Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces. Amazing civilizations rise, and they fall. Why? Many attributable reasons are offered, but did they just run out of momentum and forward progress due to boredom and a general fatigue with it all? Is that what we are approaching in our own modern era? How would you know?
When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, a culture is decadent. We live in very restless times, accompanied by a prevailing lack of energy for passionate engagement. We're tired as a society, and definitely growing bored.
There are four signs that we may have passed our cultural zenith and begun a descent toward the ultimate dissolution of our way of life: stagnation, sterility, sclerosis, and repetition.
Economic stagnation is the most widely documented form of contemporary stagnation, characterized by falling GDP growth rates worldwide over the past half-century, little or no growth in working-class wages, lower social mobility, lower geographic mobility in search of new jobs, and healthy working-class males dropping out of the labor force. Surprisingly, we may also be in the midst of a prolonged period of technological stagnation.
How can this be, you ask, when the IT revolution has made daily life in 2020 so different from daily life in 2000? Look at it another way. Since the advent of the industrial revolution, the world has seen remarkable shared cultural moments like the development of the steamship, railroad, assembly line, and commercial aviation. But the last such event occurred half-a-century ago when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. What passes for anything remarkable since then has been restricted to consumerism (Disney World, Las Vegas), and perhaps the prospect of nuclear fusion and a revolutionary virtual world.
We used to travel faster, build bigger, live longer; now we communicate faster, chatter more, snap more selfies. We used to go to the moon; now we make movies about space - amazing movies with completely convincing special effects in which small fortunes are spent to make it seem like we’ve left earth behind.
Sterility refers to the below-replacement birth rates that are observed in almost every advanced nation. Low birth rates have a variety of adverse economic consequences, but that’s not the main point. Societies without many young people are simply less likely to be dynamic, less interested in risk taking, than societies with younger demographic profiles. The growing number of young adults who say they don’t even want children is linked with solipsism and anomie. Their rates of depression increase, along with those of people who vaguely wanted to have children but never got around to it.
The increasing sclerosis of institutions has been documented and widely accepted for half a century. Institutional sclerosis is baked into the politics of advanced democracies, the result of forces that James Madison anticipated in The Federalist. A small interest group composed of people who are intensely motivated to pass a law or regulation that solely benefits them can overcome the diffuse opposition of the great mass of the population. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic will doubtless provide a worldwide basis for comparing the stages of institutional sclerosis across nations. No one who has studied the functioning of the American administrative state in recent decades can doubt that the United States is suffering from an advanced case.
These are aspects of advanced civilizations that are probably inevitable but are not necessarily all that bad. In itself, slow economic growth doesn’t mean things are getting worse, just that they aren’t getting better quite as fast as they used to. The malaise and sense of futility associated with economic stagnation are genuine responses as of 2020, but need not be such forever. Surely people can learn to be cheerful about slow growth in the presence of fantastic absolute wealth - and that’s what slow growth will inexorably produce.
In itself, a national birth rate at or slightly below replacement is a good thing, not a bad thing - populations can’t keep expanding forever without eventual catastrophe. Today, below-replacement birth rates often reflect social and cultural malaise, however. One can only imagine future cultures in which zero population growth is not a symptom of cultural sterility but the result of a mature policy choice taken by a society that loves and values children.
In itself, institutional sclerosis arises from specific, known defects in law, regulations, and incentives. Although the process that produces it may be an inescapable part of democracy, the problems it creates are ones that can be fixed or at least ameliorated by better policies if the political will can be found.
The fourth sign, repetition, is different from the others. It is not just an indicator of cultural exhaustion. It is the thing itself. It is seen most easily in terms of the arts; between 1500 and 1900, the Renaissance produced three rich new cognitive inventions in the arts: linear perspective for the visual arts, polyphony for music, and the use of the vernacular for literature. The implementation of these resources was fostered by technological innovations - oil paints for the visual arts, improved instruments for music, and the printing press for literature. Through 1900, the combination of cognitive and technological innovation produced successive waves of wonderful new creations. But harbingers of exhaustion were discernible even in the 19th century, and became palpable not long into the 20th.
The visual arts represent the obvious example of deterioration. By the mid-20th-century, with a few admirable exceptions, the modern art world seemed determined to make itself the butt of jokes. Little has changed since then.
In music, the disappearance of listenable music in the high culture was accompanied by vibrant creativity in the popular culture, whether it took the form of jazz, the compositions of George Gershwin, the Broadway musicals of the 1940s and ’50s, or rock ’n roll during the 1960s and ’70s. But since the late ’70s? The increasing repetitiveness of composition and musicianship in pop music is aall there is to see. What’s the difference, really, between the music of the 1990s and the 2010s - between the music of Madonna and Lady Gaga, of Mariah Carey and Adele? Between the heavy metal or rock or rap of the 1980s and those genres now? Nuances distinguish them. You don’t need to resort to nuances to tell the difference between the music of the 1970s and 1950s or the 1950s and 1930s.
In literature, serious American fiction was redefined continually through the first 60 years of the 20th century. Compare the distinctive sensibilities and styles apparent in the voices of Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, and John Updike. How are the sensibilities and styles of the best authors in the 2010s distinguishable from those writing in the 1980s?
Does the picture improve when we turn to the new platforms that the 20th century gave us: film and television? For most of the 20th century, those new platforms fostered steadily improving creations. The film industry still produces the occasional gem, but the gems are increasingly buried beneath the pile of superhero franchises and recycling of old material. Consider: among the 25 top-grossing films in 2019, just three – 12% - had a story line and characters that had not already appeared on screen. The others were all sequels or remakes. By way of comparison, the percentage of new stories and characters for the top-25s from 1950 to 1979 was 90%.
The closest thing to an exception to the curse of repetition is television, which has produced a torrent of high-quality miniseries over the past 20 years. But, there’s a caveat even for television: it’s telling that even the great shows of the early 2000s often felt vital and relevant precisely because they were so good at holding up a mirror to frustration, futility, repetition, decay, corruption - in a word, to decadence. And even television’s golden age appears to be increasingly replaced by a different age in which the flood of content is overwhelming but also often algorithmically optimized, tending inevitably toward its own forms of repetition, mediocrity, the safe imitation of more daring forms.
That is just a consideration of the arts, but repetition applies to many other aspects of our culture, including politics and religion. It is increasingly evident that our society is moving toward a “comfortable numbness.” Drugs have been with us from the beginning, but the ones with the broadest appeal now are downers such as marijuana, heroin, and opioids, more like the soma of Brave New World than mania-inducing uppers. Virtual realities, whether they consist of sex robots or wraparound gaming headsets, offer other kinds of escape. These new uses of drugs and virtual realities don’t solve social problems; indeed they worsen them… but at the same time, they prevent those problems from having the broader consequences that a society without so many drugs and distractions would expect to experience.
Brave New World also appears to have been more prophetic than George Orwell’s 1984. The kindly despotism that is likely to oversee decadent societies is one we are seeing more and more of - leadership that merely nudges if possible, shoving only when necessary. The state will protect civil liberties of pleasure and consumption and the freedom to be “safe,” while abandoning such civil liberties of freedoms of speech, religion, and privacy.
The question is how much staying power such a society will have. In the past, each decadent civilization has eventually given way to a dynamic competitor. In our case, might it be Islam? China? Russia? An America led by a more capable populist president? Anything is possible. But there is also the possibility of a worst case scenario. Suppose that the aging advanced nations cannot sustain their deficit-financed prosperity. Or that the population of Africa continues its rapid growth, resulting in a mass migration into Europe that meets increasing resistance. This is a combustible mix that could in fact produce an unprecedented global political and economic crisis. While neither is perhaps likely, the chance is nontrivially greater than zero.
What about the possibility of turning everything around? Making Western Civilization Great Again? The polities of America and of many other Western countries are stymied by a deadlock between people who imagine that the resources of a fading past can revitalize Europe and America, and people who think that the only possible problem with our cosmopolitan society is that it isn’t cosmopolitan enough. Neither side shows signs of being able to prevail, because each suffers from a fatal weakness: A conservatism with no vision of how to revitalize itself and, therefore, no defense except the wall. A liberalism that doesn’t recognize how little it satisfies the human heart; how vulnerable it would be to real challenges if they arose.
But who knows? Rome in the first century from Tiberius through Nero is the classic illustration of a decadent polity - but Trajan became emperor just 30 years after Nero’s death, beginning a century during which the Roman Empire reached its zenith and then sustained that peak for another two centuries. And yet, Rome also makes the case that decadence matters. After the republic fell, the fabled Roman virtues crumbled. Civic life deteriorated in ways that affected not only patricians but plebeians. Despite its power and immensity, the empire produced little that was new and lasting.
In Edward Gibbon’s harsh judgment, imperial Rome was “peopled by a race of pygmies.” W.H. Auden was still more damning: “What fascinates and terrifies us about the Roman Empire is not that it finally went smash,” but that “it managed to last for four centuries without creativity, warmth, or hope.” To Ross Douthat, that sounds grimly like the predicament in which our decadent society finds itself. “The only thing more frightening than the possibility of annihilation is the possibility that our society could coast on forever as it is - like a Rome without an Attila to sack its palaces, or a Nineveh without Yahweh to pass judgment on its crimes.”
Will we ultimately unify to restore creativity, warmth, and hope, or will we crash in a heap from polarized stagnation, sterility, sclerosis, and repetition? Which timeline will you choose to follow into the future???
Adapted from a book review by Charles Murray in Claremont Review