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The Education of Ross Douthat: Reviewing The Decadent Society

April 15th, 2020 | 20 min read

By Daniel DeCarlo

“History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions”
-T.S. Eliot, Gerontion

“TRUMP HAD A CEILING HE ALWAYS HAD A CEILING I TOLD YOU HE HAD A CEILING I TOLD YOU I TOLD YOU I TOLD YOU YOU LAUGHED BUT I TOLD YOU.” These were the words of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on the night of the GOP’s Iowa Caucus contest in 2016. Of course, we all know how this prediction turned out, and Ross, to his credit, has taken the flak he received for his hilariously wrong prediction with relative good humor.

But that night, hard as it is to believe, was years ago and one is tempted to wonder whether Douthat’s talent for prescience has shown any kind of marked improvement since.

The answer it appears, after a perusal of his most recent literary endeavor The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success is a resounding “No.”

The Decadent Society was published on February 25th of this year, and Douthat had approximately two weeks from this date before its basic thesis —not only that the United States is decadent, but that its decadence is likely sustainable— went from seeming like the very serious thoughts of a very serious pundit to almost quaint in its own utterly clueless, yet somehow endearing, naivete.

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Reading Douthat’s book now, a little more than a month after its initial publication, feels similar to stumbling across an ancient scroll from 79 AD detailing the mayor of Pompei’s plans for an ambitious new public works program to combat the growing graffiti problem.

Still, in spite of its ill-timed release, Douthat’s Decadent Society illuminates far more than it obscures, and, strangely enough, a critical reader will likely find that it is in the book’s most transparent errors that the most light is actually shed.

The Decadent Society is a relatively short work, comprising three primary sections. The first seeks to establish the fact that the United States is, in fact, a decadent society. The second (the true crux of Douthat’s argument) claims that, contra many observers, this decadence is in all likelihood sustainable. And the third attempts to imagine possible future scenarios that could conceivably bring an end to America’s decadence.

The first section is easy enough to follow, as it is essentially a shortened version of economist Robert Gordon’s claim that the days of easy growth for the US economy are over, as most of the ‘low hanging fruit’ of the dramatic technological innovation seen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has already been ‘picked.’

The essence of the argument can be neatly summed up in a thought experiment that both Gordan and Douthat are fond of employing (in one version or another): imagine an American man from 1900 magically teleported to the world of 1960. Almost everything he would encounter in everyday life would be radically different: automobiles and jet airplanes, technological marvels which in 1900 only existed in the imaginations of science fiction authors, are now ubiquitous in everyday life. An average American household (now fully electrified) has access to indoor plumbing and refrigeration. The United States and the Soviet Union have both split the atom, giving them each the power to fully power (or fully incinerate) entire cities with the flip of a switch. All of these incredible breakthroughs increased economic productivity and social “progress” by impressive orders of magnitude.

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But take an American man from 1960 and magically teleport him to 2010 and the outcome would likely be quite different. Though they would certainly notice certain obvious differences: a more sexualized and permissive popular culture, the internet, etc., most of the things he would encounter would simply be slightly updated versions of those which had already existed in the ‘60s. Cars, aside from offering a more plastic and streamlined design and now sporting safety features like seatbelts and airbags, are essentially unchanged. The jet airplanes of the 2010s have little meaningful differences from those which flew in the 1960s, freight is transported by truck or train or cargo ship just as it was in 1960, etc.

It would seem that, as far as paradigm-shifting technology is concerned, the modern US has reached a kind of dead end.

Throughout the book, Douthat turns to a particular excerpt from the long-lived French-American historian Jacques Barzun’s definition of decadence to drive his point home. According to Barzun,

[a]ll that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.

Douthat’s contention is that, in a decadent society such as the modern United States, there are few really new ideas.

Contemporary pop culture, as Douthat eagerly points out, consists of endlessly expanding versions of decades old comic book franchises (the Marvel franchise being the most obvious example of this), fashion has become merely a mishmash of previous, already played out, styles with music and literature seeming to share a similar fate.

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Most of Douthat’s claims in this section are obvious enough and hard to dispute. Unless, of course, one is dead set on defending what is sometimes known as the “neoliberal consensus” as the pinnacle of all human achievement (a stage of willful delusion at which point dialogue is likely pointless anyway).

The second part of the book, however, deals with the meat of Douthat’s argument: not merely that the contemporary U.S. is decadent —a tedious observation, like pointing out that the sky is blue or water is wet— but that this decadence is, not only sustainable, but also in many ways desirable as well.

The latter claim, though Douthat in his characteristically cautious manner refuses to ever explicitly state it, is the most interesting aspect of the book. As it hinges on a peculiar moral claim about the nature of change within decadent societies: Namely, that the only truly responsible (and thus truly moral) way to escape from decadence is by dedicating oneself to engendering a societal renaissance which sees a return to progressive dynamism, as opposed to embracing a permanent technocratic/neoliberal stasis or attempting to bring about an accelerationist collapse. The logic of this position Douthat describes thusly:

Not because meliorism can cure every ill, but because the more revolutionary alternatives are too dangerous…So it must be met, not by fantasies of ennobling world wars, not by Tyler Durden from Fight Club planning to blow up all credit card companies and Ikea living rooms sky-high, but by the hope that where there’s stability, there also might eventually be renewal, that decadence need not give way to collapse to be escaped—that, instead, it can be transcended, that the renaissance can happen without the misery of an intervening dark age.

It’s important to note that Douthat’s definition of “decadence” is a peculiar one, as it attempts to distinguish itself from any kind of moral judgement, instead striving to become merely a descriptive, technical term. To achieve this Douthat’s analysis sacrifices its ability to evaluate good from bad, instead focusing merely on whether the culture in question is able to produce social phenomena that are genuinely ‘new,’ or ‘creative.’

Thus, by necessity, his definition of what would constitute a “renaissance” suffers from a similar, self-imposed, restraint. Its conditions would technically be met so long as American culture produced art that had no direct past antecedents, or if technology experienced a radical and progressive paradigm-altering shift forward regardless of the particulars of the shift in question.

This may not strike one as a particular problem until, of course, one realizes that almost any decadence-shattering technological paradigm shift forward (the likely prerequisite for progress in any other field of endeavor) is likely to take a form that, especially from Douthat’s own conservative Catholic perspective, is nothing less than grotesque.

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This same rather obvious point was bluntly made by the right-liberal author Tyler Cowen during a recent interview with Douthat to discuss his book:

Presumably when it comes to CRISPR babies and transhumanism and genetic engineering, you’re at least partly skeptical, maybe very skeptical.

But if you think those are the areas right now where we’re seeing the major advances, isn’t it the case that, to overcome decadence, you have to actually embrace the innovations that you yourself are not comfortable with?

In response Douthat was forced to admit that he would find such a “renaissance,” likely as it is, to be unacceptable, instead suggesting the reemergence of Space travel as a potential decadence-ending solution he would prefer, as it would fulfill the need for dynamically forging a new frontier without the moral horrors which would naturally accompany genetic engineering, transhumanism and the other assorted fetishes and delusions native to the various moral imbeciles who have managed to rise to prominence in Silicon Valley.

Yet in uncritically assuming that this very concept of the “frontier” of “exploration” of this constant pressing forward—which he contrasts so positively with his own, somewhat arbitrary, definition of decadence—is in fact a good in itself, Douthat begs the question, glibly assuming, in tautological fashion, that this impulse is justified merely by the fact that it is associated with American and Western culture.

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And, ironically enough, it is at this point, early in the book— during his exposition on the importance of this ever expanding “frontier”— that Douthat appears to inadvertently dynamite the operating assumption of his entire book:

There is a sense in which Turner’s frontier thesis can be usefully applied to the entire modern project, whose institutions and forms and bedrock assumptions—the sense of historical mission, the expectation of perpetual progress—have been ordered around the permanence of exploration, expansion, and discovery…the ideology of exploration and discovery has been much more necessary than in many past civilizations, offering a new form of consolation to replace what faith and tribe and family and hierarchy had once supplied.

If, as Douthat admits, the modern American preoccupation with expansion and dynamism for its own sake is little more than a flaccid placebo for genuine religious faith and authentic human community the question then arises: why should any potential hope for a civilizational renaissance be predicated on its reemergence?

This is a question Douthat never answers, perhaps preoccupied with attempting to prove to his audience that he’s playing for the same team they are, and won’t let a few mere metaphysical concerns get in the way of the rising tide of a glittering new renaissance which promises to lift all boats.

An alternative, perhaps more generous, explanation is that he simply doesn’t have an answer.

For all practical purposes however, this is a moot point, as there likely isn’t much of a hunger among the book’s target demographic for the asking of such inconvenient questions. This is especially true in the case of the book’s most high-profile fan: none other than tech billionaire, transhumanist advocate, and right-wing thinkfluencer par excellence Peter Thiel.

Thiel’s review of The Decadent Society is curious and worth reading for a number of reasons, chief among them the simple criticism he levels against Douthat’s concluding section which deals with possible solutions to decadence.

Douthat’s problem, according to Thiel, is that he doesn’t actually seem to really believe in any of his proposed solutions:

When considering ways out of our impasse, he singles out religious revival and technological ­acceleration—specifically, interstellar travel. Thus his final sentence: “So down on your knees—and start working on that warp drive.” Here the urbane tone that makes the rest of the book both charming and persuasive ­undermines the argument, as if winking to the reader that the author does not, after all, take any of this stuff very seriously.

Thiel goes on to point out that the technology required for interstellar space travel, even though it may seem to offer all the benefits of a final, limitless frontier without the moral obscenities that necessarily come along with genetic engineering and transhumanism, is simply unworkable, as the technology required for such an endeavor is so far out of the realm of our current knowledge as to render any attempt to acquire it as a futile waste of time and human capital.

Douthat, being an intelligent man, has to realize this. A fact which goes some way toward explaining Thiel’s frustration with his supposed renaissance-inducing solutions.

Of course, if we assume along with Thiel that Douthat isn’t actually serious about any of his proffered solutions then the only other option left to us is to take him at his word and assume that he simply prefers to see American decadence roll on, as apparently options outside C.S. Lewis’s Science Fiction novels (think Anglo-Catholicism in space) are simply too dangerous in Douthat’s mind to seriously consider as alternative routes forward.

Even leaving his own previously cited admission aside, it is difficult for any careful reader of his book to reach any other conclusion. Douthat simply takes too much obvious pleasure in noting (with more than a little hyperbole) the seemingly unstoppable march of a “liquid modernity” which sees “everything solid melt into air,” and too much transparent enjoyment out of his gentle, yet distinctly patronizing, mockery of the poor misguided souls on both the left and the right who have attempted to bring about something better.

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It’s hard to read these passages—especially those in the second and third sections which describe the seemingly impossible task facing would-be revolutionaries and the weakness and inadequacy of potential civilizational competitors— as anything other than the equivalent of a smug rhetorical endzone dance. Which, quite amusingly, bears more than a passing resemblance to Douthat’s other infamous rhetorical endzone dance, which was, as we have seen, rather ill fated.

The more Douthat’s prognostications change, it seems, the more they stay the same (much like decadence itself!).

And although the circumstances involved with each misbegotten prognostication are certainly different (a reality TV star winning the Republican primary ostensibly being different than the emergence of a new, hyper-infectious virus) the likely reason he failed to anticipate both is the same. Namely, he lacks the imagination to conceive of likely external shocks which could quickly alter the current trajectory of the decadent Anglo-American civilization he appears to simultaneously both hate and love.

Of course, an easy (but lazy) rebuttal to this accusation would be to point out that both the rise of Trump and the emergence of Coronavirus were inexplicable, and that therefore Douthat and others in his class are therefore not responsible for being unable to forsee them. The conceit here being that these were, to fashionably employ a term made famous by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “Black Swan” events.

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The issue with this line of argumentation is that nothing could be further from the truth. Both the rise of global populism and the Coronavirus were equally foreseeable phenomena. In fact, Taleb himself has recently stated that, as far as the latter is concerned, it was not a “Black Swan” but a “White Swan.”

After all, in a hyper-globalized world, is there anything more predictable than the emergence of a lethal and highly infectious virus which would spread rapidly via the same global supply chains and travel networks which the ruling classes of the Western world have used alternatively to both enrich and amuse themselves? Or that America would be one of the hardest hit nations, as it was no longer capable of even producing a product as simple as a plastic mask due to the dramatic deindustrialization which had been occurring for decades?

Likewise, was there, in 2016, anything more stupidly obvious than the fact that—due to the very phenomenon of economic globalization which would later ensure the rapid spread of COVID-19—voters across the world would rebel against the preferred policies and candidates of their so-called “elities” in favor of some kind of populism which actually spoke to their real-life needs and concerns?

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In both cases the point is not that one could have known with precision that it would be Donald Trump who would end up leading a global populist rebellion or that a lethal respiratory disease would emerge from a wet market in Wuhan, China. Rather, the point is that in both cases conditions had existed for decades which would have made the occurrence of either the least surprising thing in the world. The kindling, as it were, had already been gathered. All that was missing was a spark, the particular identity of which was unimportant.

Of course, Douthat does briefly mention the possibility of a mismanaged pandemic (the word “pandemic” occurs exactly once in the book) bringing an abrupt end to American decadence, at least for a time, but he speaks of it in the same way one would speak of an alien invasion or the eruption of a supervolcano: something so ridiculous and unlikely as to merit only a passing mention.

And again, the particular identity of the calamity is ultimately irrelevant, the real point is not that Douthat couldn’t fit the word “pandemic” onto a top ten list of potential decadence ending catastrophes, but that he doesn’t recognize that decadent societies are more, and not less susceptible to such events. He refuses to recognize the inherent brittleness of the system in question, suffering from the seemingly willful delusion that their decadence makes them robust, when in fact the opposite is true.

In the end, the only real way these types of things are obscured is if one refuses to see them. And that is precisely what Douthat has consistently done, with The Decadent Society being only the latest example in a long, proud tradition of misguided wishcasting.

There is, however, one real question raised by Douthat’s book that remains unanswered: why root for Decadence?

Going all in for Marco Rubio in 2016, ridiculous as it may seem now, was at least in some ways understandable. After all, the embers of the reformocon dream had not yet been doused by the firehose of Trumpism and in a post-Obama America a young, fresh faced Latino politician might have been just what the GOP needed to bring unprecedented prosperity and domestic tranquility to the American body politic: one generous child tax credit at a time.

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Appealing as this alternate future may have seemed to professional slightly right of center pundits, for most Americans the continuation of decadence offered no such charms. In fact, for most Americans the only gifts it has given them and those they love have been bleak lonely lives of paycheck to paycheck debt slavery, drug addiction, and social and moral chaos.

Even those who have managed to claw their way into the ruling classes, while they may be materially better off than their less fortunate contemporaries, still have to deal with the tedium and meaninglessness that decadence has ensured defines their existence. Their only potential consolation being the plethora of juicy gossip that is rendered to them as an ancillary benefit (like dental insurance) for being a member of a class that has dedicated itself almost completely to careerist social climbing.

There are several, seemingly minor, but telling passages throughout the book in which Douthat references the “real world” of slow progress, political half measures, and technocratic compromise favorably, (decadent as they may be) over and above any potentially hasty and dangerous decadence ending solutions possibly on offer from wild-eyed radicals.

When reading these authoritative invocations of “the real world” it’s hard not to be reminded of Nicholas Cage’s character Charlie Kaufman in the brilliant and underrated 2002 film Adaptation. And, in particular, of a memorable scene in which Cage’s character, in an attempt to end his writer’s block, confronts the presenter with a question on how to write a story in which “nothing much happens,” which he claims would be more of a “reflection of the real world”:

KAUFMAN: What if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world

MCKEE: The real world? The real fucking world? First of all, if you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you’ll bore your audience to tears. Secondly: Nothing happens in the real world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day! There’s genocide, war, corruption! Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else! Every fucking day someone somewhere makes a conscious decision to destroy someone else! People find love! People lose it, for Christ’s sake! A child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman! If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life! And why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie?

Douthat, properly understood, is essentially asking us to either take Kaufman’s advice and accept a civilizational script of unending and spiritually draining decadence or attempt to engender a renaissance of the Western, “Faustian” ethos of limitless expansion and technological progress.

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But perhaps this ethos never really left us after the end of the space age as Douthat seems to believe. Perhaps the Faustian impulse, once it banged its head up against the very real limits of physics, merely transferred its energy into another field of endeavor. Namely, the new frontier offered by Globalization and Financialization. In which, after the end of the cold war, almost all of the resources of Anglophone civilization were thrown into a quasi-imperial crusade to subjugate the world under the triumphant boot of the US military and the supremacy of the US dollar, both buttressed by a manic quest for limitless economic growth (Is there anything more truly Faustian than this?).

Of course, the US military’s boot never really recovered after stepping into the punji pit of Mesopotamia, and, as this essay is still being written, the global financial system is experiencing a shock to its system so severe the result may very well be an economic catastrophe that will exceed the devastation of the Great Depression. The latter induced, not by an asteroid or barbarian invasion, but merely a tiny germ.

If this kind of banal fetish for constant expansion for its own sake, which Douthat himself admits is merely a kind of pathetic placeholder for transcendence, is the very thing which has led us to this ignoble endpoint, maybe, just maybe, it was a poor path to begin with.

After all, Faust’s story is, at least in part, a cautionary tale about the dangers of making a deal with the devil. And anyone so entrapped (even if the “anyone” in this instance is a civilization) might be wise to go to great lengths to free themselves from such a bargain.

Even if they have to embrace an apocalypse to do it.

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