03 Jan 2014

Decadence and Statism

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Eric Fischl, The Old Man’s Boat and the Old Man’s Dog, 1982. –Our time’s version of The Raft of the Medusa.

Charles Hill identifies our time, the age of Decadence, as the period of time lying between the decline and the fall of a great civilization.

Toynbee [predicted] that the creative minority behind great civilizations will, as the civilization begins to decline, transform itself into a dominant minority that takes on the vulgar and promiscuous behaviors of society’s low-life. So in the post-Cold War period America’s “cultural elite”… adopted distinctly coarse attitudes and practices. A Vice Presidential case in point: When the wife of Senator and later Vice President Gore attacked the violence and misogyny of some rock and most rap lyrics, she was scolded by most of her social and political peers. Why were four-letter words, formerly seen by the upper-middle class as déclassé, now appearing in glossy upscale magazines? How had “the hooker look” become a fashion trend among nice girls from the American suburbs? How had multiple body piercings and tattoos, which a few decades ago marked only sailors and motorcycle gang thugs, become trendy?

Toynbee would have shrugged and said simply that we are witnessing the self-proletarianization of the American dominant minority. Happens all the time. Yet there is reason to suspect that the primary cause of this vulgarization may rather be the adoption of a broad cultural style that enhances the elite’s power. In a polity that has been shedding its Founding Fathers-designed barriers against Athenian-style direct democracy, the power elite ever more requires the protective camouflage of proletarian class superiority. Flaunting coarse conduct and a combat boots dress code adds heft to the elite’s domination. So in place of the classically tripartite elements of the soul—reason, desire and spirit, according to the parable of Leontias in Plato’s Republic, or in earlier America, self-reliance, Christian-Roman virtues and patriotism—a new triad emerges: claims on government, vulgar behavior and a yearning for relief from world leadership.

This vast societal transformation might be called “The Great Virtue Shift.” Almost every act regarded in the mid-20th century as a vice was, by the opening of the 21st century, considered a virtue.Almost every act regarded in the mid-20th century as a vice was, by the opening of the 21st century, considered a virtue. As gambling, obscenity, pornography, drugs, divorce, homosexuality, abortion and sneering disaffection became The New Virtue, government at all levels began to move in on the action, starting with casinos and currently involving, in several states and the District of Columbia, an officially approved and bureaucratically managed narcotics trade.

The Great Virtue Shift has produced among its practitioners the appearance of profound moral concern, caring and legislated activism on behalf of the neediest cases and most immiserated populations at home and around the world. To this may be added the panoply of social agenda issues designed to ignite resentment and righteous indignation among the new “proletarian” elite. All this works to satisfy the cultural elite’s desire to feel morally superior about itself regarding collective moral issues of large magnitude even as they, as individuals, engage in outsized self-indulgent personal behavior. This is Reinhold Niebuhr’s “moral man and immoral society” turned on its head, where hedonism takes cover beneath a superficial global moralism.

The virtue shift has been paralleled by a governmental shift. As gifted politicians have sensed the changing psychology and national character of the country, they have learned to constantly scan the political horizon to identify each special interest group, make the necessary promises and then move to satisfy each group’s claim on government largesse, or its demand for deeper government intervention to enforce adherence to each group’s behavioral choices. Throughout most of American history people were preoccupied with how to prevent government from becoming corrupt. In our time, governments have discovered how to corrupt the people. It then follows that the more corrupted the people become, the more numerous the laws must be, thus further aggrandizing government’s indispensability.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Vanderleun.


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