Douthat’s message is that we are indeed in an era of stagnation and paralysis on many fronts, but that does not mean that we are facing collapse ... reading The Decadent Society, I kept thinking that this conclusion, while not particularly exciting, likely has the virtue of being true ... The most interesting insight here is Douthat’s identifying individualism as 'the seedbed of stagnation' ... I wish Douthat had devoted more space to discussing the point that the outcast Savage makes in Brave New World: that the things that make existence sublime—art, poetry, religion, and so forth—are inextricably linked to suffering. That’s the only flaw I find in this otherwise excellent book. Some readers may not like Douthat’s refusal to predict the future with any confidence ... more discerning readers will find themselves pleasantly surprised to encounter a book so rich, intelligent, and shrewd, one that doesn’t seek to confirm their prejudices, but rather compels the kind of hard creative thinking that we’re going to have to do to find our way out of this dark wood ... this provocative book is evidence that no contemporary journalist has been thinking...as deeply or as fruitfully as [Douthat] has.
... clever and stimulating ... The title will mislead some potential readers into expecting a tired right-wing screed tracing all our sufferings back to a single cause, whether the Big Bang of the ’60s or the modern liberalism that allegedly threatens civilization. Douthat is too curious about the world and its contradictions to settle into that mode ... Inexplicably, the book has no endnotes, so it’s virtually impossible to double-check [Douthat's] claims ... Douthat’s chapters on stagnating innovation and institutional sclerosis as elements of our decadence are more conventional, though informative and well balanced. The least persuasive pages are devoted to pop culture, which he rightly sees as dull and repetitive, but whose significance he vastly overestimates ... Douthat is writing for Americans, which means that rather than simply stimulating readers to think harder about the present — which he excels at — he feels obliged to search for a redemptive happy ending.
... occasionally smart but mostly unhelpful ... The evidence marshaled for...claims is as familiar as the problems themselves. Douthat mainly does the work of yoking everything together in one narrative, though he does not claim that the problems he addresses share a single cause or solution ... There’s something for everyone to agree with, here, as well as to disagree with ... the political and economic sections are the strongest: big, serious topics get big, serious treatment. But they have the unfortunate effect of making Douthat’s treatment of culture look silly. His reading of literature is often shockingly bland and bereft of insight ... The whole section on culture fails in this way ... It gets us no closer to understanding why many of these societal problems exist, and certainly doesn’t help us find solutions to them ... If this kind of armchair chaos-theorizing tell us anything useful, or anything we don’t already know, it’s about the author. Not wanting to be proven wrong, Douthat anticipates everything and nothing. It’s the only option for a writer who wants to predict the future without looking stupid.
The book is descriptive and diagnostic ... Douthat knows that his prognosis retains plenty of vagueness. It relies, too often, on feelings ... Too often he conflates science fiction with expert projections we’ve somehow failed to fulfill. These failures and cherry-picked examples of diminished imaginative visions—from the utopian to the dystopian—compound to confirm his thesis. But they also require him to downplay the technological innovations we have been experiencing, as if computers, smartphones, and the internet weren’t more revolutionary in more people’s daily lives than the moon landing ... The least convincing of Douthat’s diagnostic arguments is the one about culture. It hinges on the idea that our cultural production has become repetitious in a few respects. He’s right that with the rather large exceptions of gay and trans rights, what we call culture war has largely been in a state of stalemate since the 1970s. But that’s to mistake culture war for actual culture, next to which culture war is but a sideshow ... For all its blind spots (some of them willful), as a description of our moment, The Decadent Society is as convincing, if not quite as entertaining, as Adam Curtis’s film HyperNormalisation. When futility and the absurd prevail, agitation and narcissism follow.
It’s disappointing but not terribly shocking that [Douthat's] great strengths as a short-form opinion writer, his genius for synthesis and his extraordinary judiciousness, become limiting flaws in his new book ... serious, honest ... There are good objections to Douthat’s tapestry of ennui and exhaustion, and Douthat engages them directly and thoughtfully ... White dudes like him have been moaning about decadence for millennia, usually just before they lead us to war or get their heads vigorously lopped off ... Douthat doesn’t vanquish these arguments so much as graciously acknowledge them, give them their due and then ask us to consider his perspective as well. And he repays our consideration with a glittering stream of associations and distinctions, resonances and rhymes that reinflect the world we thought we knew in fascinating ways ... is rich with insight ... If The Decadent Society is a good book rather than a really good or great one, it is perhaps because it’s too tight, too sane, too controlled ... as brilliant as it is in many ways, is too knowable to be beautiful. Too many of its joints connect too perfectly. Too many of its contradictions resolve neatly rather than quiver poetically in tension. In this sense it is as much a manifestation of decadence as an act of defiance against it.
Everything considered, Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society is an excellent book that is convincing and interesting. It leaves room for disagreement as well as arguments that explain those specific narratives and phenomena by different means.
Douthat takes an approach by turns sententious and statistical to argue that Western society has run out of gas ... In making this argument, Douthat draws on political thinkers from both the left and the right, adding a pinch of Piketty here and a flask of Fukuyama there to make a kind of pessimist’s stone soup ... He seldom engages in depth with any political thinker except to note that the thinker diagnosed a society in decline ... The further Douthat stretches this overall something-is-rotten thesis, though, the weaker it becomes in its particulars ... In suggesting that this decadence might be sustainable, he remains too star-struck to ask for whom it is sustainable—after all, there are millions of people in the United States for whom the present does not feel in any way decadent ... in truth, the main problem with our current condition is that while a small subset of the population frets about the impact of sex robots on romantic life, vast swaths of that same society still lack basic shelter and nourishment and, furthermore, that the latter condition makes the former possible.
If Douthat’s account ever managed to compass the extent to which global suffering is a structural precondition of upper-class stupor, he would be far more likely to see that the problem he describes in fact contains its own solution. Or as Brecht put it, 'because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.'
... scintillating ... Douthat’s elegy on the death of progress is unsparing and often pessimistic, but never alarmist ... His analysis is full of shrewd insights couched in elegant, biting prose ... The result is a trenchant and stimulating take on latter-day discontents.