Norm Corps

The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success BY Ross Douthat. New York: Avid / Simon & Schuster. 272 pages. $27.

The cover of The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success

Whether or not he was born that way, Ross Douthat is a defeated man. The child of hippie aspiring writers—a father who became an attorney and a mother who became a homemaker (both became published writers late in life: the father a poet, the mother a contributor to the Christian journal First Things)—Douthat arrived at Harvard in 1998 yearning to live the life of the mind and found himself among a horde of grade-grubbing careerists, most of them from affluent families, biding their time until they filled their reserved slots among the neoliberal power elite. This state of affairs became the subject of Douthat’s first book, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (2005), published when he was twenty-five. The book established him as an insider chronicler of institutions in states of decay. Harvard and its students, he argued, had turned away from the values of its founding (whatever those were) in pursuit of success for its own sake.

Douthat graduated into the minor-league ranks of right-wing punditry as it was becoming clear that George W. Bush’s presidency was a train wreck. His intervention, Grand New Party (2008), cowritten with Reihan Salam, diagnosed recent Republican failings and advocated a Reformacon agenda of pro-family policies (child tax credits, pension credits for household labor, means-tested Social Security benefits, etc.). These ideas might have gained traction under a Romney administration, but their prospects were scotched by the backlash politics of the Tea Party and the election of Donald Trump. Douthat’s next two books addressed upheavals in the institutions of faith. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012) lamented the decline of American Christianity: Once a unifying force in society, on the left it had decayed into vague spirituality and self-help; on the right it had hardened into a politicized evangelicalism that would betray its own values to abet Trump. In To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (2018), Douthat, a Catholic convert, traced recent controversies in the church and tilted against liberal accommodation in the Vatican. It would be difficult to deny, as Douthat is certainly aware, that across these books he’s been fighting losing battles.

But what does losing mean when the loser’s career has reached a lofty plateau? Douthat was hired as an op-ed columnist for the New York Times a few months after Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. At the time he was slotted as a voice of conservatism in retreat. Since then, of course, any notions he harbored of Republican politicians as noble guardians of traditionalist governance have been liquidated by the election of a vulgar and irreligious real-estate hustler, reality-game-show host, and pied piper of an international nationalist movement of incompetent self-dealing scumbags.

Andrew Schoultz, Weathered Flag (Gold Dip), 2016, acrylic and 24-karat gold leaf on stained and dyed American flag on panel, 30 × 54". Courtesy the artist and Joshua Liner Gallery
Andrew Schoultz, Weathered Flag (Gold Dip), 2016, acrylic and 24-karat gold leaf on stained and dyed American flag on panel, 30 × 54". Courtesy the artist and Joshua Liner Gallery

In its current iteration, the Times op-ed page is clogged with liberal, centrist, and conservative writers convinced that their every column constitutes an intervention, if not in actual electoral politics, party policy making, or congressional procedure, then at least in the churn of culture war. Lacking a Trumpist or a socialist (until the hiring of Elizabeth Bruenig in December), the paper’s op-ed stable has mounted a consistent and predictable resistance to the Trump administration. On the left and in the center, this has meant the chronicling of the president’s outrages and enumeration of tactics for removing him from office. On the right, recent acquisition Bret Stephens has relished his online infamy as the bête noire of Times subscribers; millennial contrarian Bari Weiss has fashioned herself a publicist of the Intellectual Dark Web; and veteran David Brooks has emerged from a midlife crisis realizing that he misses Obama and doing his best to lead himself and his readers toward “the best life,” whatever that means and as long as it doesn’t deviate from capitalism.

By contrast, Douthat has settled into a sort of grim equanimity. He has become less likely to issue provocations that he might actually believe—e.g., his inaugural column calling for Dick Cheney to run for president in 2012—than to channel more obscure writers’ provocations about, say, a return to corporal punishment or a right to sex. On the op-ed page, he alone seems aware that the battles he cares about have been lost, perhaps permanently—for a government that aligns with his Catholicism (including opposition to abortion rights), and for a Republican Party that is meaningfully pro-family rather than an electoral entity that reliably obtains tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation for big business, increased budgets for the military, and little of anything else for anyone else.

In defeat Douthat has become a cold analyst of the current moment, mostly free of illusions and wishful thinking, taking a longer view than most opinion writers. Here I should confess that his is the only Times column I still read regularly (Jamelle Bouie and Michelle Goldberg being peddlers of opinions I typically either already hold or have seen elsewhere). The Trump presidency hasn’t caused Douthat to lose his head, like some of his more excitable colleagues. He airs the arguments of his ideological opponents without twisting them. Following the leftist political scientist Corey Robin, for example, he’s argued that Trump’s is a weak presidency, not a transformative one. It is, rather, a symptom of an age when ideas are static and politics have come to seem futile and absurd. So Trump fits neatly into the argument unwound in Douthat’s latest, The Decadent Society. The book is descriptive and diagnostic. Decadence comprises economic stagnation, scientific exhaustion, institutional sclerosis, and cultural repetition. These conditions are experienced at high levels of material prosperity and technological development, which in turn can be viewed as the very causes of decadence (thus we are, as Douthat’s subtitle has it, victims of our own success). The result is that, as Jacques Barzun wrote in his 2000 book From Dawn to Decadence, “people accept futility and the absurd as normal.”

Douthat knows that his prognosis retains plenty of vagueness. It relies, too often, on feelings. He cites Kurt Andersen’s argument that the 1950s felt more different from the 1980s than the 1990s felt compared to the 2010s. He allows that the decadence he’s trying to describe holds only in the West, that is, Europe and America, as well as Japan (and presumably the not much discussed Australia). The seething Middle East and booming China aren’t decadent. Nor is Africa, a zone that excites Douthat, not least because its fertility and religious fervor, qualities that aren’t decadent at all, remain robust. He’s keen to point out (perhaps a little too keen, given the recent weather) that decadence need not mean imminent collapse. He quotes Auden: “What fascinates and terrifies us about the Roman Empire is not that it finally went smash but that, away from the start, it managed to last for four centuries without creativity, warmth, or hope.”

Like any respectable alum of The Atlantic, Douthat keeps Rome ever in mind, but like any American boy born in the second half of the twentieth century, his notions of creativity, warmth, and hope reside among the stars. We haven’t made it to Mars or fulfilled many of the promises of mid-twentieth-century science fiction. Douthat dates the onset of decadence to the moon landing, which represented “the closing of the frontier.” Is it our diminished capacity for innovation that’s kept us from mining Saturn’s moons or a realization of physical and practical limits? The rockets that took us to the moon were, after all, the belated upshot of wartime advances. Perhaps if the discovery of light-speed engines had been necessary to defeat Hitler, we’d now be colonizing the Alpha Centauri system. Douthat finds it meaningful that George Lucas decided to set Star Wars not in the human future but long ago in a galaxy far away. Too often he conflates science fiction with expert projections we’ve somehow failed to fulfill. These failures and cherry-picked examples of diminished imaginative visions—from the utopian to the dystopian—compound to confirm his thesis. But they also require him to downplay the technological innovations we have been experiencing, as if computers, smartphones, and the internet weren’t more revolutionary in more people’s daily lives than the moon landing. Perhaps it is a question of feelings. In literary terms, you’d frame that as the difference between fantasy and realism. Le Guin or Updike? Stephenson or Franzen?

Douthat is on more solid and less symbolic ground when he outlines the details of economic stagnation in the developed world. US median household income (around $60,000) has been stagnant since the late 1990s, and US median household wealth (around $97,000) since the early 1980s. As Douthat points out, the onset of deceleration and stagnation tracks neatly with the onset of neoliberalism, typically pegged to Nixon’s removing the dollar from the gold standard in 1971. Under the current regime, the benefits of economic growth have flowed to a rentier class, “already-rich investors getting richer off dividends,” leading to the inequality that has catalyzed socialist movements on the left and populist unrest on the right. To view this state of affairs as a mere symptom of decadence is to see it as somehow inevitable. To view it as the result of anti-inflationary and free-trade policies deliberately imposed from the top to protect global capital at the expense of workers, who have been subject not just to stagnation but to increased precarity in the form of cycles of mass unemployment, is to see it as the result of political decisions that could be countervailed. Douthat would allow for both views, but in his account the stress falls on the former. Again, the postwar context is crucial. As Thomas Piketty, one of several Left thinkers Douthat cites, has shown, diminished inequality and breakneck growth for several decades in the twentieth century followed a massive destruction of wealth during the world wars. Once capital was back on its feet, was it decadence or simply back to business as usual? One analyst’s decadence is another analyst’s late capitalism.

Ever eager to marry Left critiques like Piketty’s with libertarian arguments, Douthat channels right-leaning thinkers’ claims that stagnation and inequality are the result of a “captured economy” controlled not by the superrich (who are heroic and deserve their billions) but by the “mass upper class,” who are “guilty of what the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves calls ‘dream hoarding’: the combined effects of inherited wealth, educational requirements, real estate prices, and tax breaks that essentially reproduce privilege from one generation to the next.” This view intersects with Douthat’s arguments about fertility and sclerosis, in which the blame tends to fall less on the plutocrats who increasingly fund our politics than on the liberal technocratic class that conducts them.

The details about baby-making in affluent liberal societies are familiar enough. Some combination of sexual liberation, a high cost of living, individualism, careerism, birth control, abortion rights, anxiety about climate change, and diminished religiosity (Douthat would add pornography, masturbation, and trendy asexuality) has led the US and Europe to a below-replacement-level fertility rate of 1.7 children per woman. As Douthat observes, pronatalist policies work in some places (Ireland, France, Sweden) but not in others (South Korea, Singapore, Finland). Some more religious and less wealthy developed countries have lower birth rates (Poland, Greece, Spain) than richer, more secular ones (Britain, Sweden). His bigger concerns are that “men and women seem to be having more and more trouble successfully and permanently pairing off” and that there is a “widening gap between what most people still say they want—relationships, marriage, children—and their growing inability to find those partners and conceive those children” (the desired number of offspring per family in the Western world being 2.5, or .8 more than the general reality).

Why aren’t we having that desired four-fifths of a child? Could it be that love hurts, that reality rarely aligns precisely with our desires, or that when people respond to public-opinion polls they engage in wishful thinking? No matter, because the real issue for Douthat is that smaller families lead to more despairing lives, more concentrated wealth (because the wealthy leave fewer inheritors), more stagnation, and less dynamic societies. Or at least they seem to, for now. In the US and Europe they also lead to a “politics of older-white backlash” against statistically more fertile nonwhite immigrants. That yields a reactionary populism, which delivers more decadence, not to mention children in cages at the border and boats full of migrants sinking on the Mediterranean, very real phenomena of the moment that bypass the futile and the absurd into the realm of the cruel and inhuman.

Who is to solve these problems? Until the populist surge, the task has fallen to the technocratic power elite supplied by meritocratic universities. But such institutions, despite their ever swelling endowments, ever more competitive admissions standards, and ever evolving policies of inclusion (which Douthat, in Privilege, found to be something of a sham), have become sclerotic. In the best of circumstances they generate smug yet timid incrementalist crisis managers like Barack Obama, or his successor in the 2020 Democratic field, Pete Buttigieg. The results are “policies that are more arbitrary and opaque and unstable and subject to sudden reversals than legislation forged in democratic deliberation.” Policies, in other words, that can be steamrolled by populist trolls like Trump or Boris Johnson. An alternative is Japan’s Shinzo Abe, who has shown that “a certain political effectiveness is still possible under decadent conditions—that a populist-nationalist leader can be a policy innovator rather than just feckless or authoritarian or both.” Yet Abe hasn’t been able to restore fertility rates above replacement level or to bring boom times back to Japan. Abe’s example in part leads to Douthat’s argument that a sustainable decadence might not be so bad—if the worst things it brings us are a population sedated on meds and porn, diminished levels of crime punctuated by spectacular if statistically insignificant outbursts of violence, a soft surveillance state, and an era of uninspiring art.

The least convincing of Douthat’s diagnostic arguments is the one about culture. It hinges on the idea that our cultural production has become repetitious in a few respects. He’s right that with the rather large exceptions of gay and trans rights, what we call culture war has largely been in a state of stalemate since the 1970s. But that’s to mistake culture war for actual culture, next to which culture war is but a sideshow. When he argues that the stories we tell and the art we make have stalled, his view is too broad and shallow to be convincing. Yes, most blockbusters at the multiplex are now forgettable installments of teen-oriented franchises. Yes, a few of the most well-regarded television shows of the past two decades have been about men who, like Tony Soprano, believe they were born too late to be great or even be good. Yes, there are few “breakout” successes these days in literary fiction, and the three that Douthat mentions—the novels of Michel Houellebecq and Sally Rooney, and Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker story “Cat Person”—“replace the old nineteenth-century marriage plot with stories about how the sexes struggle to relate to one another anymore.” It isn’t surprising that someone whose tastes run to fantasy literature and the novels of Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh would be unsatisfied with the middlebrow staples of the moment (he might try instead recent fictions by Paul Beatty, Percival Everett, Sam Lipsyte, or Lydia Millet), but his account isn’t enough to indict the whole culture. He might have contended that our avant-garde artists and writers have become captive to academic institutions, or that the prevalence of mumblecore and autofiction has marked a retreat from the ambitious narrative arts of the past century, or that poptimism has had a corrupting influence on all those who acquiesce to it. But Douthat displays neither the interest in the artistic present nor the cultural literacy to make those arguments. In any case, I agree with him that Marvel movies suck and that Star Wars has gotten hopelessly tired.

A conservative, William F. Buckley wrote, “is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” On these grounds, Douthat should welcome decadence, and to a certain extent he does, affirming over and over that things could be worse—could be bloodier, more impoverished, more unjust—than they are. For all its blind spots (some of them willful), as a description of our moment, The Decadent Society is as convincing, if not quite as entertaining, as Adam Curtis’s film HyperNormalisation. When futility and the absurd prevail, agitation and narcissism follow. It’s a twitchy time, when everyone knows we’re in crisis, but the crisis is always far away, at the border or in the future. In the meantime all we do is check our phones to see when it’ll hit us.

Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in New York.