The Decadent Society: How We Became The Victims Of Our Own Success
Simon & Schuster, 2020, 272 pp., $27.00
Ross Douthat wants to talk about outer space. The New York Times columnist and National Review film critic has plenty of ideas to share about Star Wars and Star Trek and our own species’ prospects for space colonization.
But mostly, he wants to talk about the moon.
In his telling, the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 was both the pinnacle of American achievement and the last gasp of a dynamic society. Though it promised a new beginning of space exploration, “one giant leap for mankind” proved to be an ending. Closing the frontier shuttered our cultural imagination, and since then, contrary to popular assumption, Douthat argues, the story of Western culture has been one of enervation, not innovation.
Following the late cultural critic Jacques Barzun, Douthat calls this “decadence,” by which he implies not just “excess” or “moral depravity” but a broad cultural “falling off.” In The Decadent Society, the author makes his case that this decline, accompanied by the appearance of material success, has defined the last 50 years of Western institutions. Though this terrain overlaps with other post-liberal Christian intellectuals such as Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher, he shares little of their apocalyptic tone. Religious conservatives expecting a polemical lament of the death of Western values will be disappointed, as will progressives eager to dismiss another Chicken Little. Throughout the book, the author’s natural curiosity and willingness to question assumptions make for engaging reading, and direct him close to the heart of our modern malaise.
According to Douthat, we are decadent because of the arenas in which we have grown and diminished in the last half-century. Economically, the top percentile has thrived, while the rest of us have floundered. Though magical hand-held devices have taken over our lives in the last decade, Douthat argues that life appears much the same in 2020 as it did in 1970. Meanwhile, plummeting birthrates in the first world have set the stage for economic and cultural contraction. More than anything else, Douthat’s idea of decadence is underwritten by dissonance—between what is and what appears to be, between the limits of the natural world and our own cocoons of modern comfort.
Our economy highlights this modern incongruity. To start, the milk and honey that flows from Silicon Valley proves to be largely illusory. Three internet-fueled ventures—the ill-fated Frye Festival, the fraudulent Theranos start-up, and the surprisingly fragile Uber—demonstrate how simple it is to market an unreal narrative of success to venture capitalists and consumers alike. Drawing on the work of Tyler Cowen, among others, Douthat argues that after the 1960s, our economy entered a period of deceleration, followed by stagnation since the late 1990s. The stock market has boomed throughout this period, but deceptively so, as more than half of its recent growth amounts to “a reallocation of rents to shareholders,” while actual economic growth remains quite low. He incisively identifies our current malaise to be as much about disappointment as anything else: “[T]wenty-first-century growth and innovation were not at all what we were promised they would be.”
As he admits, part of this problem stems from the unreal expectations generated by the rapid changes of the early 20th century. Though the internet has changed the way we live, the last fifty years have not produced more fundamentally “world-altering” innovations than refrigeration, the electric dynamo, automobile, and air travel. Reluctant to veer into “solutionism,” he acknowledges two main factors for technological stagnation: the natural limits imposed by time, space, and environment, and the consolidation of corporate power, which seeks to preserve the status quo rather than spur the risk-taking necessary for continued progress.
In a similar way that our economy discourages innovation, our formerly dynamic politics have hardened into sclerosis. The constitution’s checks and balances were designed to encourage compromise, but are relatively impotent in the face of ideological gridlock. (Douthat wrote the book before the failed impeachment of Trump, but undoubtedly its display of hyper-partisanship bears out his point.) He devotes several pages to chastising Republicans for their contributions to this situation, largely by “accepting . . . a post-legislative approach to policy making” and running an “interest-group protection racket.” His harshest words come for the Obama-era right-wing populism whose “politics-as-entertainment game” opened the doors to a strongman like Trump: “[T]hey became, in effect, the most decadent part of a decadent system.”
Throughout the book Douthat finds himself in direct dialogue with Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 The End of History and the Last Man. Douthat corrects the misunderstanding of Fukuyama as a “liberal triumphalist” and reads in his dirge for a once-vibrant culture a sentiment congruent with his own. In Fukuyama’s own words:
The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the posthistorical period, there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.
The notion of contemporary culture as a museum features prominently in Douthat’s assessment. From the 1980s onward, he argues, pop culture has grown increasingly repetitive, mining old hits and tropes for maximum profit. Douthat laments that Marvel and sci-fi’s dominance of Hollywood has constricted genres and throttled creativity.
As someone who spends most of his time with high schoolers (I live and teach at a boarding school), I can attest to Douthat’s diagnosis. My students’ generation has no Rocky, no Saving Private Ryan or Home Alone to act as a cultural touchstone. Though they spend more time than ever consuming videos, nothing seems to have purchase on their imaginations. The same can be said for music—they listen, largely, to remixes upon remixes, and the more they listen, the more Spotify’s algorithms feed them similar non-tunes. Douthat finds himself nostalgic for the “vital culture” of the baby boomers, which, whatever its faults, was preferable to our corporate-fueled post-modern recycling plant.
Douthat’s focus on cultural repetition draws to mind the work of Republican advisor Frank Luntz, whose work with focus groups dramatically altered political messaging in the last several decades. Starting in the 1990s, Luntz analyzed real-time responses to specific terms used by politicians, and then advised them to ditch unsuccessful wording in favor of those phrases that generated the strongest responses in the focus groups. Under his influence, “estate tax” became the scarier-sounding “death tax,” while the ominous “global warming” morphed into “climate change.” The relationship of the phrase to the actual truth it purported to represent was a secondary concern—primary was the desirability of its effect.
By mining consumer-response data to manipulate the fabric of political communication, Luntz’s method encourages the very repetition Douthat bemoans. Though the book does not address him directly, his example proves essential to understanding how decadence functions at all levels of society. In politics as well as in entertainment, we are only sold products that are proven sellers. The internet has greased the rails between parties in these transactions, and the invisible algorithms that drive much of our online lives now (Spotify, Amazon, Twitter) operate under this same premise. The success of everything from a piece of music to a political speech is evaluated by its effect on consumers. The result is a narrowing of culture and civic discourse, and a slow choking of oxygen to any innovation that threatens those in power.
At the same time that we are offered more of the same, culture appears to be expanding, with the proliferation of choice at every turn in our consumer habits. Douthat cites Mike Klee to explain this dissonance: “[T]he Internet promised exponential divergence but congealed into another monoculture.” The internet, though, is not the culprit—all advertising promises paradise while delivering a product designed to fall short of it. Douthat recognizes this—at one point referring to Perry Miller and David Nye’s concept of the “technological sublime” as a kind of progress-worship that has been successfully bottled and sold by Elon Musk—but he fails to consider seriously the implication that his decadent age coincides with the rise to power of the Ad Men.
Though he often laments the effects of decadence and even seems nostalgic for a more dynamic age, Douthat remains true to Barzun’s insistence that “the term is not a slur; it is a technical label.” His attempt to remain objective leads him to conclude that decadence might be sustainable for the foreseeable future, much like the Roman Empire’s decline lasted 400 years. Widespread virtual entertainments like pornography and video games have had a tranquilizing effect on the population, he argues, citing statistics that correlate a reduction in real-world sexual assault and violence with their virtual simulacra. Smartphones and anti-depressants have sedated today’s adolescents, who cause less trouble (and have much less sex) than their parents did at the same age. While acknowledging the horrors of the opioid epidemic, Douthat points to Andrew Sullivan’s observation that the drugs are “downers: they are not the means to engage in life more vividly but to seek a respite from its ordeals.” By rendering its citizens “comfortably numb,” Douthat argues, decadence strengthens its chances of survival.
Though generally correct about the tranquilizing effect of our entertainment, Douthat’s emphasis on its quantifiable effects forces him to downplay its invisible ones. My teaching career has coincided almost exactly with the proliferation of smartphones, and I have witnessed firsthand big-tech’s deleterious effects on adolescent well-being. Their behavior may be outwardly cautious, but that’s because they feel inwardly isolated, wracked by anxiety and insecurity. Douthat does acknowledge their unhappiness, but seems not to realize the tell-tale signs that something is deeply amiss: “[T]he only violence such misery seems to be definitively encouraging is suicide attempts, the one form of old-fashioned teenage folly that’s increasing in the age of the iPhone.” There’s nothing old-fashioned about the reasons today’s teens kill themselves, or the reason that the rate at which they do so has skyrocketed since 2007. Here, and elsewhere, Douthat succumbs to the data-journalist’s inclination to flatten the world by assuming that his observations differ only in degree, not kind.
In order to emphasize the sustainability of decadence, Douthat has to keep insisting that things really aren’t that bad . . . yet. Trump, he claims, is weak, not strong, “his incipient authoritarianism most manifest . . . on his Twitter feed.” Understandably, he wrote the book before some of the worst of Trump’s abuses came to light, but his assessment itself seems borne from a kind of decadent privilege. Surely a migrant seeking refuge in our country might have more to say about the real-world ramifications of Trump’s policies. To his credit, he admits his own limitations: “[C]omplaining about decadence is, almost by definition, a luxury good.” As his regular readers have come to expect, Douthat is more interested in seeking truth than scoring points, and his willingness to question his own assumptions proves refreshing.
For a world dealing with its worst viral outbreak in living memory, he may yet prove to be a prophet. Despite his insistence on Trump’s fecklessness, he admits that “if he accidentally stumbles into a global war or mismanages a pandemic, there will be nothing virtual about it and nothing decadent about the aftermath.” As the book considers ways in which decadence might end, a catastrophe like the coronavirus looms large, as does political upheaval—in one thought experiment Douthat imagines a neo-medieval future of “a thousand Brexits”—and the effects of global warming. In the last case, decadence may not dissolve all at once, but slowly. As populations migrate away from the equator in search of relief from extreme temperatures, decadence may still be sustained in “the fortresses of the wealthy.” One might argue that, environmental factors aside, the yawning gap between rich and poor has already placed us in such a situation.
Like Rod Dreher, whose 2017 The Benedict Option advocated for forming small religious communities to renew Western culture, Douthat hopes that decadence might give way to a religious renaissance, just as Christian communities sprung up amid the ruins of the Roman empire. His own 2018 To Change the Church established him as the most prominent American critic of Pope Francis, and, not surprisingly, he draws our attention to the man seen by many as Pope Francis’ nemesis, African Cardinal Robert Sarah. Douthat suggests that Sarah, or someone like him, might lead a renaissance in the form of a “vigorously traditional Eurafrican Roman Catholicism.” African birthrates are strong, and Douthat imagines a “Eurafrica in which black Christians fill the Gothic churches of the Old Continent . . . and then gain enough power and influence to build new ones, in new-old styles, in both Nantes and Nairobi.” If you look closely enough, he claims, something like this is already happening, and, given the below-replacement birthrates and dying religious practice in Europe, the phenomenon will only accelerate.
In his imagined marriage of African fecundity with high-European Catholicism, Douthat follows the path of Dreher and others on the religious right who, in an effort to combat various cultural ills, come to view religion primarily in terms of its desirable social effects. Though perhaps unintended, the result is a reduction of faith to a kind of brand advertised on the basis of its profitable outcomes (strong rates of birth, high church attendance) and discussed no differently than any other political or cultural phenomenon. Though Douthat cites W.H. Auden to understand the “endless autumn” of the decadent Roman Empire, he fails here to heed the poet’s warning, given in the context of the Christian rule of Theodosius in the waning days of the empire, against “using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.”
Early in the book, Douthat writes of his own grandfather’s final years, which he spent happily “puttering around his Maine farmhouse.” His freedom was enabled by the proximity of his own adult children, who were able to care for him. As birthrates in the West keep plummeting, Douthat rightly fears that his grandfather’s generation will be the last to have this option in their old age. Another way to contextualize this example is to recognize that a decadent culture thrives by discouraging interpersonal bonds (familial or otherwise) in favor of transactional ones. Surely dwindling fertility rates enable the situation Douthat describes. But why are fertility rates so low in the first place? To answer that question would be to interrogate the notion of the frontier itself.
Refreshingly, Douthat ends by turning inward and doing so. Equating our desire to exert power over nature with a corruption of the biblical imperative to dominion, he claims that “we can’t morally justify the expansion of that power . . . unless we become better stewards of our planet, our societies, ourselves.” Throughout the book he compares our situation to the last four hundred years of the Roman Empire, and here, more than anywhere else, his voice echoes that of the desert fathers, the forerunners of St. Benedict, who took to the wilderness during that decadent time. Yet they did so not to escape the world but to renew themselves, by focusing on the only frontier that matters in Christian spirituality—the one within.
Whether a similar movement will bring an end to our modern decadence remains to be seen. While we are waiting, Douthat’s engaging and thought-provoking book gives us reason to ponder our own frontiers, and how they shape our notions of progress.