Are we decadent?
The West is highly prosperous—and a sense of futility pervades it all
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Ross Douthat, 40, has for 11 years been a rarity: a conservative and pro-life New York Times columnist. On Feb. 14, before the coronavirus became a major preoccupation, I asked him about ideas in his new book, The Decadent Society. Here are some edited and tightened excerpts.
The Decadent Society is probably the most depressing public policy book ever. Not wrong, just depressing. It’s a bit depressing, yes, but I try to be reassuring at the same time. Liberals are panicked constantly about Donald Trump and my fellow conservatives are panicked constantly about progressivism taking over, so I’m trying to tell both sides that we’re not poised for dictatorship or fascism, but rather that we’re stuck in these repetitive cycles where we make the same superhero movies and have the same culture fights over and over again. A sense of futility and even despair hangs over Western civilization, even though the West has never been richer or more prosperous.
You note the libertarian argument that we have a captured economy, the worst of socialism and the worst of capitalism conjoined. With how much of that do you agree? It’s true that powerful incumbents are able to rig economic policy for their own benefit. The American upper class, a sort of meritocracy, has figured out ways to keep itself permanently in positions of economic privilege by making sure only their kids can live in the best neighborhoods and go to the best schools. Or think of the big promise of the internet era that anyone could be a journalist or entrepreneur. Some of that was real, but look how in 10-15 years power over the internet has consolidated into the hands of four to six companies. Everyone is supposed to use the same social networks, the same encyclopedia, the same media platforms.
What opportunities are available for the have-nots? The good news is that America is still a big sprawling, diverse country. It is still possible to work and live in a middle-sized or small American city instead of moving into a tiny apartment in San Francisco or New York and working incredibly long hours and knowing you’ll never have room or space to raise a family. But the search for power and influence pulls people to the Bay Area and the New York–Washington corridor. Once there, they scramble for influence and promotion and success in a world where those things are held by older generations that don’t want to give them up.
We hear many hopes and fears of robots increasing productivity but also unemployment. That’s going much more slowly than some projected. Historically, productivity growth is the best marker of technological change and technological progress. Our productivity rate is lousy; it’s worse in Europe, which is more decadent than we are. Self-driving cars would be disruptive, but they’d be a sign that a major new invention is possible. Right now we can’t get them to drive in the rain, you know?
If decadence flows in part from this sense of exhaustion and an aging society, having a large family is a countercultural act.
Thomas Sowell two decades ago wrote about “the vision of the anointed,” those who would lead us to becoming free, totally liberated people (maybe today we’d call it “the vision of the woke”) versus the “constrained vision,” the belief that we must operate within a certain human nature. Are those still in conflict? Absolutely those are in conflict, but back then progressives thought of how government and technology could transform society. “Wokeness” is more inward turning, trying to find your true identity, refashioning yourself endlessly, often across virtual spaces. New frontier liberalism also rejected limits on human nature in certain ways, but it was ambitious and outward looking. Now we have technological innovation in communication and simulation: In certain ways it’s narcissistic and inward looking.
Is that lack of outward looking in some ways connected with natural restraints? For example, if the distance from east to west in the United States had been 3 million miles instead of 3,000 miles, we probably would not have had Manifest Destiny. Today we can’t have wagon trains through space because the distances are so great. Do those physical limitations lead us to a turning inward because we see the limits on going outward? That’s a big part of it, yes. We figured out as a society that the technological progress that carried us from Kitty Hawk to the moon in just 66 years was not sufficient to cross the vastness of space, if we were trying to find worlds that were habitable. At a subconscious level, human beings in developed societies feel trapped, stuck here on Earth. We’ve reached the limits of our capacity for exploration, at least for the moment.
Does that play into climate change anxiety? Some say this is the only place we’ll ever be, and we’re probably going to destroy it. Ennui and exhaustion: We filled the earth and subdued it, and man can do no more, so we’re sitting here waiting for a breakthrough that makes the stars our destination once again, or maybe God will come down and intervene. We fulfilled the admonition in Genesis to fill the earth, we have nowhere else to go, and we’re wondering what happens next.
In Psalms we learn that our years are 70, or 80 if we have the strength. Moses is the outlier at 120, and Guinness World Records doesn’t have any living person beating that. We have natural limits that some folks are trying to avoid through freezing their bodies or at least their heads. Those individual limits feed into attempts to revive human community. If decadence flows in part from this sense of exhaustion and an aging society, having a large family is a countercultural act. Christianity itself was a countercultural movement within a decadent civilization that was coming to an end.
Should we distinguish between micro seeking and macro seeking? Individual or community seeking is potentially useful and perhaps harmless, but when a whole nation starts seeking for meaning, do we get into the parades and frenzies that started the disastrous World War I? Fear of decadence can lead people to gamble recklessly on things that try and get you out of it. Before World War I this anxiety about European decadence persuaded people that they needed a rebirth of martial vigor and nationalism. That contributed to the total disaster of World War I. I was in college during 9/11, and there was definitely a feeling among people my age, and especially among conservatives, that this was the moment when decadence and stagnation were over and we were in effect going on crusade again.
Good thing to do? In hindsight that mentality overestimated the capacities of our Islamist enemies and led us to make big mistakes in the Iraq War that have only deepened our decadence subsequently. I want, especially for Christians and conservatives, not that kind of mentality but a sense that figures like Elon Musk (as alien as his worldview is to ours) and Silicon Valley tycoons who are trying to rebuild spaceflight are not necessarily our enemies. They too have aspirations that are worth celebrating even as we celebrate rebuilding our own communities.
Maybe those private forays into space work, maybe they’re a waste of money, but they seem relatively harmless compared to some national government projects. Yes, the capacity of the United States Government for effective action has dramatically been reduced since we split the atom and sent men to the moon, basically. That coexists with this sense that Congress and the presidency can’t work together either. Along with partisan polarization are practical failures from Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War down to the Obamacare rollout and the Libya War.
How is President Trump doing? Donald Trump has been less ambitious in certain ways and therefore the failures have been less striking. He bungled badly in dealing with Turkey and letting it effectively steal territory from the Kurds, but it still wasn’t as bad as the Libya debacle with Obama, which in turn wasn’t as bad as the Iraq debacle under Bush. In a decadent era there are advantages in being less ambitious because your failures are less likely to be dramatic.
And how are Christians doing? You note that religious people tend to have more children, but what of the pull of nonbelief? You note “the tendency towards attrition among the children of the devout.” Are you saying religious folks have more children, but liberal atheists are in a position to grab them? That’s a crude but somewhat accurate way of putting it, yes.
Well, I’m a journalist so of course it’s crude. It’s less that the children of the devout all become Richard Dawkins–reading militant God-deniers than that they drift into the realm of Oprah Winfrey and astrology instead of continuing in Christian faith. To me, one of the striking things of watching religious culture among people younger than myself is the nonsecularism of it. When I was a teenager or in college, if people had told me their astrological sign, I would have laughed at them and said, Are you from the ’70s? Now, my millennial acquaintances and friends say something to me like, Sorry I’m so disorganized, it’s because I’m a Virgo.
And they’re serious in saying that? That’s the question. I think it’s neither perfectly serious nor perfectly unserious. A middle zone of spiritual quasi-belief is incredibly powerful in American life right now. It’s more the main alternative to Christianity than the strict scientific materialism of the Dawkins school.
Let’s return to a book you co-wrote in 2008, Brand New Party, that argued in favor of the Grand Old Party developing a working class economic agenda. Tim Pawlenty had said, “We need to be the party of Sam’s Club, not the party of the country club.” You can see a lot of the Donald Trump economic populism in that.
Did you write that book with any particular people in mind? We didn’t see anyone filling that space. At a certain point others started to put some hope in figures like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida who might embody a healthy version of working class conservatism. Since Rubio was more or less crushed by Trump he has tried to adapt to the Trump era. He and Josh Hawley, the senator from Missouri, are probably the leading figures in D.C. who represent this tendency, but I’ve learned that the politicians newspaper columnists and policy wonks want to lead the country are not always the politicians voters want. I’m trying to recognize it’s possible it will be a Donald Trump Jr. or Tucker Carlson presidency.
You criticize our societal tendency to turn inward, but what good aspects does it have? Has electronic entertainment among teens replaced going out and causing trouble? Conservatives expected the crime rate, the teen pregnancy rate, the out of wedlock birth rate to keep going up. This continued disintegration hasn't happened over the last 20 years. That real stabilization is not a return to health but something that points to the possible sustainability of decadence: Things aren’t getting better the way we hoped, but they also aren’t collapsing. It’s a real question of whether it’s better to live in a world where teenagers are more likely to have sex, get pregnant, and drive drunk, or a world where they’re less likely to do those things but they’re more depressed, more likely to commit suicide, and less likely to form healthy relationships down the road.
That’s the tradeoff we’ve made? A lot of people expected that rampant pornography would just lead to rape and sexual violence. Instead, it led inward: People used porn as a substitute for, I guess you could say, good sex and bad sex alike. And that stabilizes society. We don’t have a million Jeffrey Dahmers and Ted Bundys running around, but society is stabilized in a way that leaves men especially unable to form healthy relationships with women, and dealing with erectile dysfunction at ridiculously young ages. It’s not an ideal tradeoff, let’s put it that way, for some of this stuff.
Stabilized in that pornography is now sex education? Exactly. The challenge for religious people in this environment is: How do you build resilient and dynamic communities that aren’t shut away from the world to such an extent that as soon as your kids leave them they’re just lost? The communities have to be resilient enough not to dissolve. During the last 20 years lots of people who were Christmas and Easter Catholics, or occasional Methodists, have fallen away, but there is resilience in the religious core among people who go to church weekly or try to practice the faith seriously. That group is not about to disappear, even in a more secular America.
So some resilience is possible. But we haven't yet reached the point in any Christian community where there’s a model for resilience and dynamic growth. We can achieve resilience, but how do you get a religious revival? That’s up to the Holy Spirit and not just us.
Right. You quote Thomas Nagel about the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature and say, “We need some significant catalyst or intellectual shift, a sudden weakening of that.” Does the intelligent design movement hold out hope for that? Do you see the possibility of the Darwinian concept of nature crumbling? The strongest sections of Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, his critique from a non-Christian perspective, concern cosmology and consciousness. It’s not at all clear why a mere jumped-up ape brain could understand the mysteries of the cosmos. A lot of hypotheses at the frontiers of physics about the multiverse, the idea that there is an infinite number of universes, are attempts to evade this issue by saying we can’t figure out why this universe looks like a made thing, so let’s hypothesize that there’s an infinite number of universes and we just happen to be in one of them.
What cosmologies are common among progressive activists? They are not relativists at all. They are intense, zealous moralists who have a somewhat different moral theory than the conservative or Christian one, but it’s certainly a moral theory and it doesn’t fit at all with a vision of the cosmos as a sort of blind accident. People can live with tensions in their worldview for a very long time: Part of decadence is accepting contradictions and tensions without trying to resolve them. At some point you could see some real shifts in how people think about the relationship between their moral vision and their theory of the universe. That could create religious changes of some kind—not necessarily Christian ones.
You use the word kludgeocracy—putting patches on things. Is the multiverse a patch on the neo-neo-Darwinian synthesis? That’s seems to me what the multiverse is. The theorizing looks like the epicycles that astronomers in the 16th century kept putting on as they tried to make the geocentric system work. You could assume Ptolemy was right and Galileo and Copernicus were wrong as long as you made these extra mathematical corrections—but that is a sign of a theory in crisis.
The last sentence of The Decadent Society is, “It shouldn’t surprise anyone if decadence ends with people looking heavenward, toward God, toward the stars, or both. So down on your knees—and start working on that warp drive.” We have fulfilled some portion of our destiny, whatever it may be as human beings, in so far as we have built a world-spanning civilization, the first one that there’s ever been. I think of three broad scenarios going forward. One is a cyclical view: This is as far as we're meant to go, and we’re destined to blow ourselves up, or just decline and start things over again. Another possibility is that this is just the beginning of some greater expansion into the vast universe that is out there. The third possibility is that having reached this moment there is—I’m not going to say the second coming, but some unexpected religious development. I find the cyclical view depressing. The optimistic view requires hope in either exploration or divine intervention, so I ended with both.
For lots of folks it's easier to work on a warp drive than to get down on our knees. That is true, but to the extent that many of my readers are secular and scientific-minded, I try in the book to say those two things may go together more fully than people tend to think right now.
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