50 years of decadence

50 years of decadence, by Greg Sheridan.

The United States, and the West, are caught in the slowly asphyxiating grip of a decadence they do not understand, and have been there for 50 years. …

We are not standing on the cusp of decadence. The US, and Australia, have been decadent for half a century or more. The culture wars of the 1960s have never been resolved but have left us with a paralysed dystopia slowly getting worse. The failure of the Apollo moon landing to lead to an era of space exploration bookmarks the fatal waning of ambition in our culture. Technology has failed its promise. Politics has declined into permanent gridlock.

This challenging, invigorating, in many ways counterintuitive analysis of the West’s deep crisis comes in a brilliant book, The Decadent Society, by Ross Douthat, published earlier this year in the US and just now available in Australia.

By decadent he doesn’t mean Bacchanalian orgies and too much booze. Instead he defines decadence as, “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development”. …

Decadence is the loss of purpose and meaning. …

Across all the dynamics he analyses, he sees the creep of decadence. Western economic growth has basically stopped. He offers five structural limits on future Western economic growth: demographic decline, the overhang of debt, constraints on education, environmental limitations and technological stagnation.

Some of these factors seem surprising. Yet as it has got richer the US, and similar societies such as Australia, got worse at doing some basic things. Thus white literacy in the US peaked way back in the 1970s. For all the countless extra trillions of dollars poured into education, society is less likely to produce a child who can read and write today than it was 50 years ago. …

The technological stagnation:

If a regular person from 1890 was transported into a 1960s kitchen they would be staggered by the changes, the revolution in technology affecting everyday life. If a regular person from the 1960s was transported to today, they would find the kitchen much the same, with a few new gadgets. Mainly they would be perplexed by the inhabitants constantly fiddling with mobile phones. …

The one great technological innovation of our age is the internet; the digital universe. But this technology has not changed human life in the way that previous generations of technological advance did, the way the invention of railways and electricity and aeroplanes did.

He quotes this thought experiment. Imagine if you could keep every invention up to 2002, including your laptop and mobile phone, and you get to keep running water and an indoor toilet. As opposed to that you could keep everything invented since 2002 but lose running water and the indoor toilet. Everyone who is asked this question prefers to keep running water and the indoor toilet over all the modern wonders of the internet.

This is not to suggest the internet is not marvellous in its way, but it hasn’t transformed life, nor made the world wealthy, as earlier generations of technology did. …

The biggest effect of the digital world has been on our minds and personalities. Lately it has not even improved productivity much. But in entertainment and addiction it is supreme. It has had perverse effects on the human personality. …


Douthat is famously a critic and opponent of pornography and has argued, in The New York Times, that it should be regulated and limited even on the net as it is dehumanising in every way. Yet the consequence of ubiquitous, industrial-scale pornography, as he argues in The Decadent Society, is not what conservatives initially expected. There is a small minority of men who are affected by pornography in a way that makes them more violent and more likely to become rapists.

But mostly, Douthat astonishingly finds, the effect has been tranquillising. Industrial-level porn has produced anomie, alienation, satiety, depression. Younger people are linking up and forming long term partnerships, whether marriages or stable de facto relationships, less than ever before. And they are having less sex. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the accompanying spread of porn, has apparently resulted in less sex and fewer marriages.

And it is one of the factors contributing to very low birth rates. Meanwhile, the deaths of despair — suicides, social isolation, opioid overdoses, alcoholism and morbid obesity — have been on the rise. Young people today are the most medicated generation in human history. And disproportionately they are alone and unhappy. In 2018 the highest proportion ever of prime-age American males — 11 per cent — were not in the work force, not deriving the self-respect that comes from systematic, gainful employment. And of course not becoming very attractive marriage partners.

What next?

Douthat is the most civilised and rhetorically temperate of writers, but his judgment on the hollowness of the two political tribes at war in the US is scathing:

“ … a defence of the West’s historical Christian and European character that reduces that civilisation to a #MAGA bunker; a preservationist project steeped in nostalgia for the dynamism of the past.

On the other side, a vision of a civilisation with no common memory, no religious roots, no distinctives beyond its political procedures, and no self-awareness about its establishment’s vaulting arrogance and historical illiteracy.

A conservatism with no vision of how to revitalise itself and, therefore, no defence except the wall, the moat, the rampart.

A liberalism that doesn’t recognise how little it satisfies the human heart; how vulnerable it would be to real challenges if ever they arose.”

Decadence can last for a long time. The Roman empire, as WH Auden remarked, “managed to last for four centuries without creativity, warmth or hope”.

Sheridan doesn’t tackle deeper causes like the trend back towards kinship culture, mass migration, or genetic trends. Like the Roman empire, maybe our civilization is doomed by these larger tides and cycles.

hat-tip Stephen Neil