Review: Ross Douthat’s ‘The Decadent Society’

"Angelus Novus" by Paul Klee

In perhaps the most famous of his Theses on the Philosophy of History, German critical theorist Walter Benjamin describes a Paul Klee painting many years in his possession, Angelus Novus. Benjamin writes that the painting depicts an angel looking backward on history: "Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet." The angel wants to repair the wreckage, but a storm "blowing from Paradise … has caught itself up in his wings" and "drives him irresistibly into the future."

"That which we call progress," Benjamin writes, "is this storm."

New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat may be America's most widely read conservative. It is a testament to his singular skill and wisdom, then, that he has written so thoughtful and compelling a book that bemoans the end of progress. The Decadent Society, his fifth full-length offering, is Douthat at his best—clever, considered, counterintuitive, and shot through with insight about modern America.

A half-century ago, Douthat argues in the book's introduction, the United States was driven to do the impossible. In July of 1969, when three men made it to the moon, we had reached "the peak of human accomplishment and daring, the greatest single triumph of modern science and government and industry." The postwar period is demarcated by the breakneck pace of scientific and societal advancement, engendering a society aiming its sights ever higher.

The collapse of that paradigm with the 1986 Challenger disaster produced its own opposite: an age of stagnancy, sclerosis, and "decadence." The word has the denotation of decline, but Douthat prefers a definition offered by French-American historian Jacques Barzun: "economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development." Having come this far, we have stopped and said, "No farther."

In our age of ever-accelerating information technology, this is a counterintuitive hypothesis, but Douthat defends it admirably. Economically, he argues, we face anemic growth, while (with a few notable exceptions) technological advances have slowed and productivity improvements remain weak. We still do not have Keynes's dreamed-of 15-hour workweek, and our own era is far more similar, technologically speaking, to three decades ago than the Reagan era was to the ’50s.

The economy is not the only thing that has stalled out. Collapsing birthrates are another sign of decadence, as are our "sclerotic" institutions, rotted through with gridlock wrought by some of the oldest lawmakers in American history. Culture, too, has grown decadent—the book's best chapter finally explains why Hollywood keeps making and remaking the same movies over and over again.

Key to this paradigm, Douthat argues, is the way that it produces its own stability. Social ills like opioid dependency, widespread pharmaceutical use, and pornography can be understood as mechanisms for the suppression of revolutionary ire. In perhaps the book's cleverest insight, Douthat explains that even social media serve this safety valve function, with the online hate mob safely venting our frustrations in an immaterial space.

These second-order stabilizers arguably supplement, rather than fully support, the present stability. Each of Douthat's "four horsemen of decadence"—economic stagnation, collective infertility, political sclerosis, and cultural repetition—represents structural choices to sacrifice the future for the present. Weak innovation is driven by selecting short-term returns over investment, and by a publish-or-perish paradigm that makes careers but not discoveries. Collapsing fertility rates reflect deferred childbearing, spending the future social and personal benefits of children to ensure individuals' present stability. Sclerosis is produced by a political class that clings to its own power, at the cost of training a future elite. And cultural repetition is in large part a product of Hollywood playing it safe, churning out blockbuster pablum instead of investing in something that might fail.

In other words, what is meant by "decadence" is in part "risk-averseness." Where once we dared to do impossible things in the hope of a better tomorrow, now we pour everything possible into simply preserving the status quo.

The book's last section sees Douthat imagining ways we could break out of this feedback loop. Through three chapters, he considers a societal collapse driven by mass strife over immigration, a la Michel Houllebecq; a rising Africa driving "renaissance," and a return either to the will to power through renewed space exploration, or the will to meaning through a religious revival.

Even in the case of catastrophe, Douthat seems to see such regime-shattering possibilities as fundamentally positive. The return of history, even in its worst forms, might be better than the eternal now. As writer Tara Isabella Burton put it in her own review, "What we need, Douthat implies, is a renewed eschatological vision of what history, and what we, are for [emphasis in original]." It is little surprise that among Douthat's many positive reviewers is arch-techno-optimist Peter Thiel, who writes that, "If there is a problem with the book, it is that Douthat does not press his own theme [of returning to the future] urgently enough."

For all the book's many strengths, there is one question to which Douthat gives perhaps inadequate treatment: Why has decadence happened? It may simply be the case that it is a function of our stage of societal development—grow sufficiently wealthy, and you will become fat and lazy as well. But, insofar as we have chosen decadence through risk-averseness, we raise another question: Why work so hard to forestall the future?

Benjamin completed Theses on the Philosophy of History in 1940 in France, as Hitler's army was bearing down on Paris. A Jew who had already fled the Nazi regime once, Benjamin crossed into Spain with plans to make for America. Denied entry into Portugal, with the Gestapo close behind him, he committed suicide at the border.

Benjamin was a Marxist, and so ideologically bound to a utopian optimism as to technological change. It is therefore odd—and oft-remarked upon—that the theory of history presented in the Theses is so bleak. One cannot help but conclude that Benjamin's pessimism was a product of the historical circumstances that led to his death.

The space race was indisputably "the peak of human accomplishment and daring." But that heady era was itself the product of nearly a century of political, technological, and economic innovation which totally transformed our society, as often enabling great evil as good. Before it meant going to the moon, technological change meant the advent of mass managerial tools and ideologies integral to the rise of fascism. It is impossible to disconnect IBM from the Holocaust, with the cold calculation of one depending on the other. The space race, too, existed always under the pall of the Cold War, itself rendered so horrifying by the world-destroying nuclear power that technology had unlocked.

The point here is not techno-pessimism: We can agree that progress has produced innumerable benefits while also acknowledging its costs. But the Angelus Novus knows what a "renewed eschatological vision of history" looks like, and it is not necessarily pretty. There are plenty of technological horrors waiting for the end of the end of history: genetic research leading to mass cullings, the most comprehensive surveillance apparatuses ever devised, and new biological weapons of war, which even their creators may not be able to control. In light of all this, is it so odd that we have said, "No farther?"

The Decadent Society suggests that history has only ended because we have chosen for it to do so. Douthat is right that we can steer our way out of that pause toward a brighter future. But we ought not discount the real possibility that the winds of progress are simply producing "rubble on top of rubble," a catastrophe that will pile up whether we want it to or not.