The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How success ruined the West

Sure, we have fancy phones and fun gadgets, but is technological innovation slowing down?
Sure, we have fancy phones and fun gadgets, but is technological innovation slowing down? (Theo Wargo/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ross Douthat may be the best opinion columnist in America. Every week in the pages of the New York Times, he delivers the political and cultural world to us in super-smart, marvelously efficient and often appealingly dorky columns that bear the mark of deep engagement with both high intellectual theory and delish pop culture. His conservative politics aren’t mine, but I read him knowing that he has dwelled in a spirit of openness with politics like mine as well with other worldviews radically different from both of ours.

It’s disappointing but not terribly shocking that his great strengths as a short-form opinion writer — his genius for synthesis and his extraordinary judiciousness — become limiting flaws in his new book, “The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.” In the spirit of Douthatian engagement, however, there are things to say first about what’s excellent in this serious, honest book.

We are, argues Douthat, living through a period of profound exhaustion in the cultural, political and economic life of the modern West. We’re inventing less, having fewer kids, recycling old culture instead of creating new stuff, getting stuck in mostly dead political vernaculars and narcotizing ourselves with drugs, porn, tweets and superhero movies. And we’re not an exception. Douthat’s bet is that the rising nations of the east and south are likely to follow. We’re running out of steam, everywhere and along multiple axes. Following the late social critic Jacques Barzun, Douthat calls this state of civilizational low energy “decadence.”

“Decadence,” he writes, “refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. It describes a situation in which repetition is more the norm than innovation; in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private enterprises alike; in which intellectual life seems to go in circles; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, underdeliver compared with what people recently expected. And, crucially, the stagnation and decay are often a direct consequence of previous development. The decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own significant success.”

We have fancy phones but no flying cars, fancy phones but no colony on Mars, and Siri and Alexa (i.e. fancy phones) but no HAL 9000 or Lieutenant Commander Data. We play at socialism and fascism on Twitter, but the great ideologies of the modern era, including liberalism, are spent, and nothing new seems to be coalescing to take their place. God is dead. Rock-and-roll is dead. The novel is dead. A reanimated Frank Sinatra is touring with hologram Tupac. A reality TV star is our president.

There are good objections to Douthat’s tapestry of ennui and exhaustion, and Douthat engages them directly and thoughtfully. Maybe the whole paradigm of progress and growth is bent in the first place: The good old days of growth and expansion were also the awful old days of colonization, slavery, environmental despoliation and oppression. Maybe we need to grow up, calm down and gradually depopulate rather than get on, be fruitful and push out. Alternatively, Douthat may simply be wrong about the trajectory of scientific innovation; perhaps we are at the dawn of an astonishing new age of genetic imagineering, artificial intelligence and fusion energy. Maybe he’s mistaking a temporary malaise for a stable equilibrium. White dudes like him have been moaning about decadence for millennia, usually just before they lead us to war or get their heads vigorously lopped off.

Douthat doesn’t vanquish these arguments so much as graciously acknowledge them, give them their due and then ask us to consider his perspective as well. And he repays our consideration with a glittering stream of associations and distinctions, resonances and rhymes that reinflect the world we thought we knew in fascinating ways. “The Decadent Society,” like his weekly columns, is rich with insight, whether on the campus-based sex, speech and mental health bureaucracies of the “pink police state”; how social media amplifies our subjective experience of change even as it inhibits the cultural and intellectual spaces from which real change tends to emerge; or the role of video games, opioids and pornography in pacifying underemployed and undersexed young men.

“A society in thrall to digital entertainment,” he writes, “offers its inhabitants the opportunity to experience savage and orgiastic pleasures on a scale far beyond what the real world could ever provide. Yet it also appears in some respect to be a realm of peace and order and care and good behavior and somewhat sleepy pleasures, because the kind of people — the young and discontented above all — who once threatened real turbulence and disruption and even revolution are inside texting or sexting, masturbating or playing a first-person shooter.”

If “The Decadent Society” is a good book rather than a really good or great one, it is perhaps because it’s too tight, too sane, too controlled. In his great book “Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art,” the philosopher Alexander Nehamas suggests that we cease to find things or people beautiful when we come to feel that we’ve exhausted what there is to know about them. When they no longer call out to us with the seductive promise of future happiness, they cease to shimmer with beauty. “The Decadent Society,” as brilliant as it is in many ways, is too knowable to be beautiful. Too many of its joints connect too perfectly. Too many of its contradictions resolve neatly rather than quiver poetically in tension. In this sense it is as much a manifestation of decadence as an act of defiance against it.

In the final chapter of the book, “Providence,” Douthat gets a bit weird. There are aliens, the economist Robin Hanson (himself something of an alien) and the possible return of the Messiah. It is a welcome weirdness after so much sanity. Even here, though, Douthat hedges.

“To be clear,” he writes: “I’m not predicting the end of the world or the arrival of the millennium. . . . I’m just saying that if this were the age in which some major divine intervention happened, whether long prophesied or completely unforeseen, there would be, in hindsight, a case that we should have seen it coming. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone if decadence ends with people looking heavenward: toward God, toward the stars, or both. So down on your knees — and start working on that warp drive.”

Ross Douthat, down on thy knees thyself. You have only your chains to lose.

How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success

By Ross Douthat

Avid Reader. 272 pp. $27