Glass House

By Brian Alexander

Coming hard on the heels of the election of Donald Trump as president, it would be easy to see Glass House as a political book, an attempt to explain Trump’s improbable rise by taking as a case study the decline of an American industrial town.

This would be mistaken, as Brian Alexander has little to say about politics and, in any event, the narrative of the free-falling white working class taking a hard turn to the right is actually more complex than the media portrays it.

Instead, Glass House is a “state of America” book. Specifically, it is a tale of paradise lost: the end of the golden age of American capitalism and its decline into a cancer stage where nothing about the system (or The System, as it’s often rendered here) seems to work.

The pretty town of Lancaster, Ohio, home to the Anchor Hocking Glass Company, was profiled in Forbes Magazine in 1947, when it was made out to be “the epitome and apogee of the American free enterprise system.” Today Anchor Hocking is a shadow of its former self and Lancaster has fallen on hard times, becoming, in the words of one resident, “a dead town . . . a dead little dying town.” The American dream of working hard and getting ahead is gone, the social contract “smashed into mean little shards by the slow-motion terrorism of pirate capitalism.”

Saying what happened isn’t as easy or as obvious as lining up the usual culprits of globalization, technology that makes workers redundant, and the crushing of unions (though all of these played a role). There are, however, clear villains. In answer to the question of what happened, one native Lancastrian responds that “corporate America happened.” Anchor Hocking went through a series of changes of ownership, the only point being to saddle it with debt and drain it of capital, what Alexander describes as “a thirty-five-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of ‘returns.’” As jobs were lost and wages and benefits cut, what Lancaster was mainly left with in terms of employment were things that have to be handled locally, often through public services: health care, education, police and law enforcement.

But because a belief in how the system is supposed to work, the American ideology of private enterprise and personal responsibility, is so strong and so ingrained, there is a knee-jerk need to blame others. In particular this means outsiders: immigrants and the federal government. Resentment in turn set in motion a downward spiral, as “Lancaster stopped spending on itself.” Why bother, when there was no longer any belief in community or a common good? And so infrastructure, human and material, rotted while “Even as many condemned both federal and state government programs and government spending, they ignored the fact that their town owed many of the jobs it had to both.”

This is a familiar problem, and one we might expect to get worse. The public sector has become a lifeboat. This breeds envy and resentment among those being eaten alive in the private sector, and also creates a dangerous imbalance in the economy. The government, or unionized public sector, is increasingly seen as the only game in town for safe, secure, well-remunerated employment. In the long run, that’s not sustainable economically or politically.

The future looks grim. The old social contract is gone and there is nothing to take its place but cynical self-interest, resulting in a few big winners and many more desperate losers. Alexander describes the case of one young man as representative of the sense of growing alienation:

it wasn’t just the poor or the working class who felt disaffected, and it wasn’t just about money or income inequality. The whole culture had changed. Brian was from a middle-class family, but he didn’t believe in any institution or person in authority. He didn’t feel like he was a part of anything bigger than himself. Aside from his mother and his father, and his brother, Mike, he was alone.

Well, we might say, at least Brian has a family. Even that, however, is in the process of being eroded. But what will take its place? Nothing that looks like collective action, from any side of the political spectrum. Not even religion, which doesn’t seem to play much of a role in the various lives Alexander examines here.

Which only leaves drugs, and anger.

A book like Glass House works because Lancaster is a microcosm. Of course not every town is like Lancaster, but the essential cultural and indeed moral change that Alexander describes is the same everywhere and is having a similar effect. The city of glass is a mirror for all our woes.

Review first published online March 9, 2017.