Playing Those End of History Hits Again

Thoughts on Matthew Yglesias's decadence-mongering and the dangers of today.

When you write a book like The Decadent Society whose core thesis is that a lot of our present crises are overblown, that stagnation and repetition rather than world-historical drama rule our times, you become a somewhat untrustworthy narrator for a year like 2020, replete as it was with events that certainly felt like capital-H History, plague and protests and ideological tumult and whatever happened on January 6th. Aware of this, these days I try to hedge my actually-I-think-we’re-still-decadent analysis with a lot of maybe-I’m-wrong caveats — though not enough, inevitably, to escape the lash of people who think I’m really, really wrong.

The caveats and lashings are fine insofar as I might indeed be mistaken, even deeply so … but insofar as I still think my decadence analysis holds water, I really appreciated Matthew Yglesias’s straightforward argument last month that we’re still inside Francis Fukuyama’s world, still Tyler Durden’s middle children of history, and that a lot of current crisis-mongering is an attempt to overdramatize an era that’s still defined, relative to both the bulk of the 20th century and pretty much every century before that, by prosperous stability and low ideological stakes. (Yglesias dropped this take just as my family disappeared on vacation if you’re wondering why I’m only getting to it now.)

Having expressed appreciation and some general agreement, I won’t go line by line issuing endorsements. Instead I want to talk about three places where Yglesias might be reasonably pressed for being too blithe about the stakes of contemporary discontents, and then end by talking about why he might be too Panglossian about our situation even if he’s basically right about its provisional stability.

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First, he argues, correctly I think, that just as a manifestation of right-wing backlash, let alone right-wing authoritarianism, Trumpism was exceptionally weak, and that the idea that some kind of white-nationalist boot is poised to descend on America doesn’t bear any relation to reality. However he doesn’t really address what I would describe as the more sophisticated form of Trumpophobia, which regards the convergence of the right’s weakness and its increased apocalypticism with our distinctive constitutional structures as a recipe for constitutional crisis — either a slow-motion one if the right governs as a minority coalition for an extended period of time, or a more immediate case where a disputed election leads to sustained political violence, January 6th on steroids, and in the worst-case scenario even some kind of sectional crisis where Texas or California just refuse to recognize the alleged presidential “winner” in 2028.

I think these scenarios are relatively remote, at least compared to liberals and NeverTrumpers who take for granted (or claim to take for granted) that we’ll automatically get a constitutional crisis if Trump runs again and loses again in 2024. (I went through some of my reasons for skepticism in a recent column, and some in a post here on the implications of January 6th.) But the idea that Trumpism or something like it could lead, not to a Weimarian authoritarian takeover, but to a unique kind of crisis for the American regime, certainly became more imaginable after November-January than it had been earlier. And you could reasonably read Yglesias from the left or the anxious center and think he’s being too blithe about that.

Then there are the fears for the American future on the right, the anxiety about the union of consolidated corporate/academic/media/big tech power and progressive ideology — which Yglesias glosses sarcastically as the sense that only “Hungarian nationalism and bargain-basement Portuguese fascism” stand between America and “the power of Wesley Yang’s “Successor Ideology” and Ibram Kendi’s proposed Department of Antiracism.” Of this fear, he observes that since Republicans control the Supreme Court, what’s actually probably about to happen is not the triumph of Kendi-ism but some kind of judicial rollback of affirmative action; also, the successor ideology hasn’t been able to impose its will in deep-blue Democratic primaries, so maybe treating it as all-conquering is a slight exaggeration?

I think it is an exaggeration but I don’t Yglesias’s counter-observations quite work. The maximalist fear on the right is that we’re living through a kind of elite-driven religious upheaval, analogous to the Protestant Reformation or the defeat of paganism by the original “successor ideology” of early Christianity. In which case identifying a procedural roadblock to the new worldview misses the point: A John Roberts or Amy Coney Barrett ruling will no more stop a cultural revolution than a 16th century papal bull could restore the world of Innocent III, or Julian the Apostate could re-awaken the oracles by decree. Likewise the fact that most Democratic voters aren’t all-in for the new ideology is like saying, ah, don’t worry, opinion polls in 337 A.D. show that the average Roman still believes firmly in the old gods, nothing’s going to change. In fact it could, and very soon it did.

Which is why if you want to argue with the conservative anxiety on its own terms I think you have to stress, not political obstacles to the new progressivism’s triumph, but wokeness’s own internal weaknesses and contradictions — the extent to which in its most zealous form it’s a religion without metaphysics or supernatural hope, and in its ideological formation a kind of bric-a-brac or pastiche of the 20th century’s left-wing ideologies, all of which may add up to more of a Baudrillardian “recycling” of ideas at the end of history than to a world-altering post-liberal Reformation. These ideas certainly advanced faster and further in the plague year that I expected, and as with liberal fears inspired by January 6th I’m not sure the Yglesian case for basic stability gives the conservative anxiety its due. But when I look at the successor ideology, so-called, I see (naively?) a force whose reign seems unlikely to last till 2040, let alone usher in a new religious age.

Then third, there’s the objection to Yglesias that’s suggested by the major world event that immediately followed his post — the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, redolent of imperial decline and late-Soviet debacle. Surely here things seem to be accelerating toward something very different than the late-1990s holiday from history, when successful-seeming liberal interventions under the umbrella of unmatchable American power were (or appeared to be) the norm.

To which Yglesias would say — and has said in his copious, often-popular Afghanistan-withdrawal commentaries— that our Afghanistan foray was itself the kind of “twitchy overreaction” that he’s criticizing, the sort of misguided thing powerful societies do when they mistake a serious but manageable challenge for a world-historical crisis. So in withdrawing we aren’t actually weakening ourselves; we’re following the path of wisdom back toward our more sustainable and reasonable pre-War on Terror posture toward Central Asia and the Muslim world.

I largely agree with this. But no matter how many times they reboot The Matrix, we can’t just return to the world-circa-1999, and in the world-circa-2021 America has stronger enemies and rivals than it did a generation ago, for whom our ongoing display of weakness and incompetence — which, however strategically-sensible our retreat, is what we’ve offered to the world in the way that we’ve conducted it — might just be more emboldening than, say, our withdrawal from Somalia in the early 1990s.

China, in particular, is clearly more of a non-liberal ideological rival and more of a military threat today that it was the days of American Beauty and Office Space. So it might be simultaneously the case that what we’re seeing in Afghanistan is strategically helpful in containing Beijing (freeing up resources for an Asian pivot, etc.) but also evidence against our ability to execute containment competently … thereby making it somewhat more likely that the ChiComs would decide to put us to a test.

At the very least, whatever the fallout from Afghanistan, a hypothetical war over Taiwan is both more likely and more likely to be lost by the United States than it was in our late-’90s hyperpower days. Would China swallowing Taiwan represent the real end of the end of history, a real crisis as opposed to just a manageable problem? I suppose you could still argue otherwise. But that kind of development would definitely inspire me, at least, to talk less about decadence and more about defeat.

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What you have in each of these three examples, I think, is strong evidence for a sadly-unsatisfying middle-ground take on the “how dangerous are things” debate, where the answer is “more dangerous in certain ways than they were in 1999, but maybe still more like 1999 in the fundamentals than Twitter makes it seem.” (I think this is also arguably true of climate change, the other doom-laden issue Yglesias takes up at length, but I won’t wade into that subject just now.) But then with the further wrinkle, which his stresses, that one reason things have become more dangerous is a dynamic where prosperity and stability under liberalism’s rule leads to Fight-Club-esque anomie and discontent, which leads to a general threat inflation and a cycle of overreaction whenever challenges arise, which locks people into spirals of hubris, paranoia, folly and recrimination … all of which makes liberal prosperity less comfortable and sustainable than it otherwise might be if people just chilled out a little bit.

But if the scale of the anomie problem is substantial enough, then it’s worth questioning his claim, asserted against both the left and right, the socialists and integralists, that today’s disturbances are “not serious in a way that should cause one to doubt the basic tenets of liberalism.” I think Yglesias makes a strong case that our challenges are not serious in a way that should cause one to expect the imminent collapse of liberalism. But it’s possible that the desire for conflict and drama that he’s critiquing, the destructive Tyler Durden impulse, doesn’t just emerge from a generic boredom and restlessness amid abundance, but from a deeper discontent with what liberalism in particular values, what it teaches, what it encourages human beings to desire and value and pursue.

Or more than that, it emerges from a reasonable fear of what you might call the liberal dystopia, which exists somewhere at the intersection of Brave New World, the spaceship culture in Wall-E and Homer’s land of the Lotus Eaters … and which I think a reasonable person might see looming a little closer in the 2010s than it did in the 1990s. (Which might be why in the ‘90s it took a pair of artists to conjure Tyler Durden, whereas nowadays we’re more likely to generate wannabe Durdens in the flesh.)

So when Yglesias argues not just for our relative stability compared to the ‘90s but that “we are still fundamentally looking at a world that is better than the world of 1990, not worse,” I don’t think his evidence — rising GDP in poor countries, new clean-energy technology, etc. — quite gives these dystopian anxieties their due. From the development of the Chinese surveillance state abroad to the rise of drug addiction and loneliness and suicide and the concomitant decline of faith and family in these United States, there are some pretty big trends at work in late modernity that existing liberalism isn’t answering successfully, and seems through certain of its aspects — certain forms of individualism, secularism, consumerism — to be only making worse.

That’s why his take on our present discontents and the one I offer in The Decadent Society can be somewhat similar analytically but mine ends up somewhat darker in its prognosis — because, to quote myself:

… the case for sustainability carries you only so far. Even if the dystopia never quite arrives, the longer a period of stagnation and repetition continues, the more the “futility” and “absurdity” that [Jacques] Barzun describes as characteristic of such eras will crowd out essential human goods, and the narrower the space for fecundity and piety, memory and invention, creativity and daring. If attempts to lurch upward from decadence can risk disaster, the unresisted drift of decadence leads, however slowly and comfortably, into a territory of darkness, a posthuman landscape as barbarous as it is posh, whose sleekness covers over a sickness unto death.

And without critics, without resistance, this drift can carry things a long way without anyone fully noticing how far. 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. There’s a reason that only Aldous Huxley’s Savage, raised fully outside the World State, can articulate a full critique; the other characters in Brave New World achieve at most an unsettlement, an allergy, a personal resistance. Likewise 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 pockets and our hands; from the drugs and suicides in our decaying hinterlands to the dogs-over-kids sterility of our rich cities—then it’s possible that a true outsider would look at our decadence and judge it even more severely than I do. A time traveler from the past, say, who spent an hour on our porn sites or our social media networks or an evening watching cable news or a day in an opioid clinic might report back that the future is simply dystopian, full stop.

So to embrace decadence as a destination is to always risk becoming, without ever realizing it, the equivalent of Mustapha Mond, Huxley’s World State steward—a smooth defender of stability for its own sake, of “civilization” as the abolition of human nature for the sake of human comfort, who condescends to his dystopia’s critics with a litany of all the ills that his brave new world has cured. A version of that condescension informs every defense of our present situation (I suppose you want to bring back smallpox. . . . I bet you miss the plague. . . . Nostalgic for the witch trials, are you?), and it’s a voice that will still be there, smug to the very last, if our dystopian elements become more universal but our wealth and stability remain.

So it must be met, not by fantasies of ennobling world wars, not by Tyler Durden from Fight Club planning to blow up all credit card companies and Ikea living rooms 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, instead, it can be transcended, that the renaissance can happen without the misery of an intervening dark age.

Fundamentally I’m not sure that the author of One Billion Americans, a noted anti-decadence tract, really disagrees with me about this. But the key question is whether to get to that glorious billion, late-modern liberalism as we know it is enough.