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An interview with Ross Douthat: Trump, Biden and (sustainable) decadence

The brilliant columnist of The New York Times Ross Douthat has just published a fascinating essay, entitled in Spanish 'La sociedad decadente. Cómo nos hemos convertido en víctimas de nuestro propio éxito'

Daniel Capó Actualizado:

An interview with Ross Douthat: Trump, Biden and (sustainable) decadence
Foto: Abigail Douthat
Daniel Capó

Daniel Capó

De la biografía me interesan los espacios habitables. Creo en las virtudes imperfectas y en la civilizada inteligencia de la moderación

The brilliant columnist of The New York Times, Ross Douthat (1979), has just published a fascinating essay, entitled in Spanish La sociedad decadente. Cómo nos hemos convertido en víctimas de nuestro propio éxito (Editorial Ariel). Far from falling into the temptation of catastrophe -his book is, indeed, optimistic-, Douthat tells us about a time that bids farewell to any illusions. A time that navigates in between the agitation produced by the media and the disappointment of a stalled economy; between a political and social fracture and a cultural and demographic decline.

You begin La sociedad decadente by resorting to an almost schmittian landscape: the overcoming of the last frontier with the landing of the Apollo on the Moon. 1969 thus marks a climax and a beginning: optimism gives way to the beginning of decadence. Why did that happen? The discovery of new lands has always been associated with an imperial dawn.

It helps, though, if the new lands are places that people want to go. The expectation of the space age was that there would be the will, the technology and ultimately the financial inducements to make space habitable for human beings: First space stations and moon bases, then asteroid mines, then eventually terraforming Mars. But instead the Cold War impetus diminished (there’s an interesting American TV show now, For All Mankind, that imagines the Soviets beating the U.S. to the moon, which in turn accelerates space investment after 1969), the moon was cold and barren, and everything was too far out of reach to make either colonization or resource-extraction plausible. That may eventually change; indeed it may be changing already, with SpaceX and its competitors. But for the last fifty years neither the desire nor the incentives have been strong enough to overcome the cold emptiness of the last frontier.

You use the word decadent. Gibbon talked about decline” and Khaldun is translated as decay”. They all seem to be referring to a similar phenomenon: growth, expansion and wealth which reaches a peak at which point the society rots from the inside and succumbs to more vigorous forces. Would you say that what the Western world experiencing is just deja vu all over again” and this is part of an inevitable cycle? Is humanity doomed to always repeat this pattern?

In some form it does seem to be inevitable, given the human nature we all share: Wealth and luxury always eat away at the incentives for creativity, vigor and expansion. (This happens to human beings as well as civilizations: Ask George R.R. Martin why it’s been so hard to finish his Game of Thrones saga once the HBO version made him insanely rich and famous.) But it doesn’t always happen in the same way: Sometimes you get decadent phases that lead to swift decline, sometimes they lead to stasis, and sometimes you can get recovery and renaissance without the full catastrophe, the plunge into a Dark Age. (Gibbon was unkind to Byzantium, but their fascinating thousand years as a kind of quasi-Rome are an example of why simple rise and fall narratives don’t even apply to the Roman Empire itself.)

The capitalist economic model has been associated with a similar cycle sometimes referred to as creative destruction”. Some observers regard this as a flaw; others as a virtue where human institutions self destruct to make way for something more efficient and perhaps grander. Is it possible that the decadence you refer to is simply a prelude to a shinier city on the hill?

It’s possible, but the problem from the capitalist point of view is precisely that there isn’t a lot of creative destruction happening in the Western world of late: Fewer new businesses are being founded than forty years ago, fewer old firms are going out of business, and in the big new zone of economic activity, the internet, you’ve had a swift consolidation, with a handful of dominant behemoths dominating just a couple of decades in. Or to take a narrower example: In U.S. higher education there’s no creative destruction whatsoever; the same big rich famous schools top the rankings every years, and their smaller competitors are increasingly squeezed by declining school-age populations (and now by Covid). If decadence meant decay *and* new things growing through the ruins, that would fit the creative-destruction model, but instead it’s often meant that the decaying institutions still stand, still dominate, and there’s little room for the green shoots to spring up.

A conservative examination of the current pandemic invites us to think that the coronavirus crisis has exposed many other previous crises that were previously latent. If we make a simple comparison between different geographical areas, we observe that as a whole the West has been much less effective in its fight against the virus than most Asian countries. Could this be yet another sign of Western decadence that you speak about in your book?

Yes. The book argues that there are commonalities between the Western and East Asian situation – for instance, we’re all living with collapsing birthrates – but on the evidence of the pandemic institutional decadence is unevenly distributed, and there seems to be more of it in Europe and the U.S. than South Korea and Taiwan. But there are also distinctions within the West: The American success creating a vaccine shows that our sciences still have vigor despite our clear social and institutional failures in the response to the pandemic. On the other hand, Europe seemed to do a better job with the socio-political response in the first six months, but the E.U. has botched vaccine acquisition and deployment in a profound way, in a way that illuminates the Union’s own institutional problems, it’s odd status as a halfway house between real national sovereignty and actual continental federalism.

In his 2020 annual letter, the Chinese thinker Dan Wang pointed out that «As a society turns developed, its main problems become social: an organizational sclerosis which no technology is sophisticated enough to solve». This is probably true. And the use of certain key technologies will undoubtedly have important consequences for the future of states and politics. But I would like to ask you about the culture first. Are the social problems that we face today eminently cultural or economic, institutional or technological? You speak of decadence as a mix of political sclerosis, scientific and economic stagnation, cultural repetition and demographic winter…

This is why decadence can’t be easily escaped: It’s a bundled phenomenon, with lots of feedback loops between the different forms of stagnation and sclerosis. Sclerotic political institutions produce policy failures that lead to economic stagnation, which lowers birthrates, which makes societies older and more risk-averse, which makes institutions more sclerotic, continuing the cycle. Older societies are also less likely to take up and integrate new technologies, which reduces the incentives to develop them – and so on. You can’t just break out with a single spark – a new form of tech, a new set of political ideas. You somehow need to set off a chain reaction.

I especially think of the demographic winter as a metaphor for decline. A fertile society needs to have faith in some great project that will outlast us in the future. Do societies need some kind of faith to survive?

Not to survive, maybe, but certainly to thrive. The dystopian society in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, which sometimes feels like the destination awaiting us at the end of a technologically-proficient decadence, is proud of its stability, perfectly capable of enduring for generations … but by design it generates nothing new, no novelty or creativity, and also by design it crushes all the disruptive and aspirational elements of human nature. And it makes babies by “decanting,” in factories, with no romantic element involved. But if you want babies made the old-fashioned way, if you want people to make that kind of commitment (and it’s substantial, let me tell you!) or similar kinds in other spheres, you need a sense that the effort is for something, that it last in this world and also echoes in eternity. And that’s where the pull of decadence is definitely connected to a crisis of faith, an exhaustion of hope that the world has a story, that it’s actually going somewhere and isn’t one damn thing after another.

You actually published a previous book titled Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, where you defended the idea that «Christianity’s place in American life has been taken over by heresy», not by agnosticism. A bad religion, you’d say, instead of a true religion. Would you say that something similar has happened in democracy? I mean, would you say that the place of democracy in Western life may have been replaced by a set of bad ideas and a wrong language? Can heresy alter the functioning of liberal democracy? 

I would put it slightly differently: In a healthy religious society, you need a strong orthodoxy but also room for heresies, room for argument and creativity and debate. You don’t want to just live under the Inquisition, in other words, but neither do you want to live in a world with no religious center, no institutional continuity or vitality. And the heresies, in an odd way, lose their own vitality when they don’t have a strong center to push against: You go from the heresy of, say, a Ralph Waldo Emerson or a Joseph Smith in the American 19th century, potent heresies that inspired intellectual movements in the East and the founding of a Mormon society in the West, to the more insipid heresies of self-help religion in our own time.

In politics, by analogy, you might say that you need a vital center, a shared faith, and also strong critiques of that center from the left and right. And I’m not sure we have either: In Europe and America both, there’s a center that feels exhausted and discredited, but then the populist and far-left alternatives often feel ridiculous and ineffectual in their own way, like play-acting versions of their 20th and 19th-century antecedents.

You are a Roman Catholic and Catholics have a very close relationship with reality. Another Catholic thinker, the late historian John Lukacs, used to say that the tendency to abstraction is the main characteristic of our time. We have the Internet, e-meetings, cryptocurrencies, clouds and all kinds of digital social networks. Do you think that part of our current moral and political crisis is the consequence of this lack of contact with reality? In fact, in a recent public conversation that you had with Bruno Maçaes, you even used the term dreampolitik to refer to the current state of politics.

Yes, that’s a phrase I stole from Joan Didion to describe how the internet, especially, allows political partisans to increasingly live in worlds of their own imagining. What’s interesting is that Maçaes and I have similar diagnoses here, but he is much more optimistic about the potential creativity involved in political virtualism, the extent to which this kind of virtual storytelling might itself be a way out of decadence, out of political stalemate into something new, which I have a harder time seeing: I’m enough of an old-fashioned flesh-and-blood person – maybe an old-fashioned Catholic in that sense – to think that the virtual only transforms when it intersects fully with reality. So bitcoin and crypto generally might be revolutionary, but only if it funds new physical ventures in the West, creates new power centers outside the current political order, or enables new developments in, say, Africa – and not if it just provides a new playground for a rich country’s online speculation. (I own a little myself, so I’m as a guilty as anyone.)

You quote Jacques Barzun’s definition of decadence. That makes me think of acedia. For the ancient world, acedia was one of the great demons -“the noon demon” John Cassian called it- that could destroy men and societies. In its etymological sense, acedia refers to a lack of care, but many of its symptoms – from continuous pessimism to stress and hyperactivity – remind me a lot the definition of decadence that Barzun described. May an old word help us to understand our time? Do we live in acedic times?

In many ways, yes. But the stress and hyperactivity part is especially important: Barzun makes the point that the decadent society is also a time of restless action, as people try to find a way out of their acedia, and not finding one, grow frustrated and angry and resentful. So it’s not just an age of depression and inactivity; it’s an age that swings between  inactivity and spasms of useless-seeming action, between depressive and manic moments. That helps explain I think, the switching of power between geriatric establishments and incompetent populists – both represent forms of acedia, different but complementary modes.

For some years we have witnessed the return of populisms: extreme nationalism, for example, and different identity variants of Marxism. In your opinion, which ideological language – the conservative, the nationalist, the marxist, the liberal – predominates today and has shaped our era most?

Still the liberal. Even the most authoritarian-seeming populists aren’t formally setting up dictatorships or monarchies; even the radical socialists mostly just want to take their countries in a more Scandinavian direction; even actual dictators like Vladimir Putin still pretend to be running democracies. Liberalism feels exhausted but at the same time the memory of 20th century totalitarianism means that very few people – save for the occasional very-online radicals – are willing to say they intend to leave its norms and systems totally behind.

For many Europeans, Trump represents nationalism and Biden represents liberal cosmopolitanism. But both give the impression of reflecting the effects of a very similar decline. Do you agree with this assessment?

Probably. Trump represents the revolt against against decadence that ends up succumbing to decadence in its own way. Biden is the candidate of sustainable decadence, the aging status quo – with the open question being whether he has an opportunity to be something more than that, if he can benefit from a post-Covid boom and Trump’s resilience as a GOP leader dragging his opposition down.

Historically there has been friction between underpopulated regions that produce essentials like food, water, and natural resources and the urban commercial and government centers that consume them. It is playing out today in places like France, India and the United States. Much of that is economic, but the pace of social change tends to be slower in the country than the city. Do you think this underlies much of the polarization between red states and blue ones?

Yes, but with the special detail that recent economic and cultural trends have simultaneously recruited more talented people away from the hinterlands – so it’s not just that they’re underpopulated, its that their natural leaders have all been vacuumed up into the meritocracy – and also increased the cultural distance, maybe the religious distance especially, between metropolitan enclaves and rural areas. So the normal historical friction is exacerbated by cultural and religious polarization, and the hinterland is more paranoid and populist because it lacks a strong class of leaders who might negotiate with and challenge the metropole effectively.

You bet on a long slow descent that could last for generations instead on a fairly sudden collapse in our lifetime. But, don’t you agree with René Girard when he says that Apocalypsis is not a metaphor? In one of his last books, Achever Clausewitz, he argues that for the first time in history we have to think about the end of times as a real human possibility, and not because of the punishment of any divinity. To what extent should we use some kind of apocalyptic scale when interpreting reality?

Certainly as a Christian I think the apocalypse is not just a metaphor, and I say at the end of the book that if there were an apocalypse coming – meaning not necessarily the end of the world, but an unveiling of a new dispensation – then the moment when the human race has filled the world but can’t figure out where to go next would be precisely the sort of moment one would expect it to arrive. My sense that decadence could last for generations is interpretation and projection on the human scale, but the last chapter tries to lift up, a little, to something more Girardian.

Finally, when reading your book, I thought of the beautiful verses that the poet Fernando Pessoa dedicated to the Portuguese sea: 

Who wants to go beyond Bojador,

Must go beyond sufferance.

I wonder if a future like this, a kind of sweet decadence – a more or less stable decadence as you suggest in your book – is not better than another adventurer, where the epic is accompanied by enormous human suffering. Plus ultra, of course, as the old motto of the Hispanic monarchy says, but at the same time a necessary trade off between decadence and adventure.

Vitality, by definition, comes with immense temptations, to which the entire modern project has often succumbed. From the first Spanish explorers onward, it’s achievements coexist with terrible crimes, its great deeds with great suffering, great sins.

But I’m not sure decadence is necessarily morally preferable. Yes, it leads to fewer great crimes, but also perhaps fewer saints and heroes, and sloth and despair and suicide are serious sins in their own right. It risks less but gains less, offers comforts but less chance of transformation. And you can slide, inch by inch, toward a real dystopia without realizing where you’re headed until it’s too late.

Certainly a sustainable stagnation is preferable to a willful destruction, an attempt to throw off decadence by throwing oneself into war or terrorism or worse. But is a comfortable, cosseted old age the most the Western world can hope for? I hope not.

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