The Doom Loop By Chris Knight
There is a new book out by New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, The Decadent Society, that should be mentioned, then dismissed without buying or reading its fine print, because, in a decadent post-truth society, that is how we intellectually treat our opponents, mention and dismissal, with no serious study, because there is nothing more to seriously study anymore:
“Is Trump a symptom or a disease? And if he’s a symptom, what’s the underlying sickness? Decadence is one possible answer. This is very close to the argument New York Times columnist Ross Douthat makes in his new book, The Decadent Society. According to Douthat, the US — and really the entire Western world — is stuck in a kind of cultural doom loop. In many ways, Douthat says, we’ve become victims of our own success and are now locked in a state of malaise, in which our culture and politics feel exhausted. Douthat’s definition of a “decadent society” is that we’re trapped in a stale system that keeps spinning in place, reproducing the same arguments and frustrations over and over again. Trump’s election is simultaneously a sign that a lot of people were desperate for something different and a reflection of the shallow and frivolous culture that spawned him. Douthat is a conservative, and so there’s a temptation to treat this book as a reactionary screed, or an angry protest against the modern condition. But I think it’s much more than that, although at times it does lapse into some familiar tropes. He puts his fingers on something real, something a lot of people feel on the left and the right, namely a belief that the status quo is broken and needs a reboot. I spoke to Douthat by phone about the story he wanted to tell in this book, why our dysfunctional politics is a sign of a much deeper problem, if his book is — deep down — an indictment of liberal capitalism, and if he sees any way out of the decadence he diagnoses. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
When you call this society decadent, what exactly do you mean?
Basically, a decadent society manifests forms of economic stagnation, institutional sclerosis, and cultural repetition at a high stage of wealth and technological proficiency and civilizational development. So it’s a society that, by definition, has succeeded in a lot of ways and may actually give the appearance of great energy.
You can’t be decadent without first being successful. But I think it’s important for getting at the reality that decadence is something that comes on civilizations when they’ve reached a certain stage, and it’s not clear where they go next. And I think this is where the US, Western Europe, and increasingly the Pacific rim has been over the last couple of generations.
And how does decadence manifest politically?
People are very upset, and very anxious, and very concerned, and have very intense opinions, but their arguments are stuck in a stalemate. And when there are new ideas, they don’t seem to have a purchase on the real world. And so we end up very energetically going in circles, or practicing politics as a form of entertainment that stimulates you immensely, but doesn’t particularly change the world.
You talk a lot in the book about how repetitive our cultural and political climate has become. We keep making the same movies over and over again and we keep, at least until very recently, having the same political arguments over and over again.
Is our cultural decadence the product of political malaise or is our political malaise the product of cultural decadence?
Well, in the last 10 years or so, we’ve seen a lot of ideological discontent with political decadence. I think you can’t understand Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders without seeing that part of it. People are desperate for an alternative to these sclerotic political systems, and ideologies on the left and right have basically been frozen in place since the 1970s.
But the ground is starting to quake. There’s a strong desire, from thinkers and activists on all sides, to escape decadence. But the nature of the system and the situation makes it hard. You elect populists in the United States or Europe, you get this kind of rebellion, but it’s a rebellion that leads back into stalemate, and you basically get a more corrupt form of government that reduces people’s faith in the system further, but doesn’t actually achieve the things that the populists want to achieve.
And we’ll see what happens in the looming Bernie Sanders presidency. I suspect that the same thing would be true of a socialist president. That you would have some movement and some policy change, but you would also have a lot of intense frustration.
And I think part of this frustration is that we’re sort of play-acting, not in the sense that the people engaged in it aren’t sincere, but in the sense that the combination of the difficulties of actually achieving change, and the fact that we have this political virtual reality on the internet, where people can perform their identities and rage in ways that don’t actually correspond to political organization in the real world.
So a lot of the discontent with decadence ends up getting channeled into virtual politics as opposed to real politics.”
And so it goes on. My impression is that these journalists are not really aware of what is happening out there in the “real world” at a basic street level, and how bad the decline really is, ranging from economic collapse, to social collapse:
“Here’s a tiny observation. Forgive me. You might not like it. I’ve seen many countries collapse. Pakistan. Afghanistan. The Soviet Union. Turkey. Iran. Sri Lanka. Egypt. Some, first-hand. Some from afar, through the eyes of friends and colleagues. But I’ve never seen a country collapse as fast, as severely, and as hard as America is. America’s collapsing at an unprecedented rate. Light-speed. Terminal velocity. Turbo-charged implosion. I don’t think a country has collapsed as fast as America — maybe not in all of history. Especially not a rich and powerful one. Rome took centuries. The Soviet Union’s took decades, and it’s still rolling on. Maybe only small countries which had never really built strong institutions, barely-democracies, have I seen crash this fast, hard, and badly — but that’s the point. American collapse is something unique in modern history. Of course, that’s a subjective judgment — we don’t have an objective speedometer for the collapse of societies. But that is what this essay will be about. To show you, a little bit, what leads me to the idea that America’s crashing and burning at light speed. I want to take a moment to share what I see, by pinning down precisely what I mean by collapse. First, of course, there is political collapse. From democracy to autocracy, kleptocracy, and authoritarianism. America’s political institutions simply don’t function anymore. It’s democracy doesn’t represent the 70% of people who want functioning healthcare, gun control, education, safety nets — but only the 25–30% of immovable extremists who apparently want to live in the Handmaid’s Tale meets 1984 by way of Mein Kampf. Its rule of law has devolved to mass trials and mass disappearances and mothers being separated from their kids at the border. It’s critical systems of governance are so broken that 5000 people died from negligence after…a storm.
The American polity doesn’t resemble the French or German one — in fact, it looks very much like the Pakistani polity, the Saudi, or maybe the Soviet polity. It is completely and utterly dysfunctional, to a degree that is unimaginable among its rich peers. And all that took perhaps a decade or two. Then there is cultural collapse — from a culture of thought, reason, and accomplishment, to one of superstition, violence, and extremism . Kids shoot one another in schools regularly. People die for a lack of basic medicines like insulin — and the average American appears not to know that insulin doesn’t cost $1000 a month, but pennies, even in the world’s poorest countries. Why is that? It is because the are misinformed and kept ignorant by a media that feeds them a diet of Ancient Aliens and Paranormal Files. Hence, what should be a functioning culture is now rife with dark age style superstition. Vaccinate my kids? No way! Never mind that humanity only eradicated smallpox in 1977. But vaccination is the least of America’s descent into superstition: then there is conspiracy theory, “truth” movements, a kind of hypocritical religious fundamentalism that’s quite happy to let kids shoot each other, bigotry, supremacism. And among the professional classes who look down on that, there is a culture of overwork and abuse and greed and cruelty — followed by lowest-common-denominator consumerism as a salve for the wounds of its emptiness. All these things rising are a function of a culture that fails to educate, inform, connect, or bond people together anymore. A culture’s role is to help people makes sense of the world, as Marcel Mauss once argued — but American culture appears only to drive people into a kind of madness, either a frenzy of violence, a paralytic resignation, or a blind rage of fear and ignorance now. How fast did that happen? Well, it didn’t seem to do that so much even a decade ago, did it?
Then there is social collapse — from a modern society of broad-based prosperity, to something more like a dystopian caste society, where each stratum bitterly resents the next, and tries to pull it down, no one lifting anyone else up. The structure of American society is not that of a healthy society any longer. A once prosperous middle class has imploded into a new poor — while a tiny number of rich grew ultra rich. American society now resembles something more like Latin America in its darker times, Egypt, or Pakistan, perhaps. But even that understates the issue, because in America, trust imploded. People don’t trust institutions. They don’t trust society. They don’t trust their neighbours. Social bonds have completely imploded — predatory capitalism’s dream of a disintegrated society of atomized human commodities has finally come true. As a result, of social bonds imploding, norms and rules no longer appear to work at all in America. Kids shooting each other? Ah, that’s terrible — but what can you do? Shrug. Every day brings a fresh scandal — this TV star is a supremacist, that celebrity is a bigot, that politician is a wife-beater ,and so on. How far have norms of decency shattered? There is an open pedophile and rapist running for public office. I don’t think that has happened anywhere in the modern world, ever, so far as I know. Not even in Pakistan, Iran, or Rwanda. And it would have been unimaginable even in the America of the 2000s.
Then there is economic collapse — from modernity’s rising living standards to a new kind of poverty. America has pioneered a new kind of impoverishment — precarity, living at the knife’s edge, in constant anxiety and panic and trauma. The average person has less than $500 in emergency savings. His or her income has been stagnant for decades — and even that economic “number” vastly understates the issue, because while their parents had jobs with benefits, pensions, retirements, protections, they have none of those things. Meanwhile, the price of the basics of life — healthcare, education, finance, food, housing — has exploded, skyrocketed, gone supernova. How much? So much so that just the hospital bill for having a child costs half of median income. Who can afford to live a decent life in a society like that? Not even in Pakistan, Iran, or Afghanistan does having a child cost so much. Not even in severely broken countries do relatively well off people face so constantly the plight of living every day right at the razor’s edge — there, they have, at least, informal safety nets, family support systems, communities to shield them, and public goods to protect them. But Americans have none of these — because predatory capitalism has reduced them to prey. For all these reasons, the average American has no optimism left in the future. He doesn’t believe that his children will live a better life. He is right, sadly. And that is because America is now collapsing at terminal velocity — faster than any society in history, as far as I can tell. And I think that while Americans have a sense things are breaking down around them, they don’t really understand — because they aren’t often told — that a) this is the real thing, genuine collapse b) it is happening not slower or better than elsewhere, but in fact far faster, worse and harder, and c) because it is happening so fast, there is added to the constant stress of predatory capitalism, the heart-stopping turmoil of all these kinds of collapse, political, cultural, social, and economic. Terminal velocity. So, what happens when a society hits the ground? Usually, like anything, it shatters, breaks, and explodes.”
And that is from a mainstream source as well! Thus, the real challenging questions relate to not the decadence of modern society, which is unquestionably real, but impending collapse, which is all around us, and which even the mainstream are starting to seriously contemplate, as the above quotation indicates.