February 24, 2020

Are you looking forward to the fifth Indiana Jones film, due summer 2021, in time for Harrison Ford’s 79th birthday and the fortieth anniversary of the original? Perhaps Star Trek, which first aired on TV in 1966 and first hit cinemas in the year Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister, is more to your taste, and you’re excited for the fourteenth cinematic instalment, that is if you’re not busy watching the sixth TV incarnation.

Alternatively I suppose there’s always Star Wars — 43 years and 11 films — or the Bond franchise, soon to celebrate its sixtieth year and twenty-fifth film. If none of those are quite your cup of tea, fear not: the interminable Marvel Cinematic Universe grinds on and on.

Looking at popular culture, it is not difficult to see why a thoughtful observer of the Western world in this Year 2020 might think we are reaching a point of exhaustion and repetition, of endlessly revisiting and rehashing past glories, of creative dead-ends and diminishing returns from increasingly sterile forms of art.

Ross Douthat, writing in The Decadent Society, is such an observer. And he is indeed concerned that the developed world is grinding to an existential halt. Forget, by the way, any idea you may have of a modern-day Savonarola denouncing sensual indulgence. For Douthat, decadence is primarily understood as the condition of a civilisation that has come, or appears to have come, to an end point, to a culmination beyond which there is no clear path forward. As he says in the introduction, developing the ideas of the historian Jacques Barzun:

“Decadence, deployed usefully, refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.”

This has the advantage, for Douthat, of helping to “define decadence as something more than just any social or moral trend that you dislike”, that is to say it introduces an element of testability into his diagnosis. He is aware of the temptation to simply lament decline, to see incompetence, wickedness and impiety everywhere, and thus to deaden the impact of his critique by tendentious unsubtlety. As a result he makes his case carefully, citing evidence from a range of disciplines, and noting the difficulties and weaknesses of his own position as he goes.

Unusually for a social conservative, he concedes that most currently available evidence does not support a link between consumption of violent media and pornography and subsequent violent or sexual offending — although he does, plausibly, argue that the retreat by large numbers of young men into virtual worlds and sexual fantasy is part of decadence, representing as it does a turning inward and a retreat from the challenges of the real world.

Perhaps unexpectedly, The Decadent Society begins and ends with discussions of space exploration. The opening pages chart the steady decline in spacefaring ambition since December 14, 1972, when the last man to walk on the Moon, Gene Cernan, climbed up into the lunar module (Cernan — like all but four of the other 12 men to have walked on the lunar surface — is now dead).

This steady decline was symbolised and accelerated by the Challenger and Columbia disasters of 1986 and 2003, the latter of which precipitated the grounding of the Shuttle fleet, which has left NASA reliant on the ancient Russian Soyuz rockets to get astronauts into orbit.

Towards the end of the book, Douthat returns to the final frontier, to muse on the question of whether we can, or will, ever establish a human presence on other worlds. These discussions are not so tangential to a book about decadence as one might think; the significance of space travel stems from Douthat’s plausible theory that one of the causes of our civilizational ennui is the sense that there is nowhere left to go, no stones left unturned, no great adventures to be undertaken.

The expansion and discussion of Douthat’s definition of decadence takes up most of the first half of the book. Douthat offers evidence for this thesis under four main headings: stagnation, sterility, sclerosis and repetition. By stagnation he means a sharp slowdown in economic progress broadly understood, using metrics such as labour force participation, fair distribution of wealth, household incomes and levels of debt, and also a technological slowdown, a failure to achieve any breakthroughs that might unleash a new age of innovation and renewal. The evidence he accrues here is often USA-centric but many of the trends obtain across large parts of the developed world.

Under sterility he notes the steep decline in birth rates across both the developed world and emerging economies, and ties this into his overall argument with the hard-to-prove but probably true observation that lack of civilizational confidence is both cause and effect of low birth rates. Willingness to reproduce is a fundamental sign of the health of a society.

By scleroris, Douthat means the increasing inability of governments across the Western world to get things done, whether legislatively or administratively. By his calculation, the US government is just not as competent as it was 30 or 40 years ago, with systemic failures more common. He extends this critique to the EU, noting its inherently bureaucratic and glacial processes, and its struggle to resolve or even adequately manage the growing problem of Right-wing populism that is fundamentally opposed to the liberal universalism espoused by EU leaders.

Then we come to repetition. Here Douthat focuses particularly on culture, noting that popular music is becoming observably less sophisticated, both technically and thematically, than it was even 20 or 30 years ago, to say nothing of 50 or 60 years ago. He notes the increasing reliance of Hollywood on sequels and franchises.

The idea of decadence as cultural exhaustion, as constant repetition of what we already know because of uncertainty about where we go next and because we are not sure there is anything new to add, is an extremely fruitful one. To Douthat’s elaboration of it I would add that the great cultural and social rupture of the 1960s has left artists and intellectuals cut off from many of the great wellsprings of their culture, with the result that their work and their art has become stunted and boring and shallow.

The theory also helps to explain the insistence of elites on attacking an opponent that has long since ceased to exist. When Guardian columnists demand a school history curriculum that shows pupils the full horrors of Empire, what forces do they imagine are ranged against them? The professions of educationalist and teacher are not exactly renowned as bastions of conservative patriotism these days.

And who exactly do modern artists believe they are shocking with their confrontational conceptualism? The proportion of the gallery-going classes who are the reactionary squares of the avant garde imagination must be tiny. Duchamps’ urinal was daring and provocative in 1917, but that was 103 years ago. What is there now to conceptualism except a wearisome revisiting of the same tired clichés, the same boring gestures against an imagined traditionalist enemy whose power vanished decades ago?

Deconstructionism and anti-traditionalism, in their various forms, have become intellectual cargo cults, continued because their practitioners do not know how to do anything else except bomb the rubble of the dead past. There may be no decent new ideas, but the one thing we do know is that The Olden Days Were Bad.

Douthat’s account of civilisational exhaustion reminded me strongly of another book I read recently, Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death Of Europe, a reflection on — inter alia — the European crisis of self-confidence, which has been rumbling on since the First World War and only intensified after the diabolical horrors of the Second.

One of the shared concerns of the two books is the great, looming, unavoidable question: what happens next? Douthat sketches several possible futures, starting with “sustainable decadence” where in the medium-term Western governments simply continue to muddle along in the absence of any meaningful solutions to the problems of sluggish economies, low fertility rates, cultural boredom and inefficient government.

Alongside this, he envisions various ends to decadence, focusing particularly on Europe, which is the part of the Western world most affected by decadence as he defines it, and — crucially — most vulnerable to huge demographic pressures from the continent most resistant to decadence: Africa. One possibility is that Europe is simply overwhelmed by economic migrants and climate refugees from the south and more or less collapses.

Alternatively, we might see the emergence of a stable, well-integrated and non-decadent “Eurafrican” civilisation, with the risks and losses of demographic transformation mitigated and balanced by Christian revival as envisaged by putative Eurafricans like Cardinal Robert Sarah. Douthat sketches other scenarios too, some more likely than others but all rather speculative; as he stresses throughout the book, both the problem of decadence and its possible solutions or consequences are enormously complex and multifaceted.

The solution to decadence by which Douthat sets most store, however, is founded on two great hopes: God and science. The final section of the book envisages a human civilisation that is both technologically reinvigorated, perhaps even fit to venture to the stars, and also spiritually renewed, turning back to God to discover the transcendent purpose and lofty view of the human spirit that decadence has undermined.

Is this realistic? It’s hard to say, and indeed it’s hard to say whether Douthat believes so himself. One of the weaknesses of this part of the book, as with several earlier sections, is that Douthat retains a little too much ironical detachment. One can almost see the raised eyebrow and the wry smile, an impression not helped by a closing line whose glibness feels like a bit of a cop-out: “So down on your knees — and start working on that warp drive”. I for one would have liked a more consistently engaged analysis that explicitly approached decadence and its discontents from Douthat’s traditional Catholic perspective.

These are quibbles, however. This is an endlessly provocative and fascinating book, both in the conclusions to which it comes and in the evidence it adduces. I can see this starting a thousand dinner party arguments, and for good reason: it’s hard to think of a more important question than whether our civilisation can survive on its current trajectory.