[This book review was published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 96-106.]
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
As all who are familiar with art know, Georges-Pierre Seurat’s impressionistic paintings involved a unique “pointillist” style that formed its pictures out of a great many discrete dots that the viewers’ visual perception then put together into a comprehensible whole. One could liken George Packer’s The Unwinding to such a painting. Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of several award-winning books, has patterned this book after John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, leading the reader journalistically through an extended array of descriptions and biographical accounts, which in this case deal with people and events in the United States during the past half-century. The intention is that, taken together, they paint a word picture, in effect, of the dissolution of American manners and morals, which creates a void that Packer says is filled by “organized money.” It is a social crisis in which “everything changes, nothing lasts.” The picture that results is not as coordinated or serene as a Seurat painting, but is intended to be considerably more ragged and tumultuous, even though in itself each of Packer’s accounts is well and engagingly told. Another art analogy would be to a collage comprised of posted-notes stuck on a large board. Readers come away with an impression of social chaos and venality, mixed with considerable human struggle and some success.
It would seem that the despair conveyed by the book as a whole far outweighs the optimistic dialectic that Packer somewhat paradoxically expresses in his Prologue but never develops: “The unwinding is nothing new,” he says. “There have been unwindings every generation or two… Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.” A renewal, or even the beginning of one, is not evident in the remainder of the book. Perhaps a sequel will be forthcoming.
The book consists of a series of biographical sketches. A chronology of the lives of three individuals in particular is given in recurring segments and is based “on hundreds of hours of interviews” with those three. Exactly why they were picked as the chief focus, and why their stories are broken into parts that a reader has to patch together to maintain continuity, remain a mystery to this reviewer; but their respective life stories, each in its own way, conveys a message of the subject’s very personal struggle through an economic and cultural wasteland.
There are, in addition, separate essays on a diverse spread of well-known personalities based on secondary sources, and each is well worth reading in itself: Republican former Speaker-of-the-House Newt Gingrich; television super-personality Oprah Winfrey; Raymond Carver, a “literary chronicler of blue-collar despair”; retailer Sam Walton of Wal-Mart fame; Peter Thiel, who made a fortune in the Silicon Valley; General Colin Powell; restaurateur and later evangelist Alice Waters; Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin; rap singer Jay-Z; Tea Party blogger Andrew Breitbart; and now-Senator Elizabeth Warren.
To all this is added considerable attention to two locations that have been hard-hit by the gale-force winds of the recent economic and financial tempest: Youngstown, Ohio, a victim of the hollowing-out of American manufacturing; and Tampa, Florida, decimated by the housing mania and eventual bust. Further to enhance the impression of a sweeping eclecticism, Packer here and there inserts pages of assorted quotes and news items under various years’ headings illustrating what would seem to be the detritus of a society spinning off in many directions. There is much commentary, which, though it sometimes expresses Packer’s own opinions, often presents the conflicting perceptions of others. Packer has not, however, made The Unwinding a vehicle for theory or systematic analysis. Packer must feel that it is enough to “let the facts speak for themselves.”
A number of related themes stand out starkly, and taken together make up the book’s message. We will review these in the following section. That section will necessarily be followed by another in which it is observed that Packer’s picture, although quite striking and accurate in itself, covers only part of the complex reality of contemporary American life. The book would seem to invite the impression that its panorama is exhaustive, but a reader will need to realize that it is not. America is in a predicament that threatens it existentially. An understanding of that predicament requires looking into much more than Packer has chosen to address.
The Book’s Themes
A quick summary doesn’t do The Unwinding justice, since each piece is interesting in itself; but, with that said, even an insufficient summary will help give an overview before we examine the details. The collage conveys a picture of economic and financial devastation, a collapse of professional standards, community decay, a lack of rewarding jobs, and a growing polarization of wealth. It shows a political system in the hands of a political class driven by money and in effect serving a “kleptocracy.” At a personal level, there is much irresponsibility and human failure, although Packer makes no moral judgments about that and tends to accept what we know is the Left’s perception that people are entrapped and that America is “letting people down.” Despite it all, a number of the people he discusses are able to strike it rich, with millions of dollars coming to them with seeming ease.
There is no direct statement of Packer’s ideology, but there are various indications of his preference for something of a Proudhon-style society featuring localism, community, a reduction in scale, a concern for the poor, and not surprisingly (given what fits into such ideological clusters) even such a thing as the value of organic eating. It seems safe to say that Packcr’s view of the contemporary scene is in many particulars in line with what one finds on the American Left. He displays little sympathy for Republicans or anybody on the American Right, except when, as with now-Senator Elizabeth Warren, a “conservative has arrived at radicalism by seeing the institutions collapse.” It is well that he has included this latter observation about Warren, because it points to the (at least partial) convergence that is occurring between the long-time critics of capitalism on the Left and many supporters of a market economy, on the Right, who refuse to support what they see as a “crony capitalism” that perverts what they themselves have so long supported.
Economic and financial decay. The hollowing-out of American manufacturing and of the jobs that went with it receives much attention in Packer’s telling of the individual stories. At Youngstown, Ohio, “from the 1920s until 1977, [there were] twenty-five uninterrupted miles of steel mills.” It “became a solidly union city… [and] its wages and pensions came to represent the golden age of American economic life.” But over time the “elite families sold their mills and left….” “Youngstown entered its death spiral… The absentee steel corporations had not reinvested in the mills. Instead, they cannibalized machines and parts… Throughout the seventies, smaller factories in the Valley… kept closing [and] every major steel plant in Youngstown shut down.” A consequence was that “between 1970 and 1990, the city’s population fell from 140,000 to 95,000, with no end in sight.”
Thus, Packer uses Youngstown (and Tampa) to paint a picture of community decay and desolation. In Tampa after the collapse of the housing market, there were “two blocks that had thirteen abandoned houses out of twenty-four.” In Youngstown there were so many abandoned buildings that the mayor found it impossible to keep up with the needed demolition. “The city could no longer afford garbage collection and water lines throughout the Metropolitan area.” Elsewhere, in 1990 the American textile industry “began to collapse” and “the mill towns had nothing to fall back on.”
Why was all this occurring? “Analysts in Washington and New York said that it was all inevitable – technology and globalization.” Symptomatic of this, “low-cost Chinese competition wiped out most of the local furniture industry.” The decimation was carried further by certain processes at work domestically: speaking of a county in North Carolina, Packer says that “three Wal-Marts for a poor rural county of just ninety thousand people would wipe out just about every remaining grocery store, clothing store, and pharmacy in the area… Two thousand five hundred people applied for the 307 ‘associates’ positions at [one the stores], which paid an average of $9.85 an hour, or $16,108 a year.” The American financial sector played an important role, stripping companies and shedding jobs and pensions. Packer tells what happened at Delphi: “the board hired a new CEO, Robert S. ‘Steve’ Miller, who specialized in taking troubled companies and slashing them to pieces in order to make them profitable for new investors… Delphi’s board gave Miller a compensation package that was worth as much as $35 million, while a group of senior executives got $87 million in bonuses, and stock options that were ultimately valued at half a billion.” In the event, “Delphi announced that it would close or sell twenty-one of its twenty-nine American plants and get rid of twenty thousand hourly jobs, two-thirds of the total.” The effect on wages? “The survivors would take a 40 percent pay cut.” Pensions? “The buyout meant that they would lose most of their pension.” In the newspaper industry, “wounded giants like the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times… would soon be carved up by private equity investors in search of bigger profits.”
Money-driven politics. A great many things in the book point toward a perversion of American politics, with “the old party system” giving way to “special-interest PACs [political action committees], think tanks, media, and lobbyists,” all making up a “permanent class” operating on a “Wall Street-Washington axis.” Connaughton, Packer says, found that “almost all of Washington was suckling at the corporate tit.” There is a game of “musical chairs” in which people go back and forth between government and either lobbying or corporate life. “Between 1998 and 2004, 42 percent of the congresspersons and half the senators who left office went on to lobby their former colleagues.” Packer mentions also the “military-industrial complex,” and could just as well add to the mix the Israel Lobby about which Mearsheimer and Walt have written so prominently. When these are added to the mix, it shows that the “permanent class” is not entirely homogeneous, being made up of several components.
It is significant that Packer presents both major political parties as complicit. One character speaks of “a decadent kleptocracy in rapid decline, abetted by both political parties.” It is not just the Republicans whom Packer sees as a lost cause in this; referring to “the financial sector,” he says “any Democratic president would be destroyed if he lost its confidence, especially after the party began to raise most of its money on the Street [i.e., Wall Street].” It was President Clinton who barred the regulation of derivatives and signed off on the repeal of Glass-Steagall [legislation that separated commercial from investment banking], while under President Obama the Justice Department has “failed to bring any high-level prosecutions” against those instrumental in the financial crisis. After “Obama got into office” the “banks were back in business, the corporations and the rich made more and more money while the rest of the country suffered.” If Packer’s non-partisan condemnation is surprising, it shouldn’t be. The American Left, with which we identify him, has almost never been happy with Democratic presidents, even as the left-oriented media have waxed eloquently in their favor.
Stories of personal dereliction. Readers of the book cannot help but notice that concomitant with all this, but not necessarily caused by it, there has been rampant personal irresponsibility, showing the soft underbelly of not just an economic but also a cultural, social crisis. Packer says of one of his characters that, “looking back, he saw that the rot had already set in with his parents and their generation, in the seventies… ‘Our parents were fat and lazy,’ he said. ‘Our grandparents would never have mortgaged everything and lived off the credit.’” More than once in the narrative, characters point to the poor work ethic of either their own employees or of co-workers. For the most part, though, Packer shows no moral revulsion to the immense human defalcation he describes. Instead, the blame, as articulated more than once by various voices speaking through the book, rests rather squarely on the system and the people in the institutions. The individuals are pictured as trapped and resentful.
The stories Packer tells of three individuals are of a Dean Price, Jeff Connaughton and Tammy Thomas. He seems not to intend to paint a uniformly bleak picture of them, but it will help flesh out the point just made about the theme of personal irresponsibility if we review the perversities that run through their biographies:
About Price, we are told that “he never applied himself in school,” and that after he finished school he “went wild [and] quickly discovered the pleasures of alcohol, gambling, marijuana, fighting, and women.” After he returned to college, he took time out for “a five-month trip to California, where [he] lived in a VW bus.” Back at school, he was arrested “for smoking pot… and arrested a few days later for driving under the influence.” Graduation was followed by his “bumming around Europe for a few months, sleeping in hostels and sometimes even on park benches.” He got married, but this resulted in divorce, followed by more drinking and the break-up of a second marriage. His parents were divorced, and his father committed suicide. Dean received a $750,000 federal stimulus-money grant to buy a microturbine for a “green energy” firm he was involved with, but the grant was slow to arrive and the company took bankruptcy. Dean was indicted for tax fraud and convicted of a misdemeanor, and then took personal bankruptcy after his associates kicked him out of the energy company. Thereafter, he joined 700 people in an “Occupy” march in Greensboro, North Carolina, protesting the super-wealthy “1 percent.”
Packer’s character Jeff Connaughton isn’t personally dissolute the way Dean Price is described, but comes across as something of what we might call “an empty suit.” Even though he grew up with “no clear political views,” he became a lawyer who wanted “to be around power” and tagged along in the shadow of Joe Biden in the U.S. Senate and later the vice-presidency. He wound up making lots of money as a lobbyist, but then soured on “the meritocracy’s” yen for social promotion, vast remuneration, and conflicts of interest. He became alienated from “the permanent class” after riding along within it for several years.
With Tammy Thomas, the third individual whose life is recounted, we return to a scene of personal dereliction and see how she drags it along with her as she rises, if we can call it that, to become a “community organizer.” Black, she was raised by her grandmother in Youngstown. Her mother’s home was firebombed; her grandfather was a heroin addict and his wife an alcoholic. Tammy’s mother served time in the penitentiary for check fraud, drugs, aggravated robbery and heroin addiction. Tammy herself became pregnant when she was fifteen, and went on welfare when the father assumed no role. She got an associate’s degree at a technical college, had two more illegitimate babies, and went to work in a Packard factory, where she was often laid off, with Packard sending jobs to Mexico. She became engaged to a man who had no steady job and who was killed in an argument. Eventually she married, but it fell apart. Although her children were sound, a granddaughter was shot and killed at a party. When Packard paid Tammy a buyout, she went to college for a degree in sociology, which led to her becoming a community organizer on the Saul Alinsky model.
When Packer tells about Raymond Carver, the “chronicler of blue-collar despair” (one of the “famous people” to which Parker devotes essays), he says Carver, a heavy drinker, “had great dreams” and wanted to write a novel even though he didn’t go to college because he “got a girl pregnant,” married her, became a father when she was eighteen and he twenty, and became too weighed-down by the demands of his marginal existence to write. He and his wife “each had an affair,” and “he was convicted of lying to the state of California on his unemployment claim.” “His drinking became poisonous,” and “a lifetime of smoking finally caught up with him,” leading to his death in 1988 when he was fifty. Through it all, “he paid close attention to the lives of marginal, lost people,” and he wrote stories that made him “a literary hero,” with “prestigious appointments and major prizes.”
To each of these people, the fault lay not in their own failings but in American society at large. We see this when Tammy Thomas says “I’m pissed that I have to raise my kids, get them educated, and get them out [of Youngstown] because there’s no opportunity here.” Packer says “she was really getting angry.” To Carver, the causes of the marginality and lostness of the ne’er-do-wells whom he championed lay outside themselves: “Hard work, good intentions, doing the right things,” he said, “– these would not be enough.”
When we suggest the incongruity of the victimization theme, we don’t mean to imply that the abuses within the economic and financial system have not wreaked havoc on individuals. Rather, it simply isn’t the whole story. Packer’s narrative illustrates a much more general moral rot, which has existed not just among a “they” who can be pointed to as a discrete class of evil-doers. It would be a serious mistake to compartmentalize, and thus over-simplify, the problem that way. A second observation must be that "victimization” has become a central component of the ideology of the American Left. Those who are seen as victims of forces beyond their control are assigned little or no moral responsibility of their own. Packer betrays a leading tenet of leftist ideology when he gives so much detail about vicious behavior and then doesn’t acknowledge it as such.
Why It’s an Incomplete Picture
With so many posted-notes stuck on the board to make up the collage, one gets the impression that The Unwinding offers a comprehensive picture of contemporary America. It does not. Many other aspects of the American predicament need to be acknowledged, lest their omission be taken to suggest that they are not present or important.
The mention of pressure groups and a money-driven politics doesn’t adequately tell the story of how fully the United States is dominated politically, ideologically and culturally by an elite. Countless individuals have opinions that are outside what is insisted upon as “politically correct,” but they are marginalized and effectually silenced. There is a fog of opinion (we might well coin a term and call it The Great Miasma) that scandalizes dissent and impresses its own myths onto virtually all issues, whether they are historical, cultural or merely relate to who is to be considered one of society’s heroes. To consider it domination by an elite is appropriate, but it is important also to realize how widespread and ubiquitous that elite is, and how much it is reinforced by millions who intuitively yearn for respectability as the elite defines it. An example is provided by the drive for the social acceptance of homosexuality. That thrust has gotten to the point where major universities now offer programs in “Queer Studies,” with a surprisingly favorable acceptation of the word “queer.” The avant garde in academia, the principal media, corporate life, the entertainment community, and elsewhere then sees American public opinion follow along rather sheepishly, not because people are persuaded by reasoned debate but because they hear few other views and see any dissent ostracized as bigotry. Almost two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed how majority opinion came to fill all spaces, and insisted on its own domination, in American life. That would not be an accurate description today. Even more than in politics, American culture and Americans’ day-to-day thinking are in the hands of an elite that knows its own unquestionable rightness and benevolence. The “majority” adjusts accordingly.
Another “elephant in the room” so far as American society and its future are concerned is the influx of non-European peoples that is rapidly changing the country’s demographic. The elite praises this influx and does nothing to stop it, cloaking it in a recently formulated rationale of “multiculturalism,” but nothing can be more clearly a revolutionary change from what America has been. Those who value the European origins of the American people and the civilization the prior generations have created are not unreasonable in considering it a bloodless invasion amounting to an unprecedented cultural genocide. That this is occurring can be cited as an additional example of the point just made about the elite’s governance not just of American politics but of the country’s cultural future.
Yet another feature of enormous importance is one in which virtually all Americans join. Even a great many of those who otherwise stand outside the elite join in it because of the centuries-old tradition of their churches and religious belief. What we have in mind is the sensibility that it is America’s task to right any wrong wherever it may occur in the world. “Not a sparrow falls…” is the sentiment. This sets Americans on a course, through government and also through countless non-governmental organizations, of intervening in the lives of peoples elsewhere. A panel of homosexual athletes is sent to the Olympic Games in Sochi to make a point to the Russians; Hillary Clinton lectures the Chinese on women’s rights; the Presbyterian Church sponsors the installation of technologically simple water filtration systems among the virtually stone-age villages in rural Haiti; programs are conducted to provide “microfinance” loans to women in India; the list continues indefinitely. All of it proceeds in an atmosphere of “feel good” benevolence. What should be clear, but isn’t, is that much of it puts the United States at odds with the cultures and belief-systems of vast numbers of the world’s population. Its doing so doesn’t bother the average American, who knows little about those other peoples and who implicitly has no thought of their having a right to autonomy. Often, this global meliorism has led the United States into military action which has little regard for the sovereignty of other nations, has been financially draining, and has produced quite a prodigious body count – not mainly among American soldiers, but among the very peoples Americans hope to assist. It is not surprising that the cultural historian Samuel Huntington has warned that it is both dangerous and culturally presumptuous. There is virtually no prospect, however, that the American mind-set will be inhibited by such a warning.
The Unwinding’s impressive collage makes only the briefest mention of the non-labor-intensive technological tsunami that is in the course of breaking the millennia-old connection between work and livelihood. It is a tsunami that offers a cornucopia of wealth and well-being, while at the same time making necessary radical changes that will change the face of nearly all aspects of life. As people come no longer to be able to rely on remunerated work for a living, economic, political and social changes will assuredly follow. If those changes are not anticipated and accommodated, they will occur by force of necessity. That will not necessarily be a pretty process.
We could go on with additional factors that Packer has left out of his very captivating panorama of America’s muddled life. What we have said is enough to show how incomplete his picture is. Notwithstanding that fact, however, we recommend The Unwinding. It is starkly informative about the grim realities it brings to light. It is a good read, besides.
Dwight D. Murphey