Societies are problematic things. Empires, too. They never seem capable of locating that moment of stolid clarity, when all is good on God’s earth and everyone can get about his or her business without being inordinately harassed by barbarians or the taxman. Either they’re on the ascent and nervous about keeping up appearances, or the downward slide has set in and everybody’s yelling to hang on. Civilizations, by definition saddled with a commentariat that likes to opine about such things, can be like patients eternally on the analyst’s couch. Things aren’t going well, they might say. It all seemed fine a few years ago. And then…things just changed. I’m not sure when it happened, or how. This colors how we look to the past. Most analyses of the Roman Empire skip past the glory days and settle in for a good long Gibbon-quoting look at how things fell apart. That’s the good stuff, it would seem.
The United States is thrashing through a rough bout of self-analysis, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the doom-saturated 1970s. Most of today’s agita stems from a legislative and executive branch whose dysfunctionality could make Italian politicians sigh in relief at for once not being the worst on the scene. Faux-libertarian partisans scamper over each other to tear down every institution or rule that impinges on their narrowly-defined “freedom” while fatally indecisive progressives bleat from the sidelines. Both sides withdraw into self-selected ideological ghettoes. A miserable economy, terrorism, and a sense of the inevitability of environmental collapse don’t help matters. Why else the flood of apocalypse fiction and films?
A sign of just how bleak the country’s sense of the future is can be found in Max Brooks’s World War Z. Although the speculative novel — which rather cleverly reimagines Studs Terkel’s The Good War as an oral history of a world-spanning zombie onslaught — spends much of its time in rather bleak scenery, it also contains a clear trumpeting of hope. Because after Brooks gets done reporting how different nations respond to the assault of the undead, the interviewees (particularly the Americans) talk about how they fought back. Not only do they restructure a shattered nation, they recapture the concept of purpose, of collective action, of citizenship.
It’s a kind of hope that is almost nowhere to be found in George Packer’s awe-inspiring X-Ray of the modern American soul, The Unwinding. It’s a big and unwieldy book with outsize aims and somewhat foggy construction. The book — a couple sections of which have appeared previously in The New Yorker — tries to grasp at the ineffable, to get the patient on the couch to dig deep into their subconscious and say how that makes them feel. By the end of everything, the book may not have achieved one great breakthrough in the manner of cinematic shrinks, but it has illuminated a lot of dark corners and diagnosed a host of concerns. The cure, that’s something else.
Packer takes a similarly broadminded view of his subject as he did in 2005’s The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, his last substantial work of nonfiction. There, his reportage covered everything from the corridors of power and ineptitude in the Pentagon and the Green Zone to the dust- and shrapnel-littered streets of Baghdad. Here, the sweep is just as big, but with potentially broader implications: the unraveling of American society:
If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you 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…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.
The structure of The Unwinding is a curious one. Instead of taking the literal approach of the journalist who has logged the miles and filled notebooks with impressions and quotes, Packer decants his theory into an episodic string of personal narratives of ordinary citizens. They live the days and nights of a country where bulwarks against rapacious greed and antisocial behavior have been steadily dismantled by forces on all sides of the ideological divide. Those alternating narratives are then interspersed with several thumbnail portraits of celebrity Americans (politicians, rappers, TV stars) whose collective grandeur provides something of a chilling and distant counterpoint.
Packer’s people make a lively mix, and one that doesn’t feel mechanically plotted. He delivers as lyrical oral history the lives of a factory worker from Ohio, a North Carolina entrepreneur, a tech billionaire libertarian, and a number of Tampa residents just trying to keep their lives from unraveling after the bursting of the real estate bubble. The writing attempts to catch each one of their voices without aiming for mimicry. There is clipped data delivery in the chapters on Peter Thiel (the PayPal billionaire who began using his monies for libertarian causes), a richer flow from Dean Price (the North Carolinian progeny of nails-tough tobacco farmers), and an evenhanded, slightly depressed viewpoint from former Democratic political operative Jeff Connaughton.
Again, Packer doesn’t come at the subject directly. One imagines a multi-volume corpus, each one spilling over with appendices, if that were the desire. He comes at it laterally, with a multitude of viewpoints from inside the collapse. The wearied but iron-backed voice of Tammy Thomas details the twinned collapse of the industrial backbone of the Ohio River Valley and the norms of working- and middle-class society that stitched its formerly proud neighborhoods together, black and white. The silence of the factories (dismantled by faraway executives in leveraged buyouts far removed from practical matters of mere profitability) is mirrored by the collapsing, ghostly blocks of once-tidy homes. “She was still amazed by the gaps and silence where there had once been so much life,” Packer writes. “Where had it all gone?”
That keen sense of loss and cloudy chaos rings chime-like through The Unwinding. Packer starts each chapter with a cacophony of voices plucked from a particular year’s media stream. Then the oral histories themselves show people thrashing about as they always have — for careers, for love, for purpose, for the damn rent — only increasingly without any help from a larger society. Unions decline, families fall apart, executives break the company apart for a stock dividend, and politicians cower in terror of the almighty bond market.
Set against the fears and dreams of those trying to hang on to the ladder, or just find out where the rungs have gone, Packer’s vignettes of the powerful come with more of a bite. The Colin Powell shown here is a sympathetic and flailing figure, a striving child of striving immigrants who can’t grasp how much the system he has mastered could fail him so: “He needed structure to thrive, but the structures that had held up the postwar order had eroded.”
As a non-dogmatically progressive writer, Packer’s profile of Newt Gingrich as an opportunistic and cynical blimp of self-aggrandizement is to be expected. A few short paragraphs sum up the corrosive contributions of the helmet-haired flamethrower and lover of total war to the body politic (“Whether he ever truly believed his own rhetoric, the generation he brought to power fervently did. He gave them mustard gas and they used it on every conceivable enemy, including him”). But less expected is Packer’s stinging critique of the unforgiving nature of fanatic self-improvement cultists like Alice Waters and Oprah Winfrey:
But being instructed in Oprah’s magical thinking (vaccinations cause autism, positive thoughts lead to wealth, love, and success), and watching Oprah always doing more, owning more, not all of her viewers began to live their best life. They didn’t have nine houses, or maybe any house…they were not always attuned to their divine self; they were never all that they could be. And since there was no random suffering in life, Oprah left them with no excuse.
In Packer’s view, Americans in the age of institutional failure and social nullity are particularly vulnerable to this special, new gilded age breed of manic preachers. After all, where else are they to turn? One line of description about an Indian immigrant to Florida, Usha Patel (who elsewhere gripes about the laziness of her adopted countrymen) sums it up best: “Usha Patel was not a native-born American, which is to say, she wasn’t alone.” That solitude is one of the book’s uniting factors, whether it’s the emptied and distrustful neighborhoods of Youngstown where Tammy Thomas becomes a community organizer or the cheap, Ponzi-scheme Florida suburbs where everybody is broke, overmedicated, underemployed, and barely aware who their neighbors are.
Solitude isn’t a problem for the likes of Thiel, whom Packer seems to regard as a particularly perfect creature of the age. An innovator with less patience for society than even most of the technically-minded, Thiel embraced libertarianism early in life (partly rooted in his selective reading of science fiction, much like Gingrich and his love of Isaac Asimov) and spent his riches on trying to make those techno-fantasies come true. At the same time, he covered himself in ostentatious displays of wealth, like some latter-day Gatsby miserably inhabiting the corners of his own parties.
That splashing-out of previously obscene monies receives Packer’s most vituperative treatment in his capsule biography of Robert Rubin. While flitting as fiscal “wise man” from Wall Street to the Clinton administration through the 1990s and 2000s, Rubin preached the new gospel of deregulation. He amassed a vast fortune for his advice ($126 million between 1999 and 2009) and when the economy collapsed under the weight of toxic deals he did not want regulated, no apology or reconsideration was forthcoming.
Throughout, Packer is channeling not just his subjects but the writers from that last epoch of vast class divisions in America, the 1930s. His writing echoes both the determined corps of WPA oral historians and the novels of John Dos Passos (the latter of which he explicitly credits). The book draws heavily on the land itself, at least what can be seen of it through the crush of worry about debts, chaos, security. Packer begins and ends things with Price’s dream of a house on ancestral acreage. Packer’s last line is a hopeful one, but one charged with struggle: “He would get the land back.”
The tone of The Unwinding is that of long and anxious conversations unspooling into the night, on a breeze-strafed porch in a foreclosure ‘burb or in a living room where the TV yammers on mutely. There is a lot of passion in the book, forlorn frustration, and anger to spare. Most thankfully, the book doesn’t end with that dread affliction of the modern issue text: the “What Can I Do?” epilogue packaged with an easy 10-point plan to restore America, and some social media links. The societal decline that Packer illuminates is deeper and broader than can be helped by some Facebook likes. But the book keeps the wider perspective. Though there’s anger here, fury even, hysteria doesn’t make an appearance. After all, as Packer notes, “There have been unwindings every generation or two…Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.”
All the country can hope for is a good old-fashioned zombie apocalypse to help everyone remember the appeal of community…also that freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.