You know things are getting bad when you start looking back with nostalgia on the Watts riots, and when anti-war demonstrations, sit-ins and the burning of draft cards seem like the "good old days." Two recent events underscore the extent to which rabblerousing no longer includes much that can be called "rabble," and is characterized by little that could be portrayed as "rousing."
Riots in the old days were about better race relations, the subversion of authority or opposition to the war. At their worst, they were nihilistic. Nihilism is specifically about nothing, which is at least something.
Today's riots are broadcast on Facebook and have the feel (and practical danger) of a lifestyle app.
When 60s radical Abbie Hoffman penned Steal This Book, he did it as a nihilistic protest against the establishment, and he knew his message would be noticed — even if those who read it hadn't paid for the book.
One of the most salient facts about the recent London riots was that the rioters looted all kinds of stores: shoe stores, clothing stores and computer stores. But they left the book stores untouched.
It got so lonely in Waterstone and W.H. Smith, two British chain bookstores, that one aggrieved employee even dared the rioters to loot his store. "If they steal some books," he said, "they might actually learn something."
At my alma mater, the University of California at Santa Barbara, students burned down the Bank of America building. It wasn't a particularly constructive demonstration, but they at least had some coherent platitudes they could spout.
The protesters of the 1960s questioned authority; made love, not war; tuned in, turned on, dropped out; and hell no, they wouldn't go. What would the London protesters have painted on their signs if such an alien thought had struck them?
"Give Reeboks a Chance!" "Bring our toys home!" "Steal this Nook!"
In fact, many of the Occupiers of Wall Street seem to be there for purely therapeutic reasons — as a way to deal with their ennui: "I was too young for the civil rights movement," said one 66-year-old woman. "And during the Vietnam War, I was too serious a student. Now, I just want to stand up and have my voice be heard."
For some people, in other words, this is just one big, boisterous encounter group.
The 60s protesters had enough courage of conviction to constitute a palpable threat. The Wall Street protesters, lacking conviction in anything in particular, haven't even managed enough of a legitimate physical threat for police to resort to their riot gear. And the only possible use for tear gas would have been to disburse the crowds of reporters who were trying to figure out why exactly these people were marching.
The political and philosophical emptiness of the protests in London and Wall Street don't even rise to the level of nihilism. Nihilists are actually dangerous — like the ones in Dostoevsky's The Possessed, a book the London protesters could have burned, if they hadn't been so busy trying on the clothes they were stealing.
In fact, had the London protesters not been standing in line patiently waiting for their turn to steal (no joke — it's apparently a British thing), they could have been down at the bookstore, where, in the process of looting, they could have taken a few moments to leaf through Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, a book which prophesies that, once Western culture has given up on Christianity, it will, in its death throes, produce what he called "The Last Man."
The Last Man is a figure who seeks mere warmth, has no real commitment to anything, is averse to any real risks and, because he lacks the imagination even to dream, is completely incapable of anything great.
The Last Men of this Seinfeld Revolution can't tell you what they are protesting because they don't know, and the signs they carry don't tell you much, other than that they want the government to do everything for them. In other words, they want us to become the North American equivalent of Greece.
They may be rebels, but they're rebels without a clue.