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European decadence, a perennial fear: looking at historical discourses of European decadence.

Ana Flamind

European liberal modernity, associated with global capitalism, multiculturalism, representative democracy, and European integration, is in crisis. These multiple crises are seen as epiphenomena testifying of a larger, more global phenomenon, the decadence of Western civilisation. Decadence is a ubiquitous concept regularly called upon to cast diagnoses of decay and/or decline, with symptoms manifesting through the culture, values, and ethics of a given society. As a counter discourse to modernity and historical narratives of progress, this concept has had a lasting impact on European politics since the 19th Century, crystallising fin-de-siècle anxieties about European culture, values, and historicity. In this paper, I want to unpack the political, historical, and philosophical legacy embedded within the concept and show how it can be deployed to examine today’s critiques of European liberal modernity. What do we talk about when we talk about European decadence? What are the (dis)continuities between Fin-de-Siècle assessments of European decadence and today? What can the concept of decadence tell us about the perceived dysfunctionalities of European liberal modernity? How have these perceptions evolved? What solutions were offered to overcome the decadence of Europe? Should we worry about the resurgence of decadence discourses?

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