It’s not that Ross Douthat is angry with us, he just seems disappointed. We have the potential to do so much more with ourselves, as a civilization, but we’re culturally exhausted, economically stagnant, and unable to muster the wherewithal even to reproduce ourselves. Really, ever since the moonshot in 1969 we haven’t had our mojo. “Since Apollo,” he says, “we have entered into decadence.” (6)
That’s where Douthat, a New York Times columnist, begins his new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. Though he is a self-proclaimed conservative observer of the world, Douthat sees an overarching theme to the world as we know it. Despite the incredible wealth and technological advances of the Western world, we seem to have reached a plateau in which the breathtaking leaps of the 20th century have faded into the dull repetitiveness of the 21st.
We are aging, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future, spurning both memory and ambition while we await some saving innovation or revelation, burrowing into cocoons from which no chrysalis is likely to emerge, growing old unhappily together in the glowing light of tiny screens. (13)
I didn’t say Douthat was going to make a happy companion for a tour of the decadent world.
I’ve always thought of Douthat as observant, intriguing, and a bit dull, but it seems he sees the world in much the same way. He gives credit to the marvels of our age from great television to smart phones. He’ll even give a grudging nod to a political order that keeps things from being too uncomfortable despite its rancor and sclerosis.
But where are the drive and the really new movements that make for a vital society? We are, Douthat believes, with Uber as his prime example, “an extraordinarily rich society [that] can’t find enough new ideas [to] justify investing all its stockpiled wealth, and ends up choosing between hoarding cash in mattresses or playing a kind of let’s-pretend instead.” (21)
Instead we have anesthetized ourselves from vaunting ambition and content ourselves with repeating themes from previous generations. We may play heroic figures on Twitter, “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.” (136) Ouch.
It’s not that Douthat is all that discontented. Though he’s old enough to remember the days of the Cold War, before the historian Francis Fukuyama declared an end to history, he accepts that maybe a decadent society is perfectly tolerable. It may not offer anything as sublime as the moon landing, but it’s a dependable environment with plenty of creature comforts. Heck, because of the drop in violent crime and teen pregnancies, it’s the safest time to be a teenager that there has ever been. But, safe doesn’t mean happy. And Douthat isn’t either.
As a person of faith, Douthat worries that the Western world has lost interest in developing a coherent understanding of the meaning of life. Even religion itself has collapsed into “the same vague spiritual individualism” that has characterized America since the 1970s. And in politics as in the culture wars we just keep repeating the same arguments in ever new packages. Douthat wonders how long we can continue and whether he, or we, can bear it. Perhaps that explains our fascination with apocalyptic entertainment. “The only thing more frightening than the possibility of annihilation is the possibility that our society could coast on forever as it is—like a Rome without an Atilla to sack its palaces, or a Ninevah without Yahweh to pass judgment on its crimes.” (157)
But decadence has a way of sustaining itself, so Douthat is not writing a warning about imminent societal collapse. He imagines that the future will just be more of the same, with a particularly dread effect on the rural areas that this blog tends to. He quotes Michael Lind who foresees that “the future North America and Europe may look a lot like Brazil and Mexico, with nepotistic oligarchies clustered in a few fashionable metropolitan areas but surrounded by a derelict, depopulated, and despised ‘hinterland.’” (173)
Of course, there is the possibility of catastrophe or renaissance, contingencies he explores in the very underdeveloped third part of his book. The economic underpinnings of the developed world could be exposed for a fraud, the climate could worsen quickly, or mass migration could overwhelm Western countries. He even notes, presciently, about the present president that he could very well sail on, unless “he accidentally stumbles into a global war or mismanages a pandemic. [Then] there will be nothing virtual about it and nothing decadent about the aftermath.” (130) And here we are.
But Douthat doesn’t expect decadence to end anytime soon. He hopes for a religious revival. He believes that “something will happen as Africa adds billions of people and the population of Europe, rich and aging, shrinks by a hundred million or more…In some form or another, manageable or not, Eurafrica is coming.” (198) And he thinks that African moment could be good.
It’s all tentative, however, like most of the language in this book. I could feel myself sagging with Douthat as he wearily surveys the world, lamenting that “ some kind of decadence becomes inevitable once a world civilization arises and then finds that it has nowhere to go.” (234)
Except I remember the moon shot and it wasn’t the end. There were plenty of things of consequence left to do and be said, even if we never got to Mars or beyond. Maybe it’s just the grand schemes of history that had to die. And as sympathetic as I am to much of Douthat’s critique of the way things are, I always feel that we’ve got a long way to go.