The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success by Ross Douthat
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book was on my ‘To-Read’ list for a while, and I just couldn’t think of a reason to pick it up specifically. Thankfully, I did so out of wanting to read something new and I’m so glad I did.
From the title alone, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is yet another book proclaiming the depths to which civilisation has sunk. If you did think that, I don’t think it would be fair to say you were correct. Ross Douthat explains in the introduction of the book what he means by his usage of the word ‘decadent’ and how he wishes to apply it to society today. Thankfully his running definition isn’t what we would instantly assume and he instead defines it as such:
“Decadence, deployed usefully, 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.”
This definition helps regulate our expectations from the book and sets the tone for the rest of the book.
Douthat presents the intriguing understanding that throughout human history, there have been inventions which have significantly advanced and changed society beyond previous recognition. We saw this at an almost unimaginable scale since the Industrial Revolution and it reached the point where even someone from 1930s would find the 1970s near unrecognisable. Even our expectations of the future from the 80s are strikingly disappointing, the world dreamt of in films like Back to the Future have not materialised and no longer would someone from the 80s feel like they were in a new planet were they able to instantaneously travel to the year 2020. Our contemporary lives have essentially remained mostly the same with the exception of the Internet.
Though the biggest argument against the argument of decadence is the important of the Internet and the effect is has had on the world, its current state has morphed into something the original generation who birthed it did not envisage. Ross Douthat mentions that in the early days of the Internet, it was mostly unregulated, free, open and un-cannibalised by towering conglomerates. Today however, most people use a handful of services and much of the average person’s daily use has been homogenised into a repetitive, unremarkable experience. What we know as the Internet today is essentially a handful of mega-companies controlling a range of services. The Internet has also evolved to remove the nuance from discussions. What attracts and keeps peoples attention on a website or brand is not a balanced, healthy understanding of an issue, but a radical, outrageous one which keeps them coming back for more. The appeal to the mob has been favoured over the balanced focus on fairness and truth.
The most fascinating example of homogenisation on the Internet is the example of Wikipedia. Growing up in the 90s or early 2000s meant that when we needed to source factual information we had to go to the library or consult from a range of encyclopaedias at home. It wasn’t uncommon for an average home to have a varied amount of such factual books or encyclopaedias, and a subsequent visit to the local library would provide an even wider range of sources. Today however, there is only one ‘source of truth’ that most people refer to, and that is Wikipedia. While it is true that Wikipedia has enabled easier access to information and all of it much be sourced, this homogenisation that meant that if a narrative, version or fact isn’t on Wikipedia, it isn’t seen as having a respected foundation for truth. Everyone reads from the same sheet, ironically written by people who themselves are subject to bias and groupthink. Variety has been substituted for a faceless monotony.
On the issue of fertility, then the declining rates of new-born children in the West result in hardships down the road for the fewer children who, when matured, will have to take care of a class of elderly people who vastly outnumber them. With less children being born, the creative energy needed to innovate and progress lessens and the economic impact on a burgeoning elderly population increases, sending society into a spiral of worsening stagnation.
Even in popular culture today, rarely now do we see original ideas put forth for public consumption. Many of the Movies and TV Shows are reboots of popular shows from previous decades. Original ideas are seen as risky ventures compared to tried and tested fan favourites that have an established demand. Repetition seems to be the flavour of the day in the three course meal of stagnation. Even when it comes to the free market, innovation is often too big of a risk for a mega-company to deal with, and any start-ups that navigate that risk successfully are bought out by these transnational conglomerates and absorbed as part of the problem of market monopolies.
Another aspect Ross Douthat touches upon is what seems to be the drug of choice amongst so many in the Western World today, Marijuana. Compared to other types of drugs, Marijuana is known to produce a sort of sedative effect which is preferred by many to take them away from the encompassing pressures of modern life. It seems, as Douthat alludes to, that people are looking for an escape from life, that people want to withdraw from the world even if it is for a short, artificial time. Any escape from stagnation and decadence is welcomed with open arms.
Some may wonder how we can describe our times as stagnant when we have politicians as seemingly fresh as Donald Trump and his likes. Douthat’s answer to this is that despite the seeming freshness of the situation, much of Trump’s power is limited by the aging, creaking bureaucracy that surrounds him. Even the extreme support and extreme opposition against Trump rarely culminates in physical violence that was so common in the previous centuries. Ross makes the point that social media websites and the internet as a whole allow most of these obvious tensions to be played out online instead of against people in real life. While the discussion might be heated in virtual reality, quite often this doesn’t correlate in any real activity. This seems to be adding on the entire ‘sedative’ idea that was mentioned earlier with regards to Marijuana. People are taking out their frustrations and stresses on anything but real life. The Matrix remains. Even the looming threat of Climate Change may not change the global order as much as we think, perhaps it will only cause the rich countries to get richer, while the poorer ones get even poorer as they are impacted the most.
China, the current rising power is often seen as the next global threat to the world order, but Douthat makes the interesting point that once a nation picks all the low hanging fruit after industrialisation (basic levels of healthcare, a welfare system and high levels of literacy) they experience a huge boost in productivity, output and general advancement, after this any returns thereafter are diminishing as time goes on. Almost every developed nation has experienced this, and Ross Douthat believes that China may be no exception to the rule, they may be victim to the same stagnation we are currently facing today.
When it comes to escaping Decadence and general stagnation, the good news is that it doesn’t have to end through civilizational collapse. It is possible for a rebirth or even an evolution towards a state of progression again. When it comes to Religion, Douthat believes that either an Islamic, Christian or Pagan revival is possible. With regards to Europe, then he believes that the existing institutions are ready and waiting should Christianity experience a revival and becomes more prominent in society again.
This book was a huge eye opener for me and helped me to understand much of the tension in modern life and its patterns. What didn’t previously make sense is more understandable now. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is seeking to understand the inherently societal restlessness that is embedded in our daily existence.
The Decadent Society
The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success by Ross Douthat