The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success
Ross Douthat. Avid Reader Press. 2020. 272 pages

New York Times journalist Ross Douthat presents a disturbingly strong case for the argument that the West has stagnated economically, demographically, intellectually, and culturally and explains how we’ve got here, why we will probably remain stalled like this for a long time yet, and how our decadence may resolve itself sometime in the future.

In Part One of the book he traces four broad fields – the “four horsemen” – in which the West’s much vaunted march of progress has finally stopped. He points to indices that clearly suggest that economic and technological development has been slowing down over the past half century; the technological innovations which 50 years were expected for today simply have not materialised. As Peter Thiel put it: “We were promised flying cars. We got 140 characters.”

The demographic stagnation of the West is even more dramatic. Across the entire developed world birth rates are well under the replacement number of 2.1 and so our populations are ageing. We have the caution of the aged, preferring health and safety over daring and entrepreneurship. We also have less capacity than young populations for simple hard work of the young. Though Douthat doesn’t say it explicitly, it appears that the developed world’s decadence is both a cause and effect of its growing old. Linked to this cautious – elderly – mindset is the advent of the bureaucratic, authoritarian, and managerial style of politics which dominates the world – the EU is presented as a particular case in point.

Finally, there is what Douthat calls “repetition”: the decline of creativity which has manifested itself over recent decades in cinema, TV, popular music, literature, politics and even in religion. Instead, classic tropes, story-lines and themes are simply reworked and repackaged. Star Wars is a good example.

And though we keep pointing to the web as the great innovation of our age, Douthat points out that the internet’s promised new lease of life to creativity and individuality never materialised. Instead, we got superficiality and group-think. For Douthat the last burst of creative energy we have seen in the West, for all its wildness, was probably the 60s.

In Part Two of the book Douthat asks whether our society’s decadence is “sustainable” – rather than doomed to the imminent collapse we’d tend to expect. By way of showing its power to endure, he points to the example of the effect of pornography on society. Rather than unleashing the much predicted and feared wave of sexual crimes against women, the greatly expanded use of pornography has in fact had the opposite effect: sexual crime rates have fallen as potential predators go deeper and deeper into online fantasy rather than out onto the streets.

The same phenomenon is visible in teenage behaviour: contrary to expectation the indices of teen rebellion are all falling; instead of the public anti-social behaviour of previous decades (drunkenness, violence, teenage pregnancy, etc) today’s “well-behaved” young people prefer to immerse themselves in the “sleepy pleasures” of the online world.

Douthat compares this to the Soma-sedated denizens of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World. The internet has made us a society of lotus-eaters, and drained the young of their rebellious urges along with the creative urges closely connected with rebellion. Even contemporary youth protests appear to be a Baudrillardian simulacrum of protest rather than the real thing.

This decadence is sustained – and given an unexpected longevity – by our softly despotic woke politics of the “pink police state” in which everyone is wittingly watched and controlled via the internet. And if we expect that this decadence must fall – Rome style – before a contemporary variant of the barbarians of old: the Islamic world, Putinism, China, even the Rust Belt deplorables, even these possible contenders all turn out to be slumping into their own decadence.

In Part Three, Douthat looks at various scenarios which might usher in the end of this decadent age: various kinds of catastrophe, or perhaps a cultural renaissance, or even preternatural, even supernatural, intervention in human affairs.

Among the possible catastrophe scenarios he envisages are: an economic collapse leading to a crash much greater and destabilising than that of 1929 leading to huge social upheavals; a global warming-induced drought along the length of the equator, accelerating mass migration into Europe; or even of a more radical climate change which would cause huge upheavals in the which would lead to the overthrow of the existing Western political order.

Douthat opines that such catastrophes would not be final: “The collapse would not last forever; the dark age would be temporary.”

In the final chapters he surmises how a renaissance might follow such a collapse. African Christians could be a revitalising force in European society, especially bu joining forces with beleaguered European Christians. Douthat quotes the Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah urging African Christians to reject Western decadence: “Africa,” Sarah said, “like the Vendée, will resist! Christian families everywhere must be the joyful spearheads of a revolt against this new dictatorship of selfishness!”

Douthat also discusses the fanciful possibility of wonderful world-altering technological developments coming to our rescue, but concludes that more likely scenario is that our rescue would come from small, dynamic counter-cultural communities such as envisaged in Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, or alternatively from larger entities such as dynamic nations such as the unusually un-decadent Israel, or even “a successful socialist revolution”. Another possibility would be a religious revival which would bring demographic revival in its wake.

Douthat also examines other possible scenarios: a significant growth of the already inchoate neo-paganism such that it would become “a rival to some of the shrinking mainline Protestant churches in Europe and the United States.”

Another, more plausible, scenario, especially for Europe, is the scenario envisaged in Michel Houellebecq’s 2016 novel Soumission (Submission) in which late-Western liberalism is overthrown in France by a dynamic Islam.

But a revival of the fortunes of Western Christianity, assisted by African Christianity, is simply more plausible – especially since the whole history of Christianity has been a roller-coaster ride of disasters and revivals.

In the final chapter the prospect of a “providential” intervention of one kind or another is presented: that of some intervention from outside of this world – in the form of intervention from, or interaction with, extra-terrestrial life. This odd scenario is quickly followed with the more mainstream Christian speculation that we may be due a special intervention of divine providence given that civilisation has exhausted its own innate capacities.

Douthat clarifies that he is not predicting the apocalypse, but rather that “if this were the age in which some major divine intervention happened, whether long prophesized or completely unforeseen, there would be, in hindsight, a case that we should have seen it coming.”

The Decadent Society is certainly an interesting book. Though the piling up of hypothetical future scenarios especially of Part Three grows a bit tedious and reads like imaginative counter-factual history, the book’s great strength lies in its analysis of our present-day malaise –and for that alone it is worth reading.

His argument that our society has stalled, economically, demographically, intellectually, and culturally, is presented so clearly and convincingly to make you feel you knew it all along.

Fr Gavan Jennings

Rev. Gavan Jennings studied philosophy at University College Dublin, Ireland and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He is co-editor of the monthly journal Position Papers. He teaches occasional...