Political Youth

The explosive ones. — When one considers how much the energy of young men needs to explode, one is not surprised that they decide for this cause or that without being at all subtle or choosy. What attracts them is the sight of the zeal that surrounds a cause — as it were, the sight of the burning fuse, and not the cause itself. Subtle seducers therefore know the art of arousing expectations of an explosion while making no effort to furnish reasons for their cause: reasons are not what wins over such powder kegs. (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Walter Kaufmann translation, ยง38.)

The two secrets to understanding the political activism of youth are right there in Nietzsche’s pithy summary.

First, one must engage them when their energy is high but their sense of true purpose low, such that their daily existence is almost nothing but nervous agitation in desperate search of an outlet. They will in this condition be easily attracted by the promise of an atmosphere of “explosiveness,” which is to say of radical change, where the particular kind of change is of negligible importance to them compared to the feeling of exercising or releasing their power.

Second, one must rally them to the excitement of the cause without providing reasons. Logical argument, careful distinctions, and the moderating effect of qualifications and honest uncertainties are exactly the way to kill the zeal of radicalized passion. Hence, if one’s goal were to contain the bubbling energy of youth, for the sake of guiding it onto a reasonable and virtuous path, then logic, subtlety, and intellectual humility would be the weapons of choice, as every good teacher knows. But when one’s aim, on the contrary, is to release that agitation for one’s own destructive aims, exploiting it as a Molotov cocktail to be thrown through the windows of civility and political norms, then rational explanation is actually counterproductive, for it naturally tempers the heat of enthusiasm. It is therefore, as Nietzsche says, the zeal surrounding a cause, rather than the cause itself understood as a reasoned position, that one must emphasize, if attracting energized but ignorant youth — and burning them as fuel precisely by exploiting their ignorance — is one’s goal.

From this it follows, necessarily, that not only the methods, but also the aims, of those seeking to arouse activist passion in the young run directly counter to the methods and aims of those seeking to educate and enlighten the young. Most particularly, the aims are different with regard to their intended beneficiary. For the purpose of taming youthful energy with reason and enlivening the natural desire for knowledge is primarily, and most importantly, to prepare the young soul to manage its own life well and freely, where freedom means rational self-governance. By contrast, the purpose of igniting and releasing youthful energy against the norms of civil society, without furnishing the young with a clear explanation and justification of their cause (the “prairie fire” strategy, to borrow from the Weather Underground playbook), is entirely to use the young as combustible fuel for furthering one’s own ends. In other words, whereas the educational path, properly understood, treats the young as ends in themselves, and serves their needs, the activist rabble-rousing path calls forth the irrational enthusiasm of immaturity to subdue and exploit the young as servants of causes they did not choose and do not understand.

Furthermore, to carry this analysis one step further, the youthful explosiveness that Nietzsche describes, once coaxed and flattered onto its breathless chase after this or that burning fuse of convenience, will be sustained in that irrational race to destruction and servility, and hardened in its steadfast ignorance, by the psychological mechanisms of vanity. For “explosiveness,” though an informative metaphor, is really a catch-all reference to the excitability of the passions in general, which is especially acute in youth for the simple reason that teenagers and young adults are still mostly potential in nature, but are at the age at which potential reaches a rolling boil in its anxious drive for actualization. Where the explanatory power of the metaphor of explosiveness ends, however, is at the point where these untutored and immoderate passions have indeed been engaged, and the souls of the young become enraptured by the fear-obscuring attractions of collective enthusiasm and the intoxication of the unbridled shouting of hatred against their elders, i.e., against “society” reinterpreted as a safely detached surrogate for parental authority.

And it is here that Nietzsche’s special condition for attracting the explosive energy of youth, namely the careful avoidance of justifying reasons — that is to say, the deliberate dulling of the spirit of curiosity that leads to rational doubt about, and investigation of, one’s “causes” — pays its greatest dividends. For the character of effective activism, in the radical or “revolutionary” sense of that word, is largely reducible to one overriding sentiment: anger. But few emotions have a more powerful self-perpetuating impulse in the psyche than irrational anger, i.e., anger aroused without well-reasoned justifications. For irrational anger, especially once given full voice in a public context, the outraged cry issued amid the mob that screams “Injustice!” without understanding either what that means or whose ends are being served by all this morally coercive aggresssion, places the soul at a tremendous emotional disadvantage from the point of view of self-discovery, let alone self-correction. The youth activist is fully committed, in the most vociferous and uncompromising way, among his peers and before his elders, such that to feel now, let alone to reveal, any reservations or misgivings about all those shouted certainties would be to reduce oneself to humiliation and self-mockery. Hence, the anger must be sustained, heightened, exaggerated, in order to serve as one’s impenetrable armor against the shame of realizing that one has befooled oneself before the world.

Indignation, the rage against challenges that the soul employs to protect itself against the pain of self-doubt, is a natural human weakness, which everyone experiences to varying degrees. It is especially typical and dangerous in youth, however, as the awareness of incompleteness and general ignorance, combined with the growing need to prove oneself competent and mature, infuses the young individual with so much fear of being exposed in his inadequacy and uncertainty. Overcoming the reflexes of this defensive anger in the names of self-understanding and self-development is a necessary and proper goal of true education, cultivating the desire for knowledge by way of softening the walls of self-protective certainty that, if allowed to harden the soul in its realm of inherited easy answers, petrify the learning impulse and thwart spiritual individuation and maturation.

These so-called explosive ones, having been rallied to activism with the promise of the tantalizing combination of significance and belonging — immediate empowerment buttressed by the protective embrace of the crowd — are in ultimate effect the ones least likely to explode upon anything worth blowing up. For they detonate, to the extent they can, within their own impenetrable fortress of absolute but unreasoned certitudes. The establishment they believe they are fighting is in truth only their own better natures, or the inherited customs they have forsaken without understanding, since in their activist zeal they merely serve, though unbeknownst to themselves, as cannon fodder, agitprop, or frontline sacrificial lambs for the establishmentarian radicals who own and operate them. They are servile instruments of the saddest kind, young souls whose best energies have been deliberately squandered and diverted from their proper purpose and path, namely self-knowledge and self-overcoming, by way of artificially stoked anger and ignorant ranting under the control of puppeteers they neither have the awareness to recognize, nor the reasoning skills to question.

So they merely serve, enthusiastically and devotedly, and therefore also pathetically and degradingly, without even knowing whom they serve or why.

You may also like...