The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer
This intimate history of the unravelling of the American Dream both fascinates and agitates
Faber and Faber
These four protagonists emerge as emblematic figures, representing a range of individual responses to the US’s great unwinding, while presenting an intriguing ideological mix. Both Thomas and Connaughton subscribe to the traditional Democratic belief that government must shield its citizens from life’s violent dislocations. Price, by contrast, discovers inspiration in Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, a bestseller from the 1930s that popularised Dale Carnegie’s belief that the human will could surmount all challenges – even as the struggling entrepreneur finds himself battered by big-market players and disillusioned with Republican policies. Thiel, a votary of Ayn Rand from his teenage years, remains a fierce libertarian, pouring millions into the campaign of Ron Paul and exotic business ventures. What all four share is a basic tenacity, a determination to map a course through life even as the terrain is shifting underfoot. If Packer’s technique owes a debt to Dos Passos, his story of individuals struggling against powerful social forces beyond their control is the stuff of Thomas Hardy. The book is long and at times gets bogged down in detail, but its power also accumulates. Because Packer treats his four subjects with respect and sympathy, the reader comes to care about them and their fate. Far more than a standard treatment, this intimate history of America’s unwinding fascinates and agitates, as we wonder which life choices will lead to success and which to disaster.
And yet Packer’s intimate history does have its limitations. The close lens fails to provide a focused understanding of the book’s key concept: the unwinding. Early on, in describing the transformations to the farming economy of the South and the steel industry of Pennsylvania, the book presents deindustrialisation and the transfer of jobs overseas as tectonic shifts, the workings of vast, irresistible, disruptive forces. To capture the power of these changes, Packer more than once conjures the image of a plague, a remorseless agent of nature that we are powerless to stop.
Later, when describing the Great Recession of 2008, the picture is quite different. Gone is the vision of persons trapped in forces beyond their control; now we encounter people hurt by the choices made by others, and in particular by greedy bankers who recklessly traded in exotic financial instruments designed primarily to pad their own pockets. Such banking practices, in turn, were enabled by the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999; this venerable piece of New Deal legislation, first passed in 1933, prohibited commercial banks from behaving like security firms, and its repeal, supported by the nation’s brightest economic minds, paved the way to the trillion-dollar losses of the next decade. But here we are left with no account of the repeal of Glass-Steagall – was it consequence or cause, a signpost of larger changes in American values and institutions or an agent of these transformations?