What if winter isn’t coming? Ross Douthat’s new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, offers the dour proposition that we not only live amidst decadence, but that we may remain in it for a very long time. We may not suffer the rigors of winter, but neither shall we see the revivification of spring, instead remaining in a civilizational autumn, in which it is always November but never Thanksgiving.
This provocative thesis gives this book not only the task of demonstrating that we inhabit a decadent society, but of showing that this state may persist, rather than swiftly be ruined and replaced. Douthat thereby departs from many other writers, such as R. R. Reno in his book Return of the Strong Gods, who believe our culture to be not merely decadent but also in crisis. Douthat does not deny that there are elements of crisis that, for good or ill, might force a way out of our decadence, and he explores some of them; but he argues that neither collapse nor renewal is necessarily imminent.
One source of this difference may be that Douthat seeks to describe decadence in a neutral, rather than pejorative, way. His working definition of decadence is “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.” He argues that “stagnation and decay are often a direct consequence of previous development: the decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own significant success.” Decadence sets in when there are no more worlds to conquer.
The Signs of Decay
Douthat looks at our economics, technology, politics, culture, and demographics, and sees a society that meets this definition of done-it-all, seen-it-all decadence. In his assessment, “we are aging, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future, . . . growing old unhappily together in the glowing light of tiny screens.” Perhaps we have harvested most of the low-hanging economic and technological fruit, for even the technological wonders of those streaming screens are only a partial exception to our stagnation: “We used to travel faster, build bigger, live longer; now we communicate faster, chatter more, snap more selfies.”
Politically, we are gridlocked, and neither populism nor socialism has yet displaced technocratic liberal capitalism as the dominant theory of political economy. As a culture, we seek entertainment over achievement. We are rich, powerful, and technologically sophisticated beyond the dreams of the past, but we have a game-show host in the White House. Our culture is dominated by sequels, reruns, and remakes, replaying the hits of the last great burst of rebellion and creative tension in the West. There will always be another Bond and another Batman, and there will never really be a last Jedi.
But the most telling indicator of decadence may be that, “amidst all of our society’s material plenty, one resource is conspicuously scarce. That resource is babies.” We have fewer children, and are less optimistic that their lives will be better than ours. Nor is this the result of a natural catastrophe: often-voluntary barrenness is why “below-replacement fertility is the fundamental fact of civilized life in the early twenty-first century.” It is not just that people are not begetting children, but that we are increasingly not even in a relational position to do so. Liberation has brought loneliness; for “since the sexual revolution, men and women seem to be having more and more trouble successfully and permanently pairing off.” This demographic decline exacerbates, and is in turn exacerbated by, the other symptoms of decadence, such as economic stagnation; and solutions, such as mass immigration from still-fertile regions, create their own cultural and political problems.
A Long Decline under Soft Despotism
Douthat’s diagnosis of decadence is thorough and persuasive. He departs from the many (mostly conservative) prophets and pundits who decry decadence, insofar as he does not believe a hasty decline and fall to be inevitable, or even likely. Rather, in the book’s invaluable second section, he argues that our decadent society may long endure, lacking as it does either an obvious external foe that could conquer us or a compelling internal alternative.
After all, decadence is good at making us docile. We have enough wealth to provide not only for basic needs but even for excess comforts; and our technology increasingly focuses on allowing each of us to create a digital universe of endless entertainment, curated to our individual tastes. Living alone with streaming music, shows, and porn does not make us happy, but our discontents tend not to be violent. Douthat suggests that even the rage of political Twitter is not a ticking bomb, counting down to real political violence, but instead a safety valve, an online roleplaying game for the politically inclined. As he sees it, “If you want to feel like Western society is convulsing, there’s an app for that,” but in reality, and even accounting for recent surges in populism, our politics are more sclerotic than tumultuous.
Even the upheaval of war might be tamed, as war is made indefinitely sustainable through surveillance, drones, and volunteer forces, so long as massive nation-building deployments are avoided. Our leaders may be able to quietly manage foreign threats in perpetuity, rather than conquer them or admit defeat.
Likewise, many threats to domestic stability are controlled through increasingly hidden violence and coercion. Douthat notes that, though abortion and mass incarceration still provoke criticism and even outrage, they are “hidden forms of violence, one imposed through a distant archipelago of prisons, and the other in the darkness of the womb.” And still subtler forms of control are becoming normal. Some are the seductive, soporific kind: easy consumer indulgence via internet shopping, legal weed, illegal but readily available opioids, video games, and internet porn. These may destroy lives, but they tend do so quietly, rather than via violent social upheaval or rampant criminality.
As for the coercive side of decadence, it is not likely to end civilization either. Douthat explores James Poulos’s idea of the “pink police state” and notes that, at least for now, it “isn’t experienced by most people as oppressive.” Yes, there are speech codes and taboos enforced by HR departments and by the threat of the social media mob; but most people are soft, and so soft despotism works on them. For instance, we all know that trans-women are actually men; but who, other than religious traditionalists and a few nettlesome feminists, wants to die on that hill? Even a Catholic conservative like Douthat sometimes frustrates conservative readers who wish he would let his id out more, though we may hope that his restraint gives this thoughtful work more reach.
How to Revive Civilization
Those of us who think decadence is more self-destructive than Douthat gives it credit for should still acknowledge that he may be right about its potential to linger. And there may be some people who are OK with this extended civilizational twilight, because leaving stagnation behind is risky. Those who succeed in our society, and avoid the worst of its loneliness and ennui, may praise decadence as an achievement: peace, prosperity, and comfort by another name. Steven Pinker is the high priest of this optimistic irreligion, and right-wing figures such as Jonah Goldberg argue that we should be grateful for how good we have it, compared to the grinding poverty that characterized most of human history.
We should indeed be thankful for the technological marvels of our age, and the blessings of peace and prosperity. But defending decadence on account of them is like expecting a child to be happier after Mommy and Daddy’s divorce, because he was given more toys than usual for his birthday. Decadence is comfortable, but eventually we, or our descendants, shall have to risk winter in order to see a new spring.
Douthat considers potential ways out of decadence, from a black swan catastrophe (the Sweet Meteor of Death finally delivers the promised asteroid apocalypse), through more predictable disasters (climate-change-fueled mass migration leads to conflict and chaos), to possible forms of renewal. He concludes that the most likely “real answer to the question ‘What might end decadence?’ isn’t actually one thing or another; it’s a lot of things happening all at once.” Real renewal might involve technological breakthroughs and spiritual revival and the emergence of Africa on the world stage. In the meantime, there are still interstices where those who would live counterculturally may do so. We can, as Douthat puts it, “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.” Such lives may be the seeds of a post-decadent flowering.
Unless, as Douthat suggests, decadence is the natural fate of a world civilization—because the too-vast frontier of space effectively confines us to our blue dot. Once we have exhausted the globe’s potential, we literally have nowhere to go, and nothing to hope for, beyond a comfortable stagnation enlivened with increasingly advanced digital entertainment. With the physical horizons of our world closed, we can only turn to special effects and video games to take us beyond them. If that is the case, then only a god, or a warp drive, can save us.
A Gentle Acclimation to Eternal Winter
That is how this excellent book, surely among the must-reads of the year, concludes. Douthat’s depiction of our society should unsettle defenders of the status quo; his assessment of its potential resilience should give pause to those who are eagerly awaiting its fall and planning (socialism—a new nationalism—Catholic integralism!) for what comes next. Decadence may be worse, and yet more permanent, than we think.
Indeed, it may be much worse. Douthat is conspicuously silent on some of the implications of our decadence, confining himself to dark hints. Circumspect though he may be, and despite his efforts at a morally neutral definition of decadence, he did not write this book merely to be descriptive. Rather, it is part of the effort to overcome decadence, an effort that is made more challenging if he is correct that decadence is not rapidly self-destructive. An extensive esoteric reading of this book would be ridiculous, but it is not unreasonable to wonder at how some of the tactful gaps might be filled in.
For a writer who takes his religion seriously, Douthat is reticent about the spiritual dimensions of decadence, even though he shows that it impedes human flourishing in a spiritually toxic fashion. He does, however, briefly entertain this grim thought: what if winter is already here and we haven’t noticed? Maybe we are already living unaware in a dark age, for “True dystopias are distinguished, in part, by the fact that many people inside them don’t realize that they are living in one.” Perhaps, he continues “a true outsider would look at our decadence and judge it even more severely than I do. A time traveler from the past . . . might report back that the future is simply dystopian, full stop.” That so many men have replaced relationships with porn (endless, high-def, and increasingly grotesque), or replaced accomplishments with video games, are some reasons for unease.
Douthat does not explore this morose possibility further; but if we are looking for a true outside opinion, we might do worse than C. S. Lewis’s fictional devil, Screwtape. What he might think of the decadence Douthat diagnoses is articulated in Screwtape Proposes a Toast, where he praises a culture in which people are comfortable enough not to worry about their eternal fate, while still being sinful and rebellious enough to be damned. Screwtape and his fellow devils might relish spectacular sins and great human suffering, but they chose to forgo them in order to secure more souls. If there is anything to this diabolical perspective, then the decadence Douthat describes is the factory-farming of souls for hell.