29 January 2021

Is Western Civilization decadent? by Luis


Is Western Civilization decadent?


The goal of this text is to sketch some ideas that might aid in discussing the question presented in the title. It is divided in two main parts. In part 1 it will be analyzed what can be meant when saying that a civilization is decadent. In part 2, possible indications of current decadence in the West will be presented.


1. What does it mean when we say that a civilization is decadent?

Perhaps the simplest notion of decadence consists on the idea that a certain (desirable) property gets worse over time. In a civilization, decadence could correspond to declining economic production and living standards, perceived decrease in the quality or quantity of cultural output, increased civil unrest and conflict, or a sense of moral decline (among other things).

The perceived decline might be absolute (the considered property is actually getting worse) or correspond to a decrease in the rate of improvement, below that expected.

The decline might also be relative to another civilization or to the rest of the world, if that other entity is progressing faster, so that the relative position of the civilization in question is declining over time.


2. Are there indications that the West is (currently) decadent?

- Economic output can be quantified relatively easily, and some relatively objective data might help grounding the discussion to some uncontroversial facts. Data from the World Bank shows that the rate of GDP growth in the West[1] has a clear declining trend since 1970. The percentage of world GDP produced in the West has also shown a clear decline, from over 60% in 1970 to 45% in 2019 (from 61 to 52% if we exclude China). GDP in the West has, however, increased during this period, so economic decadence could be observed in the growth rate or relatively to the rest of the world, rather than in absolute terms.

- A similar dynamics can be observed in demography. The population of the West was 19% of the world total in 1960, and 11% in 2019 (the population has increased but a declining rate, smaller than that of the rest of the world). The fertility rate (birth per woman), went from 3.0 in 1960 to 1.6 in 2018 (those numbers are 5.0 and 2.4 for the world as a whole). Since the fertility rate needed for a constant population is around 2.1, without migration the population of the West would have been declining since 1973.

- Cultural decadence is harder to quantify. It could be argued that current popular culture is of lower quality and less innovative than in previous times (Hollywood seems to be making mostly remakes these days, and reggaeton and trap music are arguably less complex than Rock and Roll, Blues or classical music). The proliferation of conspiracy thinking (e.g. flat-Earth, Q-Anon, anti-vaxers) and general distrust in elites and experts could also be seen as a sign of decadence.

- Regarding civil unrest, we could cite recent events in the US, as well as riots in London and Paris a few years ago. While, on the whole, the West has being rather peaceful, the rise of populist parties and social polarization might be worrying signs.

- The inability of most western countries to suppress the Covid pandemic could also be seen as a sign of decadence.

- Finally, one can often hear western intellectuals harshly criticizing Western culture (for being colonial, oppressive, racist, misogynistic etc.), while at the same time being completely non-judgmental about other cultures (this is somewhat perplexing given that in the criteria used by these intellectuals, there does not seem to have ever existed a better civilization than the West). A lack of self-confidence could be considered a form of moral decline.


If the idea of Western decadence is accepted, one could speculate about its causes. Postmodernism and moral relativism, colonial guilt or indolence deriving from affluence could be some candidates. Finally, one can ponder whether the West’s decline is necessarily a bad thing. If Western decline is relative and due to other parts of the world advancing faster, this could be seen as a positive and natural development.





[1]Considered here as USA, EU, Canada, Australia and New Zealand


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