APRIL 1, 2020
IN HIS OCCASIONALLY SMART but mostly unhelpful new book The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat argues that the United States, and the West generally, has entered a “decadent” phase in its civilizational story — a phase that is usually thought to be followed by some calamity, maybe apocalypse.
“Decadence” is a word you don’t encounter too often anymore — at least, not as applied to the fate of civilizations. It makes you think vaguely of Rome on fire; you start to intuit some causal link between orgies and imperial ruin. There’s a whiff of anachronism to the term: the smell of tweed, pipe smoke, a musty armchair. Douthat, aware of the odor, quickly gets down to the business of updating “decadence” for present purposes.
The New York Times conservative columnist insists the alarming term doesn’t need to imply that the barbarians are at the gates, or that we are approaching unavoidable catastrophe. We’re going to deal with civilizational problems in a very up-to-date way in this book — no deterministic funny business. He assures us, most importantly, that his use of the term need not involve an effort “to make the aesthetic and moral and political all fit together in a comprehensive civilizational indictment.”
Actually, it could sort of involve such an effort, Douthat clarifies. It just doesn’t have to. And, come to think of it, if it turns out we are “decadent,” then maybe that does mean we’re headed toward catastrophe. But maybe not. Who knows? The main thing is to stay alert.
What, then, is our 21st-century definition of that formerly antiquated term? It’s kind of long, and there are caveats. Generally, there are four signs of “decadence”: economic stagnation, the decay of political institutions, intellectual exhaustion, and a very low birth rate, all of which must be experienced at a moment of material plenty. That’s our present civilizational predicament, in a nutshell. We’re pretty rich, but we’re not getting richer; government used to work, but doesn’t anymore; art and literature were once innovative and beautiful, but are now repetitive; and no one is having any kids.
The evidence marshaled for these claims is as familiar as the problems themselves. Douthat mainly does the work of yoking everything together in one narrative, though he does not claim that the problems he addresses share a single cause or solution.
Around 1960, Douthat summarizes, the United States entered a period of technological and economic stagnation. The moon landing was our peak: technologically sublime, it inspired in Americans and the West a sense of endless possibility and promise. But recessions during the Nixon, Carter, and Reagan administrations diminished expectations. And the neoliberal solutions to those recessions — deregulation, free trade — though they led to a brief period of growth, were succeeded by decline and then the stagnation of the present. Technological innovation followed suit: aside from the internet, we’ve made few if any strides. The internet partially serves to distract from this fact — it offers a sense of rapid, second-by-second change — but does not in fact issue in real innovation.
Since the ’60s, our culture has grown stale, too, and started to repeat itself. Artists and musicians and filmmakers produce copies of what was once innovative, vital. Same with the culture wars, whose soldiers seem endlessly to rehearse the old familiar fights. There’s a performative aspect to the fights, too, and to politics in general, especially on the internet. It’s as if people are trying to relive the great political dramas of history, only digitally, without sacrificing material comfort.
Meanwhile, in Washington, politics is sclerotic. The parties are now completely polarized — each one ideologically coherent, and directly opposed to the other — and therefore mostly ineffective. Government has gotten so large that any meaningful reform to major programs is impossible. Nothing gets done, and no one except the superrich and the cultural elite, who have quarantined themselves in global cities like New York and London, have any serious prospects for economic and social advancement. Oh, and no one is having babies. It’s as if, spiritually dead and culturally exhausted, we’re committing slow-motion suicide.
There’s something for everyone to agree with, here, as well as to disagree with. Douthat gives a fair account of libertarian and left critiques of economic stagnation, giving each their due, and makes equal use of liberal and conservative accounts of polarization in Washington. You’ll get some Thomas Piketty in this book, and some Tyler Cowen, too.
In terms of the strength of their descriptions, the political and economic sections are the strongest: big, serious topics get big, serious treatment. But they have the unfortunate effect of making Douthat’s treatment of culture look silly. His reading of literature is often shockingly bland and bereft of insight, as where he claims that “the work of Michel Houellebecq, the bad hookup New Yorker short story ‘Cat Person,’ [and] the novels of Sally Rooney” merely replace the 19th-century marriage plot with “stories about how the sexes struggle to relate to one another anymore.” That remark manages to miss the point of all three works in service of a shallow argument.
The whole section on culture fails in this way. Douthat argues that we’re “decadent” — meaning, again, that our civilization could be on the verge of collapse — because Lady Gaga is as good as, but not better, than Madonna; most narrative nonfiction is just a rehash of Joan Didion; and there are too many Marvel movies. Whether these middlebrow assessments are accurate is immaterial; they are, in a book about the twilight of a civilization, frivolous.
They also illustrate a bigger problem with the book. “Decadence,” as Douthat uses it, is not a term of analysis but of mere description. It has no explanatory power. It gets us no closer to understanding why many of these societal problems exist, and certainly doesn’t help us find solutions to them. That’s because, to Douthat, the fact of our “decadence” is more interesting than any of the problems which signify it, most of which he seems blandly uninterested in fixing. In an absurd passage, Douthat notes the potentially world-saving effects of technological developments that would mitigate climate change — solar panels and the like — and dismisses them because they will not, in his view, shake us out of our decadent lethargy. They are not “sublime” — that is, not the sort of thing to inspire a sense of the transcendent. A real problem is dismissed in deference to an imaginary one.
Maybe that’s not a fair criticism. Douthat’s book is about decadence, not climate change. But if his interest is in solving decadence, and decadence is merely a kind of a stew with four main problems for ingredients, then, by solving each problem individually, couldn’t he solve the problem of decadence as a whole?
Douthat vacillates between thinking the answer is “yes,” and thinking it’s “no,” mainly because he’s torn between thinking of decadence as the sum total of these four problems, and decadence as being greater than its parts — some kind of problem unto itself, the second-to-last station on the freight train to catastrophe. Such vacillation persists in the final section of the book, where Douthat anticipates possible courses out of decadence. He can’t seem to settle on one in particular.
Here are some possible epilogues to the present. Perhaps there will be some intense economic downturn, another depression, that will turn internet radicals, now only play-actors, into real-life radicals. They’ll take to the streets, they’ll demonstrate. Soon “[f]ascists and Marxists [will] compete for power in Europe.” It’ll be the 20th century all over again. But of course we also have to consider climate change, Douthat reminds. That will cause mass migration from Africa to North America and Europe — mainly Europe. And because Africa’s population is rising while Europe’s is dropping, such a mass migration would amount to “a true world-historical event, a hinge from one age to another.” Indeed. There would be wars in Africa over increasingly scarce resources, and the huge influx of Africans in Europe would lead to political upheaval. What would follow that? Maybe something like neo-medievalism. Local solidarities would supersede national ones, and warlords would vie for supremacy in Europe.
Though, mass migration could be good, too, Douthat admits. More and more Africans are becoming Catholic, after all, so they would import a vibrant Catholicism into Europe’s dying one. Out of this mix could emerge a new Euro-African Catholicism (this seems like one of Douthat’s preferred outcomes). But then, paganism could come back, too. People seem to like astrology these days, he notes, as well as self-help á la Deepak Chopra. Oh, and did you read that novel by Michel Houellebecq, Submission, about a Muslim becoming president of France? That seemed smart, too: maybe more and more Europeans will join Islam, a very non-decadent religion. Also, the People’s Republic of China is kind of frightening — and lots of people there are really smart. Maybe they will develop some kind of master race using artificial intelligence, and the ensuing global war between China and the West would shake us out of our decadence. That seems possible. Or maybe we’ll just fix the problems we have now — reform things, basically — and live decadently into the near future. Douthat admits that’s also a possibility.
Whatever happens, he concludes, it’ll probably have something to do with technology as well as religion. So get to thinking, and get to praying, too.
If this kind of armchair chaos-theorizing tell us anything useful, or anything we don’t already know, it’s about the author. Not wanting to be proven wrong, Douthat anticipates everything and nothing. It’s the only option for a writer who wants to predict the future without looking stupid.
Just to cover bases, Douthat repudiates a core premise of his book: “[A]ny discussion of how our decadence might end has to begin with an acknowledgment that the assassin might be something entirely invisible for now, […] some catastrophe that will in hindsight seem essentially random, noncontingent and unrelated to any specific feature of our age.”
This assertion is fair enough; it also happens to contradict a core assumption of the book. So far, we’ve been asked to suppose, however hesitantly, that our age has certain features which make it “decadent,” and that there can be divined, between our age and the next, some kind of continuity, some causal link, whose roots should be apparent to us if we examine the features of our age closely. If events are “essentially random” and “unrelated to any specific feature of our age,” then all this talk about decadence leading to catastrophe has been nonsense. Events just happen; dark ages and renaissances are as likely futures as any others, including apocalypse.
Douthat takes the hedge further by adding, without irony, that “human history offers plenty of case studies in unexpected apocalypses, which arrive with little regard for the internal situation of the society.” He offers, as an example, the Aztecs who were killed by the arrival of little microbes carried across the Atlantic by Spanish explorers. It’s strange and slightly confusing to suggest that the microbes had “little regard” for the “internal situation” of Aztec society — they had no regard at all. They were microbes.
And what’s this business about “unexpected apocalypses”? How many apocalypses have in fact been adequately “expected” or presaged? Most of the people doing the expecting and the foreseeing do so from street corners and pulpits. If the apocalypse does arrive, we’d call those prophets — Douthat included — lucky, not right.