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The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success

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Today the Western world seems to be in crisis. But beneath our social media frenzy and reality-television politics, the deeper reality is one of drift, repetition, and dead ends. The Decadent Society explains what happens when a rich and powerful society ceases advancing—how the combination of wealth and technological proficiency with economic stagnation, political stalemates, cultural exhaustion, and demographic decline creates a strange kind of “sustainable decadence,” a civilizational malaise that could endure for longer than we think..

272 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2020

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About the author

Ross Douthat

20 books278 followers
Ross Gregory Douthat is a conservative American author, blogger and New York Times columnist. He was a senior editor at The Atlantic and is author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion, 2005) and, with Reihan Salam, Grand New Party (Doubleday, 2008), which David Brooks called the "best single roadmap of where the Republican Party should and is likely to head." He is a film critic for National Review and has also contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the Claremont Review of Books, GQ, Slate, and other publications. In addition, he frequently appears on the video debate site Bloggingheads.tv. In April 2009, he became an online and op-ed columnist for The New York Times, replacing Bill Kristol as a conservative voice on the Times editorial page. Douthat is the youngest regular op-ed writer in the paper's history.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 303 reviews
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,401 followers
February 5, 2020
Ross Douthat is one of the conservative social critics that I often find worth reading. As the title suggests, this book is his account of what he calls the "decadence" of modern society. Our culture and politics have been sapped of their old dynamism and have reached a point of stagnation, repetition and sclerosis. Our institutions still function, most of the time, but they do so painfully rather than with ease. We used to gain energy from exploration, but we longer have new frontiers to chart. Our physical world is now fully mapped. Outer space, the last new periphery that really enchanted us, is no longer a place that we even think about very often. Douthat argues that a truly dynamic society always needs a frontier and that the lack of one leads to depression and decay. It’s an idea worth considering.

I found this book to be a bit predictable in some places but rich with interesting ideas in others. I will focus here on what’s interesting – much of which deals with his analysis of technology as the real driver of change in our politics and culture. The rate of invention (real stuff not apps) has slowed to a crawl, as some of us have noticed. The god of technology is not quite dead but he seems to have entered a period of senescence that may or may not be permanent. Capital is now flowing into things which are either superfluous, harmful or simply phony. We may have reached the limit of what technological advance is even possible, or at minimum caught all the low-hanging fruit that fossil capitalism made available. Scientific positivism was considered a genuine substitute for religious enchantment. But to be enchanting it has to keep delivering the goods. Despite the continuous upbeat propaganda it has stopped doing that and it's unclear if it will resume in the foreseeable future.

While technology has stagnated, people themselves are becoming sterile. With the notable exception of Israel every developed society in the world today seems to be converging on below-replacement level birthrates. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Developed societies are demobilized, not asking much sacrifice from their citizens nor calling them towards any particular mission (again with the notable exception of Israel), beyond the bovine pleasures of consumption. Individualism as an ideology is generally hostile to childbearing and it has reduced the number of children accordingly. A lot of dystopian fiction has actually settled on a lack of reproduction as a driver of authoritarianism and some of our political anxieties today have been about comparing birthrates between different groups. It makes sense how this can lead to something like fascism and frankly I hear it often.

At the same time we are being flooded with new stimulative technologies disturbingly similar to the ones in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World. In addition to the changes in gender relations wrought by the sexual revolution (which Douthat actually doesn’t discuss much) the impact of technology has seemed to make people less interested in one another, except as digital representation. Pornography and violent video games have, arguably, made society safer in a way by channeling the energy of superfluous young men into a simulated realm. This virtuality is the typical experience of modernity, as Baudrillard argued. But as it gets more powerful it also seems to be making less and less happen in the real world, where, on some level, things need to happen for a society to be truly dynamic. In Douthat's argument, we are getting so hooked on powerful virtual stimulants (and drugs) which our minds were never designed for that it is collectively locking our societies into something like a giant padded room, guarded by a police state which disguises itself in public health language. It's an unfalsifiable argument, I think, but it's fascinating and disturbing to ponder nonetheless.

The next decadence is in culture: people are running out of genuinely new things to say. I’ve actually felt the same after seeing the Nth Batman remake or spinoff from the Marvel Comics universe. The creative flow of previous generations seems to have gotten backed up somewhere. Even our rebellions seem exhausted. A counter-culture needs a formidable establishment to rebel against. When the establishment already seems so wounded, discredited or hollow, rebellion starts to feel similarly pointless. Some people, especially but not exclusively on the right, seem to loathe society so much that they fantasize about a barbarian invasion bringing about its end. This psychological tendency has led people like Michel Houellebecq and Christopher Hitchens to inflate threats from foreign ideologies like Islamism, which Muslims well know is an ideology that is itself in crisis. It has little ability to fill a grand role as rival of liberalism or harbinger of doom or rejuvenation. Sorry. Even the threats of real neo-Nazis and Stalinists closer to home seem a bit overblown, or at least missing the mark somewhere.

Our politics look like they’re ripe for revolutionary change, at least on the surface. But the reality is that they are in an utter stalemate that shows little sign of ending. A much-reviled establishment seems like it might hang on simply because no one is capable of imagining or bringing about a real transcendent change, as opposed to reforms to what already exists. Part of the reason for this is that the prevailing ideology of our time (let’s call it liberal centrism) is, like all imperial ideologies, good at co-opting its enemies. The best and brightest of other classes inevitably are brought into the fold, whether directly by institutions or subtly through economic enticements. The most effective possible rebels eventually become drawn to the pleasures and power of the metropole. The same dynamic plays out in the Third World, which sends its most educated to the West in return for the meagre compensation of remittance income. Despite hanging onto power however liberalism is also being hollowed out by technological change and the anti-ideologies of simple corruption and organized elite interest. Our governing rhetoric is slowly coming to resemble what communism is in modern China: something which has left behind forms and rhetoric that leaders still publicly invoke, while in reality we live and they rule in a totally different manner.

Our sociopolitical order is disliked and its gears turn slowly and creakingly. And yet that does not mean it is about to come to an end. Rome stumbled along painfully for four centuries after Nero. Many other empires also lasted for hundreds of years while not really producing much after their initial bursts of creativity. As Douthat argues we may still have centuries of decadence ahead of us, where our societies stagnate and turn inward but do not collapse outright. Though not as painful as an apocalypse, this would still be bad. Especially given the technology powers some of us now wield and which are being gradually turned against the rest, we may cease to be recognizably human in a few generations if things keep blindly stumbling along at this rate. That may or may not even matter, but at least a few of us would find it disturbing.

Douthat is not a revolutionary or a firebrand. He is a conservative in the real sense of the word. He doesn’t want to lose a tainted yet safe and relatively prosperous decadence by rolling the dice on bringing back “meaning” into the world, an impulse that helped bring us World War I a century ago. What does he propose then? It’s not clear exactly, but it seems that he would like a revivification of Christian purpose or a renewal of the civilizationally enchanting Space Race, and ideally both at the same time in harmony with one another. It’s actually a nice image. I like reading conservative critiques of society and I appreciate that this one is not bad-tempered, bigoted or self-loathing like many right-wing European books about modern decadence that I’ve read. He doesn't go for the cheap thrills of predicting the imminent arrival of the Four Horsemen, even while he's clearly deeply concerned about our condition and trajectory. I think that's the sign of a mature intellectual. Even if Douthat is outside of your ideological wheelhouse he has some things to say that are worth hearing.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,733 reviews14.1k followers
April 21, 2020
Had a mixed reaction to this book. First a chapter on what is meant by decadence and then on to discussions of which it is easy to agree, but just as easy to disagree. Society, as far as inventiveness has stalled, after years of inventions. Moon walks and other household items, industrial items, big and small. In the last fifty years or so most of the inventiveness has been in the tech center, computers and things thus related.

Politics that no longer work, no longer propel us further. Some chapters are gone over in depth, other like the sections in culture, seemed just plain silly. He seems to think it will take an unexpected, dangerous event to get people moving in using their minds again and moving us forward instead of just living with the status quo. Since this book was published before the current Covid crisis, is it possible that this event could accomplish what has been missing? Are their any would be inventors, now bored from sheltering in place, thinking and creating items that would never have happened? I guess only time will tell
Profile Image for David Wineberg.
Author 2 books705 followers
November 20, 2019
Ross Douthat seems to have discovered that time runs like a programmable treadmill. Sometimes it goes really fast, and sometimes it slows to a crawl. Between the late sixties and 2010, it ran really fast. There were all kinds of developments: space achievements, drug discoveries, computers for all, the internet, GPS, smartphones, Trader Joe’s, …. But things have slowed down again (or we’ve grown accustomed to high intensity). Innovations seem fewer and more strained. It makes some think we have come to The End. His book The Decadent Society is an analysis of the stagnation period he thinks we’re in. Suffused with decadence.

The book devotes an entire chapter to his endless attempt to define decadent. Douthat cites all manner of authors, scholars and others on its varying definitions and aspects. By the end of the chapter, I had no idea what Douthat would settle on for the rest of the book. I can tell you what mine is: selfish, thoughtless, excess consumption beyond needs. It can apply to overspending, pointless consumerism or ruining the ecological system. This might be too simplistic, but it’s always in mind when reading this book, since no clearer message comes from the author.

Douthat then proceeds to mount his horse and ride off in all directions.

He lists his Four Horsemen of Decadence, each with its own chapter. They are Stagnation, Sterility, Sclerosis and Repetition, which are pretty self-descriptive, though Douthat insists on explaining in great detail.

He thinks we’re stagnating. After all the excitement of the very inventive period we’ve just come through, any pause in the action could be so characterized if one is in the midst of it. Like China’s growth being down to “just” 6% after years of double-digit increases. Some think it spells The End. But it can’t always be so relentless. One of my favorite stories Douthat could have benefited from is that the American government considered closing the US Patent Office at the turn of the last century, because everything worth inventing had already been patented and there was nothing left to invent. And the Gilded Age was the poster child for decadence. But we survived. And thrived.

The book is chock full of pop culture references, showing how very much with it Douthat is. Star Trek is mentioned prominently, and a lot of ink is devoted to Michel Houellebecq, a Belgian novelist who recently won top honors in his field. There’s also Oprah and Chopra, Pinker, Musk, Chesterton and Stephen King, to give you an idea of the range. The name dropping comes to a peak in the chapter called Repetition, in which Douthat fills pages with television series, singers, authors, films … everything to show how flat and dull, derivative and repetitious it has all become. At least from Douthat’s own prime years. It goes on for endlessly, to what point I could not determine.

When he wanders aimlessly through geopolitics, he really shows the superficiality that underlies everything here, especially as I had just reviewed Disunited Nations, a masterly analysis of exactly where every major country in the world is headed, and why. Douthat has done none of that legwork, and his predictions seem facile.

He says the essence of the book is supposed to be that decadence does not necessarily mean The End. Decadence might be sustainable, or it could just be a phase leading to a new acceleration of some kind. That’s all Douthat really had to say. It’s a perfectly reasonable theory, impossible to prove though it might be. This book certainly does not prove it.

I do like Douthat. I read his editorials all the time. I look forward to them. But this book is a disappointment. As a book, it would make a lovely editorial.

David Wineberg
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,657 followers
March 23, 2020
I hardly ever agree with Douthat on anything, but I love reading well-reasoned opinions "on the other side" so I was excited to read Douthat's diagnosis of what ills us. As expected, I did not agree with many of his takes (for example, he seems really overly concerned about immigrants and African populations breeding more than Europeans and essentially "taking over" European civilizations and I don't think he realizes how small-minded that seems). However, I was captivated by the analysis here. This is an idea book and it is a well-written one. The ideas are not all worthwhile, but the book ambitiously tries to prognosticate on what is ailing us all--it is that we lack meaning, hardship, community, etc. You've heard all of those things before but Douthat connects them to spirituality and religion and makes a compelling case. At the end, the books gets a little weird, but I was glad I read it.
18 reviews
December 14, 2020
Douthat revives the topic of decadence at seemingly the right moment, but does not deliver. If you are going to take a high level perspective you better be incredibly insightful. Douthat, in this book, is not. The reader is subjected to many restatements of recently published contributions, including block citations from various authors of bestselling books on the topics of economic slowdown and crisis of liberal political order. Wrapping it all up in the topic of decadence just does not add very much substance.

The beginning was promising, and the introductory examples on the likes of Theranos and Uber were right on target. But instead of digging deeper into any of the themes he touches upon, the author goes his own meandering ways. It is hard to read a book that will first quickly run through something in the Carter and Reagan eras, then get into the Japanese economic policy but leave it after a page and a half, then take a swing at the rise of the social media, turn to something in China, and then to something in Hollywood. Perhaps the theme of decadence is supposed to tie it all together but I don't think it does. It just reads like a shallow overview of many news and recent history items, with some restatements of the loosely related social commentary, and sprinkled with cultural references in an apparent effort to make it more engaging.

To be sure, I think there are strong arguments to be made that we are the midst of decadence, and I had this book on preorder for a long time. But it did not work for me.
Profile Image for Mohamed Al.
Author 2 books4,820 followers
September 29, 2022
الكتاب في مجمله عبارة عن خردة سياسية على الرغم من احتوائه على بعض الأفكار الجميلة والتي كان بإمكان المؤلف أن يتوسع في الحديث عنها، ولكن رغبته في الظهور بمظهر، العرّاف السياسي ورطه في وضع قراءات تنبؤية مضحكة لمستقبل العالم .. الغربي تحديدًا
Profile Image for Vidur Kapur.
119 reviews39 followers
August 14, 2020
Published, almost literally, on the eve of the American COVID-19 epidemic, The Decadent Society represents a timely synthesis of the thinking of the nascent post-liberal and illiberal right, which started to gain real traction in 2016, buoyed by the unexpected (to some) victories of Brexit and Trump. Some of the key characters in this 'movement' are cited explicitly; the work of other, more verboten figures is clearly visible.

A book like this needed to be written at some point; that it was published just as the pandemic emerged is fortuitous, because the coronavirus crisis has given many people the time and the space to reflect on the state of their societies, as well as on what the future could (and should) hold.

Douthat begins by making the case that society has become decadent: stagnant, repetitive, and exhausted. Arguably, this is the weakest section of the book, but one need not accept the decadence hypothesis in order to appreciate the book which, as stated above, reflects the viewpoint of an increasingly large proportion of the rightwing intelligentsia. Furthermore, Douthat excels at considering alternative viewpoints, imagining alternative scenarios, and productively drawing on the work of those with whom he disagrees.

This serves him well when it comes to considering the future. As he describes, decadence (or, for those who do not accept the hypothesis, the broadly defined status quo) need not ever die: "sustainable decadence" is a distinct possibility. Being a Pinkerian, Obama-supporting proponent of what he would call "sustainable decadence combined with techno-utopianism", I can attest to the fact that he represents my views very well indeed. For instance, he writes that Obama's

real temperament was technocratic and managerial, and the management of decadence - a "Don't do stupid [things]" approach to everything from financial capitalism and globalization, to China and the Middle East - was an essential feature of Obaman governance... Conservatives called it "managing decline", the left called it "neoliberalism"... [Obama] holds that it would be a good thing for the "managerial minority" to suppress populist revolts and rule from its creative-class enclaves and meritocratic hubs, because simply preserving our "fully grown" economy... is the most important task of statesmanship... for all its faults, our technocratic elite - the Romney-Republican variation as well as the Obamanauts - has strong incentives to make sure that our in many ways enviable situation lasts as long as possible and can be enjoyed by as many people as possible while it does.

Indeed, one of the strengths of the book is that, as Douthat himself notes in the subtitle as well as explicitly in the text, it does not really challenge the notion that the world is, objectively, considerably better than it was in the past, as argued by Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now. Rather, it questions whether you should be content to read "a Pinkerian panegyric to modernity and then... take your Zoloft and binge-watch yourself to sleep."

To those of us with a technocratic, neoliberal and transhumanist bent, this is essentially exactly what we should be doing: preserving what we have - liberal democracy and open markets - in this transition period between the old world, and a new world of artificial (general) intelligence and automation, life extension, and genetic engineering. Of course mistakes have been made, and problems such as the opioid epidemic, under-investment in 'left-behind' communities, and climate change certainly need to be addressed, but now is not the time to be gambling on a revolution or hastening a crisis.

Nevertheless, at least on the political and the economic side, this may not be the path down which human civilization treads. Decadence, Douthat illustrates, could end, either through collapse (perhaps a revolution, or a natural diaster) or via a renaissance. He therefore finishes by outlining various possible futures and combinations of futures, some of which would be more palatable than others to people of his political persuasion (while none of them are particularly appealing to someone like me, except for the techno-utopian future that will hopefully bring this period of decadence to an end).

All in all, this is a valuable contribution to our political discourse, albeit one which sometimes reads like one of Douthat's New York Times columns.
9 reviews
April 5, 2020
This book reads like the slapdash essays I threw together in high school during frantic mornings before class. Could I misdirect away from a weak thesis and unfocused argument with big words, long sentences and shitload of citations? What was the page limit again? Crap. An hour till class and I just spent a few dozen pages on a robust analysis of Star Wars. No time to really do geopolitics right. Screw it, let's chuck out a quick aside that China and The Muslims aren't attracting any western thinkers and have low birth rates so they're obviously not a threat to the West.

The start is so promising! The stagnation in modern society is the itch we're all trying to scratch. Suburban lifestyle and the monotony of corporate America is as bland as boiled cauliflower with potatoes and as overoptimized as a CDO mortgage market. That overoptimization, the reader urges him to argue, is hastening us towards systemic risk where we get marginal wins at the cost of catastrophic failures.

We've lost our ability to dream and to make cultural leaps, the argument goes. You can see it in political gridlock, repetitive pop culture, and a slowing of major technological breakthroughs that defined the first half of the 20th century. What if, he laments, we are doomed like Rome? Not a cathartic and catastrophic burning of civilization, nor some renaissance around the corner, but a 400 year decline into obscurity.

How could a book with such a compelling premise end by claiming the most compelling reason to not pursue space travel is a lack of moral purity? How could that line be followed with a serious assertion that "divine interventions have happened at other significant moments in history, so we shouldn't be surprised if it happens now?"

I should have seen the myopic conclusion coming to be honest. Like a toddler in the ocean shallows on a waveless day Douthat splashes without consequence or conclusion across religion, economics, environment and culture. I chased his happy wanderings, doing my best to follow his sand bridge between cultural stagnation and declining economic growth before it collapsed under its own weight. Ultimately I lost him as he took the sand castle mold from Gordon and Cohen's work on economic headwinds and started slapping up copies of one particular argument willy-nilly: it's sterility! We need to fuck our way out of this!

Then there was an offhand assertion that non-vanilla sex lead to sexual assault. No data, but okay. Then came some very weird comments about sexual promiscuity in higher education. Why don't administrators give moral guidance instead of contraceptives? Unplanned pregnancies are an evil condemned by the Pink Police State! Maybe we should think of the men who just acted like creeps before we let the sex bureaucracy punish them unjustly!

It truly want until the aside equating abortion and incarceration came around I clued into the angle of the book, hidden behind a tissue paper facade: it's a lack of faith that has doomed us.

If it is moral courage Douthat craves, he should have started with the courage to state his thesis outright rather than wasting 300 pages before choking out that what we need is Catholic revivalism to save us from boredom.

It's only because of the distance between the introduction and the conclusion that it's not patently obvious that Douthat has spent those pages undoing his own thesis. Christianity may have arrived in Rome at the peak of decadence and even as a symptom of it, but it did nothing to help the demise of the empire, nor the onset of the Dark Ages. In fact the Renaissance Douthat craves didn't arrive until more than 1400 years after Christ's death.

It's been a few years since I've watched Interstellar, but it comes to mind now. In Interstellar, humanity is resigned to its own decline. Don't dream of the stars, it says. Focus on your family and go back to basics. It is the protagonist who bucks this and breaks rules; implicitly declaring that salvation does not lie on the path of moral purity. Douthat has it backwards. We must dream directly and have the courage to act, not waiting for divine intervention to cleanse us or bless us.
Profile Image for Veronica.
102 reviews66 followers
March 24, 2020
A book on the “resignation that haunts our civilisation”, The Decadent Society is an account of the sclerosis pervading our country, a prophetic warning of the fate of all developed countries in contradiction of the theory of perpetual progress. A societal structure once taken for granted as accelerating in an infinite upward climb is one instead encumbered by rigidities. Decadence here is “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.” The balkanisation of the country betokens a nihilistic future, one that is beleaguered with seemingly irresolvable tensions and crises.

Echoing Barzun—the unofficial commissar of decadence—Douthat decries the lack of real change in the past few decades, the omnipresence of futility and absurdity engendered by the four horsemen of the apocalypse: stagnation, sterility, sclerosis, and repetition. It is a story of the corporate heroes of the gig economy whose financial success as profitable business models is a largely illusory House of Cards under the aegis of shareholders. A story of declining innovation in every field, artistic and otherwise, with cultural products that are largely rehashed imitations of the old. It is a story of a silent war being fought against the effeteness of modernity, against the unnamed bugbears that have fuelled wilful deaths of despair, a story in which the acquisition of baubles by a sybaritic consumerist sphere disguises a need that cannot be slaked by material goods. The juvenescence of civilization has long since ended. In its departure, a yawning, gaping void has opened: a veritable Leviathan of stagnating society in which the ‘dream-hoarding’ of the wealthy turns the self-segregated children of the wealthy into products to be sold on the marketplace as consumer goods. Meawhile, the dual advance of debt and credentialism sucks blood from an economy already overburdened by an aging demographic. Twilight and the technocrats.

I don’t know if it is dismal or delightful the extent to which the coronavirus debacle has not changed my life. The best article I’ve seen on CNN recommended, among other things, reading, making art, getting takeout, making recipes (cooking!) and bolstering one’s vocabulary for recreation. (“Read everything!”) This is exactly a description of my recreational activities already. Therefore, it is no surprise that in the age of coronavirus my life feels, more or less, exactly the same.

In any event, I have created a new shelf the-age-of-social-distancing to track the books I read during this time period, although I suspect it will be neither more nor less than usual, as times have changed, but I have not. I have a reliable account that social distancing is in effect the practice of introverts, shy people, and misanthropes alike so if anyone has any want or need of advice in these dark days we would be the ones to ask.
Profile Image for Charles Haywood.
496 reviews719 followers
March 28, 2020
Almost always one reads a book of future-looking political theory long before or long after its substance has been proven or disproven. It is quite another experience to observe theory offered just yesterday as it morphs today into reality. So it is with "The Decadent Society," released in February, a month ago. It sharply identifies our problems, and speaks abstractly of possible futures for both America and the rest of the world, in which our problems are solved, or not. But all changed futures require a mechanism of change, that in February we were lacking. Now, the Wuhan coronavirus, and, much more importantly, its knock-on effects, have delivered a possible mechanism, and a changed future rises in the shadows. History has, perhaps, returned.

That’s not to say this book is very good. It’s not. I mean, it’s not bad, and the author, Ross Douthat, a prominent conservative, is an excellent writer, but he says nothing that I and many others have not been saying for years, and he is trapped within the rusty confines of High Conservatism, itself decadent under his own definition. Moreover, iron bars may not make a cage (as the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace, a distant collateral ancestor of mine, said), but being the only conservative employee of the New York Times, whether Douthat admits it to himself or not, makes for house arrest, where the author makes sure his thought stays within a narrow band. Still, Douthat is a smart man, and his analysis is a starting place for bolder lines of thought.

Douthat uses Jacques Barzun’s classic definition of decadence, which is hard to boil down to a single sentence, but Douthat distills it to “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of prosperity and technological development.” Decadence in Barzun’s definition is not eye-catching, dissolute behavior or massive inequality. In fact decadent periods are often periods of considerable activity—just not original or useful activity. “Repetition is more the norm than innovation . . . intellectual life goes in circles.” As Douthat notes, this definition, by emphasizing economics and observable repetition, allows some degree of quantification and precision, and largely takes out moral elements. That’s not to say that decadent periods don’t often show moral degeneracy, but in this view degeneracy is not the main marker of decadence, and is essentially ignored by Douthat (though, strangely, the cover image is one of gluttony).

To justify his diagnosis of degeneracy, Douthat identifies four symptoms: economic stagnation; human sterility; institutional sclerosis; and cultural repetition. Each of these gets a chapter, taking up half the book total, and then Douthat turns to what might change, and how we might escape decadence. By “we,” Douthat means Western civilization, primarily America and secondarily Europe, although he nods occasionally to two Asian cultures now advanced because they have adopted elements of Western civilization, Japan and South Korea. As we’ll see, Douthat does a good job showing that “we” are decadent under Barzun’s definition, although it would be a more interesting (and much longer) book if he tied this analysis to other societies in history. We can see no forward movement, no future, when our society is viewed with a clear eye. Trying to cover all the bases, Douthat looks high and low for a silver lining, arguing that perhaps living like this, eking out the ruin in a nation, isn’t really so bad. It’s better, he says, than submitting to violence and war for their own sake, in the manner of some pre-World War I thinkers. But as we will see, that is a false dichotomy, and it’s pretty clear Douthat thinks so too.

A key element is missing in Douthat’s analysis, however. He ignores how we got here. He doesn’t say it was inevitable; he does not claim there is a cycle in every human society. Instead, he treats the West’s descent to decadence as a passive event, something that somehow happened to us for unspecified, perhaps unknowable, reasons. He ignores the possibility that it was an active event, something that was done to us by specified people for specified reasons. Or, put another way: did we fall, or were we pushed? You won’t find Douthat addressing that question.

Douthat begins where I, only last week, was focused—1969, the apogee of America. That apogee seemed, Douthat accurately points out, like a beginning, the foothills of the much greater mountains that America would soon conquer. It is obvious in retrospect that the rot was far advanced even then, but not surprising that escaped most people at the time. Douthat focuses on the landing of men on the Moon; this focus prefigures that Douthat’s solution for decadence is a renewed outward-looking vision, celebrating, as I have said, the works of Man under the eyes of God.

This is not a history of the space program, however. Douthat’s initial point is that very soon after 1969, we became resigned to the closing of all frontiers. He speaks of the search for “God and gold and glory,” making the interesting claim that the “ideology of exploration and discovery” in the modern, industrialized world offered “a new form of consolation to replace what faith and tribe and family and hierarchy had once supplied.” In Douthat’s telling, it substituted for the impermanence of the modern world. I am not sure these things are properly contrasted; the great earlier ages of exploration and discovery combined the two very successfully, and most who sought the American frontier were very much about faith and family, and hierarchy too, if uncomfortable with distant overlords. And the space program itself was a perfect example of a hierarchy, one based on competence—just look at photos of astronauts or of Mission Control. Douthat’s claim has a superficial appeal, but upon a little thought it’s obvious that accomplishing the new does not necessarily result in evanescence, and I suspect a close historical analysis would disprove Douthat’s claim entirely. Regardless, America did not seem decadent in 1969.

Next we get four chapters on the four symptoms of decadence, beginning with economic stagnation, or more precisely, stagnation of real economic endeavor that actually adds value. Douthat adduces large businesses that turned out to be frauds or hollow shells, such as Theranos and Uber. His point isn’t that all businesses are frauds; it’s that when a rich society can’t find legitimate and high-return places to invest wealth, the consequence is stagnation, the cessation of forward movement. It becomes “let’s-pretendism.” The glossy pseudo-success of Silicon Valley today conceals a laundry list of massive defects and problems pointed out by other writers, from Robert Gordon (on the modern failure to truly innovate) to David Graeber (on jobs that are not real) to numerous writers on income stagnation in real terms for the masses and the decline in social mobility (Richard Reeves; James Bloodworth).

Douthat doesn’t claim there is one single driver of this stagnation. He cites analyses ranging from libertarians through Thomas Piketty (though it doesn’t lend confidence that he keeps citing the very lightweight Tyler Cowen, who for some reason many on the Right view as some kind of guru), and settles on some combination of aging populations, debt overhang, limits to further education, environmental limitations (making here one of his many required obeisances to the gospel of global warming), and, perhaps most of all, the failure of technological innovation. He points out that, the internet aside, our world is not very different than the world of several decades ago, but that world was vastly different than the world of a few decades before it. This is partially cloaked by the modern ultra-high speed of communication, but that is not a real difference. Nor is there any sign whatsoever, as I am also very fond of pointing out, that any of the marvels we are promised are imminent are, in fact, imminent, from driverless cars to artificial intelligence to life extension. Far more likely that in thirty years nothing much will have changed.

Following is sterility, human sterility. Here Douthat summarizes what any realist knows—that our actual problem is underpopulation, not overpopulation. I covered this in great detail in my review of Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s Empty Planet and will not repeat it here; Douthat does a competent job of summarizing the problem and linking it to his overall theme. He clearly points out all the bad things immediately resulting from an aging population, most of all a total lack of the dynamism that is the lifeblood of any society that is going anywhere. And by the end of the chapter, he nods in the direction of the truth—a society that is focused on nothing greater than maximizing individual choice will, given modern birth limiting options, always die, and die quickly. He does not, however, advert to that this is an active choice, not something that passively happened to us, and the reader begins to sense that Douthat is either hiding or ignoring a key truth that explains his analysis—that we bought into, and allowed ourselves to be controlled by, a destructive ideology.

Next is sclerosis, in essence, the inability of our institutions, primarily our government, to do anything competently. We can all agree this is true, and it’s unnecessary to recount examples. But why is this? Again, Douthat treats it as something that just happened. Douthat ignores that increasing sclerosis is, over time, directly correlated with the expansion of the state demanded by leftist ideology, while at the same time non-governmental institutions have been deliberately reduced to almost complete irrelevance except as arms of the government or tools of leftist programs. He says nothing about the administrative state, a creation and instrument of the Left. Worst of all, he makes claims that suggest he either has no idea what he is talking about or is bending over backward to protect the Left from its primary responsibility, such as making the bizarre claim, offering no examples because there are no possible examples, “[T]he conservative movement has become comfortable with judicial activism in reverse; with using judicial power aggressively on issues where conservative legislators have either been defeated or (more often) simply fear to tread.” I wish that were true, but it’s not, even a little. And I have nearly as much contempt for the Republicans in Congress as for Democrats, but as we have seen this week in Nancy Pelosi holding hostage the “relief” bill for the Chinese coronavirus with a laundry list of unrelated leftist demands, and that the Left benefits from legislative sclerosis by its control of the judiciary and the administrative state, institutional sclerosis is a problem that could be largely solved by smashing the power of the Left. The reader begins to realize who the active agent of our decadence is—the modern Left, and its Enlightenment values of unlimited autonomic individualism and coerced equality.

Finally, we discuss cultural repetition. Douthat makes the point often made (he makes almost zero original points in this book, but he does not claim he is making original points), that the world of 2020 is basically indistinguishable from the world of 1990, but that any other thirty-year gap in modern American history shows massive changes, both visually and under the surface. True enough, but he glosses over that our culture’s descent in the past fifty years is again directly correlated with the rise to total cultural dominance of the Left. From his Acela corridor perch, Douthat, a movie and television buff, can’t see this. (Oddly, he entirely ignores high culture, such as music and architecture, though of course those have also been destroyed by leftist ideology.) Douthat makes farcical statements, such as that among those pioneering “a richer and more daring approach to televised storytelling” is—Lena Dunham. He claims that Princess Leia using a blaster in "Star Wars" is the same thing as the men clad in female bodies who now dominate all action movies. He tells us that five percent of the population is “homosexual or transgender”—which is false, and by including the mentally ill “transgender” he signals his burning of incense at the most recently erected progressive altar. He claims, with a straight face, that “the first season of Mad Men” is a “primary source,” apparently not realizing the entire series is slick leftist propaganda. Winding up, Douthat points out that the culture war is mostly stalemated for the past few decades, since 1975 or so, hence we are repeating our past cultural battles. True enough, but what he fails to point out is that that stalemate has been a setting in amber of total victories by the Left, the only changes in which have been to add fresh victories for the Left. So, yes, we do have cultural repetition—but that’s because we have calcified Left victories. The obvious answer, as with sclerosis, is that the Left is to blame, and if we destroy the Left, we increase our chances of being able to restore the future.

So in these four chapters, Douthat proves, adequately enough, that our society is decadent. But it appears stable, or appeared so last month. Douthat next turns to why that is, when decadence is typically seen as leading to instability. He ascribes it to drugs, pornography, and the internet. Yes, political fighting appears vicious, but it is mostly playacting. This is not the 1930s. Nobody is manning the barricades or fighting in the streets. The likely result, short and medium term, Douthat says, is a Huxley-ite soft despotism, where the government works to make us feel safe, and nobody even dreams, much less dares, great things. Think China without the annoying Chinese cultural attitudes and behaviors, like eating bats. Think, instead, James Poulos’s “pink police state,” a decayed world where the only thing that cannot be tolerated is intolerance, or rocking the boat for others’ desires, whatever those may be.

This is a reasonable vision. . . . [Review completes as first comment.]
Profile Image for Mark Warnock.
Author 4 books10 followers
May 8, 2020
This thoroughly enjoyable book (I experienced the audio version) extended Jacques Barzun's idea of cultural decadence and showed many examples of it from recent decades of the American experience. The general thesis of decadence rings true - the West is a society that has lost its energy and any clear path forward. It made me think about what it means to be (1) religiously faithful, (2) entrepreneurial, (3) artistically creative and (4) visionary during a season of cultural doldrums.

I felt as a teenager long before I could express it in terms of cultural, artistic, philosophical, or historical specifics, that something important had dropped out of Western culture. I tasted hints of it in reading of things written during or before WWII, and wondered what in the world had happened since. As I learned the history of philosophy, I decided that Descartes pulled us out of gear, and Kant ran us off the road; and as yet I see no reason to revise that assessment. In art, I decided that the quality of Western artistry peaked in the late 1700s and has been declining ever since; and as yet I see no reason to revise that assessment.

The riotous ferment of the 60s was active and hot, but has not produced lasting fruit or forged new pathways for Western cultural ambition. I suspect this is the case largely because of the incredible narcissism of its focus -- it traded on rejecting its forbears, their wisdom, their institutions and their authority, and on the other hand, failed to see future generations as a concern worthy of focused investment.

Whether I'm correct about these or not, we're sitting on top of immensely powerful digital technologies, twiddling our thumbs and distracting ourselves because we've lost any sense of purpose, telos, moral conviction, or cultural mandate. Douthat makes the case, and I think it is irrefutable.

Moving forward, Douthat proposes possibilities but, wisely, no prescription. I personally hope for a spiritual and religious revival of Christianity, but do not yet see evidence of it catching on in a widespread way, although there are undeniable local and momentary sparks.

With due respect to Allan Bloom, Robert Bork, et al: For a concise assessment of the state of Western culture, this book is at once the most precise and accessible I've yet seen. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Justin Lonas.
354 reviews28 followers
March 20, 2020
Not the most reassuring reading in the age of quarantine, but it finally came in the last batch of requests from the library the day before they closed. A compelling analysis of our contemporary cultural moment (at least as it was until last week), with fairly clear-eyed critiques and modest proposals. Let's just say that if Covid-19 does end up being the end of the world as we know it, Ross called it.
Profile Image for Peter Colclasure.
251 reviews22 followers
May 31, 2021
What does it mean to be a decadent society? It means that we used to put men on the moon but now the space race amounts to Elon Musk playing with toys. It means that each decade had a distinct aesthetic in terms of fashion and pop music, but the evolution of culture stalled around 2005 and hasn't progressed since. It means that the most successful movies are reboots and sequels, rather than original works. It means we're having the same political debates we had in the 1960s. It means the population is aging and we're out of fresh ideas.

I think this might be true, but I also think it's nothing to worry about. Our stasis might be an illusion. Maybe we’re only a few years away from the singularity and everything will change, once again. And if not, so what? If the rapid cultural and technological developments of the 20th century were an anomaly, and if the pace of technological progress reverts to what it was in the 1800s, would that be terrible? Douthat anticipates this criticism in a chapter entitled "Comfortably Numb" when he writes that our current plateau might be fine, considering it's the safest and healthiest time in human history. But he seems emotionally invested in the idea that something essential to humanity is lost in an era of less than light speed innovation.

For me, the message of this book was severely undercut by the fact that I read it in the midst of a global pandemic and a global outpouring of grief and anger over the killing of George Floyd.

From page 130:

“The Internet might be bringing back the dramas and tragedies of history, only as a stage production, a costumed farce. Not completely of course. Trump is really president, and if he accidentally stumbles into a global war or mismanages a pandemic, there will be nothing virtual about it and nothing decadent about the aftermath.”

Well how about that? No one living through the chaotic spring months of 2020 could feel that this is the end of history, a period of stasis and stagnation. Rather it feels like the times they-are-a-changing.

Douthat often seems to be arguing both sides of the coin. He laments our lack of forward momentum, but pines for the return of “traditional values.” He never questions the assumption that the decline of organized religion in American society is a bad thing. Or that the normalization of divorce in the late 20th century was all cost and no benefit.

There’s a certain narrative that conservatives cling to: that the social experiments of the 1960s were a failure, that the sex and drugs and rock and roll won the day, but left us with a society that was spiritually bereft, a nation of single parent families, broken homes, depression, and a general existential void. Never mind the inherent justice of the civil rights movement or feminism. The longhairs were weird people so they were bad. This narrative engenders a slightly manic hope that perhaps now people are realizing the error of their ways and crawling back to Christianity and traditional values, repentantly.

Douthat, to his credit, points out that the worst fears of conservatives in the ‘80s and ‘90s—that porn and violent video games would usher in an era of unbridled rape and murder—were unfounded. The blood orgy never materialized. The opposite occurred—violent crime rates dropped, teen pregnancy dropped, and for all our modern problems society has never been less violent. The divorce rate is dropping. Global poverty is falling.

He remains a bit uncharitable towards the hippie era, however, describing the results as chaos and disorder. To me, this conservative interpretation of the ‘60s overlooks two key points. One, that there really has never been a time in human history in which chaos and disorder were absent. The prosperity and social cohesion of the ‘50s was a partly a historical accident (from America’s victory during World War II) and partly an illusion (said prosperity and social cohesion was primarily afforded to white, heterosexual, Protestant America). As for the ennui that supposedly resulted from the ‘60s, go back and read Pessoa or Camus and tell me that the existential void isn’t a permanent feature of human existence, rather than an innovation of the 1970s.

At one point he talks about repetition in popular culture, how movies increasingly repackage and reboot beloved franchises, how pop music and fashion is increasingly retro, how we seem to be out of fresh ideas, how fashion is no longer evolving with the decades, and that we’re stuck in a period of repetition and frustration. And in the middle of all this, he mentions “Christian theology”, as an example of yet another thing that is stuck alongside bellbottoms and Star Trek reboots and recycled pop songs. That’s weird, I thought. One would assume that theology has been stuck since the Middle Ages. I mean, it’s all downhill after Thomas Aquinas right?

Ross Douthat is a fantastic writer, as neoconservatives go, and I found this book thoughtful and engaging even though I disagreed with half of it.

I’d say that overall, this book could have been a coherent magazine article. As it is, it’s a lot of repetition and meandering to describe our modern era which is bogged down in repetition and meandering.
Profile Image for Daniel.
620 reviews82 followers
April 10, 2020
The rich countries are in slow decline and thus decadent.

1. Population is ageing, so people take less risk.
2. All the low hanging fruits have been plucked so it is getting difficult to have new breakthroughs. Instead of flying cars, we get Twitter. Return on new research had been dropping. We are reaching the limits of detection in physics.
3. There has been no new cultural breakthroughs. The latest blockbusters are all based on what was created by Baby boomers. Starwars. Avengers. Star Trek.
4. Meritocracy has not only coopted potential challengers to the countries’ elite, it also brain drains developing countries preventing their development.
5. Anyway decadence does not mean collapse and it is a rich world’s comfortable problem. It actually makes the country safer, by keeping young jobless men at the garage of their parents’ home, playing computer games, taking marijuana or doping themselves with opioids.

Oh it is too depressing and zero solution was given. So 3 stars.
Profile Image for Terzah.
499 reviews24 followers
August 16, 2020
An interesting take on the "late Roman" phase of Western society. Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, is well-read and interested in everything, and he has smart opinions on matters that range from why there are so few original movie blockbusters to what one exception to that fact (Black Panther) has to say about the direction our society may move in order to break out of our stagnation. He touches on politics, economics, culture, and religion. I don't always agree with Douthat, but he always makes me think. I find his take on things doesn't fit neatly into the traditional conservative/liberal rubric we tend to try to shove people into these days. That alone is reason to give his work an ear.
Profile Image for Scriptor Ignotus.
495 reviews174 followers
April 12, 2020
A latter-day frontier thesis, in which Douthat argues that the likeliest future for the post-western world may not involve some catastrophic civilizational collapse nor the flowering of a cultural or intellectual renaissance, but may instead be characterized by a sustained, comfortable, and surprisingly durable operational stasis; a kind of flattening of creative and imaginative horizons, an inability of new forms of vitality to break free from the consolidations of our lethargic and gluttonous institutions, which Douthat describes as decadence.
Profile Image for Thrasymachus.
85 reviews9 followers
October 22, 2022
An apt diagnosis of 21st century malaise. Makes a compelling case that stagnation and repetition dominate diverse areas of modern life, including economics, technology, politics, art, and interpersonal relationships. Ends with a feeble gesture at religion as a cure.
Profile Image for Cav.
657 reviews89 followers
November 18, 2020
I didn't really like this one, unfortunately...
Author Ross Douthat is an American conservative political analyst, blogger, author, and New York Times columnist. He was a senior editor of The Atlantic, according to his Wikipedia page.

Ross Douthat :

The Decadent Society lays out a case for creative productivity decline in Decadent Western countries. Douthat quotes a 2011 essay by Kurt Anderson in Vanity Fair:
"Rewind any other 20-year chunk of 20th-century time. There’s no chance you would mistake a photograph or movie of Americans or an American city from 1972—giant sideburns, collars, and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters, and Scamps—with images from 1992.
Time-travel back another 20 years, before rock ’n’ roll and the Pill and Vietnam, when both sexes wore hats, and cars were big and bulbous with late-modern fenders and fins—again, unmistakably different, 1952 from 1972. You can keep doing it and see that the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising—all of it…
Go deeper, and you see that just 20 years also made all the difference in serious cultural output. New York’s amazing new buildings of the 1930s (the Chrysler, the Empire State) look nothing like the amazing new buildings of the 1910s (Grand Central, Woolworth) or of the 1950s (the Seagram, UN headquarters). Anyone can instantly identify a ’50s movie (On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai) versus one from 20 years before (Grand Hotel, It Happened One Night) or 20 years after (Klute, A Clockwork Orange), or tell the difference between hit songs from 1992 (Sir Mix-a-Lot) and 1972 (Neil Young) and 1952 (Patti Page) and 1932 (Duke Ellington). When high-end literature was being redefined by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, great novels from just 20 years earlier—Henry James’s The Ambassadors, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth—seemed like relics of another age. And twenty years after Hemingway published his war novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, a new war novel, Catch-22, made it seem preposterously antique.
Now try to spot the big, obvious, defining differences between 2012 and 1992. Movies and literature and music have never changed less over a twenty-year period. Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna, Adele has replaced Mariah Carey—both distinctions without a real difference—and Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco. Except for certain details (no Google searches, no e-mail, no cell phones), ambitious fiction from 20 years ago (Doug Coupland’s Generation X, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow) is in no way dated, and the sensibility and style of Joan Didion’s books from even twenty years before that seem plausibly circa 2012.
… Not long ago in the newspaper, I came across an archival photograph of Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell with a dozen of their young staff at Morgans, the ur-boutique hotel, in 1985. It was an epiphany. Schrager’s dress shirt had no collar, and some of the hair on his male employees was a bit unfashionably fluffy, but no one in the picture looks obviously, laughably dated by today’s standards.… Yet if, in 1990 or 1980 or 1970, you’d examined a comparable picture from 27 years earlier— from 1963 and 1953 and 1943, respectively—it would be a glimpse back into an unmistakably different world..."

The Decadent Society talks about the lack of hyper-productivity and new inventions envisioned since the golden age of the '50s and '60s: The flying cars and interstellar space travel written about in the sci-fi of that era have not materialized. I think Douthat is relying on fallacious post hoc rationalizations to make this case. Much of what was talked about in '60s sci-fi was later found either drastically more challenging than originally thought, or unfeasible to some degree or another. Interstellar space travel will be unlikely for a few reasons: high levels of cosmic radiation, the extreme long durations associated with orbital-velocity travel, and the deleterious health effects of long-term zero-G on the human body - to name just a few.
Flying cars are too dangerous, noisy, and expensive to ever be implemented on a society-wide scale.

The book also cites the decline in movie industry creativity to make its case. Douthat identifies a decline in novel stories from big-budget Hollywood, which now favors endless reboots and superhero films over traditional groundbreaking cinema.
Douthat also talks at length about the demographic shift occurring in Western first-world countries; who are making-up for historical low birth rates by importing large numbers of immigrants.

Although the subtitle of the book lured me in, this book did not meet my expectations. There are extensive political and historical musings here from author Douthat that tended to be dry and monotonous at times...
He also manages to inject his own personal political views in the book numerous times; mentioning how terrible he thinks The Trump Presidency is. Wow - Hot take! (eye-roll)
Douthat presents these opinions as if they were not just his personal views, but objectively correct. A resounding LOL from me here...
I really don't like it when a book does this.
I would not recommend this book. It started nowhere, bounced around in the same place, and then finished right where it started...
2 stars.
Profile Image for Laura.
730 reviews84 followers
October 11, 2020
A decadent society, if I may be so bold as to simplify his thesis, is like a superhero without a worthy opponent. Imagine a movie about a superhero who has grown so powerful, so comfortable, and is enriched with such technology that he or she has become virtually untouchable. What would the plot be about? Surely, this hero would have complaints and internal struggles. But absent the outside forces that inspired fear and ingenuity, or the vast world of opportunity that inspired daring and courageous conquests, this hero might grow to be, well, decadent.

Ross Douthat knows a great deal more about the ways of the world than I do. I'm pathetically ill informed about global politics so I'll leave it to others to quibble with him on the particulars. The general gist, however, makes sense to me. America is without a frontier to explore and much of the "low-hanging" fruit of discovery and invention has been picked. We've innovated ourselves into a corner where it is hard to imagine much that could get better. Certainly, Douthat seems to argue, most people are so comfortable they'd hardly be willing to risk life and limb to improve their present level of comfort. We may talk about our dissatisfactions or air our grievances or even march out our frustration. But Douthat says it's hard to imagine a better political system than a democracy, a better standard of living than we have.

I'd love to listen in to a debate on this topic. He makes a good case but I'd love to hear the other side. So far, I find his argument convincing. I do believe most of our protest has become virtual, that the smaller our complaints the louder we yell about them. That we seem to be stuck in some loop of repetition where we tell the same stories, argue over the same politics without progress, and generally have not seen the kind of across-the-board technological transformations (like automobiles and industrialization) that happened before my life time. What's next? Douthat poses several ideas, but the one I like best was the idea that we might begin focusing on the profoundly local community. I'd love a return to idiosyncratic local spaces that don't take their cues from mass communication and mass marketing. For now, I'm just focused on how to resist the decadence and maintain some sense of local culture-making.
Profile Image for Kris.
1,295 reviews175 followers
February 25, 2021
Published in February 2020, poor Douthat was screwed by timing here. Even excepting the fact this was pre-Covid, more generally this book won't age well. He talks much about "recent" events, and much about the Trump presidency. When he casually threw out an off-hand remark like, "What if Trump mismanages a pandemic..." I had to smirk a little.

This book is a journalist musing about the state of society, not an academic presenting a specific argument or policy. If you accept that, it's a good read. I like Douthat's writing style, so even though he doesn't actually talk about decadence a lot in this book, I was happy to follow him along wherever he went. You can tell he's Catholic, but he doesn't push religion here. Read the book now, before it becomes out of date in a few years.

This reminds me of Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology and Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It. He mentions ideas from The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Rod Dreher blurbs this book (The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation).
Profile Image for Tomas Bella.
192 reviews406 followers
August 3, 2020
Fajn kniha pre ľudí, ktorí si myslia, že úplne všetko na svete je dnes úplne zlé, na rozdiel od minulosti, kedy veci boli dobré (posledná dobrá vec bolo pristátie na Mesiaci) a chcú sa v tomto názore utvrdiť množstvom náhodných príbehov o tom, aké zlé veci sa dnes stávajú. Prakticky opak Pinkera, len bez pokusu skúmať aj dáta, namiesto dát sú tu len historky a skrátka presvedčenie, že jednoducho veci sú zlé (v Amerike, zvyšok sveta nikoho nezaujíma).
Profile Image for Andrew Figueiredo.
290 reviews8 followers
March 28, 2020
Tldr; If there's a book for our moment, this is it. Read it and you'll emerge with a clearer picture of what's wrong with the way things are going. Well done.

Douthat does not, like some on the left and right posit, that the US is in freefall decline. He argues that our current trajectory is defined primarily by decadence, or "economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development" (14). As the title suggests, this is a side-effect of our own success as a society. There are four pieces of this decadence: stagnation, sterility, sclerosis, and repetition.

What makes decadence so pernicious is that it creates feedback loops, which Douthat vividly illustrates. For example, he notes that less fertile societies also engage in less dynamism and innovation. Therefore, the second factor in decadence feeds the first and vice versa. One of his strongest arguments was that the rise of populism comes in part from people feeling a loss of control. This comports with some of the other arguments on the topic, but decadence adds to the idea of frustration with current systems. It's not that things are going terribly, it's that they're simply not going anywhere. It should make sense to anybody who's studied the pull of populism and contrasted it with the objectively not-horrible state of Western society today. Decadence bridges the gap between the anger and the statistics with a sort of intangible frustration that bubbles up, without blowing the whole system to bits.

The kicker, according to Douthat, is that decadence is largely sustainable. He sees us as living out simulated culture war battles under a "pink police state" backed up by educational and cultural bureaucracy. The solutions proposed by some? Well, China likely's headed in the same direction, illiberal democracy doesn't provide a real alternative, etc. This isn't going to be an easy problem to solve! He even stops to think about some of the ways in which decadence could be safer than its alternatives, which I appreciate, before moving on to highlight how decadence leads to a "territory of darkness", a dystopia that doesn't make itself plainly apparent (202). This shadowy conception should indeed worry us.

Douthat plays out some scenarios of catastrophe in which decadence falls apart and leads to something perhaps worse. Interestingly, he mentions pandemic. While COVID-19 appears unlikely to be the end of our system, it has exposed some glaring issues with a decadent society, proving Douthat correct in many ways. The current crisis has, for me at least, broken the ideas of renaissance that Douthat describes as lacking. It's displayed how sclerosis inhibits a quick response to the calamity, and how government actions/cultural influencer reactions continuously enlarge the pink police state. At the same time, the whole world hasn't fallen into violence. It's been a subtle, discomforting overturning of our society as we know it. Exactly how you would expect a relatively low-mortality pandemic to infect a decadent society. The ills of a virus collided head-on with the ills of a stagnant society.

Douthat's writing is enjoyable, and he uses references to space exploration to bookend the piece rather nicely, even if the ending caught me by surprise at first. He also does well to rebuff both left-wing and right-wing prognostications about the source and results of decadence while giving them credit. For that matter, it's fascinating to read a book that cites "Black Panther" and Michel Houellebecq and Patrick Deneen. As somebody who's read the latter three, Douthat does a good job incorporating all sorts of unexpected (and expected) sources into his work. He's got a keen eye for argumentative support.

Douthat isn't entirely hopeless, which makes the book even better. For him, "the global south holds the key to many scenarios of renaissance" (225). This global angle is convincing to me, as it would be easy to make this argument with a myopic focus on the US. It's not likely to be driven alone by tech or the goals of new nationalists or new socialists (interestingly strikes at the core of our political realignment) or by a specific religious change. Douthat recognizes that his framework, as a system, begs a systemic renaissance, one in which both religion and science are prominent. This resonated with me, and it's something I often think about in light of the climate crisis. I find Douthat's notion of renaissance satisfying--hard to pin down, but satisfying. He doesn't profess to have the answers and then questions everything at the end to leave you thinking. Brilliant.
Profile Image for Scott Holstad.
Author 22 books61 followers
February 2, 2022
Very good, I agree with most points ... only ... I would take it one or five steps further. Douthat doesn't go far enough in taking Americans to task and that's a shame because while Americans don't like to hear it and while Americans are too sissified to handle any bad news as they bury their heads in the sand, the facts are we are soft and weak, people are lazy and entitled, dumber each generation (and various conspiracy theorists have plenty of reasons dating back from generations to centuries of intent on the part of US leaders shadow leaders). Americans have lost all critical thinking and reasoning skills -- skills most desired by major employers now but a reason they're having to recruit from international universities instead of taking the "teach for the test| Americans, very few of whom are prepared for shit upon graduation. Everyone gets a blue ribbon for participating, kids are bullied, which while I admit has taken on a more serious and devious role, EVERY damn generation of kids in history has been bullied, my wife and I among them. Did we freak out, commit suicide? Shit! It's called Grow A Pair or Grow a Spine and deal because it's great training for what you'll find in life and in the workforce later in life, where the younger generations can't take criticisms of virtually any type. I was brought in to fire those types. We expect comfort and leisure, but I'm not sure why because unless you're one of the `10 or 20% at the top, those are basically gone for good. And here's the thing that really gets me. Americans think we're so badass. For decades the "ugly American" has tortured the world with demands, with bragging about how if it weren't for the good ole US of A saving your lousy pansy asses in TWO world wars in the last hundred years, you'd all be speaking German. There are so many reasons for people to resent Americans just for that because not only is it arrogant and snobby, but it's literally dead wrong. WW 1 was largely over -- a huge trench warfare stalement which it had been for over a year while the Europeans in charge tried to broker a peace. Then, depending on which historian or conspiracy theorist or whoever you listen to, President Wilson decided he wanted in on the act -- and there are lots of reasons and plenty of resources, so he sends a million men over there about the time the rest were going to give up and go home, resulting in extending the war over a year and casualties by an ungodly amount. And after that, American historians and politicians like to try to hide the fact that he sent American troops to the Soviet Union to HELP them, such as guard the Chinese border, camp out in Siberian and built the Trans-Siberian railway for them, and US bankers sent craploads of money over there and all of this was hushed up, but the point is, the US not only didn't "win" WW 1 and save Europe, but we made it much worse.

But what about WW 2? We won that, right? Well, we like to tell the world that. And it's total bullshit. Some basic facts -- and not John Wayne movies -- can point out some basic truths. When the the war start? Yes, late summer 1939 when Germany AND the Soviets invaded Poland. And when did America enter the war? Yes, years later after most of Europe west of Berlin and much of northern Africa had been decimated, the Brits were the only thing keeping the entire region hanging together and they were about to go under, but by then, it had been years. So we "entered the war" with great fanfare, only it was with the Japanese due to Pearl Harbor, but somehow everyone declared new war on each other in Europe. But did we go to Europe? No! We went to Africa to help out the Brits, which we did. And then eventually from there, we made our way up into the toe of Italy where we faced Mussolini's non-existent armies, non-existent tanks, non-existent air force, non-existent weapons and the Italians all of a sudden decided they'd have enough of the fascist and they wanted out, which annoyed the hell out of Hitler cause then he had to divert a couple of divisions down to Italy to hold off the Yanks and the Brits. Which they did. Pretty effectively. So D-Day, right? We kicked ass on D-Day and saved Europe, right? Well, maybe, but when was D-Day? June 6, 1944. But did you know that Allied planners had originally been planning for such an invasion for one year earlier? Secretly? And do you know what cynical critics say is the reason why that didn't happen and in fact it took an entire extra year before the weather was good enough for us to get there? (Please don't misunderstand. I lost family members on the beaches there and throughout Normandie. I'm not anti-American. I'm anti-STUPID American!) Well, Hitler bit off more than he could chew when he foolishly invaded the Soviets and he had to divert not only nearly all of his armies to the eastern front, but recruit others from Finland to join AND insist that Romania send its army into southern Russia, etc. And they were slaughtering each other, which accomplished two things for the western allies. One, we knew a beach landing and invasion under heavy fire would result in horrible causalities but the longer the Germans were occupied with Russia, the fewer there would be to deal with cause they were getting killed by the bushels, so facing old men and children seemed much more and very appealing to us. Second and more important, we never WANTED to be allied with Stalin -- he was Hitler's ally at the start of the war and invaded Poland along with Germany. They were allies until Hitler double-crossed him. Many American and British government and military leaders already viewed the Soviet Union as our next big -- and likely much worse than Hitler -- enemy, so while we were rooting for the Reds to kills off the Germans, we were thrilled that the Germans were doing the same to the Soviets. It was fucking ugly.

Another point and I'll move on. Ever look at the WW 2 casualty figures? America had about 450,000 casualties -- which is horrible . But among the fewest of any of the majors in the war. Without having the time to look up the actual figures, the Brits lost a few more, I think the Italians lost over a million, the French lost about a million, shitloads of Poles died obviously, Romania and or the Czechs lost a damn million (and you never hear about that!), Germany lost 7 million, tons of other countries lost more than their fair share -- it was horrible -- but do you know how many soldiers and civilians the Soviet Union lost in WW 2? Nearly every conservative estimate places the number at a minimum of 27 MILLION people! I don't know the facts off the top of my head, but I'd wager that's more than all of the other countries combined. And it was brutal too. Those on the Soviet western front got to experience what most of Poland did and they're still discovering hidden mass graves where people (especially Jews, but others too) were lined up and murdered relentlessly. When Americans brag about "winning" WW2 and saving Europe and the world, please remember we did NOTHING of the sort while we continue to brag endlessly and insult countless people who had to live through hell no continental American ever had to worry about. The damn Soviets won and with very serious blood paid.

Now I've gone on too long and it's late, so a quick example or two. One, there are experts at the National Defense University and elsewhere who have written books (Donald Stoker is one) on the subject that most people don't want to bring up, if they even know to think of it. With all of our money, our tech, our training, etc., how come the US does such a shitty job at warfare??? Over half of our national budget and we get our asses kicked by seeming-prehistoric people who wipe their asses with their hands? And now we want to take on both Russia and China when we haven't won any conflict or war we've been predominantly engaged in since before 1950, if not going back further. If that ticks you off, don't blame me. Blame the American government and military. Read the history, literature, the experts will to go there. We haven't won a fucking war since we Helped in the cause for WW 2! And yet we beat our chests and issue threats to the rest of the world that they better play by our rules or else. Any wonder why China doesn't seem too scared? Or there are a number of burgeoning regional hegemonies now? We're known as the most violent society of earth. There are more guns that people in this country. Our homicide rate is higher than the next 10+ 1st world countries combined. We have no intention of fixing that. Our kids watch the bloodiest movies and shows, play the most insane FPS games, and yet... Those of you old enough to remember Somalia... Mogadishu. Do you remember? Black Hawk Down? Gruesome movie, but war is hell. And what happened? American saw a sad picture, but one others see every day in many other parts of the world -- corpses. American corpses. We saw Black Somalian crowds dragging two largely naked dead WHITE US soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu while they laughed and partied and our collective stomachs got sick and we started screaming WTF are we doing there, so what happened? Took no time for us to cut and run! Cause we're chickenshit. And to my horror, apparently we've also been as racist as ever and just hidden it too. The past 5-15 years have more than proven that. We go back to the safety of our pretend killing games while little girls going to the stream to wash clothes in their villages face the prospect of having the limbs blown off by US mines all over the world daily. And what have we heard since? NO Boots on the Ground! Air Force only. And now drones. All of which have proven to be ineffective (read the stats on Vietnam if you doubt me -- take a look on the number, type, frequence of munitions dropped on N Vietnam alone, the horrific shit it did and just how horribly it caused them to want to cut and run -- which would be NOT AT ALL! Because they were strong and dedicated and we were there against our will [our soldiers, not the damn politicians], didn't know why we were fighting and dying, what was being accomplished, what the lies about the daily body counts were about, why we were even involved in what seemed more and more like a civil war the US had taken sides on and was driving at the expense of everyone and for what exactly?) because you NEED BOOTS ON THE GROUND but badass killer Americans are so gutless and weak that during W's Iraq, the government started keeping the media from getting near planes returning with filled coffins covered by flags and they were no longer allowed to show them on TV ... because America didn't have the guts to handle it. We can offer our hypocritical hollow "thought and prayers| (which makes me want to puke) at the American mass murders, the drive bys, gang wars, white domestic lone wolf terrorists preying on minority, "liberal" and other perceived (it's called brainwashing) "enemies," the last group of which many Americans now know the FBI and other agencies have labeled as the biggest threat to this country. Not Muslims, not brown immigrants, not Spanish speakers, etc. Wannabe Aryans "Killing In The Name Of" White Jesus, white christian nationalists, violent white separatists, Fascists or fascist wannabes, fans of autocrats, "antigovernment" "Outsiders" who become Insiders but insist they're still Outside, brainwashed, braindead, psychotic ignored, neglected and Pissed Off nihilistic kids in need of serious help (Columbine was a good starting point for that discussion) AND their goddamn FANS, most disgusting of which has been Anne Coulter, who exposes so much blood lust for "The Other" (nearly everyone not white, insane conservative and full of shit) that it says something disturbing that these people are even allowed mass media audiences in which to egg others on to murder and sedition. We find these people in our christian churches. Yes, it IS that simple. And if you seriously believe Jesus was about peace and love and that's been corrupted by many current religious leaders, you haven't read your holy book -- just the devotions your churches urge you to read cause the Bible is just so, well, big and heavy and boring and shit. Jesus said he came to "divide" families, turn families against each other, split the family unit up, and yeah, he also instructed his new group of clueless zombie disciples to go buy swords -- sell their cloaks if they needed money to do so -- and this is peace and love? And yes, I've seen and read christian apologists try to explain that one, usually in it "fulfilling" prophecy, but there is so much scholarship and evidence available now that shows virtually none of this so-called "prophecy" a) applied - got taken out of context, which ironically is what these apologists says this sword passage has done to it -- b) was completely made up (especially by Matthew) or never existed, c) was twisted so very badly and obviously to fit the gospel authors' agendas, d) were (purposely) misinterpreted again to fit agendas, etc., and that doesn't count the massive discrepancies in the gospels alone, such as which of the two birth, hide/flight, return to the public stories do you believe in because it buggers the mind to say you believe in both. And yeah, most of you forget there are two different ones from two different times that do not coincide with each other, but theologians work bigger miracles than the disciples to get things to fit, so WTH? (The fact that there is no independent or even literal evidence that "Nazareth" physically existed at the time the messiah allegedly lives is another laugher...)

So anyway, how do you like them apples? (Back to the present) We sure do feel fine about assassinating towel heads from the air, right? Back to the more main point of the book. America IS decadent. Just look at the pandemic starting with April 2020. Americans used every excuse in the book to call bullshit on scientific reality and why? Aside from what we would learn were a shocking number of crazies around, it was INCONVENIENT! It kept people from the bars and clubs and churches and beaches and schools and on and on so people broke rules, led by ditto brain, and insisted on their "religious freedom," which was bullshit because I would support that IF it involved just them. If you want to Jim Jones it, to play Russian Roulette with two chambers loaded, be my damn guest, we need to thin the herd anyway. But what people didn't GET and then didn't give a shit about, led by our christian community, was that not only was it potentially suicidal, but HOMICIDAL as well, and what about MY freedom to not be near an invisible killer coming straight from church, which was the first place they all started getting sick and dying even while they still denied it (oh yeah, the country that led the world in inventions, new tech, etc., was now a country of science haters and deniers and its citizens continued to pray to their fairies in the sky while completely disregarding their god's orders, rules, commands, etc.,) and on and on, but the fact that EVERYTHING was more important than not only your life, but your damn neighbor's life -- who gave a shit about them anyway? -- that Republican leaders wanted to have elderly volunteer to fucking DIE for the sake of the others, the children, the economy, etc. (Texas governor, Indiana rep, etc. And they weren't leading by example, remember!). How far off from Mengele was THAT getting? Those of us with brains and hearts thought there were some sick fuckers in this country who might say that, but surely there were only a few. Then came ditto brain's maggots, KKKers, skinheads, white christian nationalists, racists, violent separatists, and now they were mainstream and there were tens of millions of them and where the hell had they been hidden, but it was obvious now that America was a country full of rot at its core, hidden under the Hollywood faux glitz and it turned out tens of millions of Americans WANT fascism instead of democracy -- are fascists, without even understanding the history of that term, nor the actual definition -- and we want to enjoy our martinis and our new Trek bikes and getting rid of the Section 8 housing down the road to build new condos and upscale developments so yeah, this general concept kinda, sorta resonates with me in my own way I guess. Americans are a sad people, pathetic, an embarrassment to our ancestors and while it's horrible that "innocents" have to die because of psychos, these are the people who have been saying for centuries that all babies born are born guilty and worthy of death and eternal torture because of some alleged myth a couple of people allegedly did thousands of years ago, and while I can hold grudges for life, I tend not to be such a goddamn bastard as to sentence an entire species I claim to have created and love like children -- like the one I'm going to send to commit suicide to save these children who are guilty by association and everything about that just reeks of the most ludicrous lines of non-reason, ration or brain function -- you sentence billions and billions of people to eternal damnation cause a couple of people none of the others ever met screwed up once??? What sicko does that shit? Oh well, a Hitler. Stalin. Ditto brain. Pol Pot. But even put together, none of them could ever match what this imaginary freak people worship is given credit for having done. And he's worshipped! And we wonder why other civilized nations look at us in wonder while laughing their asses off at our stupidity. Or they were laughing until the American Taliban started killing for Jesus. Not so funny now. Recommend? Oh, I recommend a lot of things, beginning with educating ourselves about our country's history, about reality, about politics, about brainwashing, about many things, and yeah, how the US is rotten with lazy, entitled, spoiled, WEAK people who can't and won't face fact-base reality because they don't like it and their own fantasies are their own realties.

Welcome to a dystopia the best sci fi writers in history could never have come up with in their worst nightmares.
Profile Image for Matthew.
123 reviews7 followers
September 28, 2020
This is an important and perceptive look at our current situation in the West from the broadest of perspectives.

Douthat's diagnosis is exactly on-point: we are in an age of stagnation and mediocrity in all dimensions. Conservatives and religious believers should contemplate Douthat's final section: the potential ends of decadence. While a technological breakthrough is perhaps the most likely, Douthat also mentions the possibility of a religious revival - and this is what we should be working towards. This means not only continuing our work of evangelisation, but also preparing Christian communities to be good (and non-decadent) stewards of a post-liberal order. That is the hard work of our age.

There are four basic questions Douthat investigates: what does decadence mean as applied to a society? is the West decadent? are the current rivals to the decadent West plausible threats or saviours? how might decadence end?

The first two questions are answered extremely well. Douthat advances a helpful and non-tendetious definition of decadence that gets at an important and inter-connected phenomenon that characterizes our current social and political order: stagnation, sterility, sclerosis and repetition. We have lost the dynamism of previous eras, and there seems to be little hope of breaking out of it without systemic change to our social order. Douthat might have made a stronger connection between decadence and the liberal foundations of our society.

Douthat's analysis of the potential usurpers of our current decadent order is strong, but slightly more subject to debate. Douthat makes a good case for the potential stability of our current decadent liberal order, but more could be said of the internal forces that might drive the dissolution of the liberal order. Decadence anaesthetises, but it also alienates. A weakened social order, with fewer familial and communitarian bonds might also be one that is uniquely vulnerable to overthrow by a determined but relatively small faction. Where Douthat is correct is that none of our civilisational rivals are advancing a plausible alternative: the illiberal democracies of Poland and Hungary are not only marginal powers, but they don't even advance a thorough critique of liberalism, let alone a clearly defined alternative; Russia is a rival power, but not a rival ideological power - Douthat suggests that if Putin were to crown himself Tsar, this might change, but as it is, an autocratic republic of oligarchs doens't offer a real alternative. China is probably the most plausible alternative to liberalism, but its political order isn't really attractive to the West, and while it offers an alternative to political sclerosis, nobody would offer modern China as a culturally innovative force, and its demographic problems are probably worse than those of the West.

One final note: of the potential ends to decadence, we must be extremely wary of some of the potential technological ends. A eugenic transhumanism is a real possibility; and a new robotic age would offer major challenges to social order. We should prepare to resist some ends to decadence - there are worse things than decadence, after all.
Profile Image for Kevin.
960 reviews46 followers
November 30, 2021
Another book that is hard to say "I liked it" given how depressing and challenging it is. I am far from an expert on these things but I found it all too persuasive in its underlying argument about decadence. The chapter Waiting for the Barbarians was particularly depressing. I wish I had a brilliant answer as to how to get out of the seeming cul-de-sac we find ourselves in but, alas, I do not. My faith tells me that the people of God must live by faith and do our part to seek justice and love mercy but we are an increasingly marginalized group; and a politicized and polarized one at that. I think Yuval Levin is correct about the importance of institutions but not sure how those can be rebuilt and trust returned but that is the work we are called to in our own communities.
Profile Image for Ryan.
990 reviews
January 4, 2021
Why doesn't the culture produce something more interesting than rebooted Star Wars films? Why don't young people in the developed world have more children? Why can't the government just get something done? Looking for a reason beyond grey Boomers hoarding wealth and voting for radical right-wing candidates, Ross Douthat argues that we live in a decadent moment and have become The Decadent Society.

My favorite thing about The Decadent Society is Douthat's willingness to build his arguments on anything and everything. There is ripped-from-the-headlines stuff here, yes. But there is also NASA's space program, Star Trek, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Tyler Cowen's The Complacent Classand Michel Houlbecq's Submission--all are treated with equal seriousness. He not only outlines what decadence is and why it's both attractive and disturbing but also speculates what might be on the far side of this "end of history" decadence, including extra terrestrial life, a Eurafrican alliance, or radical breakthroughs in gene editing. I'm not sure I've ever read critical commentary that felt so similar to science fiction.

Here are some criticisms of The Decadent Society.

-I'm not sure everyone is decadent, but I worry a growing number of elites may be decadent. But if the choice is between decadence and X (in which X means war, revolution or some other strife), I'm happier making my way in the decadent society.

-There are blind spots. Douthat mostly does not engage with feminism, maybe at all. Why not? Young Americans say they want to have more children but find it difficult to afford them--also not mentioned. The Internet seems to have strengthened and abolished the monoculture--not considered.

-Greens have utopian visions of the future, often radical ones, and some also construct structures of meaning that certainly seem religious to me. It's not hard to find them attempting to create new economies and societies, either. But they're mostly not mentioned or taken seriously here, perhaps because Douthat is a conservative. Still, Vaclav Smil's ideas about energy and civilization don't appear. Nor are the works of Kim Stanley Robinson considered. In fairness, Bill McKibben, the Green New Deal, and some ecological catastrophes are briefly mentioned.

-Religious conviction is nearly always taken very seriously and it's almost as though in his mind 1) only religious devotion offers a beautiful narrative that carries people through life and 2) secular liberals uniquely grapple with existential despair. Isn't this overrating religious conviction? That certainly wasn't the nature of my religious upbringing... But more than that, I'm not sure that religion is driving societies rather than rationalizing their preferences. Do the Jesuits spur imperialism or do they--more likely I suspect--provide a bandage of nobility to Europe's lust for material wealth and power?

-Douthat also expresses too much enthusiasm for imperial cultures for my taste.

-I'm not sure I buy Douthat's understanding of art, though I'm hardly an expert. Still. He focuses a lot on massive commercial artworks. If they're any measure, surely the MCU's run of films was a colossal popular achievement and not decadent, even if it is based on comic books. But I suspect that we mostly value in hindsight works that in the time of their publication were minor--maybe not so different from critics today who love the Velvet Underground of the writing of William S. Burroughs.

-Almost all of Douthat's arguments are too "grand narrative" for me. But they're enjoyable as a commentary on the zeitgeist in the same way Neal Stephenson novels are enjoyable.

-A note on style: I found Douthat's description of American politics as "sclerotic" and "splenetic" a bit... overwrought. He describes American media as "Political pornography for the partisan mind." I suspect Douthat's real strength as a writer is actually his ability to convincingly outline ideas he disagrees with, an underrated form of empathy.

Douthat is an engaging writer and The Decadent Society is an entertaining work. I'm not sure how important a work it is. If I were to predict what might end this decadent moment, I'd put my money on cohort replacement. The median American is just very old. When the Boomer generation begins to die out, I suspect the market will stop rewarding artistic and political gestures to conventional wisdom established in the 1970s. Will we have more than blockbuster franchises about video games or will we still be paying for their retirement and palliative care? Time will tell.

6 reviews2 followers
March 6, 2020
Status as a Ross Douthat fanboy: Confirmed

This review is about to be incredibly biased (although to a lesser extent than those proponents of decadence that despise this book.)

We look around us and see trends. We see that Hollywood isn’t churning out many unique films and instead rehashing poorly made reboots and sequels. We see a stale culture that doesn’t seem to be having great dialogues or new thoughts. Instead we get the empty screaming match between left and right, pointless Facebook posts, and bizarre twitter fights between presidential candidates. We see that there haven’t been many major breakthroughs that shook up our lives in the last 50 years spare maybe the internet, the laptop, and the iPhone. Instead our greatest possession is the Roomba and other luxury items that give us more free time to do.....well nothing.

Douthat sees these trends, but provides insights as to how we got here. Perhaps we live in a society running in place because it has no threats to spur innovation. we have had our diversity sapped for “all-inclusive” liberals that in their attempts to make us equal and different, have destroyed friction that brings about new insights and innovations. However it is my assessment that Douthat is far more critical to the Conservatives whom he deems to be volatile and downright opposed to all change regardless of its merit.

Douthat writes a fair book. Though I am reluctant to accept his interpretation of decadence in terms of technological innovation, he is on the mark in just about everything else. He offers points, counterpoints, and acknowledges the perspectives worth acknowledgment. At no point does it feel like Douthat is pushing a narrative or selling propaganda. Though you might not agree with him, it’s hard to argue his arguments aren’t founded in rational and resourced thought.

My only complaint about this book is that in the final chapters he did not suggest that our obsession with aliens is not just us sitting and waiting for the barbarians.
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