Australians do not normally think of themselves as decadent; bawdy and vulgar perhaps, but vigorous, young and free (whatever the word change in the anthem). Not even New Zealand is regarded as decadent.
So a book describing the Western world as decadent, written by one of the best columnists, unusually a conservative, from the New York Times, the mouthpiece of classical secular liberalism, is a provocation in different ways to different groups of people.
My age is immediately evident from the fact that my first history classes were in 1949 in Grade Three, about the foundations of the Roman Empire. I remember hearing of the Via Appia and Via Aurelia, both still busy thoroughfares today, and of the cackling geese which woke up the Roman soldiers in the citadel on Capitol Hill (probably around 390 BC) to fight off the Gauls who were ransacking Rome. It was after this that the Roman city walls were first built.
For these reasons and Hollywood’s contributions, the concept of decadence conjures up for me Roman emperors like Caligula, or especially Nero, a terrible tyrant and a terrible fool, who was responsible for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD which destroyed or damaged eleven out of the city’s fourteen districts and who tried to lay the blame for it on a small, new, hated group of subversives called Christians after their founder.
Originally I linked decadence with military and economic decline, but Nero ruled briefly about 100 years before the zenith of Roman power with the Antonines, while the empire itself went on to last for another 400 years in the West of Europe and a further 1000 years again in the East from the new capital of Constantinople. Decadence often goes away after it comes and need not mean decline, much less defeat.
Naturally Ross Douthat discusses the concept of decadence at some length in The Decadent Society, acknowledging the existence of “lower” and “higher” forms. The low definition emphasises “inordinately pleasurable experiences with food and sex and fashion”. The high definition strives to link rampant hedonism with overripe aestheticism and a cowardly refusal to make the necessary sacrifices to protect civilisation. There is no simple connection with the rise and fall of nations, as a decadent society is not necessarily poised for any kind of collapse.
This essay appears in May’s Quadrant.
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Douthat developed his own definition from the work of the cultural critic Jacques Barzun, who wrote the massive survey of Western cultural history From Dawn to Decadence. For Douthat decadence is “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development”; an end product which is the direct consequence of previous development. The West is the victim of its own significant success.
The author aims to identify accurately where we are to avoid optimistic pretence and hysteria, to avoid societies lapsing into either chaos or authoritarianism. For him America and the West in the first decades of the twenty-first century have not been hurtling anywhere except perhaps in a circle, spurning both memory and ambition, comfortable and pessimistic, growing old unhappily.
Douthat aims to convince his readers that our society is indeed decadent, that his definition actually applies to the contemporary West over the last two generations and may apply to all the societies that are currently catching up to Europe and North America and East Asia. This is the fate he foresees especially for China.
The author draws heavily on the past to analyse the present but this book is also about the future, touching on a bewildering range of topics, sometimes outlining frightening possibilities and alternatives. He is never foolish and regularly thought-provoking. Let me give two examples. Will China rush ahead in the drive to produce more-than-human supermen, into the world of transhumanism unencumbered by Christian qualms and constraints from the almost vanished doctrine of human nature? What might be the principles in contention if there even was a war over such issues?
Christianity is spreading steadily in China despite persecution, mainly with Protestant converts as the Catholic population is smaller, now hindered further by a disastrous agreement between the Chinese government and the Vatican. Could there be a Chinese Constantine, the first Chinese Christian leader? How impossible is a religious landscape remade by African (with its immense population growth) and Chinese Christianities, so that a future eugenics war might pit the West with its secular genetic engineering against a Christianising China and its African allies?
If this is not provocative enough, Douthat teases us with the remote possibility that a moderate form of Islam might break the stalemate between belief and secularism, between conservative Christianity and its declining liberal components, with a new family-centred social order, which attracted some of the lost boys from the far Right and somehow tapped into “the puritanical late feminism of #MeToo”.
My own view of course is that this last scenario in particular remains only a remote possibility, but experience in our Australian jails demonstrates how attractive Islam is to disaffected males, especially those tempted to violence. It gives them something to hang on to strongly.
These two examples are indicative of the range of topics which are usefully examined, far beyond the limited concerns of this review. While the book was published before the Covid pandemic had got into its stride, I won’t be mentioning the mighty challenges from automation and artificial intelligence on the one hand and Douthat’s belief that we are close to the limits of major technological advances. There is a tension here.
Nor will I be talking of the financial constraints of the future, the huge tides of debt, exacerbated by Covid, the squeezing and reduction of the middle class, the phenomenal salaries of the super-rich and the consequently increased gap with those who have only temporary or part-time work, or who are unemployed. Young people can no longer be confident that they will be wealthier than their parents, so that many of this young cohort, without the consolations of religion or any type of spirituality, will also be frustrated and disappointed economically and therefore in their lifestyle.
Let me look at a couple of topics before I return to China.
For Douthat the first major structural force inhibiting a return to pre-1970s financial growth is the ageing of Western societies. I accept this, as a good number of babies contributes to financial growth, just as surely as a big migrant intake. This ageing is also significant spiritually and sociologically.
Douthat cites two powerful novels which take up this theme in different ways. P.D. James’s Children of Men, which did not sell as well as her other “optimistic novels”, tells of a dystopia where the male half of the human race turns sterile overnight and of the consequent mayhem and despair.
The Canadian Margaret Atwood’s novel and television series The Handmaid’s Tale outlines the radical consequences of a massive fertility crisis which makes child-bearing a rare gift that must be controlled politically and provokes the rise of a ruthless theocratic movement which reduces women to servility as child-bearers for the ruling class with no right to property, free movement, literacy, or even a Christian name; an apocalyptic scenario even worse than women’s role in the ancient Roman Empire, where women were emancipated by Christian teaching. Rome then, like China today, did not want baby girls, and women were akin to the property of their fathers and husbands.
Douthat believes that below replacement fertility is now the fundamental fact of privileged life in the early twenty-first century. Japan and probably Russia already have population decline, while India, Italy and China with its disastrous imbalance of the sexes will soon follow. All Western countries are below replacement level, with the European rate at 1.6 children per woman in 2016 (Italy’s is now around 1.2) and Australia a bit better at 1.77.
Mary Eberstadt’s book Adam and Eve after the Pill (2012) is a wonderful study of the revolutionary social consequences from the invention of the pill, of the “cultural renunciation of procreative sex that followed the sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s”. Douthat writes that “some kind of large-scale fertility decline looks like an inevitable corollary of liberal capitalist modernity”. On this issue Christians should be counter-cultural, with larger families, although Douthat shows that religious conservatism does not guarantee this. Swedes have more children than Poles, as Britain and much of Scandinavia have a higher birth rate than Spain, Italy and Greece. Rich, highly educated Israel is exceptional with a rate of 3.1, where even secular Jews have a high birth rate.
Empty cradles contribute to inequality, as fewer children mean less of a spread of wealth through inheritance. Grandchildren bring reasons for optimism and purpose to grandparents and are effective deterrents to addiction, deaths of despair and suicides among elderly men, especially when divorced. The number of suicides in the US among white, non-university-educated males, unemployed after the disappearance of their manufacturing jobs, usually from taking opioids, runs into some hundreds of thousands, and their fellow workers provided a core impetus and continuing support for Donald Trump.
Is Trump decadent; or an exponent of crude, abrasive democratic vitality; or an incompetent forerunner of worse to come? He certainly does not lack energy or confidence, and his reluctance to leave office, to accept the verdict of the voters, is disturbing. But leave office he did, and his reluctance parallels that of many in the Remain constituency after the Brexit vote, although there was almost no physical violence in this latter case.
During my time at the Melbourne Assessment Prison in solitary confinement we could buy a copy of the Herald Sun, separately ordered each day on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The price was taken from our monthly allowance of $140. On one occasion I noticed a short report in a side column of the fact that up to a third of some populations were not interested in sexual activity.
Douthat deals with this, pointing out that the fertility collapse dating from the 1960s and 1970s ran in parallel with the fact that men and women were having more trouble “successfully and permanently pairing off” and that in the last couple of decades they were also having less sex, “as the virtual alternatives to old fashioned copulation” increased.
He quotes a recent study from Japan, probably the pathfinder for much of the Western world, not a weird exception, that 45 per cent of women and a quarter of men aged sixteen to twenty-four were “not interested in or desired sexual contact”. Masturbation first substituted for intercourse and then asexuality for both.
Sixty-five or seventy years ago the struggle for purity in my school was taken seriously and all of us in Year Eight class were members of the Maria Goretti league for purity. I don’t know what the success rate was, but life was more simple then with fewer options for evil. I can remember chuckling about the schoolboy gossip that too much masturbation would make you mad. In Chicago about the same time, according to a priest friend I asked, the consequences were not as grave as only warts were threatened. But the folklore acknowledged the downside, the prison generated by habit, by repeated weakness.
More explicit and degrading pornography started to become available in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the 1980s some feminists and a number of Christians like myself believed that a strong link would be revealed between watching pornography and violent sadistic crimes, cruel rapes and dark masochism. This has not happened.
Constant porn has made arousal more challenging and normal sex less immediately attractive. In the US, surveys show drops in teen sex, teen pregnancy, teen smoking, teen binge drinking and teen drink-driving. The work participation rate has also dropped, perhaps for different reasons. In 1990, 10 per cent of adolescents had lost their virginity before the age of thirteen, whereas only 4 per cent enjoyed that dubious distinction in 2016. The fantasy world has become a substitute for flesh-and-blood behaviour.
Pornography is not new, but the flood of readily available porn on the internet is new and the specially designed traps to lure watchers further into the mire are also new. By any criteria an end result like Japan’s represents a special problem and not just for traditional Christians, who do not see sexual activity as an unfocused recreational right for all adults, but as driven by love and reserved for exclusive and permanent heterosexual unions.
Addiction to porn is quintessentially narcissistic, not conducive to human flourishing and certainly a source of weakness, one manifestation of decadence. It is already breaking up families, worsening a situation where 33 per cent of Australian marriages end in divorce and many children grow up in a household without their father. It will be interesting to see in the future how our sexually liberated society will view this phenomenon, if and when it emerges from the media silence. Will any Australian consensus in the near future agree that Japanese asexuality patterns do represent a problem? Would censorship be any part of a solution?
Douthat does not set out to describe and analyse the economic and military rise of China, and he does not see China as an existential or cultural threat or a genuine alternative to Western decadence. He is inclined to the frightening possibility “that our society could coast on forever as it is—like a Rome without an Attila to sack its palaces”—although he makes a fleeting, unexplained reference to a fractured neo-medieval future of Eurabic and Euroafrican microstates where Australia is a client state of the Chinese empire.
I hope Douthat is wrong about Australia’s future, although we will have to pay economically for our independence and for our continuing alliance with the United States, and I do see China as a long-term threat to Western leadership and Western values which will last for decades and perhaps centuries; an ancient totalitarian civilisation which is immensely more powerful than Attila the Hun ever was.
I think Douthat also underestimates the ways in which the struggle with China will influence our social mores especially in the United States and Australia, less so in Europe, and therefore our decadence; perhaps even provoke a partial escape.
One possibility Douthat envisages, his preferred option, is that there will be “a convergence-in-decadence between the world’s rising great powers and its existing empires” and that China too with its one-party meritocracy and its spectacular growth will come to a prosperous void with patterns of ageing distorted by the imbalance of the sexes, and an ennui and torpor like that of the rich Western economies since the 1970s.
China however is different, like a Roman Empire which has not been broken up, with a history at least as old as Rome’s, and an historical self-awareness and arrogance, exacerbated by the humiliations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which makes the patriotism and pride of even the English and the French seem to pale in comparison.
Douthat also lists some of the items on the dark side of the Chinese ledger. The population is ageing, the size of the workforce is about to decline, the birth rate is low, and as a result of the one-child policy China has 32 million surplus males. The economic growth statistics are unreliable, the debts in the banking system and especially the shadow banking system are formidable, the Chinese population is growing old before most of them are rich and without much social security at all. The army are involved with the police in dealing with tens of thousands of local protests every year, so that the internal tensions and the degree of public surveillance and censorship are far beyond Western norms.
Douthat makes the fascinating claim that Westerners are more optimistic about China than many in the Chinese elite. He quotes a 2015 analysis which he concedes “might be an overstatement” that China is “the most definitely pessimistic place in the world today”, citing the continuing and rising capital flight from the country and the fact that a “near majority of wealthy Chinese would like to migrate”. He also quotes a property developer, Chen Tianyong, who migrated from China to Malta in 2019, claiming that China’s economy is a “giant ship heading to the precipice”.
These problems certainly don’t help the Chinese people and don’t bring us any consolation either, as many a government leader in history has been tempted to foreign adventures as a distraction from troubles at home.
I began following Douthat for his religious commentaries, which are regularly among the best. While he devotes considerable space to this theme, it’s less than I had anticipated, because religious decline in the West is the other side of the decadence coin.
His limited treatment is best explained by his conviction that “political utopianism and religious idealism have lost their grip on the contemporary imagination” and that people generally don’t believe God or politics can save them. This would be closer to the truth in Australia than in the United States, but not entirely true in either country with their immense networks of Christian institutions.
In the Middle Ages learning and civility were maintained through the monasteries and the bishops, but Douthat sees that role in a broken future as being performed by the international tech companies, especially from the US and China, by Silicon Valley and the military. He might be right, but I suspect that this is a New York perspective, and most of the Western world is not in New York.
Everywhere Christianity, too, is under threat from decadence, tempted regularly to believe that a modernised, sanitised set of liberalised Christian teachings will be more marketable. The religious market has proved this is not true.
I don’t believe that either the elites or the masses will be enticed out of decadence by the prospect of a manned space flight to Mars, nor by looking to the stars. Elites, especially when they are without religion, are particularly susceptible to folly; to imagine that they can quickly secularise millions of Islamic migrants; that they can change long-term climate patterns. No computer model has predicted these accurately. Raising the alarm about global warming is no substitute for repentance and faith, although climate change wars are often waged with religious zeal and intolerance.
The Catholic Church and all Gospel Christians in the denominations will be part of the future, no matter how it works out, in most countries. In the West, Christians will have important foundational tasks such as explaining the concept of truth, one basis of our freedom of speech, when we discuss and debate our way towards the Truth of things, beyond the relativism of “my truth” and “your truth” asserted and imposed by violence. Christians will be explaining the importance of just laws, impartial judges, due process and universal human rights, based on the belief that everyone is created in the image of God and is entitled to a “fair go”.
Once again, as in the Manichaean crisis in the fourth and fifth centuries, and against both the Albigensians in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and radical puritans who rejected matter and the flesh as evil, it will be the Church’s task to explain and defend the beauty of the human body and the beauty and goodness of loving sexual activity between a man and a woman.
This is a prize, an attainment, like any other human good, reached only through delayed gratification, slowly acquired self-control. We study for thirteen years to enter into a profession and for nearly as long to begin a trade. Think of the years of work needed to become a competent artist or a first-class athlete. It also takes time to learn to love well. Midas got his wish and everything he touched turned to gold, so that he could neither eat nor drink nor copulate, and Midas is the symbol for the super-abundant porn available easily in many ways and especially on the internet. Our technology is enticing many more at an early stage to start moving towards servitude, becoming bound by habit.
Douthat has written a remarkable book as he sets out to explain why so many in our successful society are bored, tired and frustrated. This is not good for any of us because God, too, is allergic to decadence.
The first volume of Cardinal Pell’s Prison Journal was reviewed by Anne Henderson in the March issue