The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success by Ross Douthat

Decadence is a slippery concept. I associate the word with decline of the Roman Empire, Berlin during the Weimar Republic, and the collapsing empire in Asimov’s Foundation series—and that’s about it. Clearly decadence is critique and not praise. Branding an entire society “decadent” ventures into ideological territory—a viewpoint that depends on where you stand. To adherents of ascetic ideologies and religions, the contemporary world’s average daily experience offers an orgy of self-indulgence. But it takes far more excess and indulgence to shock the senses of the well-off and tech-enabled. 

I was excited to read this book because decadence is often on my mind. In college in the late 1980s I got a smattering of Straussian scholars critique of contemporary American culture, namely Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard commencement speech (“A World Split Apart”) resonated with me. Comics like The Watchmen and movies like RoboCop portrayed America in a state of collapse. I’d tell myself, “It was all going to end.” Thirty years later I see this as youthful moroseness. I’ve come to believe decadence is like a fatal condition that’s only revealed in an autopsy. Is America suffering from decadence? Ask me after the shit hits the fan

I was excited to read this book because decadence is often on my mind. In college in the late 1980s I got a smattering of Straussian scholars critique of contemporary American culture, namely Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard commencement speech (“A World Split Apart”) resonated with me. Comics like The Watchmen and movies like RoboCop portrayed America in a state of collapse. I’d tell myself, “It was all going to end.” Thirty years later I see this as youthful moroseness. I’ve come to believe decadence is like a fatal condition that’s only revealed in an autopsy. Is America suffering from decadence? Ask me after the shit hits the fan


The first prong of Douthat’s argument points to economic and technological stagnation in America and other Western countries. Unfortunately most of my problems with this book stem from this chapter. While I think this is the strongest evidence for decadence, the signs of stagnation are highly debatable.

Douthat covers the usual litany of economic woes: income inequality, debt overhang, secular stagnation, and financialization. Citing work by Robert Gordon and Tyler Cowen, Douthat argues the best days of the US economy are behind it because all of the easy ways to spur growth have already been used. Most readers will be familiar with the indictment of “neoliberalism”—to which I think there’s no better remedies than freer trade, less regulation, and moving more functions from the public to the private sector (i.e., more neoliberalism). I also think the evidence for stagnation is based on economic measures that have been in place in the Depression, namely national income, consumer spending, employment stats, etc. The data for productivity measures appears to be centered on the aggregate reporting of employers. How are self-employed and freelancers measured? What about quality of life measures? 

This is the problem with an over reliance of economic statistics. I don’t know of any measure quantifying the windfalls in free time people get through using smart phones and other tech, offering time-saving apps, home delivery, remote work, etc. There are real human benefits gained by having more time: socializing, exercising, child rearing, doing something creative, etc. For example, a family stays at home to watch a movie on Netflix and eat dinner at home; in the past, taking in a movie meant driving to a theater, paying for ticket, and eating out. From a GDP point of view staying home diminishes economic activity; yet the family derives benefits by staying home. Moreover, there is also an unquantified value in having the choice to go out versus stay in.

But the main thrust of Douthat’s argument in this section boils down to techno pessimism—something he will hedge on in the concluding chapters of the book (discussed below). In essence, he recycles the old cliche about not having flying cars in the year 2000. Douthat points to the lack of advancement in discovering new technologies, arguing that advancement has been marginal, not particularly revolutionary or transformative. In other words there is a Pareto distribution at play when it comes to making improvements to existing technologies. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it’s one discovery away from being undermined. Quantum computing, AI, fusion energy, and life extension technologies all stand to upset the status quo. Furthermore, pointing to kitchens and claiming they have not changed much in fifty years is nice rhetoric but misses the huge advancements in how kitchens are produced and supplied. A shipping container isn’t as cool as a flying skateboard, but did far more to advance the international economy. 

I’m also not so sure that the sum total of marginal improvements does not equate to significant advancement in aggregate. For example, the first garbage truck was just that: a petrol-burning vehicle that carried trash on an open bed, operated by a crew of two or three. Recently, I saw garbage truck that ran on liquified natural gas, had steering wheels on both sides of the cabin and an automatic arm to lift bins, operated by a single driver. Granted, trash isn’t being teleported to a dump or converted into raw material by nanotechnology, but I’d still argue there’s been technological advancement. 

The Decadent Society came out in February 2020 just as the COVID 19 pandemic was underway. On one hand, the crisis would be another example of government not working (which he discusses in Chapter 3). On the other, Douthat was not able to consider how technology helped to sustain the world economy during the pandemic. The rapid development and deployment of vaccines stands as a strong counterpoint to this entire chapter. 

Finally, even if we grant a level of technological stagnation, we should reconsider intellectual property protections. Patent and copyright law prevent innovation. As a policy prescription, getting rid of those laws would counter technological stagnation.

Decadence: Other Signs and Trends

American conservatives are compelled to extol the glory of large families, children, and more Americans. In Chapter 2 (“Sterility”), Douthat sites declining populations in America and the West as evidence of stagnation. It is hard to argue declining birth rates are not a problem. I’m certainly not a Malthusian, yet I’d never fault individuals who make the choice to have only one child or not to reproduce at all (after all, I’m one of them). There’s a strong utilitarian argument that people have better lives by avoiding reproduction. I tend to think AI, robotics, automation, and other tech mitigates the impact of a shrinking population—maybe I’m being too optimistic. Again, I’m not a liberal obsessed with population control, but no one can deny the environmental benefits for total population leveling off at 10 billion. Also, I think the American conservatives’ obsession with “babies” is disturbing. It has always struck me as a call for reproduction so the state would remain strong—plenty of employees, consumers, and soldiers. Finally, the solution to a flat population in the US is an easy one. Reopen the borders to immigrants and return to the state of affairs we had prior to the 1920s. 

The Decadent Society’s Chapter 3 (“Sclerosis”) was an excellent critique of US and European politics. The sheer size and complexity of the US government undermines its effectiveness while political polarization prevents substantive reform. While the US may suffer from bureaucracy and legal complexity building over decades, the de novo federalization of the EU brought about the rise of national populist movements. It’s become cliche to compare projects like the Hoover Dam and the Pentagon with boondoggles like the Obamacare rollout and California’s high-speed rail project—everyone knows the government functions poorly. On the other hand, I’m not sure if sclerosis is a feature or a bug. Given the unchecked power of the state, slower and more modest policy enactment may be the silver lining of decadence.

In “Repetition” (Chapter 4), Douthat dissects contemporary cultural production. There are signs of cultural exhaustion everywhere. Movies, TV shows, pop music, and publishing lack originality: formulaic, reproduced, copied. By way of explanation, Douthat points to the Baby Boom generation’s dominance over both cultural production and consumption. As a result, we live under the counter culture of the late 1960s which, after 50 years, lacks originality and vitality. Much of this is simply the entertainment industry’s industrial logic. I think there’s something to this critique, though I question if “artistic” output meant for mass consumption—superhero movies, cop shows, pop singles, “chick lit”—reveals much about a society’s cultural health. It’s the independent artists who experiment and innovate. Nevertheless, I think every generation has “mass market” originals. I had Pulp Fiction, The X-Files, Nirvana, and Neal Stephenson’s novels. Moreover, the volume of artistic output has never been greater than it is today. Technology enables the average person to curate an individualized cultural experience. This doesn’t seem like cultural exhaustion indicative of decadence.

The libertine in me bristled at the next chapter (Chapter 5 “Comfortably Numb”). This chapter was both frustrating and unsupportive to Douthat’s case for societal decadence. Basically, he rehashes conservative handwringing about drugs, video games, pornography, and social media, but takes an additional step to link those ills with extremism and real world violence. First, I think Douthat is either reaching or reverse engineering, because his argument is a giant post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Drugs, porn, gaming, and the “very online” are like catnip for conservatives—baffling those of us who always hated the American “Religious Right.” I know these topics are especially acute to a Catholic conservative like Douthat, but I think these types of lifestyle critiques are an ideological dead end (much like opposition to gay marriage proved to be). I will never understand how conservatives can be somewhat sensible on economic issues, acknowledging that markets offer efficiencies when it comes to determining supply and demand, but then engage in the fantasy that “bad behavior” is a supply-side problem meriting statist intervention. Look how Prohibition and the War on Drugs turned out. Moreover, the whole line of reasoning has an ascetic element that feels antihuman to me: things offering enjoyment, amusement, and pleasure are wrong, even sinful. Yet gluttony must be okay because I did not see Douthat mention widespread obesity—a much larger public health issue and better evidence of a society falling victim to its own success. Of course, overeating and inactivity are liberal issues. Finally, the lynchpin of any argument for lifestyle regulation is portraying the discovery of “a big, new problem” requiring intervention. These are almost always ahistorical arguments. There’s always been demand for basic amusements, euphoria, and sexual expression in every society, past and present. The chapter ends on Jean Baudrillard’s response to Francis Fukuyama, asserting the liberal end of history will be disrupted by recycled ideologies and religions that refuse to disappear. Baudrillard may have been prescient as far as the radicalism of the very online; yet this also may be nutpicking and, furthermore, despite sensationalist reporting about the far left and the far right, radicalism has not translated to real world impact.

I’ll cover Chapters 6 through 9 as more of a summary given these were even less convincing than the prior chapters. Douthat assets the predominance of social networks has created a benign despotism we’re voluntarily living under. It raises the notion that the hard power of a police and carceral state is no longer needed; the threat of being canceled brings about Bentham’s panopticon. Yet online activity that conflates activism and entertainment is toothless; we can exit the panopticon whenever we want. I can’t see how a “pink police state” is substantively different from the pre-internet conditions of liberal democracy. Furthermore, the chapter on a figurative “barbarian invasion” ending Western decadence was also unconvincing. Decadence ought to create vulnerability; yet the Fukuyama thesis remains firmly in place as there are no rival systems to liberal democracy. Douthat (to his credit) acknowledges that other systems are not viable alternatives or are as likely to succumb to stagnation and decline (see China, for example). Finally, Douthat offers a chapter considering whether decadence can be managed in a way where the material benefits of civilization are preserved. He engages in a thought experiment imagining the hypothetical collapse of the West, a violent ending to the decadent society. He walks through a fever dream of environmental collapse followed by population shifts to Europe that cause political chaos, and a twilight struggle between imperialistic China and America. Yet Douthat doesn’t think any of these scenarios are likely, making me wonder why he introduced them in the first place.

The last two chapters offer Douthat’s prescriptions for decadence. Unsurprisingly, the focus of “Renaissance” (Chapter 10) is the resurgence of organized religion. Douthat speculates that the global south‘s adherence to Christianity/Catholicism could rekindle religious adherence in the developed world. I think this is wishful thinking. I think it is far more likely that a developing, modernizing, and liberalizing global south would follow the Western experience of becoming less religious. Putting aside the condescending belief that Africans and Asians will cling to religion, I don’t understand how organized religion counters decadence. Attending church does not magically solve declining birth rates, ideological polarization, drug addiction, etc. (In full disclosure, I’m an atheist and inclined to dismiss the benefits of organized religion. However, I’m supportive of any voluntary organization that offers people self-improvement, counseling, short-term aid, child care, and healthcare). Turning to technology, Douthat acknowledges the possibility that technological innovation can also bring about a renaissance—especially if technology and religion could better coexist! At this point (and to his credit) Douthat considers many of the counter arguments to stagnation (some of which I raised above)—things better raised in his chapter on stagnation. As I wrote, I thought economic and technological stagnation (if they exist) would be the convincing points proving we face a decadent society. However, we either have a society capable of creating technological innovations that spur progress and economic growth or we don’t. Given technology and economic growth are related to each other, this is where Douthat’s “decadence” narrative falls apart. Finally, I thought Patrick Deneen‘s ideas about local revolution and the exit of smaller communities from nation states were compelling and worthy of more discussion (however, I believe Deneen has since renounced this idea as he’s evolved into a pure post-liberal integralist); Douthat dismisses the concept alluding to a vague notion of needing scale to bring about political change. Nevertheless, natcons and post-liberal integralists are signals in the noise: reactions to the various societal trends that Douthat attributes to decadence. Certainly something is happening the US…but it’s not decadence. 

Finally, I like Douthat’s conclusion. No matter what, there’s a degree of decadence in humanity’s future as civilization matures. It’s the nature of civilization, even under a utopian scenario where there’s a unified global civilization that spreads to the solar system and beyond. Douthat remains open to the possibility that decadence isn’t even a problem and I appreciate that kind of intellectual honesty. 

I was critical of this book but I think Ross Douthat is a gifted writer. Other than reading a few of his New York Times columns, I was unfamiliar with him. I heard Douthat interviewed on a couple of podcasts during his book tour and decided to check out The Decadent Society. In sum, I think you can look back in history and find numerous examples of societies in conflict, facing malaise, and/or experiencing ennui. Douthat has come up with a litany of horribles but I don’t think he makes the case for decadence. I have a feeling this book will be an anachronism by the end of the decade. The post-Covid and post-Trump years have not been good. In the face of rising international tensions and shaky economies we are inclined to see signs of weakness and decay. I think the decadence diagnosis comes down to recency bias, making to mistake of ignoring overall trends toward civilizational improvement that have been underway for 200 years. 

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