TAI Podcast, Episode 195: Ross Douthat on Pope Francis
Richard Aldous & Ross Douthat
In his new book The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat argues that the crisis facing the West today is really one of decadence—when a wealthy and mature civilization runs into economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion. Tracing the phenomenon across multiple dimensions, Douthat argues that decadence can endure for longer than its critics might imagine, but also outlines several scenarios—some bleak, some hopeful—for how we might enter a genuinely new era.
Ross Douthat is an opinion columnist for The New York Times, and he joins Richard Aldous on the podcast this week to discuss his new book. Be sure to follow @DouthatNYT and @aminterest on Twitter, and subscribe to the podcast on the app of your choice.
The conversation is also available as an lightly edited transcript below.
Richard Aldous for TAI: Hello, and welcome. You’re listening to The American Interest podcast, with me, Richard Aldous. My guest this week is Ross Douthat, columnist at The New York Times and author of the new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. Ross, welcome back to the show.
RD: Thank you so much for having me back.
RA: Congratulations on the new book. So, how are we victims of our own success?
RD: In the sense that we are a technologically advanced, extremely wealthy civilization that is running into problems that you run into when you hit the frontiers of wealth and technological proficiency, and start to stagnate a bit and start repeating yourself a bit. So the book starts, I hope appropriately, with the moon landing in 1969, and basically makes the argument that whether it was a coincidence or not, that particular peak of human accomplishment happened at about the same time that all across the developed world, growth rates were about to start slowing down; people were about to start having fewer children, making societies steadily older and less entrepreneurial and creative; and government in the Western world, and particularly in the United States, was about to enter a long period that obviously continues to the present day of increasing sclerosis, in which it becomes harder and harder to pass legislation, implement sweeping reforms, and so forth.
And finally, that was the moment when the Baby Boomers essentially were seizing cultural power, and the least statistically precise argument that I make in the book—the most, by definition, in the eye of the beholder—is that in culture and especially pop culture, we have become, effectively, the prisoners of the Baby Boom generation, and haven’t figured out a way to get beyond endless remakes and reboots and recyclings of entertainment properties that became popular when they were young.
RA: Yeah, this is one of the really interesting things about the book. As you say, you start with Sputnik and the Apollo moon landing, and this period that you’re talking about really seems to end with the Challenger explosion in 1986. Very often, we’d think of decadence as being something like, “Oh, that chocolate cake was very decadent,” which is one of the examples that you give in the book as the wrong use of the word. But it seems to me that you mean risk aversion as much as anything else.
RD: Yes, and I want to say that anyone who wants to use the term decadent to refer to chocolate cakes or weekends in Vegas has my permission. I’m obviously offering a somewhat idiosyncratic definition of the term. But I’m not alone in it; I’m basically stealing it and adapting it from the great cultural critic Jacques Barzun, who wrote a book called From Dawn to Decadence that came out about 20 years ago.
His idea, which is now, I suppose, my idea, is that decadent eras are not necessarily characterized by total moral depravity, and orgies, and wild excess, and in fact, sometimes wild excess is a sign of dynamism and vitality, and decadent periods are characterized much more by frustration, institutions that don’t seem to work anymore, a loss of purpose, a loss of confidence in the future, and so on and so forth. So in the realm of sensory pleasures, the wild bacchanalian orgy is less decadent under my definition than the twenty-something man sitting alone at his computer, looking at 17,000 varieties of pornography—which is much more, I think, the story of our own era.
If you go back to the 70s, you have this period of chaos and collapse, in many ways, in the Western world—certainly, a sort of dramatic social transformation, but with it, a sense that society was falling apart. You had crime rates off the charts, you had rising rates of rape and sexual violence. It was sort of a peak for things like the controversies in France recently that have reminded everyone that in the 1970s, a lot of French intellectuals thought that they should argue that sex with minors needed to be rehabilitated or legalized. That was the 70s, and I think you can reasonably argue that the 70s were more immoral by some measures than our own era, but they were also more interesting and dynamic, and less comfortably numb, than where we’ve ended up today.
RA: Yeah. And on this sense of terrible coldness, at the beginning you quote Auden on imperial Rome: “What fascinates and terrifies us about the Roman Empire is not that it finally went smash, but that it managed to last for four centuries without creativity, warmth, or hope.” The implication is that that’s modern America.
RD: Yes. I think Auden is slightly exaggerating for effect there, and obviously, there were pockets of creativity, hope, and warmth even in late Imperial Rome. And speaking as a Christian, the story of late imperial Rome from a Christian perspective is in fact one of dynamism, creativity, and growth. So the hopeful side of my analysis is that first, even under decadence, it’s possible to have forms of flourishing and creativity, even if the larger society feels sterile and repetitive, and second, that it’s possible to at least hope that you can escape from decadence, that you can have a sort of revolution from within that gets you out of this rut, without having to pass through the barbarian invasions, or the coronavirus wipeout phase of civilization.
RA: You said something that runs throughout the book, that there is a paradox in all of this, because on the one hand, you have the kind of decadent society that you’ve outlined—Barzun with economic stagnation, institutional decay, cultural and intellectual exhaustion. And yet, there’s also this profound sense that we’ve moved into a new age, from industrialization to this new digital age, that has seen innovation of a kind, in our lifetime, that we perhaps never thought we would ever see.
RD: Yes, and this is in a way an important caveat, although I think it actually links into the broader story I’m telling. There has been, I think, generally economic and technological stagnation in the Western world, relative to a lot of the expectations of the period from the 1940s through the 1960s. If you look at the expectations of that era, it wasn’t just that people were confidently planning missions to Jupiter, and moon colonies, and terraforming Mars, it was also things like energy. People expected that we would all have pocket nuclear reactors powering our homes and garages, and so on. So a lot of things like that have obviously not come to pass, but the great exception is the internet, and technologies of communication and simulation. We don’t have the starships from Star Trek, but we have the communicators, and we don’t exactly have the computer, but in fact we have computers that are pretty much as powerful that we carry around in our pocket.
So in that sense, there has been real innovation, it’s just been concentrated in a particular sector, a particular set of industries, as opposed to being spread the way it was in the Industrial Revolution across a lot of different sectors of the economy and society. So that change is real. Silicon Valley is the exception, but its exceptionalism, first, is proved every time people in Silicon Valley try to revolutionize something other than simulation and communication. So you have a lot of money poured into dot-com companies that are trying to do something outside the dot-com sphere, whether it’s Elizabeth Holmes trying to revolutionize blood testing with Theranos, or WeWork trying to revolutionize office space in the built environment, and you have an awful lot of cases where that money seems to end up either in outright frauds, or in companies that just aren’t actually as profitable or transformative as they think they are. So that’s one limit on it.
But then the other point that I make in the book is that this one area of technology, in certain ways, feeds stagnation in others spheres, because it encourages people to inhabit, and play-act in, virtual worlds, rather than doing work in the real world. Politics is one obvious example, where there’s tremendous political energy in the Western world right now—whether it’s surrounding everything to do with Trump, or Brexit, or populism, or the Bernie Sanders phenomenon—but much of that energy is poured into a kind of virtual politics.
There’s an academic named Eitan Hersh who wrote a book that came out after my book, so I don’t quote it, but it’s very complementary. He argues, basically, that the internet leads people into what he calls political hobbyism, where you have the illusion that by clicking on something or liking something, or dragging a columnist you hate on Twitter, you have accomplished something politically in the real world. But in fact, at the same time, normal forms of mass organization have continued to languish in our era, and political parties are weak, and activist groups are actually weaker in certain ways than they used to be. And that plays out in other areas too. You have pornography and Tinder as substitutes for romance, marriage, and childbearing. So I think there’s an argument that our one area of non-decadent innovation feeds political and cultural stagnation in other ways.
RA: Is it that it’s the exception, or that it’s an outlier? Maybe Silicon Valley in the 21st century is the direction that we’re heading, rather than the 18th century Constitution that was imagined in a revolutionary way by the Founders?
RD: It certainly seems to be where we’re heading. The question is what it actually means. I mean, does it produce some sort of actual revolution in governance? You can imagine a world where Silicon Valley leads to an age of referenda, where everybody’s voting online, and legislatures are increasingly bypassed, and that would not be decadent. That would be genuinely revolutionary and transformative. But what seems to happen right now is that the structures stay the same. Silicon Valley has not in fact abolished the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution, and Donald Trump may dominate cultural attention through Twitter, but he doesn’t actually change any laws using the internet. And this is true to some extent, even in places where the internet has pushed people into the streets.
I think the U.S. is distinctive right now in having very little mass political agitation, relative to what people expected. But there are clearly plenty of case studies from the Gilets Jaunes in France, to the protests in Chile, all over the world, really, where online politics does send people into the streets. And that could be a signifier that there is more transformation yet to come. But even there, what distinguishes these movements is their inchoate resentments with the status quo, their lack of effective leaders, and again, their almost symbiotic relationship with this establishment that they dislike.
So, you have protests as a sort of a safety valve for popular discontent, but you don’t have a clear revolutionary program. The Gilets Jaunes can keep Paris in a state of constant disturbance, but they can’t actually topple Macron’s government. So I don’t rule out that there could be some real political revolutions driven by the internet at some point, maybe even some point soon, but for now, it seems to be keeping us stuck where we are, in certain ways.
RA: Yeah, it seems to me that one of the crucial arguments of the book is that material prosperity and the kind of technological advances that we’re talking about here—they’ve actually enabled decadence, because they’ve stabilized it. Hence the book’s subtitle.
RD: Yes. And I spend a certain amount of time talking about the idea of sustainable decadence as something that could be the reality of the developed world for quite some time to come. People don’t use the term sustainable decadence, and I don’t think they’re going to adopt it from my book. But there is, I think, not a consensus view, but a pretty common elite-level view in the Western world, that basically, you have countries that have achieved a maximum of wealth and growth and dynamism that we can achieve, at least so long as we remain an earthbound species, and therefore the thing to do is to try and steward and maintain the stability of the system, even as societies get older and creak a bit—to figure out how to integrate just enough immigrants to keep the labor markets running, and to try and usher countries that haven’t yet converged with us completely successfully into our stable, decadent moment.
And then this too, I think, interacts with climate change anxieties. There’s sort of a dynamist view of climate change that says we need to innovate our way through, so that we can have growth beyond what we achieve today, but also have green and clean energy. But then the other view that I think is pretty commonplace is that in fact, a certain kind of stagnation is a good thing, insofar as it prevents carbon emissions from soaring too high, and wouldn’t it be good if China could just accept a slightly lower rate of growth than they’re heading for.
And that of course shades into the more frankly austerity-focused vision of Greta Thunberg, or someone like that. But you don’t have to go all the way to Greta to find a lot of people who think that we’ve gotten rich, and now the key is to redistribute effectively and prevent ourselves from despoiling the earth too much. There’s a book by an economist named Dietrich Vollrath that just came out in January, called Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy Is a Sign of Success, and it’s quite a good book, and it makes a pretty plausible argument that this is sort of an end point and we’re just going to be stuck here for a while, and we should be happy with it because it means we’ve succeeded, insofar as we can succeed.
RA: So you also talk about this in a cultural sense—Hollywood rebooting film franchises, and so on—and you also talk about the social impact. For example, you identify how the opioid crisis seems to have crushed America’s revolutionary enthusiasm in many ways. So this is something that you consider in the broadest possible way.
RD: Yes. I think decadence extends in our own era across a pretty wide range of cultural and economic forces, and I think you have a lot of interaction between those forces. For instance, I think you can see it pretty clearly in the interaction between declining birth rates, slowing economic growth, and political stalemate—that as societies get older, they are less amenable to reform and transformation, which in turn helps to make them more stagnant, and as they become more stagnant, people are less likely to have kids, and so the society becomes older, and so the cycle continues. But then I think there’s also a dynamic of de facto stabilization that happens, where sometimes organically, and sometimes with some encouragement from above, people in societies like ours seem to seek out forms of numbing escape from a world which seems to lack definite purpose and direction.
And so, you end up with a world where our drug crises—whether they are crises of legal or illegal drugs, or whether they’re drugs that we don’t now consider crises at all, like marijuana that we’re in the process of legalizing—they’re mostly all drugs that are not driving excitement and acting out. They’re drugs that tend to make people chill, and in the case of opioids, numb their pain and have them drift away day by day. I don’t want to overstate it, but there’s a touch of the Aldous Huxley Brave New World destination here, where he has the feelies and SOMA, and we have endless online pornography, opioids, pot, and antidepressants. We’re not in that dystopia, but if you were charting our dystopian direction, that’s the direction we’re taking, towards the Brave New World endgame, rather than a 1984 scenario.
RA: One of the things I like about this book is that it’s not very black and white, that you’re not saying that everything is terrible. For example, even on something like Hollywood, yes, there may be a sense that Hollywood is going through a stagnant period, yet at the same time, we’re living through a golden age of television; a lot of the originality and creativity seems to have transferred to that medium. Even in politics, as you say, there are worrying aspects going on, yet there’s more engagement with politics, and arguably more creative thinking in politics going on now, than there was a generation earlier. As a writer, how do you go about balancing your arguments, and yet still being able to make the very clear argument that you are?
RD: I think that the balance that I’m trying to strike is the view that one, as you say, there are exceptions to decadence, but two, there is lots of discontent with decadence, and rebellions against it, and that’s more true today than it was when I started working on this book. I actually started working on it quite a while ago. I was sidetracked by both some personal stuff and by the need to write a book about Pope Francis, which you were kind enough to have me on to talk about.
But over the last seven years, I think you can see in the rise of populism, the appeal of socialism, people who want political transformation and realignment more than they seemed to want it when it was George W. Bush versus Al Gore, or even Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney, right? And you’ve seen something like Brexit actually take place in the UK, which, whether you’re for it or against it, is a sign of political energy and life and possibility, and it has fed into a certain kind of realignment in British politics, that we’ll see if Boris Johnson is able to see through.
So I think certainly over the last five years or so, there’s been this energy of anti-decadence in Western politics that wasn’t there previously, and also an intellectual debate, a sort of revival. In my own world of Catholicism, there are people debating both Catholic Marxism, whether that’s a contradiction in terms, and Catholic integralism, reviving the 19th century condemnations of liberalism. So there’s a certain amount of real energy there that’s worth discussing and acknowledging.
What keeps me making the broader argument rather than just discarding it is my sense that these structural forces, these sort of feedback loops creating decadence, are still powerful enough, that it’s hard for this discontent to successfully be translated into real dramatic change. I think the Trump presidency has been at least a partial vindication of that view. Trump was elected as a potentially transformative or destructive figure, and he has ended up sort of constrained and hemmed in, and hobbled by all the usual forms of political stalemate and gridlock, while then enacting his more extreme self on his Twitter feed and on the internet— which is, again, what you’d expect under decadence. I say something like this in the book, but I suspect that what we’re seeing now are the intimations of how a real transformation could happen, but my guess is that we’re still a couple of generations out.
RA: One of the really nice things about this book is the way that you’re part of a broader conversation. For example, you explicitly cite Patrick Deneen, who we’ve had on the show, and there seem to be echoes of his argument that liberalism failed because it succeeded in your argument that we became victims of our own success.
RD: Yes, absolutely. I think Patrick’s book is terrific. I think the distinctions between us are, first, Patrick is a political philosopher and I am a journalist, which means that he is more likely to tell a story in which where we ended up was sort of a semi-inevitable expression of ideas latent in liberal philosophy going back to the 18th century, and I’m more likely to feel that we ended up here because of certain accidents, in a way. Accident might be the wrong word, but my view is that had we actually been able to go to the moon and colonize it, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about decadence right now, and that decadence gets expressed under particular socioeconomic conditions, and you need to have a certain level of wealth and technological progress to get there, but then you also need to have a closing of the frontiers, which I think is crucial to our own situation.
And then also, I think, Patrick is not definitive about this, but he and a lot of other people writing about the crisis of liberalism are a little more confident in the depth of the crisis, and the fact that, basically, we can’t go on like this. And The Decadent Society‘s counterargument is that perhaps we can, right? That in fact, you can enter into a period of decadence, or a period when liberalism has become a victim of its own success, if you want to frame it that way, and yet that period can continue for quite a while, and societies can persist with contradictions and forms of futility, and all kinds of levels of disappointment, longer than you might expect from just reading Twitter.
RA: It very much reminded me of Francis Fukuyama’s often misunderstood argument about the end of history, that it would be a sad time. There seems a definite connection there with this sense of stagnation and ennui. But it is intriguing, because at the end, you do say that decadence might come to an end, and you present us with these two possibilities, that it may end either through catastrophe—yes, coronavirus, we’re looking at you—or some kind of renaissance. So maybe just outline for us what those might involve.
RD: So, yeah, catastrophe is the obvious one, and I do mention pandemics. I sadly did not write an entire chapter about the risks of pandemics, but at least they’re in there, and it’s an interesting experience to promote a book about decadence while the decadent world is actually experiencing a genuine crisis.
But I think of the scenarios that I sketch, the most plausible is that climate change will have some sort of really dramatic effect on a broad belt of the world around the equator, making it genuinely semi-habitable in the way that writers like David Wallace-Wells have argued, and that this will then interact with the very striking population imbalances between a hyper-decadent Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, and you’ll get ecological catastrophe and mass migration together, creating some sort of dramatic transformation that might be truly terrible, but certainly won’t be decadent anymore.
So that’s a catastrophic scenario. And of course, the lesser one is one we may actually test with the coronavirus. In spite of all of our polarizations and difficulties in the Western world, we haven’t been tested by a financial or economic crisis for about 12 years. We don’t know what economic crisis looks like in the age of social media hysteria, and it’s possible that the coronavirus will deliver some version of that, at least a recession that will strain our systems quite a bit.
But then in terms of renaissance, my basic view is that you need something somewhat disjunctive and dramatic to happen to get us out of the situation I’m calling decadence. And that doesn’t have to be something incredibly radical. It could be something that’s already in the process of coming into being now. So it could be that there is some range of technological innovations that are even now being developed, whether in energy, or transportation, or genetic engineering, and in 30 years we’ll look back and say, “Okay, the period from the 1980s through the 2010s was this sort of bottleneck, but then we emerged from it, and now we’re in a new era of radical technological change, not just the internet.”
So that’s the case study and how something could happen. I mean, I talk a bit about politics. I do think that the populist and socialist visions, and the realignments they’re trying to achieve, are pathways out of political decadence, and even though I’m skeptical that they’ll get there, I think that they at least have a vision of a different kind of politics than the left-right stalemates that we’ve inherited from the 1970s. And then of course, I think there’s always the possibility of religious revival or religious transformation. And so I’m interested both in trends within my own Christian faith, but also stuff outside it. I’m interested in the revival of paganism and pantheism and astrology and witchcraft in the Western world. Right now, that seems itself decadent, like just a form of religious play-acting, but you could imagine it turning into something more real and dynamic. And again, from my perspective as a Christian, perhaps quite dangerous.
So those are the kinds of things that I run through, but then at the end, I get a little bit wilder, I suppose, and suggest that the core issue here is that we really have done something remarkable. We have filled the earth and subdued it—we followed the admonition in Genesis, right? So we’re here, we filled all of the space we have. I suppose we could have some undersea colonies at some point, but mostly, the map is filled in, the world is globalized. It can maybe get a bit more globalized, but maybe not that much more. And in that sense, we’re either at an end point or a threshold, and so we’ve either done all we can and we’re waiting for the catastrophe to come along, or something unexpected involving God or aliens, or both, is just around the corner. And I suppose I may be a little more likely than the typical newspaper columnist to think that that sort of unexpected and dramatic possibility is, in fact, a live possibility.
RA: Yeah, it’s actually a lovely moment in the book, partly because it unfolds so naturally right at the end, and is expressed in quite a personal way, but you do talk about something providential. Right at the end you say, “I’m not predicting the end of the world or the arrival of the millennium here, I’m just saying that if this were the age in which some major divine intervention happened, there would in hindsight be a case for saying, ‘We should’ve seen it coming.'”
RD: Yes, and I think that’s right. I think the reverse of that feeling is people, at some level, know that we’ve come to this threshold and they assume that something dramatic can’t happen. It’s sort of depressing and I’m offering the optimistic flip side, which is to say, maybe you have to stand at the threshold for a little while, but you never know what might come along.