Resistance in the Age of Decadence
Walk along the promenade of shops at London Bridge and you are invited to 'Chill', 'Hangout' and shown large bright images of donuts and dogs. That seems to be about all the incentive people need. Go to the movies and you'll see a remade classic, a sequel or a franchise film. Watch Netflix or Prime and you'll be offered something that someone else enjoyed after they watched the same thing as you.
This is your life, and you often succumb to it. I know I do.
Someone's driving, as Seth Godin said, and it isn't usually you. Half-jokingly, I see this decadence everywhere: bed socks, easy peelers, the rise of horoscopes. More seriously, we are letting the ease of being rich trick us into giving up.
The universe is an entropic system. It tends towards chaos. As Stephen Hawking said:
“The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time."
As time goes on there is more chaos in the universe. Energy dissipates. Leave a cup of coffee to stand, and it will get colder over time. It will never warm up without a heat source. That’s time: the universe constantly running towards the random, the chaotic, the cold.
This decadence is seen everywhere in the economy. Ross Duothat has an excellent article, adapted from a forthcoming book, about the measurable decadence in Western economies.
The Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon, one of the most persuasive theorists of stagnation, points out that the period from 1840 to 1970 featured dramatic growth and innovation across multiple arenas — energy and transportation and medicine and agriculture and communication and the built environment. Whereas in the last two generations, progress has become increasingly monodimensional — all tech and nothing else. Even within the Silicon Valley landscape, the clear success stories are often the purest computer-and-internet enterprises — social media companies, device manufacturers, software companies — while the frauds and failures and possible catastrophes involve efforts to use tech to transform some other industry, from music festivals to office-space rentals to blood tests.
One way of summing all this up is that instead of being a way of predicting the future for children, we ended up realising the Jetsons was just an outlandlish cartoon. We lack frontiers, challenge, imagination.
Decadence goes further than this. It is the sense that we are rich enough to be lazy, or worse, too rich to still be morally valuable. There are people advocating for the extinction of humans. This seems to be part of the same broader movement that contains people who are against ambition.
There is a pervasive idea, sometimes manifesting as idleness, sometimes as destruction, that we ought to kick back and not bother.
Decadence belongs to the same category of existence as entropy. It's wonderful at times, and entirely necessary to keep the show on the road, but it is not the ultimate driving force we need to sustain our existence at a suitable level.
As they said at Farnham Street:
For a change to occur, you must apply more energy to the system than is extracted by the system.
When we watch Oscar Wilde or spend the morning in bed, decadence seems wonderful. And after all, GDP has reached a stage where we can afford to. But this all relies on an assumption that what is modern is distinct from the efforts it took to get us here.
This is a useful way of assessing arguments: to think about how much they rely implicitly on the background conditions of modernity without taking into account what it takes to achieve those conditions.
One good example is the discussion of happiness. There is an assumption of capitalism in the background to much of these arguments. The idea that we'd be better off measuring wellbeing or happiness and removing ourselves from the rat race assumes two things.
First that we get to keep the benefits of capitalism that enable happiness, like clean water in our homes, good infrastructure and sanitation, antibiotics, and well functioning food markets. Second is the assumption that focus on GDP causes the sort of materialism that makes us unhappy when it might well be that under different conditions status envy still prevails.
This article arguing against ambition suggests we'd be better off satisfying our wants than pursing ambitions we may not achieve. But it is the ambitions of previous generations that made it possible to satisfy our wants. We do not live in a static state. The conditions of modernity that we like are inextricable from those we don't. Entropy is real. If we lay off our ambitions in order to avoid failure our ability to maintain the enjoyments we have now will diminish.
The real decadence comes in not realising how much this sort of thinking depends on being rich. And we are all rich. Any measure of the history of economics show us that almost everyone in the West is rich. In the last hundred years we have gone from discussing poverty in terms of infant mortality to talking about access to the internet to be a full participant in society.
We should aim for both. Wealth distribution matters as well as wealth creation. But they are co-dependent. Decadence delivers neither. The real lesson of stoicism is that Seneca was already rich and accomplished, Marcus Aurelius was already Emperor.
So go ahead. Be awful. Make money. Be ambitious. Seek a status that is ultimately unfulfilling. Pursue material gains in the world. Spend your weekends and evenings attempting to do something you will probably fail at.
Resist this intelligent inertia. Remember when you are told that Robinson Crusoe could have stayed at home, lived a good life and seen his father die, that plenty of others did, but Crusoe gave us a model for thinking about the world that is endlessly useful. What would the social sciences do without that beloved thought experiment, 'Imagine Crusoe's island...'
Remember as well what Camille Paglia said, 'If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.' Let your outrage pass and look at that again. Ambition works. Decadence is something we can afford, but not forever, not for long. Eventually we will have to pay our bills. Entropy demands that we generate energy.
Here's another quotation from Paglia. Replace the concept of 'men' with ambition and you'll see what I'm getting at.
One of feminism’s irritating reflexes is its fashionable disdain for “patriarchal society,” to which nothing good is ever attributed. But it is patriarchal society that has freed me as a woman. It is capitalism that has given me the leisure to sit at this desk writing this book. Let us stop being small-minded about men and freely acknowledge what treasures their obsessiveness has poured into culture.
Let's not give up the benefits of being ambitious, hard working, capitalistic, sometimes miserable for the sense that we can afford to stay home and be philosophical. The world requires work. Without your daily input, everything runs cold.
And there are signs this is becoming important. Productivity is flat. As has been wage growth, on some measures, for some time. Innovation rates are down. Entrepreneurship lags its previous pace. The advanced economies no longer have enough babies to sustain their populations. Too much like hard work. Government spending runs on autopilot.
This comes with benefits. We have Netflix, Spotify and blogs. It is The Age of the Infovore. We can all afford to sit in bed and watch TV more often. Three generations ago men mostly worked hard in physically dangerous jobs and got none of these things. Now we go to offices, work from home and have longer weekends.
Perhaps, back then, they realised that entropy was real on an instinctive level. Perhaps they simply weren't rich enough to have these problems.
Be decadent, by all means. But not before you've suffered and sweated for your week's wages. We may not be able to afford this decadence for long.