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George Packer: The Unwinding: Thirty Years of American Decline

The German newspaper Die Zeit described this book as the Great American novel of the 21st century (link in German). However, though indisputably American it is not a novel and I am not sure that it is great, though it might prove to be. However, given Die Zeit‘s comments and the fact that it is written in the style of a novel – modelled to some degree on Dos PassosU.S.A. – it is appearing here.

Packer defines what he means by unwinding in his opening remarks. The winding (my term – he does not use it) was the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip. The unwinding is the end of that. If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition—ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money. Winning and losing are all-American games, and in the unwinding winners win bigger than ever, floating away like bloated dirigibles, and losers have a long way to fall before they hit bottom, and sometimes they never do.

His technique, as mentioned, is modelled on Dos Passos. He tells stories of a range of individuals, all of whom are real. Some of them are famous, known to virtually every American and many others elsewhere in the world. They include Oprah Winfrey, Newt Gingrich, Joe Biden, Colin Powell, Sam Walton and Elizabeth Warren, at least two of whom are possible candidates for the presidency in 2016, though they may deny it. There are stories of some B list celebrities, particularly Jeff Connnaughton and Peter Thiel. Finally, there are detailed people of some ordinary people. All of these people, one way or the other, were partial causes of the unwinding, beneficiaries of it and/or victims of it. Packer describes, often in great detail, what their role was, a role that may have been unwitting but nevertheless existed.

There is no doubt in Packer’s mind that things have gone wrong and what has gone wrong. It is explained by Elizabeth Warren. Warren, who came from a right-wing point of view in her study of bankruptcy, namely that bankrupts were just people trying to get out of what they owe, soon switched positions. She recognised that the Great Depression had produced three landmark reforms: The FDIC—your bank deposits were safe. Glass-Steagall—banks couldn’t go crazy with your money. The SEC—stock markets would be tightly controlled. These were dismantled in the 1970s and 1980s (and not just by the Republicans. Clinton support[ed] the deregulation of banks, including the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, and prevent[ed] financial derivatives from being regulated). However, if there is one man whom he holds mainly responsible, it is Robert Rubin who, under Clinton, and, to lesser degree, under Bush, was always able to put forward the Wall Street point of view and prevent any regulation of derivatives and other financial market instruments, all of which lead to the various financial and economic crises of the past thirty years. However, there are plenty of other villains in the story.

However, what makes this book so interesting are the stories of the various ordinary people: Jeff Connnaughton (mentioned above) but there is also Tammy Thomas from Youngstown, who sees a town controlled by one industry (steel),where the the rich steel owners will not let any other industry into town and, when the bottom falls out of the steel market, the town is left destitute. Tammy manages to get a job with a firm making parts for General Motors but, with the problems of General Motors, this situation gets worse. The workers have to do more work and get lower pay. Much of the work is sent offshore to Mexico and eventually, they are nearly all made redundant. As for Dean Price, What he sought his whole life was independence—especially financial independence. His greatest fears, which haunted him all his life, were poverty and failure. His father had been a preacher but too uncompromising and had lost many jobs. Dean could not wait to escape his dominion. He left home, went wild, went to college and, eventually, got a degree and a job. However, He had bought into a lie: go to college, get a good education, get a job with a Fortune 500 company, and you’d be happy. He had done all that and he was miserable. He’d gotten out of his father’s house only to find another kind of servitude. He decided to start over and do things his own way. He would become an entrepreneur. We follow his career as an entrepreneur, at which he has decidedly mixed success. He has to compete with the big boys, in running a truck stop and petrol station. He learns a few lessons. Something changed in our country where quality doesn’t matter like it used to, he says, and the people that ran the hardware store, the shoe store, the little restaurant that was here, they were the fabric of the community. They were the leaders. They were the Little League baseball coaches, they were the town council members, they were the people everybody looked up to. We lost that. He blames Bojangles, the fast food chain, For Dean, Bojangles’ had come to represent everything that was wrong with the way Americans lived: how they raised their food and transported it across the country, how they grew the crops to feed the animals they ate, the way they employed the people who worked in the restaurants, the way the money left the community—everything about it was wrong but it is clear from this book that Bojangles is a relatively small player in the unwinding.

We see the city of Tampa where everybody seems to be trying to make a quick buck flipping houses and, inevitably, the whole pack of cards comes tumbling down but the the real crooks, the big boys, escape unscathed (he gives details, lots of details), while thousands (and thousands, perhaps millions, elsewhere in the country) are left destitute. Here, as elsewhere in the book and elsewhere in the country, it is the politicians who are to blame, from Clinton to Gingrich but also the local politicians and pretty everyone in Congress, all on the take, all looking after the vested interests, particularly Wall Street, who pay them handsomely. In other words, the country has the best government money can buy and the Democrats are almost as bad as the Republicans.

What makes this book is the incredible amount of research Packer has clearly done. He follows the money and, thereby, follows the responsibility. Some are victims, including, for example, many of the Tea Party, who vote like turkeys voting for Christmas (or Thanksgiving, depending on your location) by voting for the party that is the cause of many of their problems, though they do not realise this. Of course, they vote Republican for social reasons, primarily anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage and because the Democrats, particularly under Obama, are clearly communists. Some just go with the flow – his report on Jay-Z, for example, is superb in this regard. Many are on the make. And some, like Rubin, have the mark of the devil. From Girard’s mimetic theories to the decline of democracy in the US, from peak oil and the long emergency to derivatives, mortgage-backed securities and other innovative and ultimately disastrous financial instruments, Packer covers a full spectrum of ideas and explanations for the unwinding.

It is not a pretty picture but Packer has done a first-class job of showing the dark side but giving us glimmers of hope here and there, mainly individuals who, with few resources, struggle to help their communities in their hour of need. The politicians and Wall Street, the ultimate cause of the unwinding, are no help whatsoever. It is a first-class book, not a novel and not the Great American Novel, but a book that everyone should read, whether from the US or elsewhere, as what happens in the US affects us all and much of what is described in this book, is happening, even if on a lesser scale and in a somewhat different way, in other Western democracies.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux