The Decadent Society—A Review

The Decadent Society—A Review, by Ben Sixsmith.

Ross Douthat … has long been an outpost of conservatism at the New York Times. The Grey Lady specialises in bland liberal conservatives like David Brooks, Bill Kristol and Bret Stephens but Douthat is both more traditional and more incisive. A social conservative, he also has too much mischief and curiosity about him to succumb to the stuffiness of the stereotype. …

Douthat argues that Western societies have grown fat on materialism but have withered in spirit. Some of his targets, like porn and drugs, are predictable bugbears of traditional conservatism. But Douthat avoids crankier right-wing arguments — such as that Pornhub and pot smoking turn nice young men into killers — in favour of the Huxleyesque thesis that such pleasures offer soporific escapism from loneliness and despair in atomised societies.

Douthat is not just concerned with so-called “moral” issues. The first section of the book, though heavily reliant on Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation, elegantly argues that technological innovation has become less revolutionary. Someone who travelled from 1940 to 1980 would be awestruck, for better and for worse, by the scale of technological change. Someone who travelled from 1980 to 2020 would be impressed by the Internet and the smartphone but would find, in general, smaller, faster and more powerful variations on technology that they already had. Perhaps this is no bad thing — who wants superintelligent AI, after all? — but the progress that we have enjoyed has made us terribly reliant on continual advances to close the “ingenuity gap” between our abilities and the problems they have raised. …

As Douthat argues, decadence has victims whose suffering is less obvious. The isolated victims of family breakdown and the hopeless addicts of the opioid crisis are generally out of sight but no less real because of it. I would add the livestock being tortured to sustain our appetite for cheap animal products, the millions of fetuses created and killed to sustain sexual choice, and the Congolese men and women who were massacred as Westerners enjoyed their mineral products. …

Douthat is rightly dismissive of the idea that Trump and Brexit represented a radical populist break from the status quo. Correctly qualifying his judgement with the observation that Trump could change everything, and for the worse, with ill-considered wars, he nonetheless argues that his presidency has featured virtual radicalism and actual weakness and sclerosis. …

Douthat writes that he would be “a poor Christian if [he] did not conclude by noting that no civilization — not ours, not any — has thrived without a confidence that there is more to the human story than just the material world as we understand it.” I see Douthat’s problem. He does not want his non-Catholic readers to be turned off by excessive religiosity, still less to think he is rationalising faith-based prejudice. All of his diagnostic arguments are scrupulously secular, and his argument for renewed faith ends with the slightly underwhelming claim that it “shouldn’t surprise anyone if decadence ends with people looking heavenwards.”

Frankly, as much as I enjoyed and agreed with most of The Decadent Society, I would have welcomed hotter, fiercer religiosity. One assumes that as one of the West’s more prominent Catholics Douthat thinks religious revival, however improbable, would be the answer to alienation and sterility, so he should have made that case. I might not have agreed, and others might have been outraged or disdainful, but it would have made the book more challenging and invigorating. After all, features of Western societies that non-religious people may find sad or dangerous, like reductive materialism, family breakdown and abortion, seem dramatically worse from a Catholic perspective, so philosophical neutrality is futile.