Ross Douthat is worried about decadence. Not the bacchanalian excess of Las Vegas, Hugh Hefner, or Jersey Shore, but decadence as stagnation and sclerosis: the decadence of a country or world that is old and tired, with its best days behind it.
Douthat is perhaps the most prominent US Catholic journalist. He’s written a column in the New York Times for over a decade, and during that time penned several books on politics, religion, and culture. In his latest, The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of our Own Success, he weaves a sort of master-narrative, a wide-ranging diagnosis of our age’s ills. Douthat defines the decadence he is concerned with as being about “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development”.
His claim is that the developed world has, for the last few decades, been stuck in an order that he described to me as “rotten but stable”. A decadent society may not be headed towards imminent ruin, but only because it’s not really headed anywhere. Under decadence, you don’t see war between great powers or violent revolutions, but nor do you see great intellectual, moral, or spiritual achievement.
Douthat’s book ascribes a particularly self-absorbed flavour to current decadence. A decline in religious practice has led – at least until recently – to atomisation and alienation rather than social chaos.
Technological development has given us the smartphone and the omnipresence of the internet, but no advances in the exploration of space – or even much change in the way that we live our non-virtual lives – since the 1980s. We’re less vulnerable to natural disasters, but are seeing an increase in suicides and drug-related deaths of despair.
Even our art is decadent: the landscape dominated by relatively shallow YA novels and endless comic-book movies. In part because of the pacifiying nature of many of our society’s vices, Douthat thinks that the West’s particular malaise is built to last: our decadence is sustainable decadence.
So there was something ironic about video-calling him at a time when history is aggressively threatening to restart. Just two days after our conversation, the death of George Floyd after a policeman knelt on his neck would spark off a wave of protests against police brutality and racism, protests which have been accompanied by riots and looting in hundreds of cities across the United States. Before that, there was the small matter of the global pandemic.
In his New York Times column from a few weeks before we spoke, Douthat wrote about his family’s experience of getting a Covid-like illness, though tests never confirmed this. When I ask after their health, he tells me that his wife and children have fully recovered, although he is still fighting off the tail end of the symptoms. So how does the pandemic affect his thesis? Isn’t this just the sort of world-altering crisis that we wouldn’t expect in a sustainably decadent society?
In conversation, Douthat comes across much as he does in his writing: convivial, measured, willing to give critics their due. “If you’ve read the book you know I spend a certain amount of time in the latter third conjuring up different catastrophic scenarios that might pose a stiff challenge to the sustainability of decadence.” He continues, with some rueful amusement: “I mention plagues and pandemics, without going deep into the issue, and of course now I rather wish I had.” But he isn’t convinced that the virus represents an end to decadence. Instead, he thinks that the slow, fudgey response to Covid-19 from many Western countries is another example of it.
“With the exception of Germany, the heart of what we think of as ‘the West’ has done the worst at containing the virus, out of the developed countries: the US, Britain, France, Italy, Spain … Sweden, for different reasons.
“And that suggests … that there may be deeper political and cultural weakness in what we think of as the richest and most powerful countries, than in some of the countries that have become wealthy more recently.” Why? For Douthat, it’s in part about a certain kind of complacency. “We’ve become accustomed to a world where the worst infectious diseases have been defeated.”
It’s interesting that Douthat singles out complacency as one of the key hallmarks of decadence, when some of his critics cite his cautious response to the decadence he identifies as evidence of his own complacency.
There’s no denying that Douthat is cautious. In The Decadent Society, he spends a substantial amount of time warning that decadence, for all its evils, is preferable to many possible alternatives. He writes about “a disastrous style in anti-decadent politics – a craving for Meaning and Action leads to the piled corpses of Verdun and Passchendaele; or a desire to escape political deadlocks and stalemate leads to the Führer and the thousand-year Reich”. Douthat’s against accelerationism, any attempt to heighten the contradictions of our order to bring it crashing down. The path out of decadence must be sought carefully, and, yes, cautiously.
I wonder if Douthat takes this caution too far. I ask him about the moral urgency I found in some of his past writing about abortion. Steven Pinker likes to talk about how ours is the least violent age in history: but believing Catholics and anyone else who believes in equal rights for all human beings must count abortions as violent deaths. Once you do, roughly 50 to 60 million abortions worldwide per year make us one of the most violent eras ever: and that’s before one gets to the wars, racism, and exploitation of the global poor that the current order engages in as a matter of course. Aren’t we already in one of the worst-case scenarios? And shouldn’t the book be more urgent about the need to get out of it?
It takes me a while to ask this question, and there’s a pause before I get an answer. When it comes, it’s complex. Douthat tells me that he became more cynical about certain kinds of anti-decadent projects after the Bush administration. Here was the political triumph of a morally urgent conservatism: the primary grand, anti-decadent project it pursued was the disastrous pursuit of regime change across the Middle East. The conservative movement is now lead by Donald Trump, a man Douthat refers to in our conversation as an “incompetent and a moral midget”, and himself a product of the decadent forces of reality television and celebrity culture.
The lack of overt moral outrage in the book partly comes from the desire to persuade. “I’m aware that my vocation is to write for people who mostly disagree with me … or at least who mostly disagree with me about the questions that the Catholic Herald is most concerned with, right? And that means that the rhetoric of moral outrage is something that I try to deploy selectively.”
“Sometimes I see an opening to express the deep moral outrage that I feel over abortion”. A book trying to persuade an unconvinced audience that our society is decadent is not one of those openings.
But again, Douthat allows that his critics might have a point. “Look, this is something that I wrestle with a great deal. I think that there are problems – both as a Catholic and as a public writer – with having too much ironic detachment from your own convictions. I worry sometimes that the nature of my job means that I maintain a little too much detachment.
“And this doesn’t just run with abortion … sometimes I think I’m maybe not outraged enough about some of the worst things about Donald Trump, because everyone else on the Times’s op-ed page is sufficiently outraged! But maybe there’s too much distance there too.”
But the caution is not just tactical or psychological. Stability, he says, has its virtues. “Even under decadence, for you or I or any community or family it’s possible to lead a life of human flourishing that does wonderful things in a sort of local and particular way.” In the book he writes in hope that “where there’s stability, there also might eventually be renewal”, a “renaissance, without the intervening dark age.”
So if not revolution, I ask, what roads might lead out of decadence? Douthat’s book proposes a variety of possible scenarios: an immigration-driven synthesis of European and African culture that gives birth to a religious revival; or a return to space exploration, a use of technology that would channel the best in our nature rather than debase it. Space, he tells me, “offers a terrain of exploration and innovation that doesn’t necessarily seem to require dehumanisation” in the way that other technological ends to decadence might. A retreat to virtual reality would be a rejection of creation: a bold leap forward into transhumanism via genetic engineering would be a rejection of human nature.
“But I think it is at a deep level in humans to reach the cusp of some immense undiscovered country and feel some kind of impulse to explore it. If you believe in God, then space is either there as a really amazing decoration, or it’s there as something human beings should explore.”
I’m curious about the emphasis that Douthat puts on a return to progress as a response to decadence. Aren’t many of the problems he identifies the fruits of a pursuit of progress? In the very first chapter of The Decadent Society, he talks about an “ideology of exploration and discovery” as a replacement for “faith, tribe, family and hierarchy”, and expresses deep scepticism of the colonial domination and exploitation that was one of the major results of that ideology. So why seek an end to decadence here?
I’ve hit upon a point of tension in his thesis, and he laughs. For him, it’s partially about what’s actually feasible. “Let me put it this way: the society of human beings closest to perfection would look somewhat like stagnation from the outside, right? The monastic life, for instance, viewed from a kind of Stephen Pinkerian angle looks like stagnation, drift and repetition. These monks, you know, they’re saying the same prayers at the same time every day!
“So there is a form of human life I think that’s higher than progress and dynamism. What I’m sceptical of is that you can sort of find your way back to that form of life on a large scale by simply calling a halt to progress and innovation or slowing it down rapidly. I don’t think we can successfully ‘degrowth’ our way into a more sort of arcadian existence. That’s not necessarily true for individuals or communities! But I don’t think it’s going to happen for a species of 8 billion people that has subjugated the earth.”
I think, though, that’s there’s more to it than pragmatism. I suspect that I may have unearthed Douthat’s optimism: despite his gloomy rhetoric and caution about radical change and accelerationism, I think he’s ultimately hopeful that humanity can not just progress, but improve in moral terms.
A chuckle. “The desire for change is a religious desire, right? It obviously can be misdirected and lead to all kinds of nightmarish things, but a society seeking change is a society that’s closer to Christianity than a society that is secular but completely comfortable in its existing way of life.”
Later I emailed Douthat to ask about the civil unrest in the US. He wrote back: “The coronavirus has temporarily suspended or unmade some of the technologies that help stabilise decadence.” That’s part of the reason “why we’re getting protests and violence on a scale that you didn’t see during the first three years of Trump.”
“Perhaps this is really the beginning of a death of decadence, a more dramatic or even revolutionary change. At the same time, I’m still sufficiently attached to my thesis to expect that we’ll get some kind of stabilisation after this irruption, rather than an inflection point that looks like the late 1960s in its consequences.”
Time, I suppose, will tell.
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