The Unwinding

By George Packer

The twenty-first century hasn’t started out well for the United States. To be sure, there were disturbing trends at work before the turn of the millennium. Deregulation of the financial sector was a ticking time bomb, economic inequality was rising, the middle class was being squeezed by job losses and stagnating incomes . . .

. . . and then came 9/11 and a spectacularly expensive pair of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The full bill for those adventures is not yet in, and both interventions are still ongoing. In addition, and as part of the same perpetual war footing, we’ve since learned that the government is now spying on us all the time (for our own protection of course).

Then there was the sub-prime mortgage crisis and all of its attendant fallout. People lost their homes, their jobs, and their savings while the very rich got richer. And in the end absolutely nothing was done to fix the system.

One indication of how bad things are going is the fact that you don’t hear many people declaring morning in America any more. Which is not to say we’ve seen the end of the American dream. The problem is that America’s sense of optimism, its belief in itself and the American dream, is turning ugly.

As big a cliché as “the American dream” is, the concept still plays a significant role in George Packer’s The Unwinding, an account of life in the United State since the 1970s. The people we meet, some very high and some very low, are all dreamers. And their dreams are frankly material. They are not much moved by matters of the spirit, though not averse to making occasional appearances in church to further a personal agenda or burnish their image. The substance of their dream is to be rich, famous, and powerful. Would they like to “shift the entire planet” (Newt Gingrich), change the world, even make it a better place (however you define “better”)? Sure. But first comes the house on the hill (or private island). Some – Oprah, Jay Z, Sam Walton, Peter Thiel – are successful. Others – you won’t know any of their names – are not.

That part of the story is familiar. What has changed?

For starters, there are the table’s stakes. Win now and you become rich (almost) beyond the dreams of avarice. Lose and it’s a long way down, without a net. Particularly horrifying, given the U.S. health care system, are the notes drawn from America’s sickly underground. Being poor in America has never been fun, but to be poor and stricken with cancer or some debilitating injury is a nightmare.

Another change is what you have to do to win. Being a model employee is no longer a viable career option, especially since all those good jobs left town years ago. The dream now is to be an entrepreneur, but with a twist. One’s business consists mainly of oneself: one’s image or one’s brand. Oprah is of course the iconic example, but by now the path is clear. As a politician (another form of entrepreneur where the product being sold is oneself), Newt Gingrich was quick to grasp the new rules:

he saw that the voters no longer felt much connection to the local parties or national institutions. They got their politics on TV, and they were not persuaded by policy descriptions or rational arguments. They responded to symbols and emotions.

Politics was, in other words, television. What mattered were “optics.” And television . . . it was God. Oprah (this is a deliberate refrain) was quick to grasp the new rules. “Everything is about imagery,” she declared, and so “bought the rights to every photograph of herself and threatened to sue anyone who infringed the inviolability of her image.” Slavery was gone, but branding was big, and what the brand sold was itself, an image. Jay Z knew that. Apple knew that. Even budding biofuel entrepreneur and American dreamer Dean Price understood. “My name is Dean Price but I want you to call me Green Dean.” Now there’s a brand people will buy into. “They ate it up with a spoon. Afterward, people called out to him, ‘Green Dean! Green Dean!’ An old black man with blue eyes told him, ‘If I had a million dollars I’d put it into your idea.'”

There is perhaps some significance in the fact that the least impressive characters in the book are more retiring figures: CEO Robert Rubin and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, two people who became fabulously wealthy despite never doing much of anything. Rubin was a disaster at pretty much all of his jobs – unless you consider feathering your own nest to be a job – while Thiel only held a winning ticket in the tech start-up lottery (and then went on to lose a staggering amount of money in his own hedge fund, which isn’t easy to do).

As I say, there may be some significance in this, something about the cream not always rising to the top of a certain class, but I’ll pause there.

This primacy of the image – Wizard of Oz (or “O”) brands with nothing much behind them – is important to keep in mind when considering another change in the economic and political mindset of America during these years. As America unwound it lost all faith in government. Packer is particularly good on the failure of the Republican party to deliver anything to its grass roots or corporate base (“If you can’t trust Republicans to protect wealth, what good are they?”), but much the same case could be made against the Democrats. Government of either party and at any level is now despised as being not just useless but parasitical and downright destructive. Elected representatives couldn’t get anything done if they tried, and it’s clear they have no intention of trying to do anything but continue to service the very rich. As the chapters on Jeff Connaughton show (he’s an idealistic young man who goes to Washington and is disillusioned), even those in government hate government.

If government can’t be fixed, the family has broken down (missing fathers abound in Packer’s pocket bios), and there are no common goals left for society to pursue (the Occupy Movement’s general assembly fails, regulation is derided as un-American, the green shoots of a green economy are crushed by corporate behemoths), the only options left are libertarianism or anarchism. Or rather both, since they come to the same thing. The people can only hope for a man on horseback, an entrepreneur-in-chief, to save them. They are waiting for John Galt.

But John Galt has no interest at all in bettering the lot of the plebs. Peter Thiel seems to have had the Galt role firmly in mind when he wrote that “The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.” But “our world” is clearly meant here to refer to a gated community, and a world safe for capitalism (i.e., money) is antithetical to a world safe for democracy. Thiel’s foundation grants would be for budding entrepreneurs, people who wanted to make money and who were not chasing after airy dreams of making the world a better place. Meanwhile, from our limited evidence it seems likely that Thiel’s libertarian Atlantis will have a visible population consisting mainly of a handful of middle-age phonies bloviating over dinner while being attended by semi-nude male servants. This is part of what I meant by the ugly turn in the American dream: Rand has tipped over into the boring pornotopia of de Sade.

Of course, even in the year of his birth, John Galt was already an anachronism. He was a carryover from the previous Gilded Age, a Captain of Industry. He invented things: things like railways and steamships and skyscrapers, the production of which sustained the economy. Compare that to the shit that comes out of Silicon Valley, or the various wonderful “products” devised by Wall Street in recent decades. John Galt would be spitting up in his grave at his twenty-first century inheritors.

And so: government has broken down. The man on horseback is a fraud. The family ain’t what it used to be (though it can still be a lifesaver when functioning). What’s left?

The power of positive thinking. The Secret. Or the nineteenth-century version, Russell Conwell’s Acres of Diamonds, which teaches that “if you are rich, it is because you deserve to be; if you are poor, it is because you deserve to be. The answers lie in your mind.” Having a dream will itself bring that dream into being. Enrichessez-vous.

Good luck with that.

There’s nothing particularly new about any of this, aside from the generally well-handled U.S.A.-style presentation (though the newsreel objectivity he adopts tends to reinforce Packer’s already muted point of view). Even the title seems borrowed from Paul Krugman’s The Great Unraveling, a book that describes the same slide into a lottery/servant economy. And it’s no surprise that when faced with a reality this dismal we turn to dreams. But the American Dream is at heart a vision of progress: endless growth and upward mobility, tomorrow as another day, a new morning in America. The turning point, the beginning of the unwinding/unraveling, was what might be called the second closing of the American frontier: the crude realization that the economy faced hard limits (the thesis of Dominic Sandbrook’s book on America in the 1970s, Mad as Hell). In the face of those limits, much of the dream has come to be seen as a lie. And when people lose faith in the idea that life is improving, society enters very dangerous ground.

Review first published online August 26, 2013.

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