The good qualities of a bad situation must be acknowledged. Chapter 8 of Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society (2020) is “Giving Decadence Its Due”. He references “optimists like Harvard’s Pangloss, Steven Pinker”, who has written extensively on why almost everything is getting better – despite decadence. Professor Pangloss is a character in Voltaire’s satirical Candide (1759) which made fun of optimistic philosophy. Pangloss’ mantra was “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. As terrible things transpired in the play he kept repeating that to the point of silliness.
This is the fourth and final chapter on why decadence is sustainable. Despite Douthat’s disdain for decadence, he is forced to acknowledge that it’s not so bad. We live in times “as wealthy and healthy and long-lived as any society in human history, with many cruelties removed, various inequalities substantially reduced, the hand of tyranny lighter on most people than in many prior epochs, the chances of horrifying tragedy diminished”. It’s not perfect, but don’t we want to keep the good times rolling? The book is a criticism of our current cultural conundrum, hence the Pangloss reference, but it’s important for critics to give decadence its due.
Maybe Pinker is right and we shouldn’t look the gift horse of capitalism in the mouth. Read his book Enlightenment Now (2018) – he’s pretty convincing. Perhaps we should just be grateful for the comforts and safety of modernity and stop bitching about decadence. Complaining about cultural problems is a luxury good. Douthat makes the case for wanting decadence to continue, the human race finally having achieved a balance between the misery of grinding poverty and dangers of blindly ambitious economic growth. It would be a good thing for Michael Lind’s managerial elite to suppress populist revolts because preserving our “fully grown economy” is important to ensure that our enviable situation lasts as long as possible and can be enjoyed by as many people as possible.
Nonetheless, he ends the chapter with the conclusion that decadence still needs its critics. The longer it continues the more extended our period of stagnation, repetition, futility and absurdity. An unrestricted drift into decadence risks our slipping into a Dark Age or catastrophic societal collapse. Next week, we turn to those possibilities in the final 3 chapters of his book.