All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear line of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility.
Ross Douthat’s Decadent Society, a discussion with Peter Robinson. This discussion is around Douthat’s recent book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.
I will only spend a moment on how I understand the thrust of Douthat’s view. Ever since the moon landing, it has been all downhill. No direction, no real advancement. Yes, an uptick during the Reagan years in terms of the economy and the (soon thereafter) fall of the Soviet Union. But this was just a blip.
Suffice it to say, the decadent society was birthed much earlier. If the suicide of the West was to be found in the Great War, when did the decadence begin? I will agree with Solzhenitsyn here: the roots are in the Renaissance, with the political fulfillment in the Enlightenment: the individual with nothing above him.
To the discussion. Douthat comments on the “punctuated periods of deceleration and stagnation with occasional returns with the kind of growth we had in the post-war period” that began in the 1970s. But no meaningful discussion of how or why.
I will give my “why.” The end of the (not free market) gold exchange plan from Bretton Woods. After this, nothing stood in the way of the central bank-induced wealth transfers from the middle class to the wealthy.
The two discuss innovation – it hasn’t stopped but it has been concentrated in narrow sectors – call it personal technological devices (along with many production and distribution efficiencies). These have largely now been demonstrated and played out. It is technology that allows us to stay in shells instead of seeing the planet – automobiles, trains, airplanes, even rocket ships.
Following this, a discussion on fertility – with births below sustaining rates. Other than Israel, there is not a rich country in the world that is giving birth at a rate high enough to sustain its population. We understand: with wealth, better health care, women’s empowerment, etc., the need and / or desire for more children is reduced. But this doesn’t fully explain it, per Douthat. No further explanation is offered.
I will speculate that it is the loss of future, the loss of meaning. But I am just speculating – and obviously doing so based on my biases. But this still leaves Israel. What’s going on there? Douthat suggests that what they will tell you is “Having kids is more likely if you live inside history.” The host says that when he asked an Israeli woman a similar question, she replied “my country is still a cause.”
Which corresponds, in many ways with my speculation above – maybe my biases have grounding in human nature. Having a history implies caring for a future, and holding to such a worldview contributes to meaning. Having a cause means you have purpose and meaning. With no future and no meaning, why have children. Live your best life now –no strings.
How does this decadence end? It might not. It might roll on as either keeping us comfortably numb or with some form of kindly despotism. Comfortably numb tranquilizes us – our virtual realities, whether on the screen or in real life: we scream at each other on twitter, but we don’t do anything. Further, the world of drugs, where we have moved from heroin to opioids. Instead of bread and circuses as the numbing agents, it’s pot and virtual reality.
They don’t discuss what is meant by kindly despotism, but in my view, we are seeing it now. Universal basic income with nothing to do. Automation is now sufficient to keep the masses satisfied in stuff. The last few months of lockdown offers a small example of the possibilities.
Or, they discuss, it could all end in catastrophe. What does this mean? No real comment is offered. Douthat doesn’t see this (the corona lockdowns) as the end. (I think this discussion happened before the riots. I wonder what Douthat says today.)
How might it end well? Renaissance. Douthat sees that we had two mini-renaissances in the recent past: the neo-liberal successes of the Reagan-Thatcher economy and the victory in the Cold War, and earlier, the invention of the transistor, on which all of our technological growth was built. But neither sustained.
Robinson takes hope in something written by George Kennan in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War. Basically, Kennan wrote thank God for the Soviets: “...a certain gratitude to a Providence,” in case you don’t believe me. Because of the Soviets, the American people pulled together. Robinson sees this in the context of China today. “Can a new Cold War rally the American society?” Robinson asks. Did I mention that Robinson is with the Hoover Institute? Talk about bastardizing a former president’s name (at this page you will find perhaps twenty posts I have written on his book, Freedom Betrayed, if you want to understand my meaning).
Douthat is hesitant about this new Cold War strategy. China quickly dealt with the virus (ruthlessly, yes, but quickly). Now China is flexing its muscles in Hong Kong and elsewhere, and in the US, twitter is deciding how to deal with Trump’s tweets. Douthat suggests that the US is not as well prepared to meet the threat from China today as it was to meet the Soviet threat sixty or seventy years ago.
I think this is quite true. In fact, I think we are pretty close to saying that the US as leader of the globalization project might be dead. And I am not sure that there is anything on the horizon that will replace it.
Robinson asks Douthat (a practicing Catholic): where is the obvious answer? A religious revival? Douthat barely touches on this in this book, but he reminds Robinson that he said such things in his last book. Robinson cites something from the last chapter, and I offer it here in its entirety:
I would be a poor Christian if I did not conclude by noting that no civilization – not ours, not any – has thrived without a confidence that there was more to the human story than just the material world as we understand it. If we have lost that confidence in our own age, then perhaps it is because we have reached the end of our own capacities and we need something else, something extra, that really can come only from outside our present frame of reference.
Culture, tradition. Something transcendent. Not an ideology – not liberalism, communism, socialism, libertarianism. None of these. Douthat suggests that a religious revival – here or anywhere else in the world – will be an inevitable (therefore, necessary) part of any Renaissance.
Douthat reads the final passage from the book:
To be clear, I am not predicting the end of the world or the arrival of the millennium here. I am just saying that if this were the age where some major divine intervention happened, whether long prophesied or completely unforeseen, there would be, in hindsight, a case that we should have seen it coming.
Oh yes. Ask Edmund Burke, G.K. Chesterton, or C. S. Lewis. Among others.
And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that decadence ends with people looking heavenward, toward God, toward the stars, or both. So, down on your knees and start working on that warp drive.
Or don’t. Here is another option.
We are living in a meaning crisis. Those who are alert enough to themselves and their surroundings are turning to religion – to Christianity, and usually to its most traditional forms.
As Douthat suggests, it shouldn’t surprise anyone.