The Decadent Society | Ross Douthat

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


In ‘The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success’, Ross Douthat provides a comprehensive analysis of how Western societies have become decadent. As a result of past successes, modern societies are experiencing economic stagnation, institutional decay, and a lack of cultural innovation. This book summary delves into the forces driving a decadent capitalist economy, the role of technology in producing an unhappy and disengaged generation, and the prospects of a renaissance or catastrophe that might change the current state of stagnation. The book offers a thought-provoking exploration of the challenges faced by today’s affluent societies, examining the possibility of forging a new way forward.

Decadence in Western Societies

The Challenger disaster in 1986 undermined the confident spirit that the 1969 moon landing brought. Today, modernity is associated with constant progress, and the lack of new inspirations weighs down the present civilization. Western societies are no longer optimistic but rather self-absorbed. The search for utopian goals and religious faith is replaced by technology that simulates experiences. This has led to decadence – a state of decline for successful cultures where institutions deteriorate and vision is lost. To avoid being perceived as decadent, societies need to be expansionary and open to contributing to the wider world.

The Impact of Low Birth Rates on the Economy

The 21st century is witnessing an economic and demographic decline in the United States caused by the failure of technologies and business models to make a profit. Ordinary Americans are earning less, corporate investment is declining, and productivity is down. Additionally, birth rates are plummeting to an all-time low, leading to several problems such as aging societies and a lack of innovations. This proliferation of low birth rates can be attributed to societal factors such as advancements in contraceptive measures, feminism, divorce, secularization, and the decrease in infant mortality rates. The decline in birth rates might be welcome news for individuals, but it has several economic implications for societies. As older populations dominate markets, they become less forward-looking and innovative, leading to apprehension and despair about the future. Many societies suffer from these aging populations, leading to fear and pessimism about the future, which impedes economic and social growth.

Immigration as Economic Salvation

The US and Europe sought to solve their economic problems by relying on immigration amidst falling fertility rates. However, this solution gives rise to its problems characterized by the resentment of native populace and newcomers. With a tenuous connection to the future, this could incite future nationalistic uprisings in response to the policy. Immigration doesn’t seem to offer a solution to lack of innovation and progress since it mainly contributes to political stalemates. The government’s incapacity to pass laws and negotiate effectively can make it an easy target for authoritarianism.

The Decline of Vital Culture

In the absence of traditional stability, culture regresses into narcissism and rule-breaking for its own sake. This type of decadent culture repeats itself, becoming a museum of the past that creates the sense that history has stopped. Digital forms of entertainment have supplanted real life, leaving young adults with anxiety, depression, and a preference for video games over work. This state of stagnation and decadence is sustained by achievements of the past. People trapped in various forms of entertainment are unlikely to make radical changes or protest the state of modern life. The challenge is to start up history again.

The Era of Indefinite Decadence

The book argues that the 21st century has seen the acceptance of problems that were previously revolutionary, such as drug abuse, terrorism, and alienation. While this may seem like a trigger for change, the reality is that people have become desensitized to these issues, leading to a self-stabilizing but stagnant society. The author suggests that even oppressive forms of control, such as surveillance and virtual entertainment, may become the new norm. The absence of a powerful alternative to the current liberal order means that it could continue indefinitely. While illiberal democracies such as Russia and Turkey may offer some hope for change, they are ultimately nationalistic versions of stagnation. China presents a more complex problem: if it falls into economic stagnation and political dormancy, it will no longer be viewed as a viable alternative to the West. The book also argues that Western democracies have neutralized rivals by recruiting their brightest people through high-end, skilled immigration.

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