Pilgrims Without Progress

The Unwindingby George Packer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 448p $27

“I have the right to be unlimited.” So asserts a commercial currently running on network television, the “I” referring to the U.S. citizen-consumer. Nominally, the ad touts the benefits of subscribing to a particular provider of “information services.” Yet however inadvertently, the pitch captures something essential about the state of contemporary culture, where rights continuously expand even as obligations dwindle and where “us” takes a backseat to “me” and “mine.” In The Unwinding, a grim if often moving book, the New Yorker staff writer George Packer examines what happens to a society that privileges unencumbered individual autonomy over all other values. The result is anything but a pretty picture.

Surveying the last several decades of life in the United States, the author recounts the demise of what Packer calls the Roosevelt Republic, the arrangements dating from the New Deal and World War II that had provided the foundation for the postwar era. However imperfectly, those arrangements had benefited ordinary Americans, most notably in the realm of economic life. A steady job that paid enough for your average working stiff to buy a house and raise a family—this defined the signature of the Roosevelt Republic. As long as the norms governing that republic prevailed, the leaders of basic institutions, public and private alike, displayed a modicum of responsibility and self-restraint. It wasn’t utopia, but for tens of millions of beneficiaries, it wasn’t half bad.

Those norms have now collapsed, the resulting void being filled by a predatory combine of Big Money partnering with Big Government, with doleful consequences for society as a whole. To illustrate those consequences, Packer charts in sympathetic detail the struggles of ordinary people hammered by bewildering economic upheaval, social dislocation and moral anomie. His principal protagonists—a single mom in a dying Rust Belt city determined to do right by her kids, the son of a tobacco grower vainly pursuing up-by-your-own-bootstraps dreams of entrepreneurial success, a college kid fired by a determination to redeem politics who ends up a self-loathing K Street lobbyist, a newspaper reporter clinging to the belief that blowing the whistle on wrongdoers ought to generate outrage and action—demonstrate a sort of stubborn gallantry. But faced with a system rigged in favor of those who already wield the power and have the money, their heroics prove futile.

Interspersed in this bleak chronicle are shorter profiles of those who preside over and sustain the new order. Although Packer adds little to what we already know about these figures—among them, Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell, Robert Rubin and Oprah Winfrey—his account affirms the mediocrity, shallowness and mendacity of what passes today for an American elite. Once admitted to its ranks, members of this elite play by a different set of rules. “The establishment,” writes Packer, “could fail and fail and still survive, even thrive. It was rigged to win, like a casino.” To the game’s beneficiaries, the rules—and the protective provisos they enshrine—make perfect sense.

An exception of sorts is Peter Thiel, a gay libertarian from the Bay Area with a Midas touch for making money (without actually producing anything). In Packer’s depiction, Thiel comes across as someone with an inkling of the spiritual dead-end toward which the United States is hurtling. Having made billions profiteering from the potential of the so-called Information Age, Thiel feels nothing but contempt for his countrymen, who are “beguiled by mere gadgetry” that purports to “empower” while serving chiefly to enforce a bland conformity or to provide an outlet for escapism.

Religion per se does not loom large in Packer’s America, even though a sort of a faux religiosity lingers among those hoping to see the Roosevelt Republic make a comeback. For believers (as rendered by Packer at least), God represents a sort of higher Oprah, handing down bits of wisdom that can ostensibly pry open those doors to earthly limitlessness. For the downtrodden, Scripture serves as a hoary but still serviceable 12-step program.

Packer has modeled The Unwinding after John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, the Great Recession of our own day standing in for the Great Depression of the 1930s as interpretive prism. For an earlier generation, U.S.A. seemed like the real stuff—literature likely to stand the test of time. Today, few apart from Packer himself are likely to share that judgment. In retrospect, Dos Passos’ achievement—a very honorable one at that—was to give voice to the voiceless. U.S.A. tapped into and helped to revalidate a strain of American radicalism that had lain largely dormant since the demise of late 19th-century populism. Along with others writing in a similar vein, Dos Passos thereby helped foster a political climate conducive to the social democracy of the Roosevelt era, with its emphasis on solidarity and at least nodding attention to the common good. Out of literary radicalism came progressive political reform.

As successor to Dos Passos, Packer charts the transformation of that social democracy into the oligarchy that defines our system today. Like Dos Passos, he invites us to acknowledge the plight of those marginalized or silenced. In the present moment, the Occupy movement on the left and the Tea Party movement on the right (Packer casts a favorable light on the former while treating the latter dismissively) are only the most obvious manifestations of a resurgent populism. Yet whether the disenchantment and anger of the dispossessed can provide the basis for genuinely effective political action remains to be seen. The odds, not to mention the interests of the moneyed classes, are against it.

Whether one should entrust proponents of radical change with the nation’s fate is likewise a large question. The catastrophic spawn of political revolutionaries from 18th-century France to 20th-century Russia, Germany and China remind us that those who would overthrow the established order on behalf of “the people” may well unleash evils that ultimately do the people harm. Distinguishing between the prophet and the demagogue calls for considerable judgment.

Still, whatever one’s reservations about radical politics, any critique of the existing American order informed by radical sensibilities offers cause for celebration. This is what Packer, writing with insight and no small amount of eloquence, provides in The Unwinding. His too is an honorable achievement.

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