[Ed. I'm re-posting this piece from October 2006, which went up a week after the passing of the Military Commissions Act. I think it's worth reading again as a way to provide some historical context concerning the prospect of losing the house and the senate in November, and why that should give us all a big scare. We are peculiarly vulnerable right now. That Glenn Beck and the Teapartiers are such a powerful force on the scene is not a minor nuisance.]
When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur, it is a technical label. . . . [Decadence] implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns but peculiarly restless for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. --Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence
The point is that decadence is not a moral term denoting failure; it's a neutral, descriptive one. Decadence occurs when a cultural impulse has grown old and died. We're in such a period now. It's much like the dark, chaotic 14th century Barbara Tuchman talks about in her book A Distant Mirror. The 1300s was a time in Europe during which the medieval impulse, which had reached its high point in the 1100s & 1200s withered. But in Europe, as bad as the 1300s was, the 1400s was a time of rebirth. The key to the Renaissance was a rediscovery of what had been lost and forgotten. My hope lies in that somehow, sooner rather than later, we will be able to effect a similar "remembering" of what was rejected during the modern period as "premodern." I talk about what I mean by that in more detail here.
So like Barzun, I do not use the term 'decadent' to indicate moral failure. I see it as a purely descriptive word that describes a culture that has lost its vigor. It describes an in-between time, a time during which we live with old mental habits for want of others, but which are barely adequate to help us navigate in the new situation we haven't the habits of mind yet to understand. In such a time we need to develop a mental discipline that refuses to panic at the chaos, and to live in hope that something new will be born. Panic always leads to unnecessary disasters and needless suffering.
And when we feel the energy of the new thing, the zeitgeist changes and it gives the culture a sense of meaning and purpose that it simply does not have now. During a decadent period, because it is a time by definition in which we have lost a sense of future possibility, a culture-wide, future-oriented sense of purpose is absent. But at the beginning of the cycle its presence is strongly felt by the era's great personalities. Artists and poets in Italy felt such an energy in the late 1400s and 1500s. The Protestant reformers of the early modern period felt it. The scientists and explorers who were their contemporaries felt it. It was an exciting time during which anything seemed possible. It was an energy that defined the age, and read Barzun's book if you want a better sense of its biography. There are no great personalities during a decadent period. Can you name anyone born after WWI in the developed world who has the stature of DaVinci, Galileo, Bach, Kant, Beethoven, Dostoyevski, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, to name but just a few? There are famous people, but no truly great ones.
And the optimism that was born during the Renaissance carried through until the end. It was a powerful spiritual impulse toward freedom and individuality that germinated, grew strong and blossomed during the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, and started to wither during the 19th century into a desiccated form of Victorian formalism, rationalism, materialism.
Toward the end of the 19th century and in the runup to the World War I, there was a late-Victorian attempt to resurrect the more soulful. Romantic side of the post-Renaisance impulse, and it was called 'modernism'. It manifested especially in the arts and in progressive politics that we now think of as the early avante-garde. The key to this late modern impulse was its anti-traditionalism; it's belief that all the world's problems were rooted in obsolete, stuffy institutions and worn-out traditions. These early modernists still shared a great sense of optimism about progress and future possibility, an optimism that history is a movement toward a better future for all--if only they could throw off the dead weight of ossified cultural forms that manifested in stodgy Victoriana.
These modernists were the late-19th/early-20th century impressionists, symbolists, futurists, etc. in the arts, and they were the muckrakers and progressives in politics influenced to varying degrees by Marxist ideas. As such they were usually supportive of anything “revolutionary” or anti-traditional. They saw the great enemy, especially in Europe, as the lingering medieval institutions like the church and the landed aristocracy, the class system, and the bourgeois materialist philistinism that kept progress from progressing. But that all changed after World War I. Modernism went into a second phase that is really the beginning of what we now think of as the postmodern.
I see these pre-WWI modernists as working from the same impulse as the earlier generations of Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Romantic moderns, but in an industrial-age key. Their sense of meaning and purpose came from fighting against the entrenched cultural and political establishments in the hope of giving birth to a future utopia imagined in any of a number of ways. This fight against oppressive traditionalism has lingered into the late 20th century in the developed world as seen in the civil rights movements that fought an entrenched apartheid system in the South, and feminists and gays who fought traditionalists ideas about sex roles and sexual behavior. But it's an impulse that is for the most part exhausted in the West.
The forward-looking optimism that characterized earlier generations was mortally wounded by the devastating impact of World War I, and slowly gave up the ghost as the twentieth century played out. If it flourished, it did so mainly in still premodern, third-world countries which clumsily embraced modernist Marxist ideas as an ideology to throw out their European imperialists and to effect their passage into the modern world. But in the developed West the left is driving on fumes. There is some vestige of leftist rhetoric, but there is very little coherence, organization, and will to act behind it.
As suggested above, the post-WWI modernism in the developed West was really the beginning of the postmodern, a new frame of mind defined by its no longer being able to take seriously the optimistic, progressive, Enlightenment rationalist frame of mind. Of course, modernism lingers into the postmodern period, just as the medievalism lingered into the modern, but the postmodern is about the loss of hope in progress, in order, in anything making any objective sense. It’s a loss of common sense. It’s a movement that is shot through with despair and cynicism. It’s a period of “decadence” a la Barzun's definition of it excerpted above. The left has become associated with this decadence, but it's not their fault.
Because for the left, just as for everyone else, there is no longer a sense of future possibility--no robust sense of common cause. We're in an era in which nobody--especially on the left--believes the same thing as anybody else. And yet subjective belief is the only thing anybody has, and so almost anything is believable, because what standard is there to evaluate whose beliefs are more truthful than anyone else’s? It’s all a subjective, surreal dream, and a sense of objectivity, of there being any absolute truth, is considered naïve if not dangerous. It's hard to get organized if that's what you really believe. And if you don't get organized, it's easy to be manipulated by skillful propagandists of the right who don't suffer from the organizational problems of the left, and who have no compunction about telling Big Lies.
Post WWI Modernism (or what I call postmodernism) is about the re-assertion of the irrational—Nietzsche’s will, Heidegger’s pre-ontological worlds, Freud’s libido, Jung’s collective unconscious, Picasso’s dissociated cubism, the subjectivism of Derrida, the relativity and uncertainty principles in physics. It is Romantic subjectivity without the optimism. It’s about fragmentation, disintegration, radical subjectivity, radical individualism, loss of community and of a sense of belonging to something larger. It’s about living in a world in which nothing is given and everything is chosen, where freedom of choice is the one sacred value about which there is no dispute. And it’s about the panic reaction of people who find they cannot cope with the uncertainty and chaos of all that. W.H. Auden called it the "age of anxiety." And it's this vulnerability to panic, this free-floating anxiety that poses the most significant challenge to those who must live during a decadent period.
Because in such an anxiety-soaked dreamscape the political leader who dominates is the one that weaves the most compelling dream. Hitler/Goebbels were in this sense the first major postmodern political leaders, and WWII was the first postmodern war. When we look at political figures like Cheney & Rove, let's be clear: they are not conservatives; they are men of the right, and for the right power is the value that trumps all others, and rightists regard the rule of law as a quaint "liberal" nicety for those naive enough to think that law is strong enough to constrain the will of those who possess power. Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld are rank amateurs compared to the founders of postmodern right-wing politics; nevertheless, they are swimming in the same pond. Men of the right feed on resentment and anxiety, and the endless War on Terror is tailor-made for exploitation by such politicians who seek to weave delusionary, anxiety-driven dreams that provide a screen for their ambitions.
This is, as I see it, our predicament. If there is an alternative to the right-wing nightmare, it hasn’t emerged yet. Leftist politics are too much a function of discredited pre-WWI modernist optimism, and in this country just seems flaky. I am amused when I read conservatives and right-of-center moderates fulminating against the threat posed by the Left. Please, as if the Left has any political power these days. The great red peril is part of the fabricated nightmare woven by the right-wing dream machine. The chaos and confusion is real, but they are not caused by the left; they are the natural consequence of the dying of the age. The cosmopolitans on the cultural left are better adapted to navigating in a decadent culture, but that does not mean that they caused it, and that does not mean they have much political power or any robust vision for the future. That's why they are so weak.
And that's why the threat posed by the right is so much more potent. The nostalgia- and anxiety-driven right wing faces no vigorous opposition anymore, and won’t until some sense of plausible future possibility can be imagined and a broad consensus developed around it. The reasons for my concern lie in the peculiar vulnerability of decadent societies like ours to the seductions of the right. If it is not possible to dream of a better future, we are seduced by those who tell us we must return to the social norms of the past. But this is a fantasy past animated by an unwholesome zombie traditionalism I referred to in yesterday's post.
We are more vulnerable to authoritarianism than most people think. Things seem stable because the economy, although fragile and increasingly stressed, is still supporting most people who vote to maintain their habitual lifestyles. So most Americans don't feel the effects of the changes already made by the rightists in power at this time. But if the economy breaks down, or if we are hit again by a serious terrorist attack, we should expect things to change dramatically. It won't be just taking off our shoes in the airport anymore. The definition of security threat and enemy combatant will be expanded significantly, and you won't have to be brown-skinned with a name like Maher Arar to have your human rights trampled upon.
If the last six years have proved anything, it's that the resiliency of the American electorate and the system of checks and balances is a myth. The latter is there in form, but not in substance. And the former is as easy to manipulate as any frightened population in the history of politicians manipulating their populations. Authoritarians in the future will have as little resistance to jettisoning the constitution article by article "for reasons of national security" as they had in jettisoning Geneva article 3 and habeas corpus last week. There are always good reasons for doing the wrong thing, and those moderates in the middle, whom I define as "lacking conviction," are too likely to see merit in those reasons. And the country needs them to stop being coopted by being in their own imaginations of themselves so grownup and reasonable. They need to learn what it means to resist.
And so we must all be vigilant and not give way to any of the fear mongering fomented by the right. We must hold fast to everything we have gained, and fight every attempt by the right to take it away. The Military Commissions Act passed last week was a devastating, shocking defeat for America during this vulnerable time, and we must fight to have this legislation reversed. But in the meantime we muddle through as best we can and do what we can to prevent the crazies on the right from doing too much damage. It’s not looking good right now. But I have an un-extinguishable faith in the human spirit and in the mysterious working of grace. This too shall pass.