Pollsters often ask the American public their opinion on which way the country is going. In his latest book, Ross Douthat takes a step back from that inquiry and ponders whether America — and the West as a whole — is going anywhere at all. Have we instead entered an age of decadence and stagnation, resting on the successes of the past, and lulling ourselves to sleep as civilization slides lazily into decline? In The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, Douthat makes a fairly convincing argument that this may be the case.
Frederick Jackson Turner famously called the closing of the frontier a turning point in American history, one that limited the dynamism that had characterized the still-unsettled country. Douthat sees in this an analogy to our own cultural stagnation and dates America’s decline to the closing of the “space frontier” that accompanied the end of the Apollo program in 1972. “Since Apollo,” he writes, “we have entered into decadence.”
That word gets thrown around a lot, more often to describe a dessert than a civilization, part of the same transmigration of vocabulary that made “opportunistic” a compliment among sportscasters and “unctuous” a misunderstood term of flattery on cooking shows. Douthat takes the time to consider what decadence really means, turning to the historian Jacques Barzun, who considered the topic thoroughly in his book From Dawn to Decadence, published in 2000.
To Barzun, and to Douthat, decadence is a sense of “falling off.” It is repetition, not innovation; satisfaction, not yearning. It is the managed decline of an elite technocracy, not the striving for greatness that marks a civilization on the way to something. It is easy to see how the topic would concern the author, in this age where the American population is so divided over whether America must be made great again.
To ask, “Are we decadent?,” though, is not the same as asking, “Is the country in bad shape?” Douthat makes this clear in writing that a culture can be “sustainably decadent.” After all, we are living in a society as rich and comfortable as any in human history, surrounded by technological marvels, living longer and in better health than our ancestors could ever have imagined. Is this decadence? If so, why not welcome it? We are a wealthy, powerful nation, and decadence, Douthat writes, is a luxury good.
Taking comfort in material goods and historic wealth is one of the comforts of decadence. But comfort does not always mean health; it could just as easily be caused by a narcotic stupor. We look with disdain on a wealthy family that no longer creates or contributes but merely spends the fortune accumulated by more successful predecessors. Wasting wealth on frivolities and perversion is contemptible in a family; should we not scorn it even more strongly when an entire society does it?
Douthat makes the case that for all our technological innovation, we have been mired in cultural stagnation for decades. Economically, he is partially correct, at least. Some of the trends he highlights began long before the closing of the space frontier. The stagflation of the 1970s occurred after Apollo ended, but its causes were many and varied. The subsequent decline in manufacturing and the “China shock” of the early 2000s certainly feels like decline, but that is less about national decadence than about decisions regarding free trade and WTO membership.
The cultural changes brought about by those economic shifts may more closely meet the description of decadence. Douthat talks of old-style capitalism, with its implicit obligation to charity. As the welfare state replaced it, it attempted to replicate the monetary effects while undermining the culture that led people to want to be charitable in the first place. That effect — repetition without true replacement — is a large part of what Douthat sees as decadence.
In the arts, too, there is a feeling of repetition rather than true innovation, as Douthat tells it, but here he may be mistaking a change in medium for a change in substance. The movies, as he points out, have fallen on hard times. They still make money, but the “new” stories are just retellings of the old, often explicitly so in remakes, reboots, and endless sequels. Such innovation as remains is in dreary films that no one sees, no how many self-congratulatory awards they win.
Is that decadence? Yes, but much of it is the decline of the medium of motion pictures. People increasingly consume media from the comforts of their own homes, largely because of the technological innovations of the past few decades: bigger homes, better televisions, more channels, and cheap central air conditioning. And in that medium, the arts have flourished. If the silver screen has faded into boring repetition, the golden age of television is still in full glow.
In politics, too, Douthat sees stagnation. A crude echo of the past has replaced the forward-looking ideas of the postwar period. Here he makes a better case, especially as to the outward forms of political expression. Ponder the last time a political party put forward a truly new idea. The Republican Congress of the 1990s had some innovation, perhaps, but the current competing visions of America seem to be arguing mostly over whether we should return to the 1980s or the 1930s. A few outliers prefer a return to some other era, but rare is the candidate whose vision is truly futuristic.
The radical elements at the fringes of the right and left are unfamiliar to this century, but they are nothing truly new in political history. The ugly sight of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville in 2017 was disturbing. But the manner of that march was faintly ridiculous. These internet racists knew enough to see a torchlight procession as a symbol of determination, but they had lost the ability to build a torch, resorting instead to ready-made Tiki torches, a mass-produced symbol suggestive of a foreign culture, the product of the globalization they claim to hate.
Like the Tiki-torch tough guys, the so-called anti-fascist movement (Antifa) plays on the symbols of the past, presenting an image instead of an idea. Communists and fascists fought in the streets of Germany and the battlefields of Spain because they actually believed those murderous, hateful ideologies would cure all their ills and usher in a utopia built on their enemies’ bones. They were wrong, as wrong as anything humanity has ever conceived, but it was, as they say, an ethos.
Since then, most of us have learned the grave error of the twin totalitarian ideologies. Yet our news and politics are polluted by the sight of internet edgelords cosplaying ancient evils in the streets of American cities. Our internet is full of fascist and Communist imagery promoted by people too young to remember but well-educated enough to know better. Do they actually believe it, or do they simply crave the adulation of anonymous cretins who like and upvote “for the LOLs”? Do they know the difference? Do they care?
Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Now, in weekend clashes between basement-dwelling weirdos, we see it occurring a third time: as a meme. That it happens isn’t decadence, but that we pay attention to it surely is. The decline of healthy institutions and the rise of ersatz versions of the same is everywhere, and Douthat is not wrong to see that hollowing out of society as a step on a downward slope.
More difficult than the diagnosis is the cure. Douthat is humble enough to admit he may be wrong — one advantage a book has over a column is the space to add nuance and alternatives. He cites Francis Fukuyama’s worthy and often wrongly derided book, The End of History and the Last Man, for the proposition that we may no longer be inventing political ideas because there are none left to invent. It could be that all that is left is to replay history’s greatest hits over and again until the end of time. Perhaps we are not decadent at all. Perhaps we’ve merely arrived.
That end to innovation could be a source of comfort to a certain kind of conservative, but Douthat likes the idea no more than most, if only because the station into which society’s train is pulling is crumbling around our ears. Anyone who thinks, as Douthat does, that America, the West, and humanity in general are capable of more must believe that this decadence will eventually give way to a rebirth, just as it has in other societies in other times.
Douthat gives a few possibilities, but none feels like a wholehearted prediction. He notes that we have been here before as a species, if not as a country. Rome was decadent before it fell, but part of what brought it down was the triumph of Christianity in the West. People want to compare every great civilization to Rome, especially when predicting its doom, but that’s not out of order. No matter how great, how powerful, and how stable this country is, it will eventually give way to something else, whether now or after the twelve centuries that spanned Rome’s rise and fall.
If this civilizational decadence is real, and if it is the prelude to the end, the result may be as much a Renaissance as a Dark Age. History has its patterns, but there is no standard operating procedure for culture. Hopefully, wherever we’re going will lead to something better, a virtuous new society of ideas that is born out of the ashes of the old. The fire that leads to those ashes, though, is likely to get hotter before it goes out.