I read The Decadent Society while on a weeklong cruise from Miami to Miami, stopping at various sun-bleached points in between. Future historians may well classify such voyages back to the place where you first embarked as the very embodiment of early twenty-first-century bourgeois decadence, with food and drink, entertainment and diversions, all available in seemingly endless supply. With chapter titles such as “Sclerosis,” “Sterility,” “Repetition,” “Comfortably Numb,” and “Kindly Despotism” (“No jeans in the dining room after 6:00 p.m., please.”), Ross Douthat’s new book, The Decadent Society, seemed particularly apt as I considered whether or not to make another pass through the buffet line before heading to the bar for the extended happy hour.
It is not my intention to have fun at Douthat’s expense, however. He is, in my judgment, the only New York Times columnist regularly worth reading—this due in no small part to his sturdy refusal to succumb to Trump Derangement Syndrome. Indeed, his new book pays refreshingly little attention to our forty-fifth president. Donald R. Trump is “fundamentally more farcical than threatening,” he writes, a point with which I heartily agree.
The Decadent Society offers a fresh take on an old subject: the decline of Western civilization, with the United States leading the pack. Douthat writes from the perspective of a Catholic conservative Gen Xer at the top of his game. To this semi-senescent Catholic conservative Boomer, the resulting critique is original, insightful, and largely persuasive.
Decadence, as Douthat uses the term, consists of “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion” combined with “a high level of material prosperity and technological development”—not bad as a broad description of our current situation. A vibrant society, Douthat believes, creates, discovers, and expands. Until well past the midpoint of the twentieth century, the West generally and the United States specifically exhibited these qualities. Around the time my fellow Boomers reached maturity, however, anomie and stasis set in, with the results now everywhere evident. “Resignation haunts our present civilization,” Douthat writes, with “therapeutic philosophies and technologies of simulation” having displaced passion, conviction, and faith. Overstated? Perhaps, but not wrong.
Yet apart from cruise ships that cater to a mostly white clientele searching for an escape from terminal malaise, what is the evidence of decadence? Douthat cites several factors, but I found most interesting his reflection on the declining birthrate in the United States and throughout most of the developed world. “Below-replacement fertility,” he writes, “is the fundamental fact of civilized life in the early twenty-first century.” It is also “an inevitable corollary of liberal capitalist modernity,” welcomed in some quarters as a predicate to personal liberation, especially for women, and as necessary to counter the threat of global overpopulation.
But for Douthat “the empty cradle” fosters a host of problems. Just a half-century ago, it was more or less taken for granted that building a traditional family was the foundation for living a fruitful life. Today, it is one option among many. Family is whatever I say it is. The same goes for you. And you can change your mind whenever it suits you. This describes the freedom that decadence allows.
Yet among the consequences, Douthat writes, “men and women seem to be having more and more trouble successfully and permanently pairing off.” Today sex itself may be falling out of favor, with information technology offering “virtual alternatives to old-fashioned copulation.” As families become smaller, discretionary, and disposable—a trend that Douthat calls “postfamilialism”—loneliness and alienation increase. The relationship, he insists, is causal.
Furthermore, as birthrates fall, average age goes up. Aging societies, according to Douthat, tend to be risk-averse and are therefore less dynamic and less creative. While immigration can offset these effects, it comes with its own complications, contributing to the sort of racial, ethnic, and class divisiveness so much in evidence today in the United States and in many other parts of the West.
Douthat is not suggesting that returning to the days of Ozzie and Harriet (who, after all, had only two children) will cure all of society’s ills. Nor is his critique confined to issues related to family. He dissects in detail the “consistent ineffectuality in American governance,” the ideological polarization of the two main political parties (“the most decadent part of a decadent system”), Hollywood’s preference for formulaic blockbusters and remakes of whatever sold two decades ago, the reliance on drugs to tranquilize untranquil youngsters, the onset of pervasive “religious torpor,” the rise of the surveillance state, the anti-democratic impact of an arrogant and insular meritocracy, and the myriad insidious effects of advanced technology clogging our daily lives like a particularly virulent form of kudzu.
A skeptical reader might charge that Douthat sometimes presses his argument a bit further than his evidence will support. I myself tend to think that he gives short shrift to the medical advances that are transforming health care in America. (No more Ozzie and Harriet –era dentistry for me, thank you.)
Is a decadent America in danger of coming apart at the seams? Read Times commentators other than Douthat and you might think so, especially if, God forbid, you-know-who should win reelection come November. Douthat himself rejects any such dire forecasts, arguing that in the United States today “drugs and suicide are far more serious temptations than political radicalism and revolutionary violence.” I think he’s right. Whatever one may think of Bernie Sanders, he is no radical. And the constitutional order will survive even another four years of Trump.
As for decadence itself, Douthat speculates that it may prove to be remarkably sustainable. He envisions the United States and other Western nations being subjected to an “endless autumn.” Creativity, warmth, and hope will be in short supply, but there will be time to spare and, for some, money to burn. In his conclusion, Douthat proposes various antidotes to decadence, none of them especially persuasive. So cruise line CEOs take heart: business prospects appear bright—assuming, that is, that the coronavirus doesn’t sink us first!
The Decadent Society:
How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success
Avid Reader Press, $27, 272 pp.