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On Decadence, Decline, and Hope for a Renaissance

Ross Douthat says that a revolution is far-fetched, but the virus may provide the necessary alchemy for change.

An artist's impression of Commander Neil Armstrong walking on the surface of the Moon during NASA's Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, July 1969. (Photo by Space Frontiers/Getty Images)

As I type these words the whole of Italy is under lockdown and thousands of northern Italians are perishing from the novel coronavirus. (I pray such a die-off will not have occurred in the United States by the time this is published.) But in happier times, in fact the year 2014, I finally agreed to take a long break from teaching and research and accompany my wife on a tour of Italy. I write “accompany” because she did all the logistics and planning and I just followed her lead like an eager puppy on a bye in a park full of new sniffs. To call the experience sublime does not do it justice. Italy’s history, art, architecture, scenery, culture, and cuisine repeatedly moved me to tears. But another, more mundane contretemps also lodged in my memory. We were dining al fresco at a seaside trattoria in the picturesque Cinque Terre, chatting with the retired English couple at the next table, when there suddenly fell upon me a peace, a release, a sense of being unburdened that was new to my frenetic American soul. I realized what it meant for Italians, Britons, indeed all Europeans, to be retired from Great Power politics and steeped in la dolce vita. I couldn’t help thinking, if this is decadence please give me more. Thus was I prepared to appreciate one of the principal messages in Ross Douthat’s new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.

The message is that decadence need not connote debauchery or an impending doom of some kind, but instead may connote a blissful and remarkably sustainable state of mind. “Perhaps the task of sustaining decadence,” writes Douthat, “is the task that we—we the fortunate—we the long-lived, we the spoiled—should want our leaders to pursue.” As the perceptive political scientist James Kurth once taught me, it is a blessed privilege to bask in the Alpenglow of a fading civilization. Yes, but only so long as one does not too often ask: what follows the evening?

It is not my intention to review The Decadent Society, since the preceding conversation between the author and Rod Dreher pithily describes its central themes. Second, I am disqualified from reviewing an author of whom (full disclosure) I have long been an admiring fan. Third, I feel a certain kinship with him inasmuch as we are both Christian conservatives in progressive institutions. Fourth, I can scarcely claim objectivity since Douthat writes, on page two of his book: “In The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, his magisterial narrative of the period, Walter McDougall….” So my intention here is simply to add my own observations regarding American decadence.

Discourses about decadence are familiar to historians and are as old as Thucydides. I myself first encountered the term in a work by Pierre Renouvin, the dean of French diplomatic historians in the mid-20th century, who simply titled his book on the collapse of the Third Republic La Décadence, 1932-1939. His argument was that the polarization, decay, failure of nerve, and stagnation of French domestic society and culture paralleled the paralysis of French foreign policy. As late as 1936, the French still possessed the power to call Hitler’s bluffs. But their republic suffered from a political palsy even more severe than that of Britain or the United States. French leftists launched waves of bitter strikes and brawled in the streets against the right-wing Action Française. Cabinets rose and fell in a dizzy succession. When Nazi Germany remilitarized and reoccupied the Rhineland, France was frozen in place. In any event, almost no civil or military leader believed it necessary to resist, because the French War Ministry had spent millions of francs constructing the notorious (because presumably impregnable) Maginot Line of fortresses on the German frontier.

Indeed, France in the 1930s displayed many of the characteristics which Jacques Barzun would describe in his 2000 book From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present and which Douthat now spies in the United States. They include “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion.” Today, Renouvin’s thesis has become conventional wisdom. The “strange defeat” suffered by France in 1940 was not strange at all, but was presaged in the decadence draining interwar France. 

Historians of international politics such as myself are familiar with the concept because it is invariably found in literature purporting to explain the “decline and fall” of nations and empires over time. For instance, Paul Kennedy’s 1987 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 singled out “imperial overstretch,” resource depletion, and strategic fatigue as central factors in the collapse of modern great powers, warning at the end that the United States might be facing its own imminent decline. The book was an instant bestseller, but fell out of favor just four years later when the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States became the “sole superpower.” By 2009, however, Kennedy had been vindicated by the botched overreactions to 9/11 (wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) and the onset of the Great Recession, which revived the discourse over American decline.

Such forebodings are not new in our history. Two recent examples include the Great Depression of the 1930s, the only era when the United States truly turned isolationist, and the Great Stagflation of the 1970s, when Nixon and Ford pursued detente with the Communist powers and Carter made his so-called “malaise speech.” Yet those doleful decades were followed by stunning reversals of fortune under Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Might Americans be on the cusp of a similar “Renaissance”—to employ Douthat’s own term—that would restore productivity, vitality, unity, and creativity to the United States? He does not dismiss that possibility, nor does he dismiss the possibility of catastrophes such as a war against China, a terminal economic collapse, or an authoritarian overthrow of the government. But the burden of his evidence suggests that for a variety of reasons both secular and contingent, we are trapped in a futile feedback loop of our own making (hence his subtitle) and that the best the nation can do is just to sustain a decadent, if comfortable status quo: the mood I felt on that sultry evening in Italy.

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Curiously, Douthat begins (and ends) his book with a paean to the exploration of outer space because he takes for granted that the Apollo moon program exemplifies the sort of thing healthy societies do. They dream and aspire, mobilize their intellectual, technical, and economic resources, and above all explore. For him the first moon landing is an apt benchmark because he argues that many of the trends which have led to our current torpor began around the time the moon programs ended. “Before Apollo,” he writes, “it was easy to imagine that ‘late’ was a misnomer for our phase of modernity, that our civilization’s story was really in its early days, that the earthbound empires of Europe and America were just a first act in a continuous drama of expansion and development. Since Apollo we have entered into decadence.”

His larger argument is indisputable. But my own study of American space policy persuaded me that Apollo itself was already evidence of a sort of decadence. It reflected the adolescent pursuit of prestige which future Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin described in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, which was published in 1961, the very year President Kennedy launched the moon program. Following the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, the Eisenhower administration founded NASA, whose first Administrator T. Keith Glennan and Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden designed a sensibly paced R&D program for the step-by-step development of rocket boosters, satellites, and manned and unmanned spacecraft regardless of what spectacular “space shots” the Russians might make. But Kennedy hijacked most of the NASA budget for a one-time “space race” to win propaganda points. His audience was world opinion, especially in the Third World, and he meant to prove the superiority of American technology and the capitalist system. (Never mind that government-funded command technology for political purposes eerily resembled the communism it was meant to oppose.) As Boorstin put it, “when the gods wish to punish us they make us believe our own advertising.” As I myself put it, “The concomitant arrival of Sputnik and the Third World … made it seem vital for the United States to present an image of progressive anti-colonialism.” But this meant “an extension to foreign policy of a decadence (italics added) in the United States that was the subject of Boorstin’s book.”

The same technocratic mentality that inspired Apollo drove Kennedy’s progressive advisers to design the Vietnam War and Great Society under Lyndon Johnson. The ironic upshot was that by the time the first moon landing happened, American prestige had been clobbered by the quagmire in Southeast Asia and burning ghettos and student riots at home. The space program never recovered. NASA’s budget began to fall sharply even before 1969 and manned spaceflight might have disappeared altogether if not for Nixon’s adoption of the Space Shuttle, itself a compromised turkey with no future. Apollo had been a dead end. If instead the program of stable expenditures on practical space infrastructure had been continued, the United States might have had permanent stations in orbit and on the moon, plus privatized civilian space technologies, by the 1980s. So much for my special pleading.

Douthat describes the symptoms of our national decadence in four pithy chapters. The first symptom is economic stagnation resulting from the demographic aging of the population, runaway national debt, the collapse of educational standards, and the surprising loss of American technological dynamism. The second is sterility resulting from the natural drop in the birthrate of a wealthy information-age society, but also from feminism, abortion, divorce, the decline of marriage, and the soaring cost of child-rearing. The third is sclerosis most obviously displayed in the paralysis of a gridlocked government that used to win world wars but today cannot even pass a normal budget. Douthat cites Steven Teles’s term “kludgeocracy” to describe a system in which every solution is really “an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem.” (Our dysfunctional politics is surely to blame, but I suspect this is also a function of the stochastic complexity of a high-tech, globalized world beyond anyone’s understanding, much less control.) The fourth symptom is repetition, being a lazy lack of creativity reflected in Hollywood’s habit of making “remakes of remakes.” To be sure, some great films are still being produced (three of my recent favorites are Mr.[Sherlock] Holmes, The Two Popes, and Ford v Ferrari), but most movies, rap music, and what passes for art and architecture are not only decadent, but dreadful.

Douthat’s middle chapters develop his original and fetching thesis to the effect that decadence is sustainable. But one reason why is that our population, especially our youth, has become addicted and benumbed by the internet, social media, iPhones, and computer games. Interestingly, the spread of pornography-on-demand and violent video games have correlated with sharp decreases in rape and crime, but also account for a huge drop-off of interest in real sex and even real people. Likewise in politics it seems as if radical, even violent, movements on the Left and Right metastasize on social media. But in fact, Douthat argues, Americans who spew venom online are usually just “cosplaying” their frustrations, in which case their posts and tweets are harmless (if hateful) substitutes for political action.

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What is more, the same technologies have empowered government agencies to conduct nearly total surveillance and made social control one task our decrepit government agencies do very well. Social control is also exercised through the Orwellian groupthink—the political correctness, identity politics, and “wokeness”—imposed through our cultural institutions, universities, news media, and corporations. It all amounts to what James Poulos calls the “pink police state”; what I called “friendly fascism” (while visiting Disney World years ago); and what Douthat calls “kindly despotism.” Its purpose is to suppress civil liberties that enable resistance and protect those that enable self-indulgence. Even war is made tamable thanks to deployment of satellites, drones, aircraft, and volunteer special forces. Douthat concludes: “the more surgically precise the intervention, the more sustainable it becomes. With enough technique, the forever war can last forever.” This is good stuff. As Rod Dreher would surely write: read the whole thing.

My only objection to Douthat’s diagnosis is that it has little or nothing to say about elites, establishments, and plutocracies. I believe Americans have become decadent in good part because they have chosen to do so, but I also believe it is not paranoid to suggest the choices we make are rarely free ones. Rather, we are constantly tempted, manipulated, by those who occupy the commanding heights and who grasp the levers of power. That is why I recommend readers to pair The Decadent Society with James Kurth’s new book The American Way of Empire: How America Won a World—But Lost Her Way. Among much else, Kurth describes the “preferred domestic public policies” as well as the foreign policies of three American plutocracies. The first rose to power in the 1880s and 1890s on the strength of industrial sectors such as coal, steel, railroads, and oil. Its captains of industry, or “robber barons,” wanted a political system that seemed bracingly democratic, but in fact ensured that both political parties would do their bidding by supporting the gold standard, protective tariffs, a big navy, and foreign markets through the “Open Door” policy. The second American plutocracy that arose in the 1920s and 1930s was split between industry and the financial sector which rose like a rocket during and after the Great War. Wall Street favored free trade and internationalism and thus quarreled with the industrialists of the Middle West. When the Great Depression hit both were hurt badly, but did not succumb to populist or leftist movements thanks to Franklin Roosevelt, World War II, and Harry Truman.

The third American plutocracy is dominated by the financial sector, which hollowed out American industry, not only by promoting free trade overseas, but by promoting multinational corporations after 1960 and globalization after 1990. So we have our plutocracy to thank for the Rust Belt with its abandoned working class. The most scandalous proof of its power to manipulate public policy is Washington’s response to the Great Recession caused by the greed of the financial sector beginning in 2008. Nearly all the “too big to fail” financial institutions were awarded generous bailouts funded by ordinary taxpayers or else tacked onto the national debt (which doubled under George W. Bush and doubled again under Barack Obama).

Less apparent is the plutocracy’s manipulation of American culture. Business elites who were once “country-club Republicans” have become the most progressive as well as powerful people in the world. What appears to have happened is this. As veterans of the radical 1960s completed their “Long March through the institutions,” they seized the commanding heights in politics, law, academics, journalism, and the foundations. Once in positions of authority, the “tenured radicals” imposed their multicultural, intersectional, non-binary “race, class, gender, and sexual orientation” template and made it the new “hegemonic discourse.” Over those same decades corporations signaled their eagerness to promote the progressive social agendas so long as they remained free to promote their economic agendas. Hence the neoliberalism, globalization, and deregulation of the financial sector proceeded apace with no serious challenge from the Left until Bernie Sanders in 2016. Meanwhile, the new billionaires of the tech industry—who were already “woke”—not only joined the plutocracy but contributed to it the means to anesthetize the “deplorables” in the hinterland. Not that the founders of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, and the rest of those veritable sovereignties intended to exercise dystopian social control but, having done so, are not about to let go of their algorithms.

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In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, what may happen next is a mystery. But Douthat thinks a radical revolution in the United States is extremely unlikely given that its population is much richer and older than those of say, late Imperial Russia or Weimar Germany, and is atomized and tranquilized by the internet. Instead, he hopes for a renaissance inspired, perhaps, by simultaneous scientific and religious revivals, because “there can also be a mysterious alchemy between the two forms of human exploration. And nothing will be a surer sign that decadence has ended in something like a renaissance than if that alchemy suddenly returns.”

Could it be that we are already seeing evidence of that alchemy in the war our public and private sectors are waging together against the virus? For the prayers of so many is that God will providentially bless the efforts of the scientists, physicians, politicians, and bureaucrats seeking wise measures of containment and above all a vaccine. I suppose it will depend on what Americans do when and if Providence comes to their rescue. Will most simply sigh in relief, utter a quick prayer of thanks, and rush back to enjoyable decadence? In How the Irish Saved Civilization, his little classic on the so-called Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire, Thomas Cahill quotes cultural historian Kenneth Clark to the effect that “Civilization requires confidence—confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers…. Vigour, energy, vitality: all the great civilizations—or civilizing epochs—have had a weight of energy behind them.” Can Americans recover that confidence and display that energy after this emergency has passed? Will a critical mass of them come to realize (as Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) that the decadence of a technological civilization lies in its worship of Quantity over Quality?

I believe we shall know that postmodern America has begun to exit La Décadence only when her people embrace faith, hope, and charity, and begin to create beauty again.

Walter A. McDougall, 73, holds the Alloy-Ansin Chair in International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. He has authored seven fat books and won a Pulitzer Prize, but his most precious calling is to teach humility, which is to say history.

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