From the good Dr. Wertham's crusade against comic books to the raft of books such as The Shook-Up Generation, The Trouble Makers, Suburbia's Coddled Kids, and Teenage Tyranny, observers of young people wrung hands over the behavior of middle-class youth. It was this atmosphere that produced Rebel Without a Cause, the intended message of which was that coddling parents created troubled teens.

Yet young people made a cult favorite of the film because they saw in James Dean a friend in agony, suffering under what Paul Goodman called the American system of "growing up absurd."

For Goodman, youthful alienation was not just a stage-of-life problem but the product of the social system; and whether through anguished cries, drug use, or even petty crime, young people were launching rational, even necessary replies to an "absurd" situation. Far from a sign of sickness, the "youth problem" was to Goodman an indication that at least some Americans intuited that a society built on mass-produced materialism was deranged.

Thus the Sixties. Most of those white middle-class kids who launched themselves into public activism or into the non-political counter-culture did so in a self-conscious quest to overcome alienation.

The renowned manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society, The Port Huron Statement, was nothing if not a repudiation of the calcified, bureaucratic, automaton world to which they were expected to conform. Recall the opening sentence: "We are the people of this generation, having been bred in at least modest comfort, now housed in universities, looking uncomfortably at the world we inherit."

This was a sincere acknowledgment that they had benefited from affluence and were distressed nonetheless. Counting themselves "as perhaps the last generation in this experiment with living," they condemned the nuclear arms race not simply on the grounds that it could destroy the planet but also that it bred powerlessness in the citizenry.

The way through this deadening fate, the New Left insisted, was to create "participatory democracy," where individuals empathetically collected with other human beings amidst shared interests and in so doing recovered control over their daily lives.

The most vivid reaction against alienation appeared in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in Fall 1964. Though a very brief and localized eruption of campus radicalism, the FSM generated national attention because it captured the youth struggle in crystalline form.

When the university, which under Chancellor Clark Kerr had become the prototypical bureaucratized "multiversity," arbitrarily shut down an area traditionally set aside for political speech, the students erupted in protest. The administration's ham-handed response was to arrest people.

When one such arrest took place in the middle of the afternoon at the campus gate, angry students surrounded the police car into which Jack Weinberg (he the originator of the battle cry, "Don't trust anyone over 30!") had been placed and held it captive for the better part of two days.

The administration, determined to outdo itself in the brainless exercise of authority, suspended several dozen students deemed responsible for the incident, including a charismatic philosophy major, Mario Savio. This move had the predictable effect of generating more protest, which predictably forced the administration to back off and therefore lose its credibility.

Doing the bidding of the State Board of Regents, Kerr refused to rescind Savio's suspension, and the FSM protesters, having tasted a bit of blood, kept up the pressure. In perhaps the most memorable speech by any young activist in the Sixties, Savio took the microphone on the steps of Sproul Hall, the administration building, and declared that Kerr and the Regents considered students nothing more than "raw material" for their corporate product.

With a passion that resembled nothing so much as that key scene of angst in Rebel Without a Cause, a frothing Savio declared: "There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can no longer take part, you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, . . . and you've got to make it stop!"

This remarkable moment is available on YouTube, and I've been showing it to students at the slightest excuse. Every once in a while, someone will say, "My God, that's exactly how I feel!" I'm far more impressed, however, by how few students feel any kinship with Savio, or for that matter, how few even get him.

And this brings us full circle. Why aren't we alienated anymore?

You Can Always Get What You Want: "Choice" Replaces Alienation

The most obvious answer to this question reminds us that alienation is an affliction of affluence.

Savio and his contemporaries had the enviable luxury of security. The economy of the mid-1960s was at full employment, and corporate America, then moving into its post-industrial phase, eagerly soaked up college-educated talent—even philosophy majors.

Savio and his New Left peers regarded the corporate life as the bleakest form of captive predictability—mere "plastics," as the line in The Graduate had it. Today's college students face the very opposite: uncertain prospects in a capricious world. Many, I think, find themselves wishing for some of that predictability that Savio could afford to thumb his nose at.

But this is not the heart of the matter. For all the uncertainty they create, the structures of power that made the early postwar a period of alienation were reoriented after 1970, partly in response to the political sensibilities that erupted in the Sixties and partly in response to the shape of the post-industrial economy.

American life is as bureaucratized as ever, but Wal-Mart-like, private corporations and public institutions have put on a smiley face. The cloddish corporation of mid-century was "re-invented" into the nimble "new corporation" that practices "total quality management" or any of a thousand other business school schemes designed to convince workers that they are a "team" rather than isolated individuals. The stone-faced automaker has given way to Apple, which flirts with revolution.

As the Clinton administration shredded the social-safety net, Vice President Al Gore took it upon himself to "re-invent government" into "user-friendly" bureaucracies; even the IRS got the memo and instructed its agents to play nice.

You can hardly buy a doughnut these days without filling out a customer-satisfaction survey. The consumer, the customer, the member, the individual, is constantly solicited for input, as though the single voice matters.

No institution has been more clever at bureaucratic reinvention than the university. The impersonal multiversity has become "student-centered." The university bends over backwards to make students feel welcomed. They build enormous facilities for entertainment and well being. They make resources available for students to explore whatever interest or "lifestyle" suits them, happily patting them on the back with personal encouragement.

Can anyone imagine Clark Kerr or Columbia President Grayson Kirk dancing with students as Ohio State's president Gordon Gee did recently, and on You Tube no less?

Occasionally, a slip of an administrative tongue admits that young people are now treated as "customers" rather than students, which is why at the end of every term students are asked to fill out the university version of the customer-satisfaction survey, though they call them teaching evaluations.

The university, like the niche retailer, strains to convince its clientele that each individual matters. What administrators don't want to make so clear is that students are linked to the university through the same mechanism that links consumers to their favorite stores: personal debt. [Read here for more on the history of student loan debt.]

Contemporary technologies have undergone an equally astonishing make-over. At work, the computer has moved us from the automated assembly line to the automated office, but those same computers have become so woven into our personal lives that many Americans—maybe even most—cannot live without them. We now rely on the computer for much of our leisure activity and for much of our interpersonal communication.

When the internet first came on-line, its champions assured us that it made "virtual communities" possible. Today, "social media" makes computer technology the essential tool for creating and sustaining community, identity, and personality. It is as though the very thing that poisoned one realm of life has been re-introduced as the balm of another realm.

I am struck by how well-suited these various developments have been to addressing many of the elements of alienation. Individual powerlessness was understood as the essence of alienation. Now outfitted with tools for instant messaging and commanding the world, Americans at least feel as though they can dictate their immediate circumstances.

Coddled by public bureaucracies and courted by private ones, they've become convinced that the most apparent structures of power are malleable enough that they can find room for their idiosyncrasies and maybe even make use of those bureaucracies to express their creativity.

Apathy, long considered a symptom of powerlessness, diminishes when everyone has the opportunity to make their opinions public in the blogosphere. Even if it has all the staying power of spit in a hurricane, by God, they've still made their voices heard. Focus groups and opinion polls employ the same "customer-comes-first" approach to politics that savvy marketers of "tweeners" apparel use.

It no longer matters much that people don't share the general values of their geographical communities, since they can link up with the like-minded in a virtual world. There is no Lonely Crowd in the age of Facebook.

The common thread in these antidotes to alienation is that they all are convoluted with consumption, which is to say, with contemporary capitalism. Taken as a whole, they all promote the creation of niches, which become vulnerable to advertisers and marketers as soon as they give any indication of commercial viability.

More important, they promote the doctrine of choice, and with it the illusion that individuals can master their world by what they buy, whom they hook up with, and what they choose to believe. The only functional value broad enough to apprehend this sprawling social system is just that: the value of individual choice.

And that is a value system so accommodating that everyone can fit into it pretty much however they imagine themselves doing so. Americans, it seems, have become comfortable with comfort.

The Free Speech Coffee Shop

Of course, alienation has not entirely disappeared in the United States, much less in the developing world, as we see in the case of Mr. Mutallab. Problems in social psychology move by degrees, not absolutes.

Today's Tea Partiers may well be acting out of a sense of alienation. It probably is relevant that the closest examinations of this microburst of political outrage tell us that the typical Tea Partier is a relatively well-to-do, middle-aged white male. They are affluent baby boomers, in other words; maybe they missed out on the Free Speech Movement.

From time to time, alienation appears as an artistic theme, as in that not-so-recent classic film, Office Space. And from time to time, the concept crops up in someone's analysis of a current issue. Just recently, Bill Clinton described Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, as a "deeply alienated and disconnected" American.

But as both a paradigmatic way of explaining ourselves to ourselves and as a tangible social-psychological difficulty, alienation has mostly evaporated. Maybe that is not a bad thing. But I can't help to think that the antidotes that the American social system has promoted in the last quarter century have masked more than they've cured.

There is a pronounced superficiality about so much of our high-tech consumption that I cannot bring myself to see it as a satisfying way of life. The outlets for genuine creativity are increasingly circumscribed. Those smiley-face corporations are complicit in a now-global labor system of breathtaking exploitation, and they throw away loyal workers at a whim.

As in 1960, college students sit at the intersection of today's systemic structures. They reside within an emblematic smiley-face bureaucracy, which exists to mold them into complacent consumers. The system rolls on.

Most students seem to appreciate the university's solicitousness and don't get worked up over much of anything. Busy in self-cultivation, they rarely see themselves as part of an exploitative system, not least because their exploitation is at once so kindly and seemingly incontestable. Yet they are part of a social system that joins long-term uncertainty with accumulated debt and turns them into present-day versions of indentured servants.

If the Affluent Society coddled young people through a prolonged adolescence, the post-affluent society ensnares them into the system of consumption with the first cell phone and the first credit card; pushes them into colleges that no longer guarantee a secure future; and then shoves them into a labor force where, if they're lucky, they'll land a $30,000-a-year job and face indebtedness into middle age.

That's what indentured servitude is: a prolonged condition of un-freedom, during which the servant performs various kinds of menial labor.

One would think that, under the circumstances, there would be a nationwide movement of resistance among young people to control college tuition and secure far more generous public support. If massive student strikes become necessary, so be it. You'd think that with all their social-networking skills, they ought to be able to pull it off.

But precisely because they have been trained not to think in systemic terms, precisely because the structures of power encourage the myth of choice, no such student movement is anywhere on the horizon.

It seems somehow telling in this regard that, as a colleague reminds me, the only residue of the Free Speech Movement left on the Berkeley campus is the Free Speech Coffee Shop. With a $4.50 latte in hand and our laptops connected to the wireless, we are alienated no longer.