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The Decadent Society: How We Became the…

The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success (utgåvan 2020)

av Ross Douthat (Författare)

MedlemmarRecensionerPopularitetGenomsnittligt betygOmnämnanden
1064198,524 (3.82)1
Titel:The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success
Författare:Ross Douthat (Författare)
Info:Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster (2020), 272 pages
Samlingar:Ditt bibliotek


The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success av Ross Douthat


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Has the feel of classical philosophy to it, just a man with his reason, trying to understand the world. Lacks in scholarship and bores you with analysis of cinema films. The thesis is very persuasive but that's more a function of good writing than any solid argumentative backing.

One extra complaint: if you're going to try an predict the future and offer a wide range of possibilities to cover all scenarios at least indicate what you personally think is most likely, to fail to do so is weak. ( )
  TeaTimeCoder | Dec 23, 2020 |
I purchased this book at my local Barnes & Noble a week before the near total shutdown of the workplace for two weeks in order to "bend the curve" of the rate of infections from Covid-19. I finally read the book as the partial shutdown enters its sixth month. In the interval we have experienced not only the impact of the global pandemic but the ongoing pandemic of "mostly peaceful" insurrections in many of our major cities featuring not only attacks upon the police departments but a concerted effort to remove from the public square all statues and monuments that celebrate America's history at least prior to the last fifty years.

With this backdrop I took up Ross Douthat's "The Decadent Society, which was published this year but before the crises that have made 2020 such a dispiriting time.

By decadence Douthat does not mean the frequently employed sense of the word to imply a self-indulgent hedonism. Rather he takes his cue from Jacques Barzun, who in his "From Dawn to Decadence" published in the year 2000, offers the following description.

"All that is meant by Decadence is 'falling off'. It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted; the stages of development have bee run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces."

Douthat, building on Barzun, expands the definition of decadence to feature "...economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development". The first four chapters of the book are assertions of evidence of Stagnation, Sterility, Sclerosis, and Repetition, Douthat's Four Horsemen of what may or not turn out to be our apocalypse. It is Douthat's thesis that barring some cataclysmic event such as the meteor that does unto us what was done unto the dinosaurs millions of year ago, or an accidental triggering of a nuclear war that entails our complete self-destruction, or a pandemic (Oops!) that we ought to be able to muddle along fairly comfortably for maybe hundreds of years before the barbarians finally finish us off.

If for Hegel the end of History arrived with Napoleon's victory at Jena (or maybe the publication of Hegel's Phenomenology), and for Fukuyama History comes to an end with the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire, for Douthat the climax of our civilization is symbolized by the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 and the subsequent end of the Space Age" although that end is certainly a matter more of speculation than fact.

Douthat's argument for stagnation is based on an analysis of economic data in the years between the Clinton and Trump presidencies that show that in terms of household incomes the average family had earned less income in sixteen of the eighteen years prior to 2017. Moreover, the average household wealth figure of $97,000 in 2017 was slightly below the late 1990 levels. It is arguable about how meaningful a 20 year snapshot is, but when you consider that this period encompasses the end of the dotcom/telecom driven bubble created by the launch of the World Wide Web in the early 90's, the 9/11 disaster followed by the still ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market and the ensuing great recession, maybe these numbers don't look quite as mediocre as they might at first glance.

A more interesting argument is the suggestion that since the middle of the 20th century the significance of the scientific and technological progress does not bear comparison with the impact on daily life of the inventions of the first half of the 20th century, the space age and the Internet era notwithstanding. What is inarguable is that every "advanced for its time society" has at some point ceased to advance. What happened to the civilizations of imperial China and the Ottomans will eventually happen to the West. The question is have we reached that point in the curve.

The case for Sterility is a little harder to dispute. It is a matter of fact and concern that the developed nations are in a reproductive cycle that is resulting in a population decline that may not be reversible unless offset by immigration, whether welcome or not, from Africa, the Middle East, or Latin America. As Mark Steyn is fond of pointing out the future belongs to those who show up. The fertility rate in America in 2018 was an average of 1.7 children per woman, an all time low. The average fertility rate needed for a society to replace itself is 2.1.

In 2016 the fertility rate for Australia was 1.77, for Canada and China 1.6, for Japan 1.41, South Korea 1.25 and Singapore 0.82. These are going out business indicators.

The case for Sclerosis is largely based on politics in the 21st century which feature increased polarization between political parties and the constituents they represent, the frustration of getting anything significant accomplished legislatively and the consequent outsourcing of the legislative function in the United States to the judiciary and the executive branch via the unelected bureaucracy or the expanded use of executive orders.

Across the pond the travails of the European Union, most obviously the case of Brexit, but also the troubles facing the southern and eastern European membership caused by a common currency dependent on Germany's interests and world view has opened up opportunities for a revived nationalism is many member countries. Douthat compares the EU at onw point to a "Hotel California" - where, as Brexit showed, you can vote yourself out at any time as long as you don't actually try to leave.

Finally, Douthat takes up the them of Repetition and makes the case that we are experiencing the Eternal Return to 1975 in our culture. He compares the culture shock experienced by Marty McFly who returns to the 1955 from 1985 and argues that had "Back to the Future" been made in 2015, the differences between 2015 and 1985 would seem relatively trivial. The past as represented by 1985 America would not seem like another country when compared with the past represented by 1955.

Popular culture in our time seems to be a never ending repetition and recycling of the recent past, see for example, Star Wars and Star Trek, the DC Comics and Marvel Comics themed movies. In politics and in popular culture we've been experiencing deja vu all over again and again.

So what are our prospects? Odds are that we will continue to muddle along for some time, maybe hundreds of years before it all comes to an end courtesy of a a meteor, global warming, or History returns when the barbarians finally get here. I couldn't help but think at various points of the book that Douthat's point of view was some melange of "What, me worry?", "It just doesn't matter", "Don't worry, be happy", or as Stanley Baldwin's 1930's campaign slogan put it, "You've never had it so good."

That said, if this was Douthat's understanding then there would have been not point to the book. It could be we are headed for a dystopian solution in the spirit of Brave New World's "A gram is better than a damn.". It is unlikely that Catholic integralism, Communism, neo-liberalism, socialism, etc. are destined to bring us out of this malaise. Perhaps a collective response to the challenge of the climate change crisis, perhaps a revived quest to explore our solar system and beyond or a Christian revival sprung from non-Western influences will generate a new era of growth, creativity and technological advances such that our winter of discontent becomes an ancient memory.

Douthat's meditation on these matters is interesting, well argued and moderate in criticism and prescription. It merits your attention. ( )
  citizencane | Sep 3, 2020 |
Had a mixed reaction to this book. First a chapter on what is meant by decadence and then on to discussions of which it is easy to agree, but just as easy to disagree. Society, as far as inventiveness has stalled, after years of inventions. Moon walks and other household items, industrial items, big and small. In the last fifty years or so most of the inventiveness has been in the tech center, computers and things thus related.

Politics that no longer work, no longer propel us further. Some chapters are gone over in depth, other like the sections in culture, seemed just plain silly. He seems to think it will take an unexpected, dangerous event to get people moving in using their minds again and moving us forward instead of just living with the status quo. Since this book was published before the current Covid crisis, is it possible that this event could accomplish what has been missing? Are their any would be inventors, now bored from sheltering in place, thinking and creating items that would never have happened? I guess only time will tell ( )
  Beamis12 | Apr 21, 2020 |
Ross Douthat seems to have discovered that time runs like a programmable treadmill. Sometimes it goes really fast, and sometimes it slows to a crawl. Between the late sixties and 2010, it ran really fast. There were all kinds of developments: space achievements, drug discoveries, computers for all, the internet, GPS, smartphones, Trader Joe’s, …. But things have slowed down again (or we’ve grown accustomed to high intensity). Innovations seem fewer and more strained. It makes some think we have come to The End. His book The Decadent Society is an analysis of the stagnation period he thinks we’re in. Suffused with decadence.

The book devotes an entire chapter to his endless attempt to define decadent. Douthat cites all manner of authors, scholars and others on its varying definitions and aspects. By the end of the chapter, I had no idea what Douthat would settle on for the rest of the book. I can tell you what mine is: selfish, thoughtless, excess consumption beyond needs. It can apply to overspending, pointless consumerism or ruining the ecological system. This might be too simplistic, but it’s always in mind when reading this book, since no clearer message comes from the author.

Douthat then proceeds to mount his horse and ride off in all directions.

He lists his Four Horsemen of Decadence, each with its own chapter. They are Stagnation, Sterility, Sclerosis and Repetition, which are pretty self-descriptive, though Douthat insists on explaining in great detail.

He thinks we’re stagnating. After all the excitement of the very inventive period we’ve just come through, any pause in the action could be so characterized if one is in the midst of it. Like China’s growth being down to “just” 6% after years of double-digit increases. Some think it spells The End. But it can’t always be so relentless. One of my favorite stories Douthat could have benefited from is that the American government considered closing the US Patent Office at the turn of the last century, because everything worth inventing had already been patented and there was nothing left to invent. And the Gilded Age was the poster child for decadence. But we survived. And thrived.

The book is chock full of pop culture references, showing how very much with it Douthat is. Star Trek is mentioned prominently, and a lot of ink is devoted to Michel Houellebecq, a Belgian novelist who recently won top honors in his field. There’s also Oprah and Chopra, Pinker, Musk, Chesterton and Stephen King, to give you an idea of the range. The name dropping comes to a peak in the chapter called Repetition, in which Douthat fills pages with television series, singers, authors, films … everything to show how flat and dull, derivative and repetitious it has all become. At least from Douthat’s own prime years. It goes on for endlessly, to what point I could not determine.

When he wanders aimlessly through geopolitics, he really shows the superficiality that underlies everything here, especially as I had just reviewed Disunited Nations, a masterly analysis of exactly where every major country in the world is headed, and why. Douthat has done none of that legwork, and his predictions seem facile.

He says the essence of the book is supposed to be that decadence does not necessarily mean The End. Decadence might be sustainable, or it could just be a phase leading to a new acceleration of some kind. That’s all Douthat really had to say. It’s a perfectly reasonable theory, impossible to prove though it might be. This book certainly does not prove it.

I do like Douthat. I read his editorials all the time. I look forward to them. But this book is a disappointment. As a book, it would make a lovely editorial.

David Wineberg ( )
2 rösta DavidWineberg | Nov 20, 2019 |
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