What is decadence? According to Ross Douthat it does not necessarily mean “decay or decline”, nor is it “a comprehensive civilisational indictment — in which moral decay goes hand in hand with overripe aestheticism and rampant hedonism, which in turn connects to a cowardly failure to make the necessary sacrifices required to protect civilisation from its enemies”.
Powerful empires have been laid waste “at the height of their political and cultural vigour” and they have given in to their “appetitive excesses” while remaining stable. Douthat notes that more than 400 years lapsed from Nero’s reign to the fall of Rome.
In The Decadent Society, the New York Times columnist analyses Western decadence from multiple standpoints, considers several different types of potential endings for the modern West, and appraises some ways we might find renewal or renaissance before concluding that we will go on in our decadence, almost in spite of ourselves. Douthat turns to the 2000 book From Dawn to Decadence, written by the magnificent Jacques Barzun, to acquire wisdom on this front. Barzun says of a decadent age that it “is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance”. The historian sees “the open confessions of malaise . . . When people accept futility and the absurd as normal”.
Douthat distills that: “Decadence, deployed usefully, refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.” (emphasis original). The age of American decadence dates from “late July in the year 1969, when a trio of human beings” were able “to stand and walk and leap upon the moon”. That triumph, however, was the peak. America has not followed it with greater successes, and has been content to leave the Space Age behind without fully exploring the next frontier. “Since Apollo, we have entered into decadence.”
We do not dream much, hope much, venture much, but are content with repetition, sclerosis, economic torpor, intellectual and scientific stasis, and finally our “decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own significant success”.
Douthat’s book unfolds along entangled lines of economic, demographic, political, cultural and religious sluggishness where he gathers the evidence for Western societies not waiting or wanting to die, hopelessly corrupt, or even facing impending doom, but where inhabitants live off the stock of a preexisting greatness and do not contribute new achievements. Much of Douthat’s analysis focuses on the failure to break new ground technologically and how this is evident economically.
Capitalism is built on risk and a spirit for great profits according to Joseph Schumpeter. There are, Douthat argues, multiple headwinds tamping down the raw instincts of Western capitalism, conclusions familiar to those who follow the flat trends in productivity, wages, and growth over the past four decades. He notes that 2017 produced a milestone: the median American family was now earning more than $60,000 annually.
What had voters missed in 2016 when lifelong socialist Bernie Sanders almost bested Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination for president, which also saw a populist Republican elected to the presidency? Douthat answers that voters understood the dismal economic reality. And that the new wage record in 2017 barely eclipsed the median income in 2007, “which in turn barely exceeded the peak of 1999”.
Similarly, household wealth has stagnated. In 2017, the median household was worth $80,000, “the same amount that it was worth in . . . 1983”. I can quibble with Douthat’s numbers here. Economist Michael Strain notes, “From 1990 to 2019 the median [US] male worker’s wages grew by 23 per cent. The bottom 10 per cent of male workers saw their wages increase by 36 per cent over this period.” Similarly, with households, “median US household wealth enjoyed a 44 per cent increase in income from 1990 to 2016”. Much of that data, though, incorporates an expansive definition of income. It isn’t stagnant income data, but it’s hardly a churning capitalist dynamism.
There is something generally lacking in Western economies regarding growth and innovation, with the lone American success in the past decade of hydraulic fracking, which has upended oil markets globally. His related points on how slow innovation produces negative feedback loops for future exploration and investment that in turn lead to fewer breakthroughs is obviously true, until it isn’t.
Joseph Schumpeter observes in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942) that both stasis and episodes of inventions that destroy existing products and businesses and rearrange the economic order are part of capitalist developments in the longer view of things. However, Douthat’s likely reply would point to deficit spending and our vast welfare states in the decadent society and the toll this takes on the possibilities for what Schumpeter famously describes as “creative destruction”.
A society caught in the past and unable to think intelligently about the future struggles to agree on necessary reform
Douthat’s chapter on “Sterility” delves into the meaning of our increasingly childless societies. A country needs 2.1 births per woman to sustain its population. Other than Israel, no Western country has above replacement level birthrates. The European Union average is 1.6. As of 2018, the American average is 1.7. Why? Douthat’s inquiries here are instructive. It isn’t merely which nations are more religious or conservative. Israel’s birthrate of 3.1 by comparison with the EU or America is astonishingly high. Many point to its Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox populations, but Douthat notes that even among secular Israelis the birthrate has increased in recent decades.
He locates the reason in the sense of purpose that Israelis face as they protect and strengthen their country. They can’t get flabby like the Kantian humanitarians in Belgium. However, even within Europe things work against type. The secular Swedes outdo the Catholic and conservative Poles. The British and Scandinavians have higher birthrates than the Greeks and the Spaniards. However, in America, birthrates for highly religious families do outpace their secular counterparts.
The real answer is in “the fact that since the sexual revolution, men and women seem to be having more and more trouble successfully and permanently pairing off”. The inconvenient truth is that an age baked in pornography and hypersexuality maybe the least sexually capable one of them all. As Douthat remarks, “People reacted to the social revolutions of the 1960s first by marrying less and divorcing more and having fewer children, more of whom were born outside of wedlock, and then eventually by marrying much less, having many fewer children, and . . . having less sex period.”
The author traces his own robust Douthats in generations past that contained large families with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandchildren, but this ended with his parents’ generation and its smaller families, later marriages, divorces, and abortions. It’s a story many of us can see in our own families.
The financial journalist Megan McArdle illustrates the type of polity an ageing and increasing child-less society produces in her fictional account of “Twilight City” with a median age of 58 versus “Morningburg” with a median age of 28. Twilight City has fewer business startups and risk-taking; its denizens rely on the firms and technologies that have performed well. They work fewer hours and aggressively seek to protect what they have. Sound familiar? The future doesn’t call for the best to step forward, they’re in their easy chairs already.
“Morningburg” contains the opposite mindset, but in addition to entrepreneurial attitudes, there are children, the future matters tremendously for parents. Douthat’s invocation of McArdle’s comparison sets forth the type of politics a decadent society produces: caught in the past, unable to think intelligently about the future, such a democracy struggles to deliberate, compromise, and agree on the means for necessary reform.
Douthat puts front and centre the policy fits of the Obama administration as evidence of policy-making failure in a decadent republic. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) was his singular achievement and was once viewed as major healthcare legislation that would bridge the gap for the so-called 30 million Americans without healthcare insurance.
However, passed without any opposition support, implemented by executive bargaining outside the bounds of the law, and barely upheld by favorable Supreme Court decisions, Obamacare is now one more patchwork piece of healthcare reform in an increasingly corporatist system. One could blame the intransigence of the Republicans for Obamacare’s passage and rollout, but Douthat notes that President Obama’s actions played on a political order characterised by “kludgeocracy” or “policies that are more arbitrary and jerry-rigged and opaque and unstable and subject to sudden reversals than legislation forged in democratic deliberation”.
Each policy failure makes it even more difficult to find “clear organising principles” that will chart a path forward. The Republican Party’s bankruptcy has been the inability of its politicians to avoid the same dysfunctional forces that the conservative intellectual class decries. Is there any Republican in Washington trying to restore the constitutional and deliberative nature of the US Congress? No, but there is a surplus of Republican members on Fox News impotently decrying the evils of the administrative state and activist judges.
Beyond Washington pathologies, Douthat asks if the decadent West will finally end. If not, will it be renewed or transformed? The answers here are various. One thing is for sure, we are currently going in circles. Part of the answer lies in our comfortably numb state, which stems from the victory of the 1960s counterculture and how the roughest edges of its fallout have been smoothed.
The counterculture became the culture, and now holds the commanding heights of our legal, bureaucratic, corporate, educational, media, and major formative institutions. However, the new culture of 1968 didn’t build anything in place of what it pulled down. Gramsci’s disciples marched through the institutions but only to pour the acids of egalitarianism onto the vital forces of culture and politics, replacing something with less than nothing.
Douthat argues that the virtual escapism of porn, video games, iPhones, and pharmaceuticals has allowed a decadent order to manage the violence, teenage delinquency, and crime rates of the preceding decades without religious, familial or civil society revival. The antisocial trends of the 1970s through the 1990s calmed. Teenagers seem less inclined to violence, sexual relationships and drug use. Thank the iPhones. However, is such a society one that produces a free and responsible citizenry? The returns are mixed and troubling.
Douthat downplays certain collapse scenarios for Western societies. Global warming is an issue, but we will probably adapt to it should the more dire predictions for temperature increases prove true. Democratic socialism in Western democracies isn’t really a viable option. After all, the road to serfdom will be hard to pave with our current anaemic economic growth rates and ageing populations.
An Islamic takeover of Europe won’t happen, Douthat convincingly argues. These migrants stem from societies in the Middle East that have demographic problems similar or worse than Europe. Islamic immigrants are downwardly mobile in European cities and huddle in poor neighbourhoods, and Islam itself is not culturally ascending in Europe compared to communism, which did capture the minds of many brilliant men and women. I would add that the doors to mass Muslim migration to Europe have largely closed at this point. It is hard to see the summer of 2015 repeating itself.
One religious scenario considered plausible by Douthat is the ongoing growth of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa coupled with the fallout from climate change that makes the African continent incredibly hot and unable to support its ever-increasing population. That population bulge will likely migrate to Europe. Even without climate change, the global population future a century from now, Douthat forecasts, will be seven Africans to every one European. Migration is coming and could involve the re-Christianisation of Europe given the religion’s prevalence in this part of Africa. Of course, such migration could also lead to intense divisions and incredible violence on the continent of Europe.
I wonder, though, if our author hasn’t missed the dangerous nature of the creature “born to trouble as the sparks fly upward”. In particular, how that trouble manifests itself in times of malaise, boredom, when there are no “clear lines of advance”. Might political passions lead one side to favor an extremist base, setting the stage for revenge and recrimination with no ending point precisely because racial, cultural, class and religious contests find peace and forgiveness difficult to give?
Douthat says that social media actually salves our worst political instincts by giving them an outlet. But what if the internet isn’t enough and instead of social media campaigns, we get street campaigns consumed with violence? Well might we hope not for a deceptive decadence or its violent end, but for humility, repentance, and a turning to the foundational sources of our civilization. But say the word only . . .
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