Decadence: Thoughts on Douthat

Ross Douthat, channeling Spengler it seems, has just diagnosed the political undercurrent driving Election 2016 as an across-the-board revolt against “decadence”. According to his recent opinion piece in the Times, we live in a country

“…where people have fewer children and hold diminished expectations for the future, where institutions don’t work particularly well but can’t seem to be effectively reformed, where growth is slow and technological progress disappoints. […] This is how many Americans, many Westerners, experience their civilization in the early years of the 21st century. “

The very title of the piece, “Trump, Sanders and the Revolt Against Decadence” suggests something strikingly new is afoot here. “Decadence” is a very strong, even fraught word to use, especially in a mainstream outlet like the Times–not least because Spengler was a sometime favorite of nationalist thinkers in prewar Germany (though he was himself highly critical of Nazism and eugenics).

This isn’t to say it’s not a useful concept however, only that it carries a lot of baggage and should be used extremely carefully. Indeed, Douthat’s own usage of the word seems to willfully elide vital aspects of it, as though keeping a viciously sharp sword half-sheathed.

For one thing, it’s a very… deep word. “Decadence” isn’t simply about prudish objections to young people forgetting their manners or getting less religious, and diagnosing it also requires a lot more than a period of economic stagnation or of institutions not working very well. Rather it refers to a kind of systemic spiritual and moral decay that afflicts societies pitching into decline. Decadence, one might say, is when a culture begins to forget itself, and becomes jaded with the very ideas that gave it birth, vigor and identity. It is a disease, usually fatal, of a culture’s very soul.

Douthat is careful not to prod at these more fraught and hard-to-measure meanings of the term, at least not directly. Instead, he limits his focus to “perceived” decadence in the eyes of the electorate and on materialistic indicators of decline, while gamely leaving out these edgy spiritual and normative connotations.

In this well-scabbarded form, decadence looks to have a lot to do with what I’ve elsewhere called “inverse reform”–where a society repeatedly finds itself backing into “reforms” that deepen its problems instead of fixing them. Inverse reform, however, doesn’t have the same moralistic tones as “decadence”, nor the same theory-laden implication of a grand wheel of culture and morality tipping over into another unavoidable phase of decline (although it can be compatible with all of that).

Going a step further, Douthat observes that, while decadence is often recognized in its own time, the proposed remedies to it themselves tend to carry the stamp of decadence, and so end up missing their intended purpose. The distinctive originality of the culture grows stale, so that what passes for innovation is increasingly a repackaged, if not ironic version of things tried long before.

As an example, he gazes despairingly at the unconventional candidates both right and left in Election 2016, and notes that although the campaign has overflowed all normal bounds of ideology and political discourse, there is a curious banality in the midst of the foment: “The fact that both of these messages — Trump’s “Make America great again” and Bernie’s “Why not socialism?” — involve essentially recycled visions of the future is a sign of how hard it is for a decadent society to escape the trap of repetition.”

Again, this conception of decadence, where proposed remedies can only focus on recapturing the great ideas of the past and thus risk worsening the problem, is basically the same as what I have called inverse reform. What remains much harder is to decide whether this similarity really indicates decadence in the full (and dangerous, and controversial) sense.

I agree that Sanders’ message is not essentially new, nor is he even especially socialist; instead, as Noam Chomsky recently observed, he’s best thought of as a “New-Dealer“, placing him squarely in a tradition going back to the ’30s. But of course, an old idea can sometimes be a perfectly good answer to a current problem, and there is a huge difference between a system that chooses wrong reforms but could be easily brought back to health by choosing a few right ones, and one that is sick in its soul–so off-track and in such a deep way that no repairs could do anything but buy time.

Our hope, of course, is that we are the former case, and all that is needed is single-payer healthcare, a higher minimum wage, etc. (or if you’re a Trumpist, a huge honkin’ wall against Mexico) to set the country on the right track again. All I can say is: it remains to be seen.

Caution is understandable when using powerful words or sweeping ideas. We are after all still dealing with the global hangover left by a weird string of utopian ideologies stretching from the 19th century, plenty of which are still in force. There’s also the fact that even the most careful and short-term economic theories typically turn out to be near-useless in making predictions (and often serve as cover for corruption or for trashing the planet).

Still, I think Douthat’s resurrection of this difficult word is an interesting and daring move. It’s rare these days that anyone tries to invoke grand historical narratives or concepts to understand political developments on large timescales; it’s almost taboo in mainstream scholarship and discourse, notwithstanding the work of a few writers like Jared Diamond.

In lieu of great stories, or words filled with power, millennials have found themselves in the middle of a scrapheap of half-discredited ideas. They throw our hands up in a kind of jaded incomprehension and take each day as it comes, or limit their thoughts to very circumscribed subjects, usually economic in nature–this country, that school, this industry, that prosperity index. They think not of their places in an arc of history but of their prospects in the next six months or five years. What hope does a grand synthesis of cultural history have in world where you can’t tell what the employment picture will be five months out?

But there will always the temptation to find poetry in the dry prose of history, to decode the waves of societal rise and fall like some epic text; to find proof that, as the saying goes, that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes”. Surely there can never be anything close to laws of sociology or history in the sense that there are of physics, but the idea that certain broadly similar stages and themes recur in the evolution of diverse human societies is intuitively compelling. If nothing else, freeing up terms like “decadence” offers a refreshing catharsis, a way to give vent to a deep feeling about things far bigger than our own lives.

As for what the upcoming election says about the state of the country, I admit to sharing Douthat’s reservations. Fond as I am of Sanders, I think that in the longer run we have to come up with something more original than his somewhat retread New-Deal-ish promises–and a hell of a lot more original than the triumphal strongman-cult of Trump or the grey plutocratic “sensibleness” of Bloomberg.

What is truly needed is something far more elemental than any of these: the ability to create, at a national scale, truly new dreams and values, or at least to renew and refresh the old ones for each generation. If it makes any sense to talk about a society having a “soul”, as Spengler did, I think it must exist in the sense of an elemental, creative, renewing force of this kind.

Such a force cannot be conjured by any ideology or formula, nor by personal charisma, because it is the source of these things, not their servant. It appears only when, for reasons never fully understood, a great number of people suddenly come to believe and aspire to the same things, and to work in the same direction. That, too, is one of the great rhymes of human history.

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