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

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 11:57

   
 

Book Title:
The Unwinding

ISBN-13:
978-0571251285

Author:
George Packer

Publisher:
Faber and Faber

Guideline Price:
Sterling20.00

‘For most of the twentieth century in America, things worked about as well as they ever had in human history.” Who could disagree with this assessment, delivered by George Packer in his new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America? Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, is best known as the author of The Assassin’s Gate, a widely praised study of the US’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Assassin’s Gate tells the story of a war gone awry; how a mix of hubris, incompetence and miscalculation conspired to turn a conflict that might have achieved some positive outcome into a fiasco.

The Unwinding is likewise a story of the US losing its way and of good things gone bad. By the middle of the last century, it arguably stood as the greatest and most benign nation the world had ever seen. A vigorous commitment to democratic institutions in support of a well-regulated market economy helped create a society of unimaginable wealth and productivity. Spared the domestic ravages of two world wars, Americans enjoyed a degree of material comfort unimaginable to people from an earlier age. Their teeth were strong, their life expectancy long, their cars big and their houses sturdy and affordable.

Then it all began to change. In Packer’s sober telling, “If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of [the] unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape.”

But The Unwinding is not your standard history of decline and fall; absent are the grand panoptic summaries of economic dislocation and social upheaval typical of hefty histories. Instead, Packer adopts a method at once intimate and kaleidoscopic. He notes his indebtedness to John Dos Passos’s USA, a great, if now generally neglected trilogy of novels from the 1930s that boldly sought to digest American life in a narrative collage of news clippings, song lyrics and story.

If Dos Passos fashioned fiction through a pastiche of historical chronicle, Packer creates history through a series of close character studies. A number of brief, sharp portraits focus on well-known personages, everyone from the writer Raymond Carver and the rap star turned media mogul Jay-Z, to Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s former treasury secretary. Too brief to stand on their own, these portraits function as interludes, set pieces that supplement the four life stories that form the heart of the book. In serial fashion, Packer introduces us to: Dean Price, a North Carolinian born into a tobacco-farming family, who spends his adult life trying to make it as an energy entrepreneur in the New South; Tammy Thomas, an African-American woman struggling to fashion a bearable, if not comfortable, life for her children in the de-industrialised Rustbelt; Jeff Connaughton, a Washington politico and lobbyist caught between the impulse to make a difference and make a killing; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who, emboldened by his first success with PayPal, parlayed a $500,000 investment in Facebook into a billion-dollar payday.

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?

Because Packer never offers a clear explanation or account of the unwinding – much of what he has to say is compressed into a two-page preface – we are left without standards to judge the varying responses to it. Consider one of Packer’s minor characters, a political activist named Karen Jaroch. Swept up in Tea Party orthodoxy, Jaroch worked tirelessly to defeat a light-rail project in Florida that would have created jobs, modernised a failing infrastructure and revitalised a blighted urban centre. In his portrait of Jaroch, we can read Packer as saying that in times of upheaval different persons will craft different strategies for muddling through, that it is not for the author to judge which is superior. And yet if the unwinding is, as Packer elsewhere suggests, the result of the deregulatory zeal that scuttled Glass-Steagall, then this style of Tea Party politics deserves a sharp critique, as does Thiel’s unreconstructed libertarianism.

Ultimately, The Unwinding is less a fully digested historical account than a vital document of the times. The reader ends the book sensing that, like his four protagonists, Packer is engaged in a struggle to make sense of a phenomenon that he neither entirely comprehends nor holds the key to mastering. The book’s great achievement lies not in its diagnosis or answers, but in its creative, sensitive portraits of ordinary people summoned to live through the challenges of our age.

Lawrence Douglas is the James JGrosfeld professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College in the US. His most recent book, The Vices, was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, 2011.