The Pandemic and the Decadent Society

Has the coronavirus deepened our decadence, or pushed us somewhere new?

The Decadent Society came out in hardcover about three weeks before Italy’s hospitals were overwhelmed by the coronavirus and lockdowns began to descend across the Western world. So it was probably not the ideal time to bring out a book arguing that our era is defined by drift, stalemate, boredom and repetition, that Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” is still with us thirty years after he declared its advent, that our society is more likely to glide slowly toward dystopia than to leap forward toward a renaissance or plunge into catastrophe. Surely here was something new, here was history come again, here was the shock, the crisis, the un-simulated Reality, the hinge from one age into the next. Surely the pandemic meant the end of decadence, whatever else it meant.

In the Zoom interviews with which I finished up my book tour, I usually half-conceded the point. Yes, this was a real crisis, death taking off its masque amid the partygoers, stalemate giving way to disaster, Reality Itself suddenly pushing fantasy and simulation aside. But at the same time, nothing about a temporary crisis necessarily alters long-term patterns. Plagues can open new chapters in history, but it all depends on how people respond to them, what kind of responses are possible, and which pre-existing trends they accelerate or blunt. Would our decadent institutions, when tested, crumble, taking us deeper into crisis, closer to collapse? Would the shock of pandemic spark a new era of technological innovation, or midwife a new age of political reform? Or would stagnation reassert itself, or even deepen, in the aftermath?

I tackled some of these questions in the paperback edition of The Decadent Society, and in subsequent posts here I’ll try to expand on those thoughts, with an eye toward developments that have intervened since the paperback went to press. (The January 6th riot, for instance, and the Biden relief bill.) But let’s start this series with a distilled take, a provisional assessment of how each element of decadence that I identified in the book — the four horsemen of the decadent society, stagnation, sterility, sclerosis and repetition — looks a year into the coronavirus era.

Economic and technological stagnation:

The simplest pandemic-era story here is the one you can see illustrated in the chart just below, created by Claudia Sahm. In the 21st century the United States economy has persistently undershot expectations, before the pandemic hit we were finally getting some acceleration, but now we’re back on our heels, headed for yet more disappointment in the 2020s. Throw in the Covid era’s gifts to internet behemoths, the concomitant collapse of so many small businesses, and the possibility for a segmented recovery (good for the upper class, bad for the working class) and a grim story writes itself: Consolidation increases, inequality mounts, stagnation continues, and decadence deepens. (And the picture in Europe is worse.)

But you could also tell a more optimistic story. First, the optimist might say, this is a crash unlike others, imposed by the hand of Providence rather than organic to the pre-crash economy, so the bounce upward could be much swifter and steeper than in a normal recession’s aftermath. Second, the Federal Reserve’s actions and the Congressional relief efforts haven’t just given people more money to save (for now) and spend (soon enough), they’ve also finally killed off the inflation anxiety that hampered policymaking in the Obama years, and cleared the political and ideological space for the Powell Fed and the Biden administration to go for broke on full employment — which could, in some projections, push the economy above its pre-virus trajectory:

Meanwhile, the pandemic might be pushing through other important economic transformations, productivity-enhancing and wealth-spreading, that prior to 2020 were moving at a crawl — particularly a move to remote work and the geographic dispersal of big companies away from the gated cities of the coasts.

Then finally, the coronavirus clearly accelerated at least one form of scientific innovation — the mRNA vaccine, which appears to have applications for many diseases besides Covid — and it might accelerate others. If there is a bounce-back boom and a geographic restructuring of the economy, especially, the 2020s might be the perfect time for a bunch of innovations to actually take root in everyday life, and for the Great Stagnation to finally give way to something new. Or, more modestly, for productivity growth to be at least better than it was in the 2010s!

For more on what might await in the technological sphere, read this post from Eli Dourado and this column by my colleague David Brooks. If you’re expecting the imminent death of decadence, tech seems like the best place for optimists to look.

Demographic decline:

Here, by contrast, a pessimistic, decadence-deepens take on the Covid era seems most persuasive. The coronavirus has straightforwardly made the developed world’s demographic problems worse, giving us a pandemic baby bust on the heels of the longer post-Great Recession fertility decline, and postponing all kinds of things — dating and relationships, weddings, the simple act of leaving home — that propel young people toward family formation. Lyman Stone recently calculated that there would be 5.8 million more babies if the U.S. had just maintained its pre-Great Recession birthrates; the pandemic is likely to subtract at least several hundred thousand more, with similar trends in Europe.

Yes, it’s possible to hope that the optimistic economic scenario described above will speed a fertility rebound. It’s possible to look at developments in U.S. family policy and see our political system slowly, slowly coming round to taking those issues seriously. Maybe there’s a big turnaround waiting to happen here: Maybe in a Biden boom there will be a battery-powered minivan in every driveway, piloted by a remote-working parent, and simply stuffed with kids.

But to the extent that the fertility collapse is connected with the struggle to transition to adulthood, the struggle to form stable romantic partnerships, it’s also easy to see how the coronavirus’s negative effects could linger — how a lost period for courtship and marriages, a retreat from physical reality and real-world intimacy in crucial years for both, could reverberate through the next decade and beyond.

Political sclerosis:

For the decadence-deepens side of the ledger, two entries. First, the way the pandemic exposed the incapacities of all kinds of Western institutions, from the CDC and the FDA to the European Union, relative even to our era’s diminished expectations for how well those systems work. Second, the way the pandemic essentially defeated the two major challengers to the center-left establishment, Sanders-style socialism and Trumpian populism, and delivered power to Joe Biden, a candidate of sustainable decadence if there ever was one, the avatar of a “zombie liberalism” that could preside over years of continued gridlock.

For the death-of-decadence side, one trend and one possibility. The trend is the Covid-era return of mass protest and political violence, in the George Floyd summer and then again in the right’s January 6th riot, after a period when it seemed like online politics was effectively a tranquilizer, a substitute for disturbance in the real world. Whether this trend continues post-Trump and post-pandemic is an open question. But the pandemic year at least proved that tranquillity is not inevitable, and that the retreat into virtual radicalism and fantasy politics, under the right pressures, can be re-routed back into the world of flesh and blood.

The possibility, meanwhile, is connected to the optimistic economic scenario sketched above: It could be that despite seeming like a sustainable-decadence politician, and campaigning as one in 2020, Biden might actually end up presiding over a big policymaking shift, reap the economic rewards, and thereby become a “reconstructive” president — a realigning figure, Reagan or FDR to Trump’s Carter or Hoover. And this is more likely after the events of January 6th than previously, because if Trump’s continued hold over the G.O.P. pushes the opposition party deeper into fantasy, toward a schism, or both, it could effectively clear the field for whatever Bidenism at its most ambitious might become.

Cultural repetition:

In the more ideological regions of the culture — the regions that we talk about when we talk about cancel culture, which is unfortunately a growing space — the crucial question at the moment is similar to the question above about the persistence, or not, of protests and political violence: Does the revolutionary spirit that suddenly swept through cultural institutions in the summer of 2020 endure, and how revolutionary is it, really? Are we living through a decisive turn from a liberal culture to an authoritarian “successor ideology” (as conservatives and some liberals fear) or a long-awaited reckoning with white supremacy and and patriarchy and inequality (as many progressives hope)? Or is the “revolution” of 2020 really just another form of repetition and recursion — a reshuffling of elites, a shift in ruling class self-justification and H.R. department rules, with changes in language and politesse and some purges to encourage compliance and create job openings, but the same 1970s-era ideas in play, the same basic meritocratic hierarchies left in the place?

If it’s the former, then the liberal age is dying, its decadent phase ending, and a true cultural revolution is at hand. But if it’s latter, then the soi-disant revolution is really just a sharpening of the strategies of control that keep liberal decadence sustainable, a revision of the “pink police state” surveillance regime that I discuss at length in Chapter 6 of The Decadent Society — a system that’s too privatized and crowdsourced and arbitrary to be called totalitarian, with plenty of zones of performative dissent, but with a structure that tends toward the preservation of existing hierarchies, the submission of creativity (intellectual, aesthetic, scientific) to elite rules of ideological correctness, and the suppression, co-optation or corruption of genuine alternatives.

My bet is still on the second scenario, stultifying but sustainable, rather than the revolution in full. But then again I haven’t personally experienced a Full Cancellation yet.

Meanwhile in the non-ideological regions of the culture the deepening of decadence seems assured. The pandemic has (further) weakened every cultural institution that relies on physical presence, spontaneity and localized or mid-sized audiences, which means basically all of them except the “content” industry, the ever-expanding realm of Peak TV. The spirit of Mustapha Mond presides over the Covid era: He waved his hand; and it was as though, with an invisible feather wisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was museums, was symphonies; some spider-webs, and they were ballets and bookstores and Broadway theatricals. Whisk. Whisk—and where was the mid-size daily newspaper, the regional university, the local Protestant congregation, the urban Catholic school. Whisk—the place where the local movie theater had been empty. Whisk, the touring pop music acts, whisk, the minor league baseball teams, whisk, whisk ..

I know, I know: We can make art on the blockchain now, and do journalism on Substack, and host salons on Clubhouse.

But if these are the seeds of renaissance, I expect things to get worse before they get better.