Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Healthy Decadence

Every so often ideological radicals denounce their liberal enemies for their decadence, like the Nazi Germans did to 1940s USA. The famous Liberators poster displayed in Holland before the Allied invasion depicted the US in terms of crude stereotypes: an African hand in a boxing glove holding a bag of cash (a big-nosed Jew cringing behind it), a cage of ape-like black Americans dancing the jitterbug, scantily-clad white beauty queens, a vinyl record, a Ku Klux Klan mask, an African arm entwined with a noose, an arm in a striped prison uniform holding a gangster-style Tommy gun, the other arm holding a grenade. These images depicted the US as a barbaric, racist, self-indulgent culture that would blunder into Europe and destroy its superior and older civilisation.

Communists would also attack the capitalist countries for their decadence, and "degenerate" modernist artists and composers were persecuted under Stalin. For some communists the collapse of the decadent West seemed inevitable; instead the decadent prospered while most communism petered out and Nazism was crushed.

Today the cries of decadence come often from Islamists, revolted by the easy sexuality and indulgent alcohol use of the West. One of the key minds behind modern radical Islamism, Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, was exposed personally to the excesses of Western secularism and racism during two years in the US, from 1948 to 1950. Qutb attended a church social in Colorado that appalled him:

The dance hall was illuminated with red, blue and a few white lights. It convulsed to the tunes of the gramophone and was full of bounding feet and seductive legs. Arms circled waists, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of passion.

A horrified Qutb flinched at this sensuality, announcing that "when the wheel of life has turned and the file of history has closed, America will have contributed nothing to the world heritage of values."

Decades later, the Islamists have little to boast about while the values of the decadent West have spread ever further. Industrialisation, democracy, social liberalism and mixed markets have shifted east and south with the collapse of communism: the decadent, it seems, are tenacious. American philosopher Robert Pirsig wrote in Lila: An Inquiry into Morals about the problems inherent to restrictive conservatism and illiberal radicalism:

...a ruthless, doctrinaire avoidance of degeneracy is a degeneracy of another sort. That's the degeneracy fanatics are made of. Purity, identified, ceases to be purity. Objections to pollution are a form of pollution.

Pirsig understood the world as a struggle between static and dynamic values. Static forces keep society from evolving, they are conservative. Dynamic forces push things forward, change things. A society that is all static stagnates and fails if the environment changes. Yet any society open to dynamism and improvement is also open to degeneracy and decline:

Americans like to talk about all their freedom but they think it's disconnected from something Europeans often see in America: the degeneracy that goes with the Dynamic. It seems as though a society that is intolerant of all forms of degeneracy shuts off its own Dynamic growth and becomes static. But a society that tolerates all forms of degeneracy degenerates. Either direction can be dangerous.

Pirsig may explain the tenacity of "decadent" cultures, in that both decadence and technology are products of liberty. Relatively free societies, where individuals have the option to experiment, to question orthodoxies and reject traditions, are able to shift forward quickly and develop new ideas and technologies. Yet the liberties that allow dramatic increases in wealth and technology also free individuals to darker behaviours, behaviours that grew common during the revolutionary years of the late 1960s:

It's an extremely destructive form of degeneracy of the sort seen in the Manson murders, the Jonestown madness, and the increase of crime and drug addiction throughout the country. In the early seventies, as people began to see this, they dropped away from the movement, and the Hippie revolution, like the intellectual revolution of the twenties, became a moral rebellion that failed.

That liberty is a necessity of economic growth is the central concept behind the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom. The choking controls of communism and Islamism seem, so far, to have failed to produce wealth, while bloodthirsty Nazism smashed itself to pieces in war, but relatively liberal countries continued growing. China, after decades of stagnation under restrictive communism, is growing rapidly now and encountering the decadence once despised in its Western enemies.

Liberty, open to degeneracy and decadence, may be the only route to wealth. Those countries open to prostitution, alcoholism and shallow consumerism may also be those creating great art and architecture, technology and trade. So when I hear radicals talking about the decadence of their enemy, I feel a little relieved. The decadent, after all, usually win.


  1. nice post,also the decadent countries have lower levels of infant mortality and higher literacy rates. Not exactly hallmarks of decadence.

  2. Absolutely Rohan, health figures correlate fairly well with wealth. Sometimes I see people protest that it is unfair to presume that high-income societies are better because, they say, those societies simply reflect "Western" values. Yet few people would prefer a society where infants are more likely to die in their first year.


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