Friday, December 17, 2010

Why Examine Decadance?

I had originally been intending for this to be my last post on the subject, rather than somewhere in the middle.  However, I was considering that since my blog normally focuses on more immediate topics, with only brief and sporadic forays into more general academic topics, I thought it might be worth explaining why I think this topic is immediately relevant rather than purely academic.  The first reason is purely academic, as I consider applying to begin a PhD program in the relatively near future I intend not to make the same mistake as my Master's in not knowing in advance where I want to focus my research, this seems like a good topic, though one that might require a level of knowledge not practicable to attain in the limited timeframe of the program (this will be more apparent when I get to the post on how to test the model).  Of course, since I'm already thinking about it probably a year before I'd start this may give me enough of a head start to make this topic work.

The basis of the critique I'm presenting is that throughout history there seems to be a constant pattern of successful societies that know they must change but simply refuse to do it, even though there are already those urging the necessary changes.  The narrative is consistently along the lines of some sort of barbarous new group of successful people threatening the former virtuous way of life.  Yet, if these people are so successful with their new habits, what are so virtuous about the old?  Consistently, these societies then begin to seek to prevent the new successful people from advancing and to instead institute policies to extend the privileges granted to the old way of life.  When these societies inevitably collapse, the modern reader is left wondering what would have happened if instead of favoring the virtuous small farmer or caring local elites if the society had instead let the new merchants grow or let the old landed elite die away in favor of their unethical, but successful, urban challengers?  I'm led further to ask this what if by how different whatever the society that replaces the old is, the new society is never like that of the old order overthrown but rather a new order with a different cultural attitude and moral underpinning.  If it had been old virtues that made a society successful, wouldn't the successful new society have shown the old virtues renewed?

This may seem like ancient history, it's hard to see this happening in a lot of modern revolutions driven by class and liberal values where control of resources clear away all obstacles no matter what kind of cultural hold old elites have.  This is certainly true, I'm not suggesting decadence as a dominant cultural factor explaining all transitions.  Rather, I'm suggesting it's a constant thread of greater or lesser importance relative to a large number of other factors, such as control over resources which appears to be the favored modern explanation for everything.  It does appear however, that societies as recently as the Soviet Union have resisted the clear implications of their policies and that they have done this for what is hard to explain as anything but cultural reasons.  It's hard to call repeated calls for greater collectivization as anything but a repeated failure.  Yet, even with the evidence of multiple failures, the results of these experiments couldn't be accepted, for what seems easiest to explain as cultural and moral reasons, and collectivization continued despite its failure to produce concrete benefits.  At least until society became so demoralized and degraded that its inability to change caused it to collapse in on itself.

Which brings us to today.  As any number of observers have stated, we're facing a number of crises, from runaway debt, breakdown of family life, loss of traditional employment sectors, etc.  Standard explanations usually frame these in some sort of materialist explanation, emphasizing access to resources, incentive effects, or, in the harshest form, some sort of variance in intrinsic human worth and ability to contribute.  I'm suggesting that a part of this that is being ignored is the cultural element.  Current socio-economic conditions simply favor people with a different cultural and moral outlook than previous socio-economic conditions did.  Since the older cultural and moral outlook has gained ascendancy, it is proving difficult to reform successful cultural adaptations possessed by a relatively small segment of the population into mass culture.  This is leading to the kind of sociological breakdown we've been seeing in the last few decades.

Who is it that I think represents the new, rising elite?  Loosely, it's the same as the over-hyped Creative Class (I don't particularly like the term and don't really think calling it a class is appropriate but borrowing this term is better than coining a neologism and gets the idea across well enough, just understand I was cringing when I wrote Creative Class).  There are a number of habits that seem common to this group that seems to be at odds with what our society accepts as normal and moral.  Since this hasn't been formally codified, which is basically what I'm suggesting the problem is, I'll only suggest a few of the more obvious differences.  In particular, I want to focus on attitudes towards family structure.  Among those that are succeeding in our society, people marry later, there is a huge focus on being able to provide for kids before you have them, marriages are seen as more of an equal partnership, and there is an early emphasis on career and mobility before settling down.  This contrasts sharply with present moral and cultural attitudes which idealize as cultural norms things like marrying your high-school sweetheart, frowning on pre-marital sex (I don't think this exists comfortably alongside promoting late marriage as a positive good, though I don't expect to convince anyone without a detailed look at the evidence which is too much of a digression for me),  a "man of the house" ethic (for lack of a better term, gender norms are certainly different however), and a focus on staying true to your roots.  I also believe there are sharp, and consistent, differences in attitudes towards religion (not that the Creative Class, cringe, are less religious but it is certainly a much more questioning attitude towards faith, it's different but not less as it's often asserted), attitudes towards training vs natural ability (the old dive in to start swimming vs careful training and lessons, I still see the simply leap head first into a problem as something many view more positively than the careful training and deliberation approach), etc.

What I'm ultimately trying to suggest is that we will continue to see social and moral breakdown and continued national decline as long as we continue to regard the ethics of this emerging elite as an intrusion on traditional cultural and moral values.  To arrest our decline, a cultural Renaissance is necessary where the attitudes of the emerging elite are taken just as seriously as the existing military-industrial ethic present in the US (for lack of a better term, we certainly don't have the culture and morals of the Progressive era, nor do we have that of earlier agrarian eras, I think military-industrial sums up what began to emerge post WWII and has gained ascendancy since earlier labor, political, and acadmic elites were pushed out of the mainstream over the past half-century).

It doesn't help of course that this cultural and moral attitude hasn't been codified and that it isn't taken as a serious ethic even by those that live it.  Despite this however, it is not a cynical project I'm suggesting, this is a very real ethic being taught by example and in a haphazard fashion in millions of American households, including my own.  It's about the proper way to navigate a world where you need to provide for your offspring in a far more comprehensive sense then just providing emotional support and physical necessities, where success doesn't come naturally but takes careful preparation no matter how naturally skilled you are, where half a dozen or more jobs are expected before a real career is gained, where roots are unsettled and moving is expected, and where late marriage is expected, rather than an exception.  Many people growing up today are exposed to an ethic to navigate this world informally through emulating their parents and peer pressure.  This works well for those exposed to it at this level, these people will be successful even if they don't regard how they live in the kind of ethical frame they get from attending Church, reading John Rawls, or listening to a politician pontificate.

However, those without this background are left adrift.  They have few, or no, models to base their behavior on that exhibit this ethic.  What they have is an older ethic radically different from what those that are succeeding are learning.  They find this irrelevant to their lives and don't see those that are succeeding following the ethic that they have been taught.  So instead, they act as if there are no ethical rules to follow, those they know make no sense in their lives and they haven't been taught any ethic that would make sense in their lives.

To correct this, the ethic of those that are successful needs to be codified so that it can be spread beyond a fairly small segment of the population that is leaving the rest of the country behind.  This must then be spread not just by example but from everywhere that our culture gives moral significance to.  We must defend as ethical the style of life that actually is leading to stable families and less divorce, and we must do this from the church pulpit, the campaign trail, from ethics teaching in the schools, and even on TV.  How those that are successful live must be held up as a model and it must be defended that this is a truly rigorous, rule-bound and ethical life, not simply a decay of an old order with nothing new to replace it.

In later posts I'll get back to providing some evidence for this and more examples.  I will also suggest what I think the limits of this theorizing are, which I see done to infrequently with other theories, as well as why I regard this as testable and how to go about falsifying this.

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