What does the classical epic of Roman grandeur and imperial design have to say to Americans in 2021? On the subject of...
The Great Stagnation—or Decline and Fall?
Decadence is natural. All things of this universe decay, subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the inescapable process of entropy.
Classical authors accepted decay as a natural condition of the world, and certainly of human society. The last books of Plato’s Republic—usually considered a work of political utopianism—are devoted to describing an apparently inescapable process of decay, from the regime of near perfection to the most vicious form of tyranny. The course of the world is to run down. The failure of one generation to pass along its virtues is akin to the natural degradation of our genetic code and the inevitable decline and death of our bodies.
The counsel of the classical authors was to delay the decay. Preserve the virtues; slow the rot; avoid unnecessary innovation. This counsel is at the heart of the conservative disposition: the world is arrayed toward decline, not progress; and, as such, the main role of a healthy society is to stave off decay through prudent maintenance of decent and sustainable social practices. Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville were among the modern heirs of the classical tradition, albeit anomalies in an age that considered itself enlightened and sought to overthrow the old ways in favor of progress.
This disposition has been largely absent in the American tradition, born of the Enlightenment and informed from its inception by a belief in an ever-better future. American critics of this quasi-theological belief in Progress have been rare and often marginalized. Among them, of note is a graduate of Harvard University, a self-described conservative Christian, who wrote an uncharacteristic appreciation of the law of entropy in an age otherwise obsessed with progress and advance. He noted that entropy was the more fundamental natural process than the ascendant Darwinism of his day, and insisted that decay was the definitive and inescapable condition of the known universe. Theories of progress were actually more the wishful thinking of a civilization enamored of a belief in its own inevitable perfectibility than a true understanding of reality. This noteworthy Harvardian pointed to ironclad proof against the inevitability of progress: just look at the sitting president, he wrote.
The president in question was Ulysses S. Grant; the Harvardian, Henry Adams. Writing in the heyday of American faith in material and moral progress, Adams wrote a series of books and essays in which he lamented the moral descent that occurred between the construction of the cathedrals of Chartres and Mont Saint-Michel and the invention of the “Dynamo,” the massive generator that would soon electrify entire cities, regions, and nations. Writing against the spirit of the age, he sought to redirect our wonder. When asked which figure inspired greater devotion, awe, and sacrifice—the Virgin or the Electric Goddess of Progress—Adams had no doubt. Human civilization had declined.
The closest approximation to a well-known, countercultural, conservative Christian Harvard graduate in recent history is Ross Douthat, whose meteoric rise included stints at National Review and The Atlantic, and a current position as columnist for the New York Times. Yet Douthat’s latest book begins with the opposite premise of Adams’s work: decadence is not decay, not the inevitable submission to entropic forces. Rather, decadence is the absence of progress, a form of stagnation. Where Adams might have argued that the best we might hope for is to maintain certain decencies and older ways to prevent decay from advancing—even looking to past achievements for proof of the emptiness of our own purported claims of progress—Douthat seeks to persuade his audience that the best way to reverse our decadent stagnation is to stop standing still.
For Douthat, decadence is expressed in contemporary society in the following ways: the absence of technological progress; economic stagnation; institutional decay; generational (particularly reproductive) sterility; and cultural exhaustion. Douthat’s book opens with something of an homage to libertarian progressives Peter Thiel and Tyler Cowen, both of whom lament the deceleration of technological progress. Douthat embraces this thesis, devoting his opening pages to comparisons of the transformational technologies of the nineteenth-to-mid-twentieth centuries, in comparison to the relative absence of transformative technologies since the latter half of the twentieth century.
Douthat anticipates objections that the internet and social media represent extraordinary technological advances, and counters that access to countless YouTube clips hardly compares to the earlier hopes for interplanetary travel, perpetual-motion engines, and the kinds of healing machines portrayed in the 2013 film Elysium. He approvingly cites Thiel’s observation: “We were promised flying cars. We got 140 characters.” Yet Douthat concludes this first chapter, as he will conclude the book, suggesting that hope still lies in a resurgence of innovation and transformation as the most fundamental answer to the challenge of contemporary “decadence,” understood as stagnation.
This diagnosis of decadence as the deceleration of technological progress and the corresponding solution to decadence as reacceleration bookends Douthat’s book, but it’s the constant presence of Adamsian doubts that generates tensions between Douthat’s hopes for technology, on the one hand, and skepticism toward progressivism, on the other. Many of his markers of decadence—particularly declining birthrates, institutional sclerosis, cultural repetition, and soft or “kindly” despotism—would be better described through the lens of Adams than Thiel. Douthat’s own analysis of these phenomena often reveals them to be more like forms of decay due to apparent progress than he is often willing to explicitly recognize, leading to a persistent disconnect between claim and conclusion that he seems intent on maintaining.
Take declining birthrates, which Douthat describes as a significant indicator of decadence. In a chapter devoted to the subject directly after his lamentation over the deceleration of technological progress in the latter half of the twentieth century, he briefly notes that one significant cause of the rise of this particular form of decadence was that “the birth control pill made accidental pregnancy and delayed parenting more plausible.” It turns out that there was at least one technological “advance” in the second half of the twentieth century that did transform society. Douthat here recognizes that a form of progress—even a major technological advance, the control of human biology—has led to “decadence.” The recognition stands in contrast to his opening claims that technological “deceleration” is a main source of decadence.
Indeed, the main consequence as well as motivation of the widespread adoption of this particular form of reproductive technology is as a form of “progress” that masks actual decay. Douthat acknowledges that “a society with fewer babies will be less dynamic and more stratified, which makes population decline a case study in how decadence overtakes a civilization, because it’s an example of how growth and development can create the necessary preconditions for cultural trends (in this case, toward sexual individualism, postfamilism . . . ).” Now, that’s a sentence that Henry Adams might approve. Apparent progress generates degeneracy. Yet Douthat maintains such a condition is less one of decline than “the seedbed of stagnation.”
A more Adamsian theme of “progress as regress” can be connected to Douthat’s other indicators of “decadence,” such as institutional sclerosis and soft despotism. The form of individualism that is a consequence of “wealth, prosperity, and achievement” arguably lies at the heart of all these expressions of decadence. While sclerosis is a feature, and not a bug, of the American political system, its evident disadvantages were mitigated in a less individualistic culture. Irish political scientist Peter Mair has argued that it was an earlier culture thick with institutions of local interpersonal connection, trust, and “social capital”—including unions, clubs, churches, and political parties—that overcame the natural tendency of the American constitutional system to fragment local from national, citizen from representative, partisan from opponent, and citizen from citizen.
At least some of the intensification of partisanship and resulting sclerosis has been an unintended consequence of a different technology: progressive electoral reforms that weakened parties and local political attachments, making ideology increasingly the driver of politics. Add to this the purported “advance” of virtual “connectivity,” which has obviously exacerbated these tendencies, and we have a perfect brew for “institutional sclerosis.” All this is courtesy of purported forms of technological and cultural “progress” that have resulted in political stagnation that, more fully considered, is the consequence of deeper decay.
Our willing submission to what Douthat describes as “kindly despotism” is yet a further instance of the same dynamic. Douthat recognizes the ways technology allows ever more thorough and insidious forms of social and political control—often eagerly volunteered by individuals to both governments and global corporations. But he is strangely silent on the older, conservative analysis of this phenomenon by Alexis de Tocqueville, who argued that it would be a potential apotheosis of democracy’s progress to result in its opposite: a form of soft despotism. Rather than being the opposite and betrayal of democracy, Tocqueville warned of a form of despotism that would be welcomed by democratic citizens once they had achieved the individualism and personal liberty that are core democratic goals.
Again, Douthat understands that certain technologies can result in degradation. But he neglects to explore a broader thesis that certain kinds of progress and transformation, differently and better understood, are the very sources of decay in a universe that winds down.
Douthat’s insistence that decadence is stagnation rather than decline thus leads him to two peculiar conclusions. First, such decadence is functionally sustainable. Second, what will eventually catapult us out of this stagnation is dramatic technological innovation, in particular, the human effort and ultimate success in populating other planets.
A Deeper Rot
Douthat has always cut an interesting figure in the conservative world that perhaps makes him uniquely suited as a columnist for the New York Times. He offers not just the expected skepticism toward liberal optimism but perhaps equal skepticism toward Adamsian conservative views of decline. His book cuts a path between these two views: since decadence is not (as the word suggests) decay, but stagnation, we can sustain our condition for an indefinite future. People may complain about our politics, our culture, even crises like climate change, but all the insufficiencies giving rise to current discontents are not bad enough, and residual abilities to muddle through are just good enough, to continue without real change. In one of Douthat’s most affecting chapters, he writes of the pessimist’s stance of “waiting for the barbarians,” the expectation and even yearning of a tired and enervated empire for some outside shock that will put it out of its bored and aimless misery. Such a shock, he writes, may never, and indeed probably won’t ever, come.
If our problem was mainly one of stagnation, it might be that such a condition is both sustainable and ultimately reversible through progress. But what if we are experiencing decline masked as progress, not mere stagnation?
Here, the classical tradition that Douthat largely neglects might have offered a caution: a nation’s decline is most evident not when things seem to be going along fine, but when placed under severe stress and unexpected crisis. By the telling of Thucydides, the beginning of the end of the ancient Athenian Empire, grown decadent amid wealth, moral laxness, and imperial grandeur—but believed by its denizens to be unassailable—was a plague. Decadence that seemed indefinitely sustainable was, in the midst of crisis, suddenly revealed to hide a deeper rot. Within a decade, Athens was humiliated, and would never again attain its world-straddling might. Today we can confront the vivid evidence of decay when visiting the ruins of its past glories amid its contemporary national insignificance and poverty—or, more poignantly, file past the Elgin marbles in a museum of another exhausted empire.
Douthat concludes where he began: the only thing that might save us from stagnation is technological salvation. Our current cultural decadence arises most fundamentally, he argues, from disappointed technological hopes—namely, the belief that we would someday colonize the stars. Our discontents lie in our resignation that “there is quite literally nowhere else for mankind to go, that we are stuck here waiting either to destroy ourselves accidentally or to have nature hit a reboot, via a comet or a plague, on our entire up-from-hunter-gathering, east-of-Eden project.” Short of escaping the bounds of our planet, the frontier has closed—physically and morally. Neither declining nor ascending, stagnation is all that may remain.
But in a final, hesitant, Adamsian proviso, Douthat wonders whether it might be the case “that we can’t morally justify the expansion of [our] power to the stars unless we become better stewards of the planet, our society, ourselves.” Stewardship is quite close to the Adamsian understanding of how to stall entropy within a civilization. Perhaps that test, that shock, that “black swan event” is now upon us, revealing whether our decadence is so advanced that our not-distant future is that of Athens’s present, or whether, through a concerted effort to reverse our decay (if such a course is possible), we might have some hope of becoming stewards of a society more invested in cultivating and sustaining virtue than pinning our hopes on the invention of a flying car.
Patrick J. Deneen is professor of political science and holds the David A. Potenziani College Chair of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Why Liberalism Failed.
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