Is Western civilisation in decay?

Pria Viswalingam talks about his provocative new documentary Decadence: Decline of the Western World.

The rise of porn,the neutering of democracy and the spread of junk culture. Can we just agree society peaked in the 60s?
It's mid-afternoon on a Monday. The waiter has just brought over a cheese platter and is tempting us with a list of liqueurs.
"You only live once," smiles Pria Viswalingam.
In a posh eatery in Sydney's CBD, the former SBS TV host is discussing his new film about the ills of modern life. Called Decadence: The Decline of the Western World, it explores the rise of porn, the demise of egalitarianism and the spread of junk culture. It examines the neutering of democracy and the unstoppable growth of mercantilism. It touches on the collapse of faith and the fracturing of families.
Miranda Kerr walked the runway during the 2011 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in a $2.5 million bra. Miranda Kerr walked the runway during the 2011 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in a $2.5 million bra. Photo: Jamie McCarthy
Then it weaves all those threads and more into one argument: that western civilisation peaked in the 1960s, and is now sliding into the abyss.
"This here is decadence," says Viswalingam, looking around at all the businessmen lingering over long, indulgent lunches.
After spending five years and visiting 10 countries to make his film, he pinpoints 1969 as the peak of western civilisation.
Ancient societies were laid low by decadence Ancient societies were laid low by decadence Photo: Michael Mucci
"The west as we know it today begins with the Magna Carta in 1215," says Viswalingam, who wrote, produced and appears in the documentary. "Then came the Renaissance, the Reformation, the founding of America and the Enlightenment, before the west peaked with the social revolutions of the 1960s.
"In 1969, the Russians and the Americans took us beyond our earthly bounds, the My Lai Massacre shattered the image of us as the good guys and then there was all the sheer exuberance and peace, love and rock and roll of Woodstock before the Rolling Stones 'end of the '60s' concert at Altamont. Decadence depicts the west's decline ever since."
Viswalingam is a former SBS TV presenter whose credits include Fork in the Road and Class. Having devoted a career to analysing culture and society, he says the symptoms of decay and decadence are unmistakeable.
Filmmaker Pria Viswalingam Filmmaker Pria Viswalingam Photo: Ben Rushton
Those symptoms include soaring suicide rates and the west's addiction to anti-depressants. They include rampant individualism, emptying churches and disintegrating families. And they include the west's obsessive devotion to money as the only true measure of worth. In the west today, humanities are maligned while MBAs are coveted.
"Treadmill consumption, growing income disparity, b-grade leadership, they're obvious signs of a culture adrift," he says.
Thing is, he's not alone. Another voice among the swelling chorus of cultural doomsayers belongs to author Alexander McCall Smith, who came to the Opera House in October to present a talk entitled Society is Broken.
Author Alexander McCall Smith Society is broken ... author Alexander McCall Smith Photo: Rodger Cummins
"People have been talking about the 'broken society' for some time now," Smith wrote in a complementary article. "[The British] riots demonstrated just how broken. The broken society is a consequence partly of social change and cultural change.
"The social change is familiar: the destruction of the family as the fundamental social unit would be fine if we had replaced it with something. We have not. [And] it’s a culture in which we seem to have abandoned many of the values on which we based our civilisation.
"We don’t know what we believe in and are busy bringing up children who share our confusion ... We have created a strange culture perpetuated by television and other media that rejoices in and celebrates dysfunction, violence and anti-social behaviour."
So pervasive is the sense of cultural bankruptcy that a new school of thought has emerged. Dubbed "declinology", it has seen the publication of books including Dambisa Moyo's How the West Was Lost, Walter Laqueur's Last Days of Europe and Bruce S. Thornton's Decline and Fall: Europe's Slow Motion Suicide.
"[In] France declinology has become a national art," wrote Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian in January. "While in Germany, declinology has assumed hysterical proportions."
Of course, the idea that civilisation is doomed is nothing new. Since the beginning of time, the end has been nigh. Declinology is merely the latest manifestation of humanity's insecurity about its imminent demise. Moreover, some declinologists have ulterior motives. They are peddling doom to push other ideologies.
"The really striking characteristic of declinology is how it is used to advance other agendas," wrote Bunting. "It is a way of injecting urgency, grabbing attention for another cause. And it can get very nasty ... Declinology in Germany and France has become toxically entangled with Islamophobia."
Viswalingam has no hidden agenda; he's simply fascinated by all the social changes underway. And not a little frightened.
He first broached the subject in Decadence: The Meaninglessness of Modern Life, a six-part TV series which aired on SBS in 2006. Since then, he says, the topic has become even more relevant and confronting. Tellingly, his film dovetails with the Occupy Wall Street protests.
"I heard an American professor saying that the Occupy protesters had achieved in a few weeks what non-protesting people have been trying to achieve for years," Viswalingam says. "They have expressed the view that young people are fed up with corporate greed creating serious divisions in society between rich and poor and that this has to be addressed. They have set the agenda and it is not going to go away."
Decadence aims to be the social equivalent of Al Gore's climate change documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. It aims to inspire change. One of the interviewees is philosopher Noam Chomsky.
"Eighty per cent of the population think that the country [the US] is run by a few big interests looking after themselves," says Chomsky in Decadence. "And we can't do anything about it."
Unsurprisingly, Viswalingam struggled to raise finance for a film that attacks the status quo. He finally found an unlikely ally in Oliver Yates, a Sydney merchant banker who contributed the bulk of the film's funds. Yates says the Occupy movement, the Eurozone protests and the British riots all reveal the grassroots disillusionment within western societies. His hope is that Decadence articulates some of the frustrations underpinning that disillusionment.
"I believe that the new generation is struggling with society as they see it today," Yates says. "They have a feeling that something is just not adding up but don't know what exactly it is and why. Decadence is about why disenchantment and social dislocation are bubbling over in the industrialised world."
Even more concerning is the thought that the problems addressed in the film aren't confined to the industrialised world. They extend far beyond the west, because the rest of the world is actively labouring to emulate the west.
"The rest of the world is aspiring to the west,’’ says Viswalingam. ‘‘We have a billion middle-class consumers coming online in China and India. Noone is going to stop them.
"Decadence is really an ode to the west. I mean, I love the hard-won western values of liberalism, law and freedoms that we now take for granted _ to live as I choose, to be able to sue a government and win, the weekend. But it’s also a call to arms because China is still ruled by big bad Animal Farm-types and India has got another 200 years before its 99 per cent comes anywhere near the notion of social equitability."
So, if the west is doomed, how long do we have?
"Every civilisation will fall," says Episcopalian bishop John Spong. "The question is when."
Jacinta Dunn, the film's co-writer, says the answer may be soon.
"Just before the fall of the Roman Empire, they were all feasting on lark's tongue and nightingale hearts," Dunn says. "They were obsessed with food. I don’t think George Calombaris will be dishing up lark’s tongue any time soon, but we are undoubtedly obsessed with food. Anyone for sea urchin on angel hair or flavoured foam? A sign of imminent decline? Maybe. I certainly think it’s decadent."
Decadence: The Decline of the Western World premieres on Thursday December 1 at Roseville Cinemas in Sydney and on Thursday December 8 at Cinema Nova in Melbourne.
1215 - Signed by King John, the Magna Carta guarantees the liberties of the king's subjects and restricts his absolute power. The west is born.
1300s - 1600s - The Renaissance ushers in an age of scientific, intellectual and artistic inquiry and appreciation of ancient Greek and Roman civilisations. Martin Luther sparks the Protestant Reformation.
1440 - Gutenberg’s printing press leads ultimately to the west's greatest achievement: education for all.
1700s - The Enlightenment sees the rise of ideas of natural rights of humans thanks to philosophers including Kant, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke and Hume. Adam Smith believes in the market being a democratic defence against tyranny.
1700s - 1800s - Industrial Revolution is accompanied by territorial expansion and colonisation.
1950 -Invention of the credit card.
1953 - Iran Coup. The CIA and MI6 organise their first "regime change", a coup to overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh after he nationalised the Iranian oil industry. Cold War gathers momentum. The American dream comes true.
1962 –Vietnam War begins just as social revolutions get underway: JFK’s Camelot, sexual liberation, civil rights, women’s rights, rock 'n' roll, drugs, middle class emancipation.
1969 – First moon landing, Woodstock, Altamont. The west peaks with a guitar solo, a peace symbol and a handful of hallucinogens.
Early 1970s – The decline of the west begins as the Greek idea of individualism goes feral and mutates into the "me generation" – especially in the US.
1980s – Reaganism spawns a Gordon Gekko "greed is good" mindset, accompanied by a growing income disparity and the emptying of traditional churches.
1989 - Fall of Berlin Wall. Capitalism wins, parties hard and goes wild.
1990s – Rationalist economics. Globalisation. Mindless consumption.
2000s – Good education skews to the rich. Health care skews to the rich. Inequity skews to the poor.
2001 – USA is attacked. Invades Afghanistan and, two years later, Iraq.
2008 - Lehmann Brothers collapses, GFC, trillion dollar debts.
2011 - European sovereign debt crises. UK riots. Greek riots. Occupy Wall Street protests begin. Kyle Sandilands offends women. The west is doomed.