Ross Douthat, a New York Times op-ed writer, recruited for one of the most prestigious posts in journalism at the age of twenty-nine, has recently published The Decadent Society, a new addition to the growing volume of books attempting to explain the traumas of our time. The twenty-first century has already witnessed the drama of 9/11, the Iraq war, which is still destabilising the Middle East, the Great Recession of 2008, the rise of right-wing demagogues around the world including Donald Trump, the Brexit vote in the UK and now a worldwide pandemic. Most writers on this subject begin in the late 1980s with the “fall of the wall” and the “end of history” and trace our current discontent to the resentment felt by large segments of the population who felt left behind not just economically but socially. The promise that the prosperity of the few would benefit all proved illusory. But it wasn’t just a feeling of being left behind economically, it was a sense of being left behind full stop; that a prosperous ruling elite had hijacked not just the political and economic agenda but the whole social fabric of people’s lives; family, tribe, nation and church.
Ross Douthat believes that 1969 was the real start of the slippery slide that the world has been on ever since. That was the year of the moon landing and since then, he argues, our ambition has been stalled; for the first time since 1492 we have found the distances too vast and the technology too limiting to take us somewhere undiscovered. Loss of optimism and of faith in institutions, he believes, has been responsible for the drift and resignation which has characterised the world for the last sixty years, as a result of which we have entered into a state of decadence.
Different forms of decadence are discussed but Douthat argues that our particular variety is made up of a combination of economic stagnation, institutional decay and cultural and intellectual exhaustion and that while the speed with which we experience events may have quickened the actual change has not. To those who would argue that the internet, the iPhone and social media represent a significant advance he has a ready answer: if you were forced to choose between them and the innovations of the previous sixty years; planes, cars, antibiotics and indoor plumbing, which would you be prepared to give up?
The first part of the book describes the four horsemen of decadence: stagnation, sterility, sclerosis and repetition. We’re familiar enough with stagnation and sclerosis from the growing literature on our current discontent. Although we are not immune to either on this side of the Atlantic, they are a particular problem in America, where real incomes haven’t risen much in the last few decades, except of course for the 1 per cent, and political stalemate is now posing a serious threat to democracy. Declining fertility has been noted before but Douthat has an interesting angle on the problem, putting it down to our current exhaustion and lethargy. He references the works of Sally Rooney as an example of younger people having difficulties in committing to settled relationships. In the chapter on repetition, he notes the decline in originality in films, pop music and novels which increasingly rely on a succession of repeats while the 1960s rockers who are still alive are filling more concert seats than their successors.
Having outlined the problem Douthat offers an account of how we are coping. It’s not a pretty picture. We are moving indoors with electronic and virtual entertainment. Porn and video games are substituting for the real thing and we have a new range of pharmaceuticals to keep us tranquilised in the manner of Huxley’s Soma. The result: “people growing old unhappily together in the glowing light of tiny screens”.
After this point things get a little confusing here as the various possible future scenarios are not spelt out in any clear sequence. In trying to unravel the last third of the book I detected three possible directions that the world might choose or be forced to take: stasis, apocalypse or renaissance. Stasis is the most obvious option, requiring no immediate action: we just muddle through as before, enjoying a life of quiet stagnation on the lines of the late Roman empire, relaxed on a diet of gentle drugs and a variety of electronic diversions, fondly remembering past glories but starved of any ambition to emulate them. Douthat believes that this form of decadence doesn’t necessarily lead to irrelevance; human beings can live vigorously amid a general stagnation, be fruitful amid sterility, be creative amid repetition and build good and fully human lives that offer a challenge to decadence. The main task would be limit expectations and live within self-imposed means.
It is not always made clear that this benign option is available only to the West but Douthat goes on to argue that stagnation is an illusion in today’s volatile world and that there are too many threats from the rest of the world, not to mention an impending environmental catastrophe, for it to be realistic. This is where the apocalyptic option comes in following a more ominous discussion of what might happen when the inevitable competition between the West and the rest boils over. A number of unexpected catastrophes are discussed: an incidence of technology-terrorism that goes wrong, artificial intelligence technology that overreaches itself, a Y2K type meltdown, more pandemics or economic crises caused by the unsustainability of the world’s debt-financed policies. Some of these possibilities could inter-act: a Chinese slowdown leading to financial problems for over-leveraged tech companies in Silicon Valley, which in turn leads to economic meltdown in Europe, producing more authoritarian leaders. Meanwhile unprecedented droughts followed by floods make large parts of the southern hemisphere uninhabitable, leading to unprecedented migration, which becomes politically unmanageable and plunges the world into a Mad Max scenario.
The renaissance option would mean adopting technological solutions to all our problems allowing us to live a life of cultivated leisure as envisaged for his grandchildren almost one hundred years ago by Keynes. If we could lift ourselves from our current torpor we already have the means. In Reshaping Humanity (2020) Tony Saba and James Arbib argue that we now have the capability to transform the five fundamentals of the global economy, information, energy, transport, fuel and materials, into sustainable production at minimal costs compared to the present. But we lack the will. Douthat makes a similar assertion: we have “the technological solution to decadence ‑ an energy revolution that radically cheapens transportation and energy production, a robotics revolution that reduces the need for human labour, a medical and biotechnology revolution that extends lifespans and a revolution in space flight that allows us to live in Mars.”
If there is a level of agreement on the possibility of fulfilling Keynes’s vision why hasn’t it happened? Douthat suggests an intriguing reason: the decline of religious idealism. This proposition is likely to dismay as many readers as it will intrigue but Douthat presents an interesting if not entirely persuasive case based on his belief that our liberal ideas do little to satisfy the human heart, resulting in an exhausted sense of stasis and stagnation. No civilisation, he argues, has thrived without a belief that there was more to the human story than just the material world as we understand it and that therefore a renaissance would be more likely if there was a revival of the religious tradition that Christianity once displaced. He believes that signs of a post-Christian religious tendency are already visible and could be described as neo-paganism involving a general belief in an immanent divine and possibly deriving from the ancient tradition of intellectual and aesthetic pantheism. Africa, the most energetic and religious continent, repeatedly referenced in the book, could be seen as a harbinger of this future.
It is not necessary to accept the whole of Douthat’s argument to profit from this thought-provoking book. However, much will depend on where you stand on the question of whether we are at a fundamental crossroads in terms of the history of Planet Earth or just another stage in its development. While mindful of Wallace Stevens’s warning that it is the mark of the modern imagination to feel oneself at the end of an era, I am inclined to the view that we are now at a fundamental crossroads, which is why I think this book is important: it presents us with a broader canvas from which to contemplate different options and might provide government strategists with inspiration for valuable scenario-planning exercises.
Books referred to:
The Decadent Society, by Ross Douthat, Avid Reader Press
Rethinking Humanity, by James Arbib and Tony Seba, RethinkX ([email protected])
John Fanning lectures on branding and marketing communications at the Smurfit Business School in Dublin.