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Book Review: The Decadent Society
(Thanks to Santi Ruiz and Paul Millerd for help with a draft of this piece.)
I’ve never had the experience before of reading so depressing a book—and make no mistake, Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society is at its core pessimistic about the state of Western civilization—and yet beam with agency and excitement at the trove of ideas and provocation. So often it is someone else’s formulation of “the problem” that spurs our own thoughts, and to Douthat I am immensely grateful, for tying together many important lines of evidence and despite his cheerless message.
Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic social commentator, film critic, and a columnist at The New York Times, published The Decadent Society in February of this year. His thesis is that a condition of decadence has obtained in Western civilization, and is likely here to stay. “Decadence,” he writes,
“refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. It describes a situation in which repetition is more the norm than innovation; in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private enterprises alike; in which intellectual life seems to go in circles; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, underdeliver compared with what people recently expected. And, crucially, the stagnation and decay are often a direct consequence of previous development. The decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own significant success.
Stagnation, sclerosis, exhaustion. Dysfunctional politics, repetitive culture, a captured economy. All while at the putatively wealthiest point in human history. What gives?
Douthat claims our state of decadence started to congeal around 1970, when the previously accelerating trends of technological advancement (as epitomized by the Apollo moon landing, the opening event of the book), rising incomes and standards of living, improving quality health indices, and fertility rates all started to slow and in some cases reverse.
Some readers might already object. “Technological stagnation? Has he looked around? Heard of the internet?” And yes, the thesis is not without counterpoints. But Douthat argues that these few counterexamples, far from refuting the thesis, actually sustain decadence by masking the underlying depth of the stagnation. In the case of technology, the IT revolution is indeed the exception to the otherwise grim picture of increasing inputs to innovation and tech (as measured by the number of patents filed, active researchers, business formation, etc.), and the constant-to-falling outputs.
In a demonstration of the point, Douthat asks us to imagine the average household in, say 1890. Picture the actual house a family might be living in. For one, there might be more than one family per room. The floors are likely dirt, with a hay threshold; no running water, no electricity, none of the labor and back-saving devices that we all take for granted. (There would also be practically three times the number of children per family, but I’ll return to the point of fertility later.) Fast forward to 1960, and all of this would have changed radically. Our great-great-grandfather would be stupefied: Fridges, televisions, planes, antibiotics! Fast forward again to 2020. Besides streaming your TV on YouTube, what would feel different about our modal household’s living room? Would our great-great-grandfather be as shook?
This may not be convincing enough a thought experiment, but one of the book’s strengths is convincingly belaboring this point of technological stagnation. Ditto for cultural stagnation and repetition—what groundbreaking new genres are there in music? How many new intellectual properties in film are blockbusting in today versus 1970, if sequels, reboots, and derivatives are evidence of decadence?
Even the exceptions to this rule, the still-creative portions of pop cinema, are often tethered to the boomer era. When big-screen science fiction isn’t just a straight-up eighties-vintage franchise movie—a Star Wars or Star Trek or Alien or Predator—it’s usually a strange multilayered exercise in recursion, like Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner: 2049, which trades on a peculiar nostalgia for an eighties dystopia that’s tellingly more technologically proficient than our own, or Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, in which the hero’s journey of the future takes place inside a virtual world built from the pop culture that the youthful Spielberg helped create. And then there are still-stranger cases, like the succes de scandale of 2019, Todd Phillips’s Joker, which both its fans and detractors treated as something novel and radical—an upending of superhero clichés in the service of a politically engaged or politically dangerous message of despair or revolution. In reality, the movie was just a competent, handsome imitation of Scorsese’s harsh depictions of 1970s New York, embedded in the endlessly rebooting DC Extended Universe to make it marketable.
And while cultural stagnation may be highly subjective, what of politics? I imagine the reader might need less persuading in this domain, as each day brings fresh evidence of the near-total dysfunction of Congress, the lack of substantive legislation, leadership, and even sense of possibility. Sclerosis seems to hold at all levels of government, no matter which party holds power. Whether your criticism takes the conservative form—the “size and scope of government and its postconstitutional drift”—or the liberal—the “ideological polarization of the parties” largely brought about by Republican’s Faustian bargain with nativism and populism-the result is still stagnation, exhaustion, and a system impervious to change.
Douthat is a pious Catholic, and a fair portion of the book concerns religion’s role in maintaining decadence, and its potential in renewal and repudiating decadence. The most interesting part considers the continent of Africa’s high fertility rates and increasing religiosity. Douthat extends these trends forwards to billions more Catholic souls in a hundred years, potentially upsetting the European or East Asian makeup of Western civilization. While it reads a little hopeful, if we take fertility seriously then Africa’s future might weigh heavily in any scenario of a decadent society’s renaissance. But for now, while the Global South is still largely developing, and Christianity struggles with its own decadence, religion can only be a potential source of salvation.
And, of course, what is more stagnant than the economy? What is more decadent than the American upper class? It seems certainly the case that the American dream is harder to attain, as the upper class, having climbed the economic ladder, then pulled it up behind them.
The […] left and the libertarian center right differ in which kind of rentier they are most eager to indict: Piketty and his admirers are hardest on the superrich, blaming their political influence and essential selfishness for foiling necessary large-scale redistribution, while libertarian anti-rentiers are more likely to argue that the richest of the rich still generally rise on their own merits (think Jeff Bezos or Warren Buffett), while it’s the mass upper class that’s really guilty of what the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves calls “dream hoarding”: the combined effects of inherited wealth, educational requirements, real estate prices, and tax breaks that essentially reproduce privilege from one generation to the next. But there is a basic common ground here, a shared left-and-libertarian critique of consolidation and self-dealing that clearly describes some essential features of our long deceleration. From New York to London, Paris to San Francisco, our upper class is not only richer and bigger but also more self-segregated and well defended than fifty years ago—flocking to the same unchanging list of grade-inflated elite schools, planting themselves in the same small group of “global” cities, concentrating their privileged families in exclusive neighborhoods protected by stringent zoning rules, defending their turf by pricing out everyone except the necessary service class, which is largely composed of immigrants welcomed because they’ll work harder for less money than the upper class’s fellow countrymen.
It seems that, having arrived at what Francis Fukuyama calls the “End of History,” we must contend with a decadent society. Not only is the mixed-economy liberal order is here to stay, but dynamism, optimism, and debate are prescribed within an increasingly narrow band of possibility, as it becomes more natural to sedately entertain ourselves with the Iron Man 27, compete for the same Ivy League schools in hopes of getting a job at the increasingly consolidated corporate landscape, discharge the occasional spasm of rage by registering our dissatisfaction on Twitter, all the flash and loudness of which gives the illusion of change but is subsumed by, and thus reaffirms, the decadence of our society. And why not? Decadence is, at so many margins, a deeply seductive and comfortable thing.
What happens when countries, with economic, social, and cultural institutions predicated on a world with 3% or 5% annual GDP growth and a continuous crop of new workers that sizably outnumber retirees, converge on today’s tepid growth rates and plummeting fertility? The book’s most harrowing and provocative chapter is on fertility. Even a perusal of the data on fertility paints an astonishing picture: for the first time in human history, almost every rich nation is at below-replacement fertility and its population would shrink if not for immigration.
To replace itself from generation to generation, a society needs to average 2.1 births per woman. Across the European Union in 2016, the average was 1.6 children per woman. In Japan, it was 1.41; South Korea, 1.25; China, 1.6; Singapore, 0.82. In Canada, it was 1.6; in Australia, 1.77. The American fertility rate was, by these standards, relatively robust: 1.87. But it was still too low to sustain the present population on its own, and it was falling faster, despite economic growth, than most demographers had expected. By 2018, it was down to 1.7, the lowest ever recorded, and headed lower still. These are, note well, overall fertility rates. Recent immigrants to developed countries tend to have higher-than-average fertility (although the offspring’s fertility converges fairly quickly with the native born), so the fertility rates for native-born women are almost without exception lower than these figures. Aside from Israel, there is no rich country in the world whose population would not, absent immigration, be on track to shrink.
This declining fertility rate reflects my own experience. I’m one of two children to a mother who was one of six and a father who was one of three (which, for the standards of the Soviet Union, was an unusually large family). The same picture holds for almost all of my friends, a middle-to-upper-class bunch: only children, or one of two, from parents, or more often grandparents, who were one of many. What was it that my parents faced that my grandfather’s parents, one of 11, didn’t?
In broad terms, the downward trend is old and overdetermined. Plunging infant mortality rates meant that more children survived to adulthood, reducing the incentive to have the largest family possible. The shifts from an agrarian to an industrial and then to an information economy made children less valuable as extra household laborers and made an intense educational investment in each child make far more economic sense—which in turn raised the costs of childrearing for the ambitious and successful. The birth control pill made accidental pregnancy less likely and delayed parenting more plausible. The feminist revolution created strong economic incentives for women to delay childbirth as long as possible. The divorce revolution and the decline of marriage meant that fewer people than in the past were spending the childbearing years in a stable, monogamous partnership. Secularization meant that fewer people felt a moral obligation to be fruitful and multiply. The welfare state provided an old-age guarantee that lessened the need for kids as sources of financial support when you yourself cannot work any longer. And the blessings of a rich consumer society provided a plethora of goods, services, and experiences that an under-forty-five-year-old might wish to spend time and energy and money consuming—even as the day-after-day, hour-after-hour burdens of childrearing remained substantial, mitigated modestly (at best) by technological progress and alleged labor-saving devices.
Douthat goes on to explore the numerous puzzles and contradictions in trends of fertility. Why, if fertility rates decline during recessions—suggesting finances play a role in family size—are not family sizes bigger now that we are so much richer than generations past? What does a declining population—and therefore the labor-force-to-pensioner ratio—mean for a society with so many “embedded growth obligations” as Eric Weinstein calls them? What of the “thinning family tree” and its implications for the lived experience of individual family members, “whose ties to the future expand instead of narrow”? And what of the politics of immigration and the fate of immigrants-to-be in a country with a native population threatened by its diminishing size and stature?
But the puzzles and implications of declining fertility rates is just one part of the provocation. The other is, and this might be a bizarre reaction to such a gloomy book, a deeply comforting reassurance of my dream to have a big family. Pardon the abrupt diversion into the personal, but it’s not often a book so enters into one’s own view of the world. The threads of this large family dream have their roots in high school, when I reflected upon my mother’s then-miscarriage and tried to imagine my family augmented by one or more additional Efremovs. The dream thickens when I read Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and is thickest when considering that the happiest times of my life revolve around and include family. I’ve long felt the call in me to “go forth and multiply.” (A major motivation for my taking up a career in tech is to acquire the skills and income to provide for the economic security of a large family.) That it is a non-decadent, optimistic and deeply prosocial thing I had totally underrated.
The question that dogs each chapter is “What is one to do about this,“ given that we find a sclerotic, complacent, myopic society leaves a lot to be desired? On the one hand, the track record for an individual setting out to change culture and then achieving it in some lasting way is sobering: For every Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey, there are millions who make no such dent. But the “rewards” to changing culture might be worth it to some—at a recent book club, I was told wanting to have a family is “unambitious”—and to them I say, Godspeed. For me, and for many of us, I draw enormous meaning from my family and immediate community. Not to mention, ambition is not mutually exclusive with having a large family.
That means getting my own house in order. How much decadence do I demonstrate? What room for dynamism and creation is there? A lot, and certainly I can build on various efforts (this blog is just a start!). And then, of course, there is my family. I’ve long decided to have many children, if I’m so lucky, and the book strengthens my resolve in that regard.
It is 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.
Here is a selection of highlights from the book.
So it is a significant factor in our era’s anxieties, in the sense of drift and stagnation and uncertainty with which this book is principally concerned, that the actual physical frontier has been closed for a generation or more—that for the first time since 1491, we have found the distances too vast and the technology too limited to take us to somewhere genuinely undiscovered, somewhere truly new. It is not a coincidence that the end of the space age has coincided with a turning inward in the developed world, a crisis of confidence and an ebb of optimism and a loss of faith in institutions, a shift toward therapeutic philosophies and technologies of simulation, an abandonment of both ideological ambition and religious hope.
[T]he academic politics that conservatives are critiquing keep cycling through the same recurring patterns too, with the campus battles of the 1960s giving way to the PC wars of the 1980s giving way to our own social justice struggle sessions. Admittedly each progressive wave includes its novelties and perhaps the latest wave will be lasting and transformative. At the same time, as Musa al-Gharbi noted in a 2019 essay for the website Heterodox Academy, both the demands of “awokened” activists and the counterthrusts of the new progressivism’s critics are very familiar from earlier rounds of campus debate. And many of the ideological frameworks and buzzwords—the special emphasis on victimhood and trauma, concepts of language-as-violence, the rhetoric of “safe spaces” and “microaggressions,” and more—date to the Vietnam and post–civil rights era, the late 1960s and 1970s, the coming-of-age of the baby boom. And, of course, all of these battles are happening on the same elite campuses, the same Very Important Schools as held sway over American higher education and high culture sixty years ago. There is no list more decadent in its stagnation and repetition than the U.S. News & World Report college rankings.
If exceptions might help explain the rule, then the example of Israel is interesting: it’s the only rich, highly educated country where birthrates leveled off well above replacement instead of just below it, and then actually rose again. The Israeli fertility rate in 1985 was 2.7 births per woman; today, in a still-richer country, the rate stands at 3.1. Some of this can be explained as a case study in how religiosity drives fertility, given both the strength of the ultraorthodox community in Israel and the fact that from the 1970s onward, Israel has welcomed a more devout and conservative type of immigrant than have most Western countries. But the Israeli birthrate has remained high, and even climbed higher, among secular Israelis as well. So instead of relying on religion alone to explain the Jewish state’s exceptionalism, it may be more reasonable to speculate that fecundity increases with the felt stakes of ordinary life, and that Israel’s distinctive identity, history, and geopolitical position—perpetually threatened, perpetually mobilized—creates very different attitudes toward the self-sacrifice involved in parenthood than the less existentially shadowed culture of other rich societies. This argument could be extended back to another major and much larger exception to the modern fertility decline: the world of the postwar baby boom, which was shaped not only by the temporary religious revival of the late 1940s but also by the solidarity forged in wartime, the need (in Europe) to rebuild a shattered civilization, and the apocalyptic threat of nuclear war.
In an essay on “Golden Ages” in his book Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary, the late sociologist Robert Nisbet suggested that an age of great aesthetic or intellectual achievement is usually defined by what he calls a “dialectical antinomy.” By this, he meant that for the “blaze of creativity” to leap up often requires strong ideas and trends and forces that are in clear tension with one another—for instance, a strong communitarianism and a strong individualism, strong secularizing trends and a powerful understanding of the sacred, revolutionary moral ideas and a powerful moral consensus. One doesn’t have to call the 1960s and 1970s a “golden age” in full—the seventies were obviously more glitz and tinsel and depravity—to see that this description fits the era well. The boomers were the last rebellious generation to come of age not only with various traditional edifices still standing but also with a sense, in the Eisenhower fifties, that those edifices had actually been strengthened by the experiences of the Depression and World War II. This gave the rebel culture of the sixties a real adversary to struggle against: the old bourgeois norms refreshed by suburbanization and prosperity; a Christianity that had just experienced a sustained revival; a patriotic narrative of history that had been burnished by victory in the Second World War; a common culture that had become more binding through the influence of radio, television, mass-market periodicals, and movies. The old men of that world, the father figures to be wrestled with and overcome, were war heroes and giants—literally so in the cases of Lyndon Johnson and Charles de Gaulle. The old forms were still powerful and vital, and so to subvert or overthrow or replace them, the new forms had to be powerful as well. And they were, for a time. The boomer utopianism that now feels rote, dated, and commercialized was a genuine revolution when it first emerged, and it had to feel like a revolution because it was attacking something that still felt confident, rooted, possibly enduring. Sit down with the first season of Mad Men or an equivalent primary source and then watch the 1970 Woodstock documentary and marvel at the antinomy. Read a sheaf of New Yorkers from the heyday of William Shawn, E. B. White, and James Thurber, and then read your way through the New Journalism—starting with Tom Wolfe’s savaging of Shawn, and then on through Garry Wills, Joan Didion, and Hunter S. Thompson—and you’ll see a conflict between two potencies, two strong cultural approaches, with the younger one not just tearing at weak points but also feeding off the older order’s strength. Pick up a novel or a memoir whose characters inhabit the pre–Vatican II Catholicism of the 1940s and then read the liberalizing theologians whose work defined the Catholic 1960s and 1970s, and you’ll see one generation’s confidence clashing with another’s, a liberal certainty blazing up to overthrow a religious culture that felt timeless just a few short years before.
The distinction between decadence and cultural vitality, between our own era and the years of the baby boomers’ youth, is laid bare in that dispiriting progression. The vital culture critiques its own tradition; the decadent culture just repeats the critique more loudly or crudely or tediously. The vital culture makes a bricolage of classic stories; the decadent culture remakes the bricolage with a slightly different cast and a few plot beats swapped around. The vital culture creates fans de novo; the decadent culture performs “fan service.” The vital culture is a workshop; the decadent culture is a museum.
Even as the former Yugoslavia descended into civil war in the 1990s, it was difficult for the warring factions to find soldiers to fight the actual battles, to a point where the Serbian nationalists ended up relying on soccer hooligans and convicts. That was a society that still remembered World War II and was riven by still-more-ancient hatreds. Our own hatreds burn hot in their own way, but not obviously in that way—the old way, the way that once persuaded young men that dulce et decorum est to die for a country or a cause, the way that gave Europe its 1930s and the pre–Civil War United States its anti- and pro-slavery forces killing one another in Bleeding Kansas. In the age of online frenzy, there is an understandable fear that some kind of cultural-political cascade will carry our society downward into a similar kind of civil strife. But it may be that the nature of our decadence, our civilizational old age, makes that scenario unlikely, and that our problem is a different one: that our battles are sound and fury signifying relatively little; that even as it makes them more ferocious, the virtual realm also makes them more performative and empty; and that online rage is just a safety valve, a steam-venting technology for a society that is misgoverned, stagnant, and yet ultimately far more stable than it looks on Twitter.
If you want to feel like Western society is convulsing, there’s an app for that, a convincing simulation waiting. But in the real world, it’s possible that Western society is really leaning back in an easy chair, hooked up to a drip of something soothing, playing and replaying an ideological greatest-hits tape from its wild and crazy youth, all riled up in its own imagination and yet, in reality, comfortably numb.
In the last few decades, our universities have distinguished themselves by promising seemingly incompatible things to their two customer bases: to the parents footing the bill, they promise safety, supervision, and an environment where the precious children of the upper-middle class will be tended with all the care that helicopter parents expect; to the kids actually making the choice, they promise a long Rumspringa—a four-year holiday from both childhood rules and adult responsibilities, in which the debauchery of Animal House or Old School is supposed to be included with tuition. Harmonizing those two promises is the task of the ever-expanding college bureaucracy, whose mission is to protect the health and well-being of its student body without resorting to oppressive moral virtues such as chastity and temperance that might bring the party to a halt. Instead, the bureaucracy offers counseling and pharmaceutical treatment for the depression that turns out to be commonplace in a social environment supposedly devoted to carefree hedonism, free contraception to prevent the harm of STDs and the still-graver danger of pregnancy (the pink police state is particularly hostile to unplanned, unsafe conception), mildly repressive rules for campus speech that gently discourage anything that might upset students educated into left-liberal assumptions about the universe and their own identities, and the strange emergent phenomenon that the law professors Jeannie Suk and Jacob Gersen have dubbed the “sex bureaucracy”—a system intended to prevent rape and sexual assault that turns campus administrators into “bureaucrats of desire, responsible for defining healthy, permissible sex and disciplining deviations from those supposed norms.”
So instead of a climate of pervasive Stasi-style fear, there will be a chilling effect at the margins of political discourse, affecting mostly groups and opinions considered disreputable already. Instead of official requirements to participate and conform, there will be soft pressure, constant nudges—health insurance premiums tied to your fitness-monitoring watch, car insurance premiums tied to the “smartness” of your car, a raft of appliances that monitor you automatically unless you explicitly opt out, and the general knowledge that your every move could be caught on a surveillance camera or simply on someone’s smartphone and then shared as widely as social media can reach. [. . . ] In this atmosphere, certain forms of public misbehavior will become rarer even as certain forms of paranoia will be more reasonable.
The problems of the late-twentieth century would become permanent fixtures of the twenty-first, in this vision of our future. Underclass fatherlessness, working-class disarray, drug abuse, out-of-wedlock births, loneliness, childlessness, suicide, general postreligious anomie, terrorism, and radicalization of all kinds—these would all persist without resolution. This persistence wouldn’t pass unnoticed; indeed, it would regularly inspire political rebellions. But the rebellions would be swiftly reabsorbed into the entertainment portion of the Panopticon, their leaders would be swiftly drawn into negotiations over their audience share and their right to monetize their antiestablishment message—and meanwhile, the underlying problems would continue to be managed, and managed, and managed, by screens and drugs and drones for some indefinite period of time.
If the motto of a decadent civilization might be the English Catholic essayist Hilaire Belloc’s couplet “always keep a-hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse,” the politics of antidecadence has a way of finding that “something worse” with disquieting regularity. Which makes it perfectly rational to cast a cold eye on decadent societies, to recognize their disadvantages and disappointments and secret sins, to point out the way their trajectories can bend toward a comfortable corruption, a rotten sort of peace—and yet also provisionally prefer their frustrations and stalemates to many of the possible alternatives.
But I would be a poor Christian if I did not conclude by noting that no civilization—not ours, not any—has thrived without a confidence that there was more to the human story than just the material world as we understand.
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