‘Decline is a choice,” Charles Krauthammer famously quipped. But decadence is not.
Or at least that’s one possible reading of The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat’s sweeping, incisive tome on the stagnant state of Western liberalism. Decadence, Douthat writes, “refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.” It does not mean excess so much as enervation, and—crucially—it needn’t imply crisis or collapse, at least not in the immediate, return-of-history sort of way often associated with the Trump era. Lest the reader begin to feel reassured, Douthat says the best analogue of our present situation is imperial Rome, which, as W. H. Auden put it, “managed to last for four centuries without creativity, warmth, or hope.”
Repetition as opposed to regression, drift rather than death—that is the order of the day, and part of the reason renewal may prove so elusive: because a society that is only “dystopia-ish” will not necessarily inspire, or even merit, the sort of risky, history-reviving actions that might end decadence.
Especially since the forces that gave rise to it were somewhat beyond our control.
Start with productivity slowdown, stagnation’s most familiar, easiest-to-measure form. Drawing on the work of Robert Gordon and Tyler Cowen (the latter’s Great Stagnation in particular), Douthat suggests a variety of constraints that have made high productivity growth, and the social contentedness it brings, less sustainable than in past decades. Richer people have fewer kids, fewer kids means older societies (and thus more debt), the educational gains of the 20th century were more or less a one-time shock, and it’s no longer possible to boost growth by appropriating fallow land—the frontier has been closed, and, pending space travel, won’t be reopened any time soon.
Space travel is pending, moreover, because innovation in the realm of atoms has not kept pace with innovation in the realm of bits, with inventions that were predicted “fifty years ago . . . now dismissed as fantasies,” the stuff of Star Wars or (better yet) Star Trek. And this technological decadence, while not obviously inevitable, is not obviously reversible either—in part because of feedback loops between the aforementioned constraints but also, potentially, because there is an “inherent limit on possible innovation” built into our present order. “At some point, every advanced-for-its-time society has ceased advancing,” Douthat notes ominously. “There is no reason to assume that the modern world is inherently immune from the torpor that claimed the Ottomans and imperial China in the not-so-distant past.”
Likewise, there’s little reason to assume that the “consistent ineffectuality in American governance”—the gridlock, the failed presidencies, the forever wars—can be fixed through any kind of conventional reform. What Francis Fukuyama calls “vetocracy,” a system in which too many checks and balances hamstring effective policymaking, is now the default condition of the United States and, across the sea, of Europe as well. Both have experienced sustained stalemate—Democrats vs. Republicans in America, centrists vs. populists in the EU—in which no side can achieve lasting legislative victories, stymied as they are by interest groups and institutions that seem increasingly endemic to the liberal order.
Overcoming such obstacles will require a great deal of imagination and ambition . . . which, according to Douthat, are two things today’s West sorely lacks—not just in technology and politics, but also in culture, and in our recurring battles over it. “Famous 1970s-era texts such as Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism . . . seem entirely relevant” to America today, Douthat observes, as do ’90s-era critiques of affirmative action, postmodernism, feminism, and progressive myopia more generally. The buzzwords may have changed, but the underlying debates have not, and concerns about their being decisively resolved in the Left’s favor seem exaggerated, to say the least. Instead, writes Douthat, “today’s changes are aftershocks” from “the genuine revolutions of fifty or sixty years ago . . . rather than new earthquakes”—hence the striking “similarities between the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation fight in 1991 and the 2018 Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight, between the current Black Lives Matter moment and the O. J. Simpson– and Rodney King–era debates about police brutality, . . . even between the sexual scandals of Donald Trump and the sexual scandals of Bill Clinton.”
Equally telling, and arguably more depressing, is the state of popular culture, which has traded the creativity and cultural ferment of the Boomers for endless reboots and recyclings, often of Boomer-era IP. “Thirty years after 1985, the year’s biggest blockbuster was a Star Wars movie about Darth Vader’s grandchildren . . . which was directed by a filmmaker, J. J. Abrams, who was coming off rebooting Star Trek . . . which was part of a wider cinematic landscape dominated by ‘presold’ comic-book properties developed when the baby boomers were young,” Douthat notes wryly. The problem is that the counterculture from which these properties arose was so successful that it became the culture, full stop, thereby destroying the “forms and structures that once gave rebellion purpose.”
Indeed, Star Wars is in many ways a synecdoche for the West that Douthat describes: a once-novel pastiche of competing ideas and traditions undone by its own success, stuck in an endless cycle of banality, increasingly unsure of where it wants to go or what it wants to be, and yet still rich enough to ensure its own recrudescence for the foreseeable future, provided nobody gets too bored, no executive too adventurous.
Also, in America as in Star Wars, people aren’t having sex.
This last development, termed “the sex recession” by The Atlantic’s Kate Julian, is a symptom of what Douthat calls “sustainable” decadence, in which an ever-expanding suite of virtual vice—Playstation and pornography, TikToks and Twitter—numbs us to the frustration, the angst, that stasis often brings. Simulated stimuli, the one area where we haven’t stopped innovating, thus reinforce stagnation in other realms of life, with threats of “real turbulence and disruption” blunted by tweeting, smut, and video games. (The return of radicalism, Douthat notes, such as it is, has been a mostly online affair.)
Then, in addition to these Huxleyan balms, technology has enabled new forms of social control: vast distribution networks for propaganda and disinformation and fake news, the soft censorship of Silicon Valley, a panoptic social-credit system run not by China but by Google, and an archive of digital memory of which the Soviets could only dream. This regime intimidates critics without quite oppressing them and is too decentralized to be attacked (well, plausibly attacked) as totalitarian—suggesting, again, that our decadence could continue for a while yet, immune to the paroxysms and anxieties it generates.
All of which means that The Decadent Society is itself a pastiche—the good, New Hope kind of pastiche—of two different conservative arguments.
The first finds its most forceful champion in Patrick Deneen, whose 2018 Why Liberalism Failed emphasized the ways in which our notionally free society really isn’t—how a kind of soft despotism can emerge from the uncoordinated interactions of private agents, few of whom are willing to risk their wealth or comfort or status to challenge the existing system. Douthat’s treatment of the panopticon, and his Huxleyesque concerns about virtual opiates, are a variation on this theme.
The second argument comes from George Will, whose 2019 The Conservative Sensibility was essentially one long subtweet of Deneen: a brief for free markets and limited government, for classical liberalism, for the Founding, for the revolution that created it—and above all for the churn, the unpredictability, the dynamism that this tradition always promised, its commitment to individual freedom the ultimate bulwark against slowdown and sclerosis. To be sure, Douthat is less bullish than Will on small-government conservatism (he has jokingly expressed sympathy for “a multiracial, multilingual Catholic aristocracy ruling from Quebec to Chile”). But in defining “decadent” as the opposite of “dynamic,” he is implicitly granting Will’s political vocabulary. And in insisting that decadence “needs critics,” that “stagnation and repetition . . . crowd out essential human goods,” he is implicitly agreeing with Will about the value of flux—and implicitly disagreeing with Deneen about the value of rootedness, the normative lodestar of Why Liberalism Failed. It’s important, sure, and in some ways our era could use more of it. But also detectable in Douthat’s prose is a note of nostalgia—not just for the tight-knit culture of days past, but for the pesky Boomers who blew it all up, in “the last great burst of creativity in Western history.” Yes, they were “destructive and solipsistic,” yes, they dissolved the traditions on which their creativity drew, but hell, Douthat seems to concede, at least they did something other than masturbate.
At the same time, it’s unclear how small-l liberalism alone could deliver us from decadence. Even if one rejects the idea that decadence is a logical consequence of liberalism (and Douthat does reject it, effectively, by stressing the way technology has induced inertia), liberalism offers no obvious guarantee against decadence, and in certain cases may even exacerbate it. Freer markets do not automatically translate into higher growth, checks and balances create gridlock, and a public philosophy of individualism hasn’t stopped the West from slouching toward conformism—if anything, it has abraded the social bonds that uphold diversity.
This may be why Douthat is loath to offer prescriptions in his final chapters, choosing instead to sketch some plausible (and not so plausible) paths out of decadence—paths, not policies. It’s telling that many of these involve catastrophe—a climate apocalypse or debt crisis, maybe a migration-fueled civil war—while the rest involve external shocks that are hard to predict or engineer: a Euro-African renaissance of Christianity, an unforeseen technical breakthrough, a new political dispensation, or some combination of all three. In each case, individual agents can do only so much, and what they do could very easily backfire, hastening the dystopia rather than forestalling it.
Which would in turn explain why, when all is said and done, Douthat isn’t holding out for a deus ex machina so much as a deus ex deo—something providential, “something extra, that really can come only from outside our present frame of reference.” “I’m not predicting the end of the world or the arrival of the millennium here,” he assures readers on the final page. “I’m just saying that if this were the age in which some major divine intervention happened, . . . there would be, in hindsight, a case that we should have seen it coming.”
Time will tell.
This article appears as “Sustainable Stagnation?” in the March 23, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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