A few years back Ross Douthat published an interesting book titled The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success. The thesis of Douthat’s book is simple: American society is stagnant. Our blockbusters and our books are remakes from the ’80s; our political coalitions and political programs all date back to the 1970s; even the technological progress we have seen over the last three decades pales in comparison to the revolutions that occurred in the decades before. We may celebrate “change agents” but we no longer have any. America is stuck in what Douthat cleverly labels an “eternal recursion to 1975.”
My essay “On Life in the Shadow of the Boomers” was written in response to The Decadent Society. It was mostly focused on the cultural angle of Douthat’s thesis. Douthat’s claims of technology are downstream the arguments of the Thielites. I assessed their arguments in the essay “Has Technological Progress Stalled?” Between these two pieces you see my general take on Douthat’s thesis: his assessment of American cultural and political stasis is broadly correct, but he overstates how unusual stasis is in American history. Political and cultural transformation occurs via a sort of punctuated equilibrium (see also my essay “Culture Wars are Long Wars”) and we just happen to be living at the tail end of an equilibrium phase.
On the other hand, Douthat understates the true scope of technological stagnation. Nothing the internet has delivered remotely compares with the transformation of human civilization that occurred during the second industrial revolution. In 1975 technological change was the most important facet of American life. It is no longer.
Were Wang Huning to read Douthat’s book, I suspect he might agree with me.
Two years ago I ran a small reading group that met over zoom. Our reading topic: Leninism. Curious about the claims that modern Chinese politics are an outgrowth of Marxist ideas and practice yet feeling insufficiently familiar with the Leninist political tradition to properly judge its influence on contemporary Chinese politics, I organized a group of China-watching politicos to read both classic Marxist texts and historical studies of the Soviet Union and Maoist China.
Last week Mary Harrington published a long interview with Peter Thiel in the online magazine Unherd. Much of her article centers on Thiel’s conviction that meaningful technological progress stopped a good half century ago. This view is not unique to Thiel. In many ways it is the starting point for the entire “Progress Studies” movement. The Thielites and the Progress Studies folk take this shared premise to different end points, but both deem scientific inertia as the defining feature of the 21st century. Both also see technological and material stagnation as the root source of myriad ills tearing at America’s social fabric.
Here is Thiel’s description of the problem, as written up by Harrington:
A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s account of flourish and fall, they ask what else they might read to understand the rise and decline of peoples and powers over the course of human history.
In my mind there are four central parts to this tale:
The American national security complex has a long list of 21st century defeats to its name. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months trying to understand some of these failures. But if any meaningful reform is to occur and competence is to be restored too high office, it is just as important to identify and understand successes. Otherwise, there are no targets to reform the system towards.
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The big trend in writing and journalism in the year 2020—other than the New York Times continued conquest of everything in print—is the flowering of the Substackerati. Hardly a day goes by without some famous figure announcing their new hope you will become a new subscriber to a new newsletter they are writing on this […]
Image Source “You’re ten years younger than I am, Dacha, and so the Master means more to you. We of the old guard, we were trained to depend upon ourselves, we had no use for masters, except those anointed by trust. But to the snot-nose brats of the next generation, intoxicated by the loudspeakers, no […]
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