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Waste, decay, elimination need not be condemned: they are necessary consequences of life, of the growth of life. The phenomenon of decadence is as necessary as any increase and advance of life: one is in no position to abolish it. Reason demands, on the contrary, that we do justice to it.—Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Arnold Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale
Nietzsche calls on us to do justice to decadence, and, in his latest book, The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat attempts to honor that Nietzschean exhortation.
But what exactly is decadence for Douthat? Decadence is a term that conveys a state of stagnation characteristic of pluralistic late modern societies. It manifests as economic stagnation, institutional gridlock and cultural repetition. Decadence is the sigh of an advanced civilization, lamenting the exhaustion of its creative capacities.
The argument of Douthat’s book is diffuse and ponderous, though he is an able prose stylist. He begins by examining economics.
The economic section is the most empirically grounded part of the book. Douthat argues that technologically advanced post-industrial societies like the United States, Western Europe and East Asia have entered into a period of economic stagnation, citing data suggesting a slow post-recession economic recovery in the States, the Japanese stagnation of the 90s, etc. Douthat goes over th suggested reasons for this stagnation in the States: some theories blame neoliberalism and its counter-inflationary free trade and outsourcing policies, while others implicate extreme regulatory strictures, which have curtailed economic creativity and entrepreneurial daring. Both these theories are unsatisfactory: there is an additional problem—and perhaps the main problem: there are simply not enough innovative enterprises and this is not primarily due to regulatory factors but because we have already harnessed the most easily available natural resources and economic and technical tools, making it much more difficult to come up any original new enterprises. There are, then, four reasons for the lack of economic growth: demographic decline, debt and deficits, educational constraints and environmental constraints.
One of the major problems, for Douthat, is the complexity of government. America is a kleptocracy. The conservative argument against this form of government focuses on the stagnating effects that these complex systems produce by causing gridlock and inhibiting the ability to make significant reforms to already established programs: evils exacerbated by the influence of special interests. There is also the stagnating political effect of a House of Representatives that has abrogated its duty as a coequal branch of government and relinquished much of its power to dictate policy to the judicial and executive branches.
Additionally, political stagnation can be seen as a product of polarization: i.e. the extreme sorting of the two political parties into sharply opposed camps, with their own insular media ecosystems. Europe, Douthat assumes, is plagued by many of the same problems of socioeconomic stagnation—mostly due to the European Union and its transnational aims, as well as the heterogeneity of the different European cultures and economies and contrasting centralization of their institutions. These issues were intensified by the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. Japan faces the same issues because of a “convergence of economic stagnation with legislative stalemate that’s defined the developed world’s experience.”
In the cultural sphere, for Douthat, repetition is the main expression of decadence.
Unsurprisingly, this is the most speculative part of the book—though there are some studies cited in the section on pop music. Douthat’s main line of argument is that our current art, culture and letters are derivative. The cultural products we make today are powered by the fumes of the babyboomer generation, and especially the discourse of 1975. The equal work for equal pay argument has been going on since the 1970s, and the discourse surrounding microaggressions also stretches back to that period. This repetitiveness, according to Douthat, even extends to our new digital creations. The vast virtual world of the internet gives the illusion of cultural heterogeneity and creativity, but even here space is dominated by a few conglomerates and platforms that lack competition. Worse still, the virtual world has drained the young and many others of their vitality. Pornography and video games may have helped to reduce the rate of crime and teen pregnancy, but they have also stupified young people and led to less participation in the workplace on the part of young adult males.
This virtual displacement also extends to the political realm. The proliferation of political opinions, spurred on by internet enclaves, acts as a kind of sublimation device: citizens act out radical ideas on the internet and in protests, knowing that such actions won’t actually change anything. This is demonstrated by the fact that, when someone actually does commit an act that reveals an intense commitment to his (or her) political ideals (usually through violence) he is seen as misunderstanding the point: we are larping, after all. This play-acting is not confined to radical activists: the US president himself is only a performative authoritarian, who lacks the competence to be a real one: he’s not a strongman; he just plays one on TV.
Cures for Decadence?
All this has imbued some with a longing for something—anything—to end our decadence and awaken us to history. Such people have variously pinned their hopes on an Islamic takeover, the ascendancy of liberal democracy and the rise of China as a new world power.
Douthat ends by asking whether we should be thankful for decadence. After all, many decadent societies are characterized by low crime rates, multiple leisure pursuits and a stable, if stagnant, society with institutions that, if they don’t work optimally, are at least somewhat adequate. Revolution poses dangers, unlike the technocratic, incremental approach that allows progress to proceed in a slow, steady manner, which avoids the risks of violence and destabilization that accompany a more volatile approach. Douthat concludes his book with various hypotheses as to how we might be shaken out of our decadent slumber.
Douthat’s sprawling text contains so many concurrent arguments that it is difficult to identify a single thesis: however, his main argument is that late modern societies are decadent. However, what Douthat calls decadence others might consider progress.
The idea that we are decadent is well substantiated in some places, but, in others, Douthat’s arguments lack refinement. The economic arguments are the strongest part of the book, since they rely on solid demographic data and are backed up by scholarly references. The cultural arguments are a bit hazier. Douthat’s delineation of the current state of American cinema is well founded and intuitively plausible; however, some of his observations on fashion, the arts and the general structure of culture today are questionable. For example, Douthat cites a lengthy passage on the lack of change in fashion and culture between 1992 and 2012. Ignoring the fact that much has happened in the eight years since 2012, Douthat is forgetting that there has been, since the 90s, a general fragmentation of popular culture and an increase in cloistered cultural sects. Douthat misses this development because he is too busy focusing on the business structure of the top online platforms and does not pay enough attention to their content. In politics, for example, Nick Land and Mencius Moldbug have produced some interesting new theories, using the internet as a platform. Douthat also overlooks the new linguistic coinages that online culture has produced.
Douthat also underestimates the changes that the cosmetics industry has undergone as a result of the increasing use of physical augmentation. The Instagram influencer aesthetic has no direct antecedents (though it is doubtless influenced by drag performers and pin-up girls) and the extreme facial tattoos that some now sport in the US cannot be linked to bygone European fashions. Douthat’s claims about cultural stasis say more about the culture he personally consumes than they do about the culture as a whole.
For the book’s thesis—that what Douthat calls decadence is, on balance, undesirable—no compelling argument is given. Fewer children are being born in our so-called decadent societies and perhaps relationships aren’t as stable as they once were, and economies aren’t as flourishing, but most people have enough to eat and plenty of leisure activities to choose from and live in societies that are mostly safe, and provide access to healthcare and free education (though the US is an outlier in this regard), and enjoy the use of a technological apparatus that gives you access to almost any fact, or can sweep you off to almost any imaginary world. So perhaps this is not so much a decadent society as a complacent one. Listing the pros and cons of a so-called decadent society is not very illuminating if a general normative framework is not used to adjudicate between them. What is needed is an axiology or theory of values to gauge the value of the decadent vs. the non-decadent. For example, on some utilitarian grounds, the fact that decadent societies have helped usher in an era of lower global poverty and reduced starvation throughout the world could be reason enough to think that decadence is a positive. Douthat does have a set of ethical axioms to guide his argument—but this framework is rooted in Catholicism and is therefore difficult to apply to a pluralistic, secular society, since it is based on revelation and faith.
Douthat’s assertion that our decadent society is undesirable is unsubstantiated. His argument relies on a reader who shares his intuition that what he calls decadence is undesirable and he therefore focuses on negative facts about our society while passing over (or underplaying) its advances. While I share Douthat’s intuition, I cannot abide his form of argument. But though the argument is not convincing to me, I would encourage others to read the book for themselves and reach their own conclusions. The Decadent Society’s breath of content, versatile prose and topical subject matter reward the attention of any educated reader.