George Packer: The Unwinding: Thirty Years of American Decline


The latest addition to my website is George Packer‘s The Unwinding: Thirty Years of American Decline. Though not a novel Die Zeit described it as the first Great American novel of the 21st century. While it is entirely factual, it is consciously modelled on John Dos PassosU.S.A.. It tells the stories of variety of people over the past thirty-forty years, including the famous, such as Oprah Winfrey, Newt Gingrich, Joe Biden and Jay Z, as well as the less famous, such as Peter Thiel and a few ordinary Americans and how they contributed to, benefited from or were victims of the unwinding. Packer describes what he means by unwinding: 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.

Packer’s thesis follows a comment by another famous person profiled in this book, Elizabeth Warren. 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). She and Packer have no doubt where the blame lays – with Wall Street (Robert Rubin is the bad boy poster child) and the politicians, many of whom were in the pay of and/or easily swayed by Wall Street. We see stories of how these people made a killing but also of their numerous victims, including a significant part of the populations of Youngstown and Tampa. Packer has clearly done his research and provides us with considerable detail, both with what went on both nationally, and locally, in the case of Youngstown and Tampa and illustrates his thesis with numerous examples and facts. And this is not just a left-wing rant. He sympathises with several people who favoured Reagan, as well as Tea Party members who may be misguided, in that they vote for the Republicans, all too often the cause of their distress. While not a novel nor the Great American Novel, this is a first-class work, which, I believe, everyone should read, just as they should read Capital in the Twenty-First Century, to know who is making a mess of their country, and, ultimately, the rest of the world, and how and why they are doing it.

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