Discover more from The Decadence Project
The Anti-Woke Doomer’s Challenge for Civilization
Societal decadence is a kind of filter that civilization much pass through
The decadence of the West is commonly cited as a primary reason for the impending downfall of America and other Western countries. Camille Paglia, for instance, has famously observed that “historically, the movement toward androgyny occurs in late phases of culture, as a civilization has started to unravel.” The idea, at least from the perspective of conservatives, is that we should view our cultural decadence as a dire warning. But there’s another option: why not accept our cultural decadence as a challenge? Perhaps other cultures haven’t survived the alleged destructive power of gender confusion, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t—or at least that we shouldn’t try.
Before explaining the rational for taking cultural decadence as a challenge rather than a threat, it's worth spelling out Paglia’s case (not that I agree with her, but for the sake of argument):
Something truly disturbing is happening in the West. The most foundational institution, the family, is crumbling in America. People are rarely getting married, and many of those who are can safely bet on getting divorced. The birth rate in America is 1.6 children per woman—well below the replacement rate. The children who are born can look forward to an adolescence riddled with depression and anxiety. And as for the “androgyny” that Paglia highlights as a problem, it’s not that youth in America are merely androgynous as a fashion statement—they’re utterly obsessed with gender as it relates to their core identity. Gender fluidity is now the law of the land for Gen Z. And there is no reality outside the way a person chooses to identity. If that means a person chooses to identify as an anime character or a wolf—then hurray!
One conclusion to draw here is that our civilization is doomed. This is the knee-jerk response of those I’m calling the anti-woke doomer—those who are mortified by gender ideology and other luxury beliefs that privilege identity over reality. It’s also Paglia’s view, and she has the historical research to back it up.
The Problem with Anti-Woke Doomerism
The problem with this conclusion is that it’s too fatalistic. History repeats itself—but not always and not all that predictably. And history aside, this conclusion seems to come first from a place of bitterness. As in, “I don’t like what you people are up to so I’m excited to say that you’ll soon get what’s coming to you.” Paglia and every anti-woke doomer the world over seems eager to stand on the rubble of our civilization and shout, “I told you so!”
But there’s another way to look at this. I’ll still grant everything Paglia says as true (even though it’s easy to mock), but I’d like to ever so slightly reframe how the problem comes to us in order to better understand our current predicament as a civilization that’s seemingly flailing.
There’s a fascinating concept known as The Great Filter. This is the idea that life is exceedingly rare in the universe because there are stages in life’s development that must be passed through, and it’s quite improbable that life will squeak through each of the stages intact. Up to this point, life on Earth has passed through a number of filters to develop from single-celled organisms to animals with smartphones. Our next filter is to advance up the Kardashev scale and become a multiplanetary species, but this requires developing the types of technologies (like nuclear weapons and artificial intelligence) that have the ability to destroy us before saving us.
The Decadence Filter
Here's my claim: Societal decadence is a kind of filter. If we are going to culturally advance to the next level, this is a filter we eventually need to pass through. So far, according to Paglia, no culture has slipped through this filter, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It means it’s a challenge.
At first blush, this might seem like a random reframing of the decadence problem. But it’s not random. If we look where we’re reasonably headed (as we just begin to inch our way up the Kardashev scale), we see that a heightened level of societal decadence is inevitable.
Eventually, energy will be free and abundant with nuclear fusion and room-temperature superconductors. Artificial intelligence will lead to an explosion of productivity and wealth, giving us an abundance of free time. Longevity research will achieve incredible breakthroughs, giving the ability to reverse aging and greatly extend the human lifespan. And forget about sex change surgeries, we’ll be able to radically alter our DNA to become post-human lifeforms.
I’m not saying these things will happen anytime soon, but if technology continues to advance, these are the types of advances that are on the horizon. And in this Star Trek future, there’s exactly zero chance we become less decadent as a society.
Given this, if we’re at all confident we can pass through the technological Great Filter, we also need to be resolved to pass through the cultural decadence filter. If you’re reading this while counting yourself among the anti-woke (I’m largely in this camp myself), just for a moment, forget about the anti-science/quasi-religious bent of gender ideology; instead, think about what Joe Rogan has said on this topic numerous times. To paraphrase: “I’d love to be a woman for a day. If there was a pill I could take to truly turn into a woman and live that experience for a while, I’d have to try it!”
As much hate as Rogan gets for his commentary on the trans discourse, this is the sort of broad-minded curiosity we need to pass through the decadence filter.
Doomerism Beyond Decadence
I will admit a bias of mine here. I actually don’t think cultural decadence is anywhere near our greatest threat as a civilization. In my view, Peter Turchin makes a stronger argument than Paglia for why societies fall. His research indicates that the two major indicators of societal upheaval are: 1) A declining economic outlook for the majority of people and 2) Elite overproduction: “when a society produces too many superrich and ultra-educated people, and not enough elite positions to satisfy their ambitions.” This circumstance leads to a restless population primed for revolution, and a large cohort of ambitious elites who are prepared to capitalize on the unrest of the masses.
Turchin famously predicted that 2020 would be a year of great upheaval. He’s now predicting that America is barreling toward collapse. But Turchin is an optimist about the future of America and humanity. He doesn’t believe history is destined to be repeated. Rather, he believes we can learn from the past and course correct.
In 2012, Turchin wrote a blog post about how we should study the past to design a better future. He wrote:
Once we are reasonably certain we understand why things change the way they do, we can use our understanding of mechanisms causing the change to ‘tweak’ them in ways that would generate desirable change, or avoid undesirable outcomes. Having a dynamic theory that takes into account nonlinear feedbacks between different processes is key, because it, at least, gives us a chance to foresee unintended consequences.
In his recent Atlantic article, despite the overwhelming doomerism of the piece, he echoed a similarly optimistic sentiment at the end:
The long history of human society compiled in our database suggests that America’s current economy is so lucrative for the ruling elites that achieving fundamental reform might require a violent revolution. But we have reason for hope. It is not unprecedented for a ruling class—with adequate pressure from below—to allow for the nonviolent reversal of elite overproduction.
Maybe, just maybe, the focus on cultural decadence is a distraction from this more consequential project.
The Decadence Project is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.