Violet: Have you chosen a topic for your paper?
Fred: Uh, ‘The Decline of Decadence.’
Violet: You think decadence has declined?
Fred: Definitely. Big time. Major, major decline.
—Whit Stillman, Damsels in Distress (2011)
Was Fred right? Take a look at Figure 1, below. It is a graph showing the frequency of the occurrence of the words ‘decadence’ or ‘decadent’ in editorials and letters in The Times of London by decade, from the 1840s to 2009. It is a potentially useful data set, not only because it permits like-for-like comparisons across almost two centuries, but also because it is in these columns of ‘The Thunderer’ that one might expect to find writers railing against the decadence of the age in which they live. The graph shows that the incidence rises steadily from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1890s and remains high until the Second World War, when it descends to a lower plateau, only to fall again in the 1980s.
A year-by-year analysis of the data since 1900 (Figure 2) provides some revealing detail. There are peaks before the First World War, in 1910 and 1913; at the time of the Wall Street Crash in 1929, and again in 1939, immediately before the Second World War. A testimony to the prescience of leader-writers and readers alike? Not necessarily. In 1939, there is much discussion of British national decadence, but in 1929 it is the decadence of the tin industry, of fishing, agriculture, the telegraphic service, the design of postage stamps, the music on the bbc, the national football team—not to mention the decadence of learning in the fourteenth century—that preoccupies both editors and readers. Even in 1913, talk is of the decadence of the Chinese, of the London theatre, of modern art and poetry, of sport, of the Byzantine Empire. Nevertheless, in retrospect, the collective vocabulary of The Times’s editorial and letters pages seems to indicate something that individual contributors never seek to state—some sense that things may be falling apart, that the centre cannot hold.
If so, what are we to make of the fact that after the Second World War, decadence is never as salient again? There’s an upturn in the chatter in the late 60s and early 70s, but after that it drops to a murmur. The Times was not published for a year in 1979, and from 1981 there is a new editor and a new proprietor, but the downward trend predates these events. By the late 1970s, talk of decadence had already dropped to levels not seen since the 1860s. And it has never recovered since. It is still possible to find correspondents complaining about the ‘ferocious decadence’ of the government in promoting lgbt education in schools, but talk of decadence has in general moved off the editorial and letters pages to the lifestyle section. You are more likely to find a celebrity chef describing the best way to make a ‘decadent’ bittersweet chocolate and cardamom tart than an editorial about the decadence of contemporary culture or political institutions.footnote1 By this measure at least, Fred is right. Decadence has declined, ‘major, major decline’. But why?
There is no easy answer, but looking at a much larger but less focused body of the data, the Google n-gram (Figure 3) for ‘decadence’ and ‘decadent’ across two centuries, it is apparent that the changing vocabulary of The Times’s letters and editorials reflects a wider phenomenon. In the books in Google’s database, the use of ‘decadent’ continues to rise while that of ‘decadence’, with its historically specific links to the Decadent movement of the 1890s, decreases after the First World War; but usage of both falls from the Second World War onwards, except for the 1960s’ uptick in ‘decadence’ (also discernible in the data from The Times). The 1970s represent a final turning point, with both ‘decadence’ and ‘decadent’ declining sharply to a level from which they have never since recovered.
From these graphs, it appears that one possible answer to the question of why decadence declines might be the rise of neoliberalism, for talk of decadence trails off in the 1970s just as the economics of neoliberalism take hold—a change consolidated by the 1976 imf bailout in the uk and the 1979 Volcker Shock in the us. And there are reasons for thinking this could be significant. Since the mid-nineteenth century there have been two overarching narratives of decay in Western society: the decline of capitalism and the decadence of the arts. And though only Marxist critics of ‘capitalist decadence’ insisted on making a direct link between the two, the narratives appeared to run in parallel, with the economic depressions of the 1890s and the 1930s together marking two upswings in the discourse. Each of these downturns was associated not just with analysis and commentary on economic decline, but also a large volume of cultural criticism on artistic decadence. On this interpretation, there would seem to be an inverse relationship between decadence and capital growth, and so the resurgence of capitalism might be expected to have suppressed the chatter once more.
But that cannot be the whole story. It is true that, for three decades, discussion of both forms of collapse almost ceased as the fall of Communism and the triumph of neoliberalism generated utopian fantasies of a global network culture fuelled by the new economy. Since the financial crisis of 2008, that confidence has seemed misplaced. And yet the rhetoric of cultural pessimism has not re-established itself. In 2008 there was no upturn in the talk of decadence in the editorials and letters pages of The Times such as there had been in 1913, 1929, and 1939. Somehow, the triumph of neoliberalism appears not merely to have suppressed talk of decadence but to have permanently uncoupled it from the fortunes of the capitalist economy.