Sunday, December 12, 2010

Decadence Continued

Rather later than I had promised, this is an expansion of my earlier post on decadence.  In particular, I intend to take up some discussion of the model.  Later, I may expand on this with further examples to illustrate my point, in particular a stylized look at the Roman Republic, a look at the European notion of divine right, and a much more complex look at the struggle among various American elites and their normally fractious nature, which I fear has been replaced in recent decades with an unprecedented cultural dominance by a single elite, with challenging elites uncharacteristically being confined to relatively uninfluential positions that lack moral and cultural seriousness.

So to get back to the model and a basic discussion of it.  This is basically a cultural model, I'm arguing that a successful, healthy society must have a number of competing cultural norms, represented by a number of competing elites, to continue to be vibrant.  If a single cultural norm becomes dominant, most likely due to a long period where socio-economic conditions favor a particular elite, there will then be a cultural efflorescence as resources previously wasted in intra-elite competition are put to more effective use by the dominant elite.  Then, as socio-economic trends shift away from favoring the dominant elite, the dominant elite will be able to limit the influence of new, competing elites with cultural norms better suited to new socio-economic conditions, causing a gradual slide down into decadence and decline as the dominant elite prevents the reforms pushed for by the rising elite and instead futilely seeks to channel resources into changing socio-economic conditions back those that favored its continued dominance.  Eventually, this sufficiently saps the resources of society that the formerly dominant elite loses legitimacy and can be successfully challenged by the rising elites.

In this model, the primary means by which the dominant elite can prevent the rise of a new elite is through creating connections between the elite and the bulk of the population that transmits the dominant elite's cultural norms into mass-consciousness and mythology.  Once this has occurred, new elites will find themselves unable to either transmit their cultural ideas effectively into mass-consciousness or to gain legitimacy for their reform proposals that would allow society to adapt to changing socio-economic conditions.  This occurs even though they are able to gain substantial access to social resources and material wealth due to the rising elite's good fit with underlying socio-economic conditions.  If the rising elite is able to use its growing social and material resources to find channels for its social and cultural norms into mass consciousness, the new elite can then break out of this trap and begin to initiate the social, cultural, and political reform necessary to re-energize society, restoring a period of competition between competing norms necessary for society's health.  If it is unable to restore this state of competition, the society will weaken until it becomes vulnerable to outside influence or until rising elites gain sufficient control of social and economic resources to overthrow the elites though forms of competition more direct than a cultural struggle.

While this view is rooted in older views of decadence and the aging of societies it differs sharply in questioning that model's respect for dominant cultural views at the expense of emerging cultural norms.  The old model would identify the old cultural and moral norms with the success of society, the attempted introduction of a new set of cultural norms were seen as what led to society's decline as the old moral order decayed.

However, it is apparent in the works presenting this model of decadence that the old moral order was still seen as dominant and that the challenge to it isn't a lack of morals but rather a different set.  Moral ideas are retained across time and the challenges to them are delegitimized through these writings in order to retain the old moral order, which remains dominant in both the elite and the population at large.  As socio-economic changes increasingly favor new elites with a different set of moral and cultural norms the old elite will use their continued cultural dominance to undermine the moral and cultural arguments of the rising elite as well as use their moral authority to marshal society's resources in favor of restoring older socio-economic conditions.  With society's resources at their command the older elites will temporarily be able to retain their influence but at an increasing cost to society as reform is postponed.  They are also able to prevent society at large from adopting the moral and cultural norms of the rising elite creating a growing sense of dissatisfaction among the population at large as they see their prospects declining relative to the success of both the old elite, which can use cultural levers to temporarily prop up its position through social institutions, and the new elite, which is able to advance its position through its adaptation to new socio-economic realities.

Thus, I am defining decadence not as the loss of a former, more perfect moral and cultural state but instead as the persistence of a dominant set of moral and cultural values into a period where underlying socio-economic conditions do not favor them.  For decline to set in, these moral and cultural values must be strong enough to prevent newer moral and cultural values shared by rising elites, since inevitably some people will discover that their peculiar moral and cultural outlook predisposes them to success in new socio-economic conditions thus beginning the formation of a new elite, from spreading into the broader population, which would then share in the success of the rising elites at the expense of the older elite.  This cultural dominance allows the old elite to maintain its former position for a time but at the expense of society whose wealth is plundered to temporarily maintain a set of socio-economic conditions in that society more like those of an earlier era; creating a divergence between development in that society and the societies it is in contact, cooperation, and competition with.  Eventually, this will lead to the decadent society being overtaken by other societies which chose to adapt to changing socio-economic conditions rather than seeking to defy them.

This is a form of decline for any society with sufficient power to defy the broader socio-economic conditions present in the world at large.  Resisting it depends on there being sufficient competition among elites, reflected in a variety of parallel cleavages in society at large, to prevent any one elite from attaining control over means of cultural transmission which would allow that elite to cause society at large to identify with that elite's values at the expense of others.  If a single elite is able to gain a period of relatively unchallenged success it will proceed to mythologize its own values into a story about the success of that society and attribute its success to its values rather than to broader historical socio-economic trends.  This dominance can be interrupted in a variety of ways, from success of a new elite, warfare, unexpected cultural developments, etc., which will be taken up in a later post, but if it is not interrupted soon enough the elite's dominance comes to monopolize legitimacy and authority preventing any new elite and set of cultural institutions from gaining the legitimacy necessary to pursue broad reforms.  Thus putting in place the required elements for the sad, but infinitely recurrent, process of decadence, decline, and fall seen throughout history.

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