23 minutes

Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it.

Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”

Decadence is the leitmotif of the current cultural moment. Columnists write books about it, think tanks wonder about its causes, and contemporary discourse is suffused with the feeling that American society, like Western society more broadly, is undergoing a protracted collapse.

The word decadence is ubiquitous, but even more widespread is its mood. The stagnation of the institutions of the postwar West has become starkly and painfully clear, as has the utter failure of the neoliberal ideology behind them. This realization has been late in coming for many, and still there are people who insist on seeing the world with rose-colored glasses. But for most it has hit home by now: the globalized, secularized, deracinated liberal democracy of the postwar West has failed. The question is now where we go from here—and if there is, in fact, anywhere to go from here.

Essential to the cultural mood of decadence is the feeling that we are not going anywhere. To borrow Peter Thiel’s example: “When Boeing introduced its flagship 707 jet airliner in 1958, the power to cruise at 977 kilometers per hour did more than enable routine transcontinental commercial flights. It fed the optimistic self-understanding of a society proud to have entered the Jet Age. More than sixty years later, we are not moving any faster.” With the prominent exception of handheld communications technology, our society looks mostly the same as it did 50 years ago. We invented the smartphone in 1995, and nothing has really changed since then.

Our institutions, also, have become stagnant and sclerotic. They seem to be either unable or unwilling to achieve anything worth achieving, to build anything worth building. With the expansion of the administrative state in the aftermath of the world wars came the rise of sovereign bureaucrats, unaccountable and incompetent. The bureaucratic state is the rule of the midwit mediocrity. Inertia is the modus operandi of bloated bureaucracies, in a modified version of Parkinson’s First Law: work expands to fill the time, space, personnel, and resources available for its completion.

Terminal Decadence

All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off’. It 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. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.

— Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence

If History had come to an end as the Fukuyamites of the world seems to think it has, this state of affairs would be merely farcical. But History is back, baby, and the status quo has now turned out to be quite deadly indeed. COVID-19 has dealt the final blow to the public perception of the American state and globalized capitalism. It is not so much the elephant in the room as the elephant running loose through the whole building. It is impossible to ignore.

The policies of post-historical neoliberalism—globalization, outsourcing, “free trade”—coupled with a subconscious sense of invulnerability, a feeling that war and famine and disease were things of the past, have left us vulnerable to the shock of historical events. We happen to be dealing with a pandemic, but it is brutally clear that we would be equally at a loss in the event of a war or a food shortage.

“Americans have gotten quite bad at building things in physical reality,” Isaac Wilks notes in Palladium. “Although the United States remains on the frontier of information technology, we have neglected the mundane and the essential to the point of crisis.” Our decades of overconfident liberalization and globalization have come back to bite us, Wilks argues, and we have now hollowed out American society to the point that the smallest tasks are too much for us: “We now find ourselves unable to stick ear straps onto face-sized pieces of non-woven medical fabric at industrial scale. Decades of stagnation, offshoring, and complacency have caught up with us, and all of our institutions have failed to prevent the coronavirus from crippling the nation. Our physical decay can no longer be ignored.”

He is right: decades of complacent management have not so much left a chink in our armor as fully stripped it off. Decline is a choice, as Charles Krauthammer said, and American bureaucracy has been choosing it for decades. “Complacency” is not nearly a strong enough word to describe the mood which has gripped American policymakers these past several decades. Their neglect of vital elements of our society is criminal, and it has now proven deadly. The emperor has no clothes, and the imperium is paying the price.

The utter failure of Western governance is visible in the way the concept of the political has been utterly hollowed out. Politics, to the American citizen, is the quadrennial kayfabe in which the supposedly sovereign dēmos chooses the figurehead of the managerial state. For the contemporary Westerner, it is a matter of celebrity worship. It has no relationship to the actual work of governance: Bills written by lobbyists are voted into law by politicians whose primary job is appearing on television; they’re then signed into law by the aforementioned figurehead.

The implementation of these laws, of course, is left to the real powers that be: the bureaucracy. The most fundamental political question of all—“what should our society look like?”—is left to the managerial class to decide, and they are asleep at the wheel.

The diagnosis is terminal: Liberalism has exhausted itself. And indeed the word “liberalism” is too narrow to describe the whole set of institutions and concepts which have proven utterly inadequate: the post-war Western bureaucracies, the gradual imposition of secularist policies from the top down, the market fundamentalism which directed both trade and foreign policy, and above all the naïve assumption that the individual was the main building block of society. Whether that consensus was ever adequate is now an academic question. An alternative must be found; new edifices must be built.

The mere fact that ours is a decadent age does not, of course, mean that there is nobody pursuing serious alternatives to our current predicament. On the contrary, as Barzun noted, such times may be incredibly intellectually fruitful, perhaps even more so than other ages: as Hegel put it, the owl of Minerva only spreads her wings at dusk. “Pessimists” is the wrong word for people who argue that our age has become a decadent one. But if those people are right, then we are also uniquely positioned to look back at the successes and failures of our time without prejudice.

Hindsight, the saying goes, is 2020.

Thumos Without Telos

oh young men oh young comrades
it is too late now to stay in those houses
your fathers built when they built you to breed
money on money it is too late
to make or even to count what has been made
Count rather those fabulous possessions
which begin with your body and your fiery soul:—
the hairs on your heads the muscles extending
in ranges with their lakes across your limbs
Count your eyes as jewels and your valued sex
then count the sun and the innumerable coined light
sparkling on waves and spangling under trees
It is too late to stay in great houses where the ghosts are prisoned
—those ladies like flies perfect in amber
those financiers like fossils of bones in coal.
Oh comrades, step beautifully from the solid wall
advance to rebuild and sleep with friend on hill
advance to rebel and remember what you have
no ghost ever had, immured in his hall.

— Stephen Spender

And so, at the very moment when stagnation seems permanent and protracted decline seems inevitable, we hear renewed calls for rejuvenation.

The shattering of the postwar consensus leaves room for novelty. Ideas which were previously outside the Overton Window are drifting in. The Atlantic, for instance, is now willing to countenance the argument that “it is legitimate for rulers to pursue the common good.” Curtis Yarvin, né Mencius Moldbug, is enjoying a renaissance, not to mention the fact that White House aides are reading Bronze Age Mindset. The post-liberalisms of John Gray and John Milbank are more popular than ever, and integralism is making a comeback as a serious political philosophy.

On the institutional Right, the post-war free-market consensus is collapsing, and “libertarian” is achieving near-slur status. The emerging factions do not agree with each other on much, but one sentiment is shared: the old ways, the old institutions, the old ideas have failed us. It is time to tear them down, and then, it will be time to build.

The tech entrepreneur Marc Andreesen, for instance, writes in an essay which represents the best of the Silicon Valley ethos:

Our nation and our civilization were built on production, on building. Our forefathers and foremothers built roads and trains, farms and factories, then the computer, the microchip, the smartphone, and uncounted thousands of other things that we now take for granted, that are all around us, that define our lives and provide for our well-being. There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.

In short, it is time to Make America Great Again—not by applying faux-populist Band-Aids to a dying body politic, but by a genuine commitment to resurrect the American Dream. And to do that, we need to build. Our crisis, Andreesen et al. argue, is a crisis of will: as Wilks argues, we can transcend the sclerosis which has gripped our institutions if we regain our will to build.

Critics of decadence also tend to insist that a new age requires a new frontier. Ross Douthat (spoiler alert!) ends his exhortation with a call to resume the high-modernist quest to conquer space: “So down on your knees—and start working on that warp drive.” It’s a theme the U.S. government is now picking up on: the U.S. Space Force asks people “what if your purpose on this planet…isn’t on this planet?”

One can’t help but think, though, that space travel will prove an all-too-mild salve for our current aches. The focus on space travel as a panacea for decadence seems to echo the melancholy fantasies of Tennyson’s aging Ulysses, yearning for the return of his glory days.

It is undeniably true that the institutions of liberalism and the consensus which powered them are collapsing. It is undoubtedly true, also, that we humans will need to discover new frontiers in order to advance, and we must turn our attention to the task of building new institutions, intellectually and materially. The contemporary critics of decadence are incontrovertibly correct.

But where they, for the most part, miss the point is the fact that neither new horizons nor new institutions will be enough. Space travel will not suffice to solve our current crisis. Neither will building, no matter how magnificent or long-lasting our creations will be. This is because the problem is much greater than stagnation or decay.

Capitalism Gone Wrong

Underlying all this is a profoundly important phenomenon: all human life, from the very beginning of its development within capitalist society, has undergone an impoverishment. More than this, capitalist society is death organized with all the appearances of life. Here it is not a question of death as the extinction of life, but death-in-life, death with all the substance and power of life. The human being is dead and is no more than a ritual of capital. Young people still have the strength to refuse this death; they are able to rebel against domestication. They demand to live. But to those great numbers of smugly complacent people, who live on empty dreams and fantasies, this demand, this passionate need just seems irrational, or, at best, a paradise which is by definition inaccessible.

— Jacques Carnatte, Against Domestication

Commensurate with the cratering of Western governance there has been a dissolution of American social fabric in the service of individualism and consumerism. If government, as the old saw goes, is another word for the things we do together, then we are governed by UberEats, Game of Thrones, and PornHub. Or, if you prefer, OnlyFans—as long as it makes you happy and nobody is getting hurt, who am I to judge?

Does not capital today prefer people to be disconnected, displaced, deracinated, free of any disordered attachments which might get in the way of profit? Physical space, to global capital, is not the arena of human society but merely the potential for profit. Is there any such thing as companionship or neighborhood or society for capital? Given the sorry state of our vital supply chains spread across the globe, it certainly acts as if there is no such thing as the nation.

To the extent that America exists for this sort of capitalist, it does so mostly as a shopping mall for global capital. Has not this form of capitalism worked to erode the bonds of place and community which tie human beings together, and have they not succeeded to a horrifying degree? To borrow the example used by Mark Fisher in his landmark Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?:

One of the easiest ways to grasp the differences between Fordism and post-Fordism is to compare Mann’s film [Heat] with the gangster movies made by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese between 1971 and 1990. In Heat, the scores are undertaken not by Families with links to the Old Country, but by rootless crews, in an LA of polished chrome and interchangeable designer kitchens, of featureless freeways and late-night diners. All the local color, the cuisine aromas, the cultural idiolects which the likes of The Godfather and Goodfellas depended upon have been painted over and re-fitted.

Capital today, Fisher points out, generates a world where all places are interchangeably identical, and it does the same thing to people. The modern Western cityscape is an infinite tessellation of corporate space, populated by people uprooted from any meaningful sense of attachment.

The archetype of the modern city-dweller is anonymous, ahistorical. He exists, for the most part, as an isolated phenomenon, and then he ceases to exist, and that’s it. The landscape of his existence is the endless ocean of corporate branding which permeates the lived environment and the virtual space which is increasingly overtaking it. That landscape is populated by people who, like him, exist mostly as consumerist ciphers: co-workers, cashiers, cops, all mutually interchangeable. If he has friends, they bond over their shared enjoyment of corporate media. And thanks to the wonders of modern technology, he has replaced romantic relationships with pornography and interchangeable e-girls.

Family = Will to Live

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.

— T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

The brutal, painful fact is this: the average person living in a Western country increasingly has nothing to live for. He has little family, few friends, no neighborhood, no community, and no God. He exists mostly as a ritual of economic activity, a number on a balance sheet. The reasonable thing for him to do would be to simply curl up and die. And as the individual goes, so goes the civilization.

For decades, Western countries have shown a remarkable lack of will even to survive. Birth rates are, in many Western countries including the U.S., below replacement level. It’s cheaper for capital to import workers from third-world countries to do its work, and what other reason would there be for people to reproduce?

But beyond the economic flux which prevents people from settling down and forming families, there is a profound spiritual crisis. To build a family is to express confidence in the future; it is to bring new people into the world with the hope that that world will be worth living in. And for people in the West, it seems, that’s not a hope worth hoping for. No amount of policy proposals or political movements can shield us from this fact, nor can they help change it.

Just as the average Western citizen has lost the institutions and beliefs which previously gave life direction, so have Western societies as a whole. As Chateaubriand noted, societies are given life by the stories they tell themselves: Greece had the Homeric Epics; Rome had the Aeneid; Medieval Christendom had Gerusalemme Liberata; the best we can do is Avengers: Endgame.

Decades of shallow consumerism and institutional Laïcité have hollowed out the American psyche, leaving a God-shaped hole in our collective consciousness. We have forgotten, as a society, to speak of the theological. Even our consumerism, our collective enthrallment to Mammon, is a manifestation of that malaise.

This crisis has been with us for a while. It predates the political, technological, and social sclerosis which now grips our civilization. That stagnation, in fact, is to a great degree a mere manifestation of this malaise. As Péguy put it, tout commence en mystique et finit en politique: everything begins with mystery and ends with politics. Ours is a spiritual crisis before it is a political one, and its solution will likewise be spiritual before it will be political.

Only A God Can Save Us

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

— Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII (425)

Philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavor. Only a god can save us.

— Martin Heidegger

Metaphysical questions call for metaphysical answers, and our dilemma is distinctly metaphysical. The question which confronts us is: Can a civilization in its death throes be reborn? Can we stand against the tide of history? Is there enough creative rage within us to hold off the dying of the light?

The Victorian critic Matthew Arnold, in Culture and Anarchy, set out a now-classic (now-clichéd, perhaps) dichotomy between Hellenism and Hebraism. “The uppermost idea with Hellenism,” he argued, “is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience.”

The dichotomy applies to politics as well. The Hellenic instinct has always been to build great edifices, both intellectual & material. The Hebraic, prophetic instinct, on the other hand, is to look at those great edifices and ask “what are they for?” And that, in essence, is the question which we must grapple with in thinking about the future, before we begin to build: what are we building for?

Consider the Biblical story of Moses, the first prophet of the Hebrew nation. He grew up in the palace of the Pharaoh, abandoning it to free his brethren. Of those two nations, the Egyptians and the Jews, the Egyptians built magnificent monuments which still stand today. But the Jews exist, because a civilization is more than the buildings it constructs. A civilization survives because it has a reason to do so, a sacred mission, a historical purpose. A civilization survives because it has a God.

That, before anything else, is what we need to recover: the sense of purpose which once animated our civilization, the raison d’être which sustained it and can, hopefully, sustain it again. To do so will mean religious and spiritual revival, a task which rivals physical restoration in magnitude and scope. But it is necessary if we are ever to escape the long 1970s and rebuild our society.

Only a God can save us now.

A Time To Build

“A time to kill, and a time to revive; a time to tear down, and a time to build.”

—Ecclesiastes 3:3

Isaac Wilks ends his exhortation in Palladium with the following stirring passage:

People do want to build, but for the vast majority of people building is fractal; it starts from the local outwards. Not everyone wants to build a glass tower, but most people if given the chance like to build with their hands. Can our vision of the future involve gardens? Can it involve children playing in the street? Can it involve new cities which bring you to your knees in awe, but where you can also go for a walk with your grandparents, or follow your friends up a hill at dusk? We will once again look to the stars, but only if we can first reckon with feeling our way toward a vision of flourishing together. Planting the seeds of the future is an immense and humbling task. But we shall also rest easy with joy in the knowledge that our harvest may be garnered by ages yet unknown. It’s time to build for good.

It’s a beautiful passage. It brought a tear to my eye. But it’s not enough.

Our vision of the future might include children playing in the street, but it will not come to pass unless birthrates remain above replacement levels. And for that to happen, people will need a reason to have children. No amount of new cities, however majestic they may be, will provide that reason.

“Of course,” Wilks writes, “we need a monumental vision of the future that overawes us and reaches for the heavens, in order to shake us from the sloth and apathy that has consumed us today. But all monuments worth building are monuments to something.” And he is correct, to a point: something more substantial, something more genuinely meaningful, is necessary to provide a reason for a society to continue to exist. But building qua building, no matter how beautiful, is not enough.

And besides, neither a warp drive nor a new city is really enough to bring someone to their knees in awe—I only know of one entity capable of doing that.

Our buildings are only as strong as the civilization which dwells in them, and we cannot afford to pretend that renewed building will suffice as a substitute for shoring up the moral and spiritual foundations of our civilization. As one of the most notable modern exponents of the prophetic ethos put it, in what reads like a direct rebuke of Ross Douthat:

Let them go all the way to Mars or beyond the Milky Way; they will still be deprived of true happiness, moral virtue, and spiritual advancement and be unable to solve their own social problems. For the solution of social problems and the relief of human misery require foundations in faith and morals; merely acquiring material power and wealth, conquering nature and space, have no effect in this regard.

                        —Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini

As Peter Thiel puts it, “we should hesitate to put our faith in distant star systems. The fountain of youth and the Tree of Life are not waiting for us in Tau Ceti or on Planet Vulcan in 40 Eridani.” Neither are they necessarily waiting for us in a re-industrialized and rejuvenated American future. Faith and meaning are not things of this world, and at the end of the day, nothing in this world can create them.

All building—all creative endeavor, in fact—is inherently a theological act. The first human structures were likely altars. The oldest known buildings are tombs and temples, and that is the choice which still confronts us today. If we are to build for the future, if we are to ensure that there will be a future to build for, then we must treat building as a sacral act, a sacrificial act. Buildings rarely last much longer than the gods to which they are consecrated, which is all the more reason to choose our gods wisely.

“Let them build Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.”

is a pseudonym of a writer living on the East Coast

Origin of this feature


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