In his new book, The Decadent Society, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat diagnoses America’s core problems as decadence: “a situation in which repetition is more the norm than innovation; in which sclerosis afflicts public institution 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.”
Douthat argues that there is a kind of ideological exhaustion, a spiritual malaise, at the center of the American project. We are a victim of our own successes, undone by our own achievements, and unable to break free from our oldest debates. But is he right?
Ross and I cover a lot of ground in this conversation on The Ezra Klein Show. We discuss why conservative Catholics talk so much more about sex than poverty, the dangers of the expansionary impulse, whether psychedelic culture is an antidote to decadence, the importance of utopian ambition, the moral foundations of effective altruism, the problem with contemporary science fiction, whether political liberalism is dependent on Christian metaphysics, why America can’t build, whether war is necessary for existential meaning, how the New York Times op-ed page has changed over the past decade, and much more.
A lightly edited excerpt from our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on The Ezra Klein Show.
Is America or China more decadent?
I think the comparative responses to the coronavirus are indicative. China did some pretty ruthless, evil things in response to the coronavirus. We don’t have perfect information on how successful they were but they seem to have been pretty effective.
Now they seem to be using the global calamity created by a virus that began in their own country to expand their footprint. Clamping down in Hong Kong. Sending soldiers across disputed territory in India, in the Himalayan areas. Whereas we’re going to end up with many more dead people than China, and we’re having a finger-pointing culture war about whether to open our bars or not.
China is more evil than we are, but in terms of their capacity to act, they seem less decadent.
Are we more or less decadent than before coronavirus?
I think you could say the coronavirus has exposed the realities of some forms of our decadence In pretty stark ways. In certain ways, we’ve done terribly: Over a hundred thousand people are dead.
In other certain ways, we haven’t done as badly as a worst-case account of decadence would suggest. I have some speculations in the book about how decadence could end in catastrophe. One of them is a little bit like this scenario. It’s not a pandemic but a global economic crisis that starts in China and ripples around the world. In my scenario, gridlock in Washington is so powerful that there’s no federal response at all, and we crater into a real Great Depression.
So just the fact that we did actually manage to pass a bunch of legislation, that the Fed has been very active, people are getting unemployment benefits, small businesses to some extent are surviving for now — it’s less of a worst-case scenario than some analysis of decadence might have led you to expect. And then it’s possible, you know, if we end up racing our way to a vaccine and faster than people expect. That’s not decadent at all.
I think that’s enough framing. What is decadence?
Decadence is stagnation, repetition, gridlock, decay at a very high level of wealth and technological achievement and political accomplishment. You have to be successful in the first place to be decadent. You have to be rich. You have to be technologically proficient.
Then at a certain point, torpor and sclerosis sets in and you enter into an era of slower economic growth, the kind of political incapacity that you talk about in your own recent book, a certain kind of technological slowdown — whether that last one actually happened is a little more controversial but I think it has. And then a kind of cultural and intellectual repetition where you’re having the same political arguments, the same intellectual debates and making the same, in our case, superhero movies for decades, if not generations on end. Having fewer babies.
I’ve been struggling with the definition a bit since I read the book. Tell me what you think of this definition: Decadence is affluence without growth or purpose. How much is that what you’re describing? A kind of listless form of affluence.
I think that’s good. And it’s one-fifth the length of my definition.
The reason I ask that is because I want to try to argue for decadence and see what its boundaries are. The thing that was striking to me reading your book is how much the non-decadent periods, places, times, countries are bound by a purpose or an approach to growth that can be at times evil, but much more often is just at the very least, morally complicated.
For example, the decline of our interstellar ambition comes up a lot in the book. But the space race was a function of the Cold War, which was a genuinely existential risk to the planet. And I can believe that war is a force that gives us meaning, but maybe it’s better to live with a little bit less meaning if it means a lot less danger of nuclear war.
That is not a crazy argument. If you told me, you have a choice: You can live the next 50 years or 60 years of your existence in affluent but stagnant United States, or we can have, World War III, I’m probably going to choose the less exciting, maybe less meaning-rich and drama-rich, but more comfortable form of existence.
The moral point you make is an interesting one, because I think one of the arguments is that decadent societies have a particular kind of evil that is different from the kind of evil that more dynamic societies have. The decadent society is less likely to commit the worst crimes. You’re less likely to have not just the catastrophic war, but the settler colonial genocide in a society that’s decadent, because a decadent society isn’t going to go become an empire and conquer other societies. That’s not generally what a decadent society does. So clearly there’s a lot of moral uncertainty about which kind of era is optimal.
The problem with decadence, though, is that you rule out certain forms of moral heroism, moral greatness, moral transformation — even as you’re ruling out worst-case scenarios of calamity and barbarism. So you’re not just less likely to get individual saints and heroes but also big waves of moral reform. It’s easier to get the civil rights era in a society that is also capable of maybe greater evils than our own, because there is more dynamism and energy and idealism to go around. You lose some of that.
And then there’s also the danger of sliding toward a dystopia right where you end up at something like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or the fleet of starships on WALL-E where everyone is just sort of sitting around looking at pornography and consuming Big Gulp sodas. And at every step of the way, you tell yourself this is obviously better than having war and famine and catastrophe. And that is always true right up until it isn’t.
And then finally, there’s the issue that we’re seeing now with the pandemic, which is that decadent societies face challenges that are unexpected, and the things that make them decadent make it harder for them to cope with those challenges. So you’re in more existential danger from unexpected threats if you’re decadent than you are if you’re dynamic but also morally problematic.
I’m not sure that’s always true. You have a quote in the book where you write that “across human history, the most dynamic and creative societies have been almost inevitably expansionary.” But at some point, isn’t it good as a society — in terms of what we do to others, to ourselves, to the planet — to move beyond the idea that the main form of purpose is expansionary?
Yes, but it’s hard to do that in a way that retains important human ambitions and important forms of human flourishing. That’s the dilemma.
From a religious perspective, there’s a wide literature that’s associated with figures like Wendell Berry that is incredibly critical of the modern world and its focus on growth for growth’s sake, which argues for a less ambitious way of life. I think that’s a very powerful idea. And at times I’m very attracted to that idea.
This book, though, is written more in the spirit of an idea that Peter Thiel, the highly controversial billionaire, has offered in his own theological interpretation where he basically says, the Bible begins in a garden but it ends in a city. And what he means by that is that there are advantages to ways of life that have limits. There are obviously advantages and beauties in pastoral existence and so on. But once you’ve passed a certain point of development, it’s really hard to go back to that.
Books arguing that the hunter-gatherers had a way, better way of life than most human beings after the agricultural revolution are really interesting books, and they have important philosophical ideas that we can draw on. But it’s really hard to imagine a path back to hunter-gatherer existence that doesn’t involve a nuclear apocalypse or something like that.