery', the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the uncritical acceptance that whatever has gone out of date is on that account to be discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also a 'period', and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions."
What was true of Lewis's present is also true of our own. By "our own," I mean the early 21st-century world of the Baby-Boomers, all other generations being slackful and of no account (a point to which we will return). There are controversies in our era, intractable, long-running controversies, whose partisans believe that life will not be worth living if the other side wins. When that sort of thing happens, it is a good bet that the two sides participate in some deeper cultural insistence.
We need not wait until "the future" to perceive such an insistence; again, one of the uses of historical memory is to make such an insistence visible. Indeed, one may predict the importance of such an insistence even before it takes hold, though as is the nature of successful prophecy, its fulfillment is likely to appear ironic in light of the context in which it was made. Consider this piece of true and accurate prognostication, from a book published in 1970:
"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."
The quotation is from no less a source than The Greening of America, by law-professor Charles Reich. That book was accounted the leading description of the ideology of the Counter Culture, the natural ideology of "the kids" (though not, of course, invented by them in every detail) who were born in the decade-and-a-half after the Second World War and would soon carry all of America before them. The Greening of America does not bear rereading, unless perhaps you are fishing for quotes for a magazine article. The bulk of the book consists of New Left commonplaces and sentimental multiculturalism, plus a large measure of non-specific but highly apocalyptic ecological engagement. The book is held together by a dialectical model of American history. In seems that Consciousness I, the frontier spirit, was replaced by Consciousness II, the technocratic mindset of the Organization Man. The terminus to the series, as you might expect, is Consciousness III. The author describes it in these terms:
"Consciousness III starts with the self. In contrast to Consciousness II, which accepts society, the public interest, and institutions as the primary reality, III declared that the individual self is the only true reality. Thus it returns to the earlier America: "My self I sing." The first commandment is: thou shalt not do violence to thyself."
What Charles Reich foresaw here does pretty obviously express itself in the ideology of autonomy that underlies the Cultural Left. That includes the constellation of presumptions and practices that inform contraception, abortion, gay marriage, and, in theory, euthanasia. (The underlying unity of these things is not controversial, by the way; the jurisprudence from one to the other is seamless.) Our cultural and political discourse, however, would be greatly clarified if we kept in mind that Consciousness III also underlies economic libertarianism and the radical hostility to government per se. The Tea Party is quite as much a vindication of Charles Reich as perpetual funding for Planned Parenthood.
It is not a new observation that the student radicalism of the 1960s actually began on the Right, that Hillary Clinton began her political engagement as a Goldwater Girl; and for that matter, that the candidacy of Barry Goldwater preceded that of George McGovern. It is still insufficiently appreciated, however, that this early activism was not simply a transitory phase, soon to be transformed by the Summer of Love and the Tet Offensive into various kinds of liberalism. It was the basis for what "conservatism" came to mean in the 21st century, a pea from the same pod that gave us an equally novel meaning for "liberalism."
One of the most astonishing things about the last third of the 20th century was how totally the New Deal state lapsed. This is something that our contemporary fans of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, for instance, tend to miss. In that book, there is an uppity, Soviet-light command-economy government attempting to tell entrepreneurs what to make in their factories and what traffic to carry on their railroads. The book presented a parody of how the New Deal regulators functioned, but the way they did function sometimes merited parody. Indeed, at the time the book was written, there were government agencies that could mandate "balanced" content in news reporting, and that embraced the task of ensuring monopoly profits for a few pampered airlines and telecommunications companies. The interest rates on bank savings accounts were set by administrative fiat. Private persons could not own gold. Such wickedness; the mind boggles.
Now that was Big Government; Consciousness II Government, if you will. With the exception of some residual macroeconomic regulation of agriculture, it has almost all gone away.
The Consciousness III Government that superseded it was entrepreneurial. It was as entrepreneurial, in its own way, as the businesses that took advantage of the purely economic deregulation that occurred at the same time. The enforcement of the new class of social and business regulation was turned over to the private bar rather than to centralized administrators. The public interest bar was empowered to sue to correct abuses of the environment or of health and safety, or imbalances in the demographic structure of the workforce. The term for this device was "the private attorney general." In large measure, regulatory agencies became mechanisms for enforcing private court judgments. Indeed, when people object to the activism of the courts, what they are usually objecting to is the entrepreneurial zeal of Consciousness III lawyers.
In the context of business regulation, the two versions of Consciousness III are sometimes in conflict. Such conflicts occasion hard words, which are often spoken in splendidly financed electoral battles. In many other contexts, however, the two forms of Consciousness III, what we may call autonomy and libertarianism, complement each other with eerie ease. Mary Ann Glendon noted in First Things (Principled Immigration June/July 2006) has characterized the great demographic change that occurred in the last generation as "replacement immigration" necessitated by a more anti-natalist society. From the perspective of autonomy, this development reflected both the normalization of a Consciousness III family ethic, as well as an exercise in bio-politics designed to subvert the very idea of national borders. For libertarians, of course, the new immigration, especially its illegal element, meant lower labor costs paid to workers who were not in a position to demand public services.
Such serendipitous accord can generate conflicts that are not always apparent. If a short answer must be given for why the United States did not develop a single-payer or other form of universal health insurance over the past 30 years, a good one might be that no society with open borders can have a walk-in policy for public health-services. Further application of loose immigration policies will reveal that the point applies to all public services, but that's another question.