Decadence And The Failure Of The State: A Checklist

Decadence: a falling away; a decay; a deterioration; a failing of heart; a focus of self, on the here and now; the emergence of “What’s in it for me?” as a national philosophy; the lack of a goal; the disappearance of a shared sense of purpose.

Russell Kirk was fond of quoting from C.E.M. Joad’s Decadence: A Philosophical Inquiry (1948). Here is Kirk in The Politics of Prudence:

Professor Joad wrote that a society or an individual that has become decadent has “dropped the object”; or, in terms less abstract, in a decadent state people have lost any aim, end, or object in life; to decadent folk, life has no significance except as mere process or experience; they live as dogs do, from day to day…

Joad sets down certain characteristics of a decadent society: luxury; skepticism; weariness; superstition; preoccupation with the self and its experiences; a society “promoted by and promoting a subjectivist analysis of moral, aesthetic, metaphysical and theological judgments.”

Reads like a checklist of modern life, no? Incidentally, philosophy, especially epistemology (and its sub-branch probability), has been fighting a losing battle against an invasion of barbarians who insist all knowledge is a figment; that the stories we tell to ourselves is all there is. These anarchists would have each of us proclaim, “I am a king of infinite space! For I create what is by mere thought.” And they don’t mean dreams. But more on that on another date.

Now, even before the founding of any state, there will come some prophet who is already proclaiming its doom. These prophets increase in number as the state ages; they eventually become so commonplace that their warnings form part of the background noise. Citizens reason that because so many have always said that the end is nigh, that those saying so must be wrong.

However, the citizens reason badly, because the prophets were not wrong. There does not exist now a state that has always existed. History is one long story of failed states; further, states have never been long-lived. Certain cultural elements do pass from failed to new states, but this is because of inertia created by geography, climate, technology, language, and so forth. These elements have never been enough to save a state from extinction.

Since all historic states have failed, it is rational to believe that all extant states will fail, too. That is, the prophets are right. The only real questions are timing and cause. One cause of failure, acknowledged by all, is decadence.

In the same passage, Kirk quotes from C. Northcote Parkinson’s The Law of Longer Life (1978), wherein Parkinson describes six stages “through which civilizations pass on their way to dissolution.” Let’s look at these and see where our civilization stands:

  1. “[P]olitical over-centralization as in Babylon, Persepolis, Rome…” It is now almost a matter of religious conviction that there shall be one capitol to rule them all. Municipalities regularly surrender their authority to regional governments, the members of which eagerly cede responsibility to central control. Doubtless those offering up the citizens in their charge seek to be promoted to central command.
  2. “[I]nordinate growth in taxation, which becomes ‘the means of government interference in commercial, industrial, and social life…'” Any comment needed here?
  3. “‘[T]he growth of a top-heavy system of administration.’ A great characterless political machine develops.” Parties come and go, but the bureaucracy grows steadily. It has become so large that any party in power wishing to check the bureaucracy can only fight a small portion of it. Anyway, most don’t fight it, they feed it.
  4. “‘[P]romotion of the wrong people…This situation is probably inevitable and eternal…The whole society, as well as the whole organization, become lethargic and cumbersome, routine-ridden and tame.'” Forget the meritocracy; we see before us the Rise of the Mediocrity. All shall win a gold star.
  5. “‘[T]he urge to overspend…Lacking the courage to reduce its expenditure…the government incurs a vast debt and loads it on to the shoulders of some future generation.'” Entitlement calls to entitlement, ordinary folk ask not what they can do but what can be done for them.
  6. “‘[L]iberal opinion’—that is, a feeble sentimentality which weakens the mind and the wills of a great part of a nation’s population…'[Do-gooders] are moved by sentiment rather than by reason…their interest is solely in the present and for them, too, the future is merely the end.'” Having the right attitude is everything; the consequences of do-gooder actions are utterly beside the point.

We shall hear of taxes and rumors of regulations, but we are not troubled; for we believe these things must come to pass. But is the end not yet or it is nigh?


  1. Speed

    The State, like any man-made entity (a house, a car, a religion) requires periodic skillful renovation, renewal, re-birth. Delay leads to demise.

  2. dearieme

    There’s a natural Joad-related measure of decadence. When Joad was caught fare-doging on a train, it ruined his career. Decades later the PM’s wife, Cherie Blair, was caught fare-dodging; it was excusesd and laughed off.

  3. Briggs


    Fascinating! But did not Mrs Blair have going for her the proper politics?

  4. Following the quaint theory that California’s troubles – like Greece’s – likely foreshadow the eventual national experience, IMHO in the Golden State the boxes for items 1 through 6 have all been “ticked” for several years. Thus our “decadence” is clearly in progress.

    All along California voters have had it in their power to make necessary “adjustments” or repairs to our deteriorating condition and halt the slide, but enough of us have not had the intelligence or personal courage necessary to make those choices. Until the majority do the state will continue to decline into further chaos. We are now symbolically eating our seed-stock and chopping up our fruit and shade trees for firewood. Doing that we can probably last another dozen years or so. After that, we won’t need a “big one” to wipe us out. Boxes 5 and 6 will have done us in. If the other 56 or whatever states refuse to learn from us they will probably be close behind.

  5. commieBob

    Somehow people have managed to turn ‘liberal’ into a four letter word.

    The founding principle of the USofA is liberalism. Liberal means free.

    Do you not believe in freedom?

    Just because some lazy fuzzy-thinker tries to pin garbage on the good name of liberalism, doesn’t change the real meaning of the word. Just because some totalitarian regime claims to embrace freedom doesn’t make it so.

    A real liberal bridles at the sight of anyone being tyrannized. It doesn’t matter if the tyrant is a king, a petty bureaucrat or a multinational corporation.

    I had the good luck to be raised in Saskatchewan when the founding of the province was still living memory. The farmers believed, with good reason, that they were being exploited. They learned that they could band together to rent rail cars and get their grain to a port (thereby cutting out the middle man). They couldn’t get their point of view published so they started their own newspaper. Not everything they tried worked but at least they were doing something.

    The farmers weren’t hide-bound. The same farmer could vote for the CCF (the party that brought us medicare) provincially and the Conservatives federally. They had an ideal and they were willing to work for it. They wanted everyone to have freedom and a better life, not just themselves.

    Rant #2: When I was a kid, there were a few people who had something called wisdom. Whatever happened to that?

  6. commieBob, re: Rant #2. People with wisdom normally think for themselves, a trait not to be desired if one is enrolling students in journalism schools. Ergo.

  7. dearieme

    “Fascinating! But did not Mrs Blair have going for her the proper politics?” Oh yes, if it had been a Tory PM’s wife there would have been hell to pay. On the other hand Joad was a leftie too. Back in the immediate postwar years the Labour Party was led by Attlee. His political views were obnoxiously socialist but he was entirely upright personally.

  8. Steve E

    commieBob says:
    11 October 2010 at 1:08 pm

    “The farmers weren’t hide-bound. The same farmer could vote for the CCF (the party that brought us medicare) provincially and the Conservatives federally. They had an ideal and they were willing to work for it. They wanted everyone to have freedom and a better life, not just themselves.”

    You’re right, they weren’t hide-bound by party politics, but they were hide-bound by self interest like any one else. They supported the Crow subsidy out of self interest and (ironically) the interests of central Canadian manufacturing long past its best before date. So, I think it’s an exaggeration to say, “they wanted everyone to have freedom and a better life, not just themselves.” Not to mention, of course as you are aware, the CCF introduced medicare provincially, while the conservatives introduced it federally, even though the “Liberals” had the opportunity to do so before the PCs took power.

    As a central Canadian, born much too late to remember Saskatchewan’s entry to Confederation, I have nothing but respect for the common sense approach of my Prairie Countrymen. I believe they embody self interest in the way they vote and that is at the heart of the original meaning of liberalism.

  9. KuhnKat

    I would suggest that the use of the word Liberal, that used to have a purposeful honorable meaning, has been devalued by the same process that has degraded words like honorable, duty, morality, conservative, freedom, even progressive. Can you think of anything progressive about the agenda of those who claim the term?

    It is part of the decadence that ideas and values will be twisted and destroyed.

  10. TomVonk


    I wonder why you choose Kirk and Parkinson who seem really sub-par thinkers.
    The quotes are full of confusion – a “state” is not a “civilisation” and a “civilisation” is not “society” .
    Applying (almost) random epithetes to random substantives chosen in the above list makes just a confused noise .

    All these things have already been seen and much better expressed by wise people 2000 years ago.
    Aristote wrote in what would pass today for sociology that the “northern neighbours (germanic tribes) had heart but no intelligence while the southern neighbours (persian empire) had intelligence but no heart”
    What he meant by “heart” was a sane process that transforms thought in action and what was basically the war for the Greeks.
    What he meant by “intelligence” was a sane process that enables to produce wealth and well being in interior what was basically the city for the Greeks .

    Our (western) civilisation has not changed much since 2000 years as we have inherited both the heart and intelligence from the Greeks.
    Sure, there has been much geographical shuffling as Rome replaced Greece , Germanic tribes replaced Rome , Christianity replaced the Germanic tribes etc .
    But basically WE have followed the same trajectory and continued the same civilisation shaped by science and religion for more than 2000 years .
    And OUR civilisation already won the competition with other civilisations since more than 500 years even if some people don’t know it still today .

    Spaniards and in a lesser measure French , and English imposed it on Americas and Africa.
    Oceania is obvious .
    And even the only serious competitor – Asia has been conquerred with the “surrender” of Japan during the Meiji era .
    Sure the geographic shuffling is still going on but is rather irrelevant for teh bigger issues .

    Reusing Aristots words , I would say that the ones having both intelligence and the heart are today more and more the Chinese while WE are becoming more and more the modern Persians with intelligence but no heart .
    I can even distinguish the modern germanic tribes with heart but no intelligence and it would be the islamic world .

    So the (our) civilisation didn’t change so much, what is changing is that there are other people who are better suited to inherit from Aristote and Pericles and it is the Chinese .
    Of course they will add their own grain of salt because they are also inheriting from Confucius and Bouddha but that’s not really very different from the Germanic additions when they inherited Rome .

  11. Briggs



    Although I accept most of your points, I dispute your claim that Kirk is a “sub-par” thinker. You can make an argument for lack of originality, and for a tendency for repetitiveness, but Kirk did a marvelous and timely job of bringing Burke back to us when he was all but forgotten. Plus, few better summarized the dismal state of higher education than did Kirk. I think of Kirk as a teacher and not as a philosopher.

  12. TomVonk


    I apologize for my unaccurate statement .
    I did not know Kirk before your post even if I know Aristote who is 2000 years older 🙂
    Therefore my judgment was based on the quotes you used and about what I looked up in Internet (everytime somebody mentions on a blog a person that he deems important and that I don’t know, I study the person. That way I always learn something when reading blogs) .

    What I wanted to say is that after perusing these 2 sources I was not impressed .
    I did not read The Conservative Mind and I won’t because I don’t think it will teach me something that I don’t already know .
    I think that I would find Mr Kirk sympathetic and I would probably agree with most what he thinks with the possible exception of issues concerning mysteries and religions.
    But sympathetic and brilliant are 2 different things .

    So I remove the “sub-par” and replace by “conventionnal thinker without much added value” .

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