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Book Club | The Decadent Society

A society that generates a lot of bad movies need not be decadent; a society that just makes the same movies over and over again might be. A society run by the cruel and arrogant might not be decadent; a society where even the wise and good can’t legislate might be. A poor or crime-ridden society isn’t necessarily decadent; a society that’s rich and peaceable but exhausted, depressed and beset by flares of nihilistic violence looks closer to our definition.

Ross Douthat’s 2020 book The Decadent Society: How we became victims of our own success aims to comment on and critique American culture, and in doing so, draws out a broader critique of Western culture which has been heavily influenced by the American creative imagination and academy in the post-Second World War period. Douthat explores celebrity politics, sterility, religious renaissance, cultural repetition, moral numbness, climate catastrophe, and space travel.

Douthat argues that the entire western world is stuck in a culturally immoral, complacent, talentless, decaying loop of doom. With little capability to change, invent, innovate or create, we are at risk of catastrophe if our culture cannot be renewed by a renaissance or providence itself.

we are aging, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future, spurning both memory and ambition while we await some saving innovation or revelation, burrowing into cocoons from which no chrysalis is likely to emerge, growing old unhappily together in the glowing light of tiny screens.

INTRODUCTION:

Douthat’s definition of “decadence” is explained in a variety of ways. He frames it through the shallow dictionary definition, “having low morals and a great love of pleasure, money, fame, etc,” and through a cultural lens “marked by decay or decline.” He further narrows the definition into high and low decadence. Lower decadence representing “inordinately pleasurable experiences with food, and sex, and fashion.” And the higher definition of decadence trying to “make the aesthetic and moral and political all fit together in a comprehensive civilisation indictment.” All of which fall short, he argues, because life and history is not linear. So, the definition that Douthat lands on, that shapes his view of decadence is through cultural critic Jacques Barzun:

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 lines of advance. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces. It will be asked, how does the historian know when Decadence sets in? By the open confessions of malaise… When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label.

Decadence, deployed usefully, refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.

  • Does this position and explanation of decadence ring true to you?
  • How does it change the way you see the world/society/community and self?

 

PART ONE: THE FOUR HORSEMEN

STAGNATION:

Using three great examples of innovation, modern advances in technology, health, business models and experience, Douthat frames this chapter by the biggest unicorn fails over the last 5 years. He outlines Billy McFarland and The Fyre Festival, Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, and Uber to show that growth and innovation in the 21st century is not all that it was cracked up to be:

We used to travel faster, build bigger, live longer; now we communicate faster, chatter more, snap more selfies. We used to go to the moon; now we make movies about space—amazing movies with completely convincing special effects—in which small fortunes are spent to make it seem like we’ve left earth behind. And we hype the revolutionary character of our communications devices in order to persuade ourselves that our earlier, wider-ranging expectations were always unreasonable—that this progress is the only progress we could reasonably expect.

Douthat breaks down the lie that our society is at the mercy of continuous innovation, posing a thought experiment from economist Robert Gordon “you are required to make a choice between Option A and Option B. With Option A, you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002. Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets.” Which option do you choose?

Gordon reflects that the audiences he poses this question to laugh at Option B. But, “the audience realises that it has been trapped into the recognition that just one of the many late-nineteenth-century inventions is more important that the portable electronic devices of the past decade on which they have become so dependent.” Douthat asks which inventions have actually improved our wellbeing and life in the last 20 years, suggesting that “the only truly radical change has taken place in the devices we use for communication and entertainment.”

  • Would you choose Option A or Option B? Why?
  • What real change or invention from the last 18 years might you point out to Douthat?

STERILITY:

Framing this chapter are the examples of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and P. D. James Children of Men, fictional commentaries on dystopian culture, fertility, reproduction and politics. Douthat’s take on decadence in this chapter is on our appreciation for the renewing resource of children, pointing out that for humanity to “replace itself … a society needs to average 2.1 births per woman.” Out of all OECD countries, as of 2018, only Mexico, Peru, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Israel are at or above that level. Douthat’s explanation of this sterility could include factors linked with the birth control pill, the feminist revolution, the divorce revolution, the rise of inequality, the decline of marriages and people getting married later in life, secularisation, and a welfare state providing financial benefits where once elderly people had to rely on children.

Almost inevitably, society with fewer babies will be less dynamic and more stratified, which makes population decline a case study in how decadence overtakes a civilisation.

Human beings are relational creatures. We depend on community for everyday happiness, and we imagine and encounter the future most intensely through our own progeny, our flesh and blood. But in a world with fewer children and, as birthrates drop and marrying age rises, still-fewer grandchildren or none at all, when people look ahead into their country’s future, they inevitably see less than previous generations to recognize immediately as their own.

SCLEROSIS:

Political order has become unhealthy. Sclerosis (a hardening over of previously healthy tissue  that allows no movement) has set in. “Sclerosis becomes the default state,” where Douthat has seen in the political order a resistance to reform.

Late in Obama’s second term, a Brookings Institution scholar set to analyse “major failures” in recent presidential administrations (with the obvious Iraq and 9/11-related examples, and the handling of Hurricane Katrina and the VA scandal as domestic templates). He found that “government had four failures during Reagan’s final two and a half years (1.6 per year), five during George H. W. Bush’s four years (1.2 per year), fourteen during Clinton’s eight years (1.8 per year), twenty-five during George W. Bush’s eight years (3.1 per year), and sixteen during Obama’s first five and a half years (2.9 per year).

  • Would you agree with Douthat’s analysis of the political order and its resistance to reform?
  • Has our political climate grown sclerosis as the default state?

REPETITION:

Douthat identifies the fourth horseman of the apocalypse as Repetition. In this chapter he signals a society has become decadent when it no longer produces creative, innovative, or original outputs. He shows how our culture has used and reused ideas, philosophies, educational approaches, for almost a whole generation now. He agrees in principle with Francis Fukuyama’s argument that this era could potentially be the “End of History,” not in events per say, but “an end of a particular dialect of ideas.”

This transition to decadence can even happen midshow, as it did in the concluding seasons of Game of Thrones, whose showrunners rushed to the finish line because they hoped to helm (what else?) another Star Wars sequel, and whose source material dried up because George R. R. Martin became too rich and famous and in demand to do the hard work of invention—leaving his attempted revision of J. R. R. Tolkien’s great original to languish, a victim of its author’s overwhelming, creativity-swallowing success.

  • Is originality or newness essential for human flourishing?
  • Can we rely on “the classics” of literature, art, and culture to sustain us, or do we need to be raised on new generations of creative ideas?

PART TWO: SUSTAINABLE DECADENCE

COMFORTABLY NUMB

In the internet age that allows universal access to violent imagery and pornography, all ages have become desensitised to it and our culture has been shaped by its availability. Douthat links the separation between online consumption of an activity and actually doing things in real life to an idea of “safety in the virtual.” He uses data to explain that with easier access to pornography, there is less rape. With greater virtual violence in video games, crime rates have lowered. But, with these visual displays, we are newly inundated with news of different, personal crimes, like school shootings, and new forms of viral terrorism, so what transformative power does this ‘correlation’ really hold?

Douthat says that we are comfortably numb. We see these things in the world, where we’re breeding violence, mediocre middle-class society, decaying political ideologies and policies, but not really stepping out, rocking the boat. We’re high, doped up dreaming on the golden age.

We considered how a stable decadence might be something chosen freely rather than imposed – how the inhabitants of a wealthy, aging, comfortable society might prefer to stagnate amid virtual distraction, costume-party politics, and pharmaceutical comforts rather than working to remedy, renew, reform or revolutionise the real world. But preferences are malleable, “free” choices are conditioned, pleasures blur into addictions, and both corporate and governmental exercises of power help determine which choices seem natural and which ones don’t.

  • Does the idea of living “comfortably numb” strike a chord with you?
  • How much do you long for a return to previous cultural touchstones vs looking forward to new forms of culture/ideas?

A KINDLY DESPOTISM

Focusing primarily on China, Douthat comments about the age of “social credit,” describing it  as “a relatively gentle form of supervision and manipulation, which applies the logic of credit ratings to all kinds of potentially antisocial behaviour – on trains and airplanes, and increasingly, in China’s cities.”

Diving deep into James Poulos’ analysis on the “pink police state” Douthat argues that this form of public authority is “aggressively intervening in the intimate details of everyday life as a friend to some kinds of civil liberties but an enemy of others.” He identifies that there has been a movement away from having clearly defined private and public divisions, with major emphasis on the importance of our digital presence, where Big Brother no longer has to watch everyone, because “everyone is always watching everybody else.” China’s social credit, surveillance states, institutions, corporate and governmental worlds, opening personal availability of privacy in the name of saving the world from another 9/11, all these shifts are allowing a globalised, open world that may actually be for the worse.

What the internet really offers is the illusion of privacy, the feeling of communicating unobserved – and because of that feeling, more internet user don’t feel the need to shroud themselves in pseudonyms, preferring to communicate online the way they do at parties or in living rooms, texting and e-mailing and DM-ing in the same casual style that one would once have used in a letter or a phone call, and engaging in social media as though their tweets and posts are only going to be read by intimates and pals instead of the world entire.  Which means, inevitably, that they are actually much more exposed – to strangers and enemies, ex-lovers and ex-friends, hackers and stalkers – than human beings ever would have been before their social lives migrated online. And they are exposed, above all, to a novel kind of persecution and harassment, because the ability to see so many half-formed, poorly thought-out ideas and opinions issuing all over has tempted people to do what people do best: to go after their enemies or perceived enemies, to dox them and drag them and ideally get them fired, to invent new crimes to describe tweets or FB posts that they find offensive, and to generally act, without being hired, or paid to do it by any central authority, like cops.

WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS

“And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? They were, those people, a kind of solution.” – Cavafy

“In the spirit of Cavafy, this is a chapter about why the barbarians—meaning not howling savages, but any force capable of overthrowing the liberal order and inheriting the world—may not be on their way.”

There is a natural human desire to see history as a morality play in which virtue leads to strength and decay to destruction. For that play to work, though, there has to be some force capable of delivering the just comeuppance, of surging over the palace walls after the writing appears upon them, of bringing Babylon low as it deserves….at the very least, there is a natural human desire to see history as a morality play in which virtue leads to strength and decay to destruction. For that play to work, though, there has to be some force capable of delivering the just comeuppance, of surging over the palace walls after the writing appears upon them, of bringing Babylon low as it deserves.

GIVING DECADENCE ITS DUE

Douthat admits that “the reality of complaining about decadence is, by definition a luxury good,” highlighting that “True dystopias are distinguished, in part, by the fact that many people inside them don’t realize that they’re living in one, because human beings are adaptable enough to take even absurd and inhuman premises for granted.” Although we may be within an era of stagnation, repetition, sterility we must look above the doom and gloom of decadence. To see the transcendence and hold on hope to the promise of a renaissance.

It’s not always easy, but human beings can still live vigorously amid a general stagnation, be fruitful amid sterility, be creative amid repetition, and build good and fully human lives that offer, in microcosm, a counterpoint and challenge to the decadent macrocosm. And the decadent society, unlike the full dystopia, allows those signs of contradictions to exist, which means that, under decadence, it always remains possible to imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance.

  • Is Douthat fair in his analysis to give the decadence in our society it’s due? Should we be content with the status quo?

 

PART THREE: THE DEATHS OF DECADENCE

In the last part of the book, Douthat recognises that decadence in our society can end in three ways, catastrophe, renaissance, or providence.

CATASTROPHE

Douthat stresses very clearly how immigration, mass population growths in African countries, economic unsustainability, and climate change could lead to disastrous catastrophe for how we live in the world and for humanity.

Because climate change and population imbalances and mass migration are not problems dropping like European microbes out of a clear blue Mesoamerican sky, nor are they accidental Y2K or nuclear-launch disasters that can be feared but not exactly predicted. Instead, they are challenges that follow from long-term technological and economic trends, long-term patterns of human behaviour—which in turn means that they’re the kinds of trends that a vigorous, nondecadent, advanced civilization should have been able to cope with and head off before they led to some dégringolade.

  • How do we view this chapter and the problem of decadence in light of COVID-19?
  • Is COVID-19 a catalyst for the end of decadence?

So any discussion of how our decadence might end has to begin with an acknowledgment that the assassin might be something entirely invisible for now, some trend only now gathering unseen, some mutation that hasn’t happened yet, some catastrophe that in hindsight will seem essentially random, noncontingent and unrelated to any specific feature of our age.

RENAISSANCE

How can a renaissance take us out of decadence? Douthat elucidates several ways in which a renaissance of faith or religion, technology breakthrough, patience or resilience, and political rise could all break this society from the impending doom that he describes as decadence. The leaps of change that technology has made for our society over the last few decades are one way Douthat frames the need for and potentially the vehicle of a renaissance.

Maybe we have simply been in a kind of bottleneck for the last few generations, achieving important scientific breakthroughs that don’t (yet) translate into society-altering changes. At a certain point, we’ll clear the bottleneck, and it will become clear that our era was a necessary prelude to renewed acceleration—eventually giving us self-driving cars courtesy of a finally profitable Uber, a Mars colony courtesy of the Elon Musk–Jeff Bezos space race, and radical life extension courtesy of Google’s longevity lab or some other zillionaire who can’t imagine shuffling off this mortal coil.

  • What kind of renaissance do you think is most likely to take us out of decadence?
  • Do you believe any of the ideas he’s put forward in this chapter can truly lead us into renaissance?

PROVIDENCE

To be clear: I’m not predicting the end of the world or the arrival of the millennium here, and indeed my argument for the sustainably of decadence would cut against any crude attempt to read the book of Revelation, with all its wars and plagues and disasters, into the warp and woof of current events.

I’m just saying that if this were the age in which 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. And it should surprise anyone is decadence ends with people, looking heavenward: toward God, toward the stars, or both.

Additional Questions

  • What is wrong with decadence?
  • What can be done about it?
  • What actually is the good life that we hope that society can transition towards?
  • Has the theme of narrowing ideological horizons influenced how you see politics, society, culture?
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