Our downturn

George Packer’s new book unconsciously exposes the failings of American liberalism
July 18, 2013

Union men picketing Macy's department store, New York in 1936 © Dorothea Lange

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New Americaby George Packer (Faber, £20)

In 2008, America and the world came closer to a Great Depression than at any moment since 1929. But where the 1930s produced some of the most cherished works of 20th century Americana—Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath and the photographs of Walker Percy and Dorothea Lange, for instance—our Great Recession, as it’s come to be called, has not produced any comparable outpouring of progressive culture. George Packer, a leading American journalist, noted this fact in a recent essay in the New Yorker, on the subject of depression literature. The 1930s, Packer observed, gave us monuments of socially-committed reportage, including Edmund Wilson’s The American Jitters and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, as well as John Dos Passos’s panoramic novel USA. But as Packer wrote, rather regretfully, “It isn’t easy to dramatise this depression. Wilson and Dos Passos went to the hollows of West Virginia and found miners and cops at war. Go there today and you would find people watching TV, sending out résumés over the internet and waiting for their unemployment cheques.” The Great Depression was a time of anger and movement; our depression is merely depressing.

Packer’s essay was both a herald and a preemptive critique of his new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. In this moving, impressive, and sometimes frustrating study, Packer self-consciously sets out to give us a history of our own times to match those classic works of the 30s. The resemblance is partly formal. Like Dos Passos’s novel, The Unwinding is punctuated by collages of newspaper headlines and popular songs, which seek to capture the mood of a particular cultural moment. Like Agee, Packer is fond of Biblicising cadences, long strings of conjunctions that give his sentences an epic sweep.

Most importantly, Packer does for us what the committed writers of the 1930s did for their time: he forces us to pay attention to the poor. No country, perhaps, likes to look poverty full in the face, but in America there is a special reluctance to do so. Since the Puritans, Americans have associated wealth with blessing and poverty with curse. According to capitalist ideology, poverty is less a social problem than a series of individual failures. American magazines and newspapers are full of profiles of internet billionaires, cutting-edge scientists, TV talk show hosts; seldom do we get the chance to read in detail about the lives of the unemployed factory worker, the uprooted farmer, the slum-dweller. Such people give the lie to the dream that all Americans are expected to dream.

This American schizophrenia about wealth and poverty is the real subject of The Unwinding. The core of the book is devoted to the lives of three representative figures in the new American economy. Dean Price is a southern entrepreneur who keeps trying and failing to make a fortune from green technologies; in his longing for self-sufficient local economies and nostalgia for life on the land, he is portrayed as a last hold-out for Jeffersonian values. Tammy Thomas is a black factory worker from the dying and corrupt industrial city of Youngstown, Ohio; while most of her family and friends fall victim to the epidemics of unemployment and drugs, she somehow manages to reinvent herself as a community organiser and activist. Then there is Jeff Connaughton, a Washington lobbyist and politician who passes through the revolving door between government and industry. Materially, he might look like a winner in the new economy—he makes good money and holds prestigious jobs—but spiritually he is devastated by what he sees of the capital’s stasis, conformity and corruption.

The difficulties that Price, Thomas and Connaughton face were not caused by the financial crisis of 2008, though the crisis exacerbated them. We see more direct casualties of the mortgage meltdown in a series of chapters focused on Tampa, Florida, where an irresponsible building boom ended with mass foreclosures and ghost estates littering the landscape. Here, however, it is harder to sympathise with victims who were often complicit, through greed and speculation, in their own ruin. Packer writes of people reduced to bankruptcy after buying five houses on credit, in the expectation that their value will rise and rise. The moral and political problem is that while these borrowers paid in full for their bad decisions—not just in money but in extended periods of unemployment, depression and illness—the bankers who made the loans were never held accountable.

Unaccountability, powerlessness, the loss of control over one’s own destiny—these are the defining experiences of the slow social collapse Packer refers to as “The Unwinding.” None of his subjects occupy the very lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder. In a sense, Packer is not really writing about the poor at all, not in the sense that Agee was, partly because few Americans are any longer poor in that way—starving, illiterate exposed to the elements. Instead, he is writing about the middle class—the traditional repository of American political virtue, the class that just about all Americans think they belong to. Yet it is just this class that finds itself buffeted by globalisation, politically impotent.

As the middle class loses its footing, Packer suggests, America distracts and consoles itself by worshipping the extremely successful—those celebrities, from Oprah and Jay-Z to Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, who have won the lottery of life. The main storylines in The Unwinding are presented chopped up into short sections, interrupted by sidelights onto those celebrities and other leading figures of the recent past, such as Newt Gingrich and Colin Powell. Paradoxically, these glitzy sections are not as interesting, since the stories they have to tell are well known, and Packer writes about his famous subjects from a distance rather than close-up. At the same time, it is when dealing with the rich and famous that Packer’s moralising streak comes closest to the surface. As a liberal intellectual, he naturally disapproves of Gingrich’s mean spirit and Walmart’s shoddy goods, and so he writes about them without the empathy he brings to Price and company.

But someone, after all, is shopping at Walmart and voting Republican; from reading The Unwinding, you would never know why. The book unconsciously demonstrates some of the flaws that brought down the kind of mid-century liberalism it mourns. What has unwound in America, Packer writes, is the postwar consensus, in which business and labour and government worked together to guarantee a growing economy, full employment and political stability. Shattered by the 1960s and the conservative backlash to that decade, this social compact now looks to Packer like a Paradise Lost: “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, organised money.”

It is a tempting thesis, neatly explaining our current problems as the result of upper-class greed and civic irresponsibility. But the phrase “the leaders abandoned their posts” betrays the kind of elitism that helped to discredit mid-century liberalism in the first place. After all, it was the very establishment Packer mourns—what David Halberstam called “the Best and the Brightest”—that led America into the Vietnam War. That establishment forfeited Americans’ confidence so thoroughly that, to this day, the right wing likes to see itself as an insurgent populist movement—even as it takes subsidies from conservative billionaires like the Koch brothers, who funded the Tea Party. What little Packer shows us of the Tea Party, and of its left-wing counterpart Occupy Wall Street, is written without sympathy. Populism leaves many of today’s liberals cold, which is one reason why they can’t recapture the enthusiasm and passion of the 1930s. The Unwinding, appropriately, is both a superb treatment and a symptom of America’s political quandaries.

Adam Kirsch’s latest book is “Why Trilling Matters” (Yale)