If you want to feel like Western society is convulsing, there’s an app for that, a convincing simulation waiting. But in the real world, it’s possible that Western society is leaning back in an easy chair, hooked up to a drip of something soothing, playing and replaying an ideological greatest-hits tape from its wild and crazy youth.
Which is, to be clear, hardly the worst fate imaginable. Complaining about decadence is a luxury good — a feature of societies where the mail is delivered, the crime rate is relatively low, and there are plenty of entertainments at your fingertips. Human beings can still live vigorously amid a general stagnation, be fruitful amid sterility, be creative amid repetition. And the decadent society, unlike the full dystopia, allows those signs of contradictions to exist, which means that it’s always possible to imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance.
This is not always true when you gamble on a revolution: The last hundred-odd years of Western history offer plenty of examples of how the attempt to throw off decadence can bring in far worse evils, from the craving for Meaning and Action that piled corpses at Verdun and Passchendaele, to the nostalgic yearning for the Cold War that inspired post-9/11 crusading and led to a military quagmire in the Middle East.
So you can even build a case for decadence, not as a falling-off or disappointing end, but as a healthy balance between the misery of poverty and the dangers of growth for growth’s sake. A sustainable decadence, if you will, in which the crucial task for 21st-century humanity would be making the most of a prosperous stagnation: learning to temper our expectations and live within limits; making sure existing resources are distributed more justly; using education to lift people into the sunlit uplands of the creative class; and doing everything we can to help poorer countries transition successfully into our current position. Not because meliorism can cure every ill, but because the more revolutionary alternatives are too dangerous, and a simple greatest-good-for-the-greatest number calculus requires that we just keep the existing system running and give up more ambitious dreams.
But this argument carries you only so far. Even if the dystopia never quite arrives, the longer a period of stagnation continues, the narrower the space for fecundity and piety, memory and invention, creativity and daring. The unresisted drift of decadence can lead into a territory of darkness, whose sleekness covers over a sickness unto death. And true dystopias are distinguished, in part, by the fact that many people inside them don’t realize that they’re living in one, because human beings are adaptable enough to take even absurd and inhuman premises for granted. If we feel that elements of our own system are, shall we say, dystopia-ish — from the reality-television star in the White House to the addictive surveillance devices always in our hands; from the drugs and suicides in our hinterlands to the sterility of our rich cities — then it’s possible that an outsider would look at our decadence and judge it more severely still.
So decadence must be critiqued and resisted — not by fantasies of ennobling world wars, not by Tyler Durden from “Fight Club” planning to blow every Ikea living room sky-high, but by the hope that where there’s stability, there also might eventually be renewal, that decadence need not give way to collapse to be escaped, that the renaissance can happen without the misery of an intervening dark age.
Today we are just 50 years removed from the peak of human accomplishment and daring that put human beings on the moon, and all the ferment that surrounded it. The next renaissance will be necessarily different, but realism about our own situation should make us more inclined, not less, to look and hope for one — for the day when our culture feels more fruitful, our politics less futile and the frontiers that seem closed today are opened once again.
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