George Packer is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of The Assassins Gate: America in Iraq, a book that received several prizes. Packer’s other non-fiction books include, The Village of Waiting and Blood of the Liberals, the latter winning the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He is also the author of two novels, The Half Man and Central Square.
Packer’s latest book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, is a work of non-fiction that attempts to document the massive political and economic changes that have taken place in the last three decades in the United States.
The narrative follows the successes and failures of various individuals from across America, which includes: Dean Price, the son of a tobacco farmer and an evangelist for a green economy in the rural South; Tammy Thomas, a Rust Belt factory worker trying to survive the financial collapse of Youngstown, Ohio; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire, who questions the true worth of the technology economy.
Packer gives us these tales without opinion or commentary. Instead, he simply lets the reader make their own judgments from the stories he provides us with. If this literary style of journalism is subtly trying to push a polemic at the reader, it might be summarised thus: the Roosevelt Republic that reigned for over half a century— building institutions, creating a prosperous middle class, devising a strong sense of camaraderie among the population and an honest work ethic, where physical things were made and sold— has been replaced by a fictitious economy that exists on bogus credit ratings, and mind numbing consumption, that isolates individuals from what one might define as a decent society.
In this process the gap between rich and poor has become ever wider, and millions of US citizens, who were once members of the middle class, have now slid into a permanent state of poverty. I spoke to Packer about this ‘unwinding’ process.
Why do you think that the ‘unwinding’ is a very natural process that seems to repeat itself in American history?
It’s maybe particular to American history, although I wouldn’t say it’s the only place that it happens recurrently. But because we are such a big rambunctious and individualistic democracy, we are always close to flying apart. In the prologue to my book I mention three cases where this unwinding process happens: the first being right after the founding of the country, which was meant to be a cross between an Athenian and a Roman democracy.
But what we actually ended up with is this political party driven squabble, which is essentially just a big commercial democracy, with different factions and interests who are all fighting. It turned out not to be as dignified as what the founders had originally envisioned. That then led to the second catastrophe: the Civil War, where there were huge chunks of the country breaking off, and it took half a million dead men to bring it back together. Then there was the third case: the stock market crash of 1929, which came at the climax of this wild spree of speculation and consumption in the 1920s. This led to a welfare state, and the cooperation of the post-war middle class boom. I’m just looking at how the different periods of fractiousness have resolved themselves, because I think we are in such a period now.
You also say that while this unwinding process brings freedom, it also brings with it illusions. Can you speak about what they are exactly?
The illusions are that you can make it on your own, and that anyone can do it if they have the talent and the determination. It’s this old American idea that has never been true, and it never will be. Because we are not alone, and there is always some institution, or some channel for upward movement. This myth leads to a lot of heartbreak, failure and personal disasters.
Just look at all the bankruptcies we have seen over the last few years: families breaking up, businesses failing, people losing their jobs, and their homes. The countryside is littered with the debris of people’s aspirations coming up against circumstances. Now of course freedom for more people is a good thing. But I think we have maximized what freedom can bring, and we have begun to see the dark side of it.
The book references Reagan’s name a number of times, in terms of economic history. How do you view Reagan’s legacy as a president?
The two most important presidents of the 20th century, I believe, are FDR and Reagan. Both of them moved in very different directions. FDR created various structures, like Glass Steagall, Federal Credit, and public works projects. All of which supported the aspirations of ordinary people.
Reagan on the other hand, signalled that the government was going to get out of the way. Because as he famously said, ‘the government isn’t the solution to the problem, the government is the problem’. That was one of the most important sentences in 20th century American politics.
But he also came in when the wind was already blowing in that direction. The reason I began this book in 1978 was because the cooperation that we saw between government and labour, after World War 2, was already on the way out. This was due to the turmoil of the economy in the 1970s. Reagan gave it a kind of beautiful rhetoric, and also some very significant changes in law.
The fear of poverty is another subject you touch upon in the book. Does that fear of poverty in American culture create a good work ethic or just encourage greed?
It creates both. Greed is always there. What Western Europe has — and I would point to Germany as the best example of this — is an ethic of solidarity that keeps greed in check. In America, we have this abiding faith in individual energy and potential, if only obstacles are removed. The problem is that once you remove those obstacles it doesn’t liberate individuals. Instead, the most organised money prevails. That’s what has happened in Washington.
So for example, the American economy has far more flux than the French economy, but we also have this bottomless drop in the US, if things don’t go your way or if you don’t have a voice in politics. What we have done in the US is to replace the old institutions, to ensure that money will be the main voice that we will hear. That certainly gives an incentive to greed and a sort of narrowing of vision on the part of leaders who used to be forced to show some restraint and think more in terms of a long-term vision.
When did Washington turn from a centre of government, to a place primarily concerned with deals, lobbyists and finance?
It started in the 1970s, with inflation, the oil shock and all the competition coming from the Japanese, the Germans and others. Businesses in America said they wanted to become more competitive, so they started tearing up the unwritten contracts they had with both labour unions and government. It was then they began to form powerful lobbies. They started to lobby against labour law reform, consumer protection and other bills. And they won in 1978 [when they defeated a union organising bill]: the lobbyists tasted power in Capitol Hill, and learned how frightened Congressmen could be if a business lobby came at them.
So that set them off on a course that Washington has been on ever since. There has always been money in politics, and corrupting politics, but it used to be more at an individual level. Now it’s more systemic. It pervades every bill. The Health Bill, and the Financial Reform Bill were both good examples of this.
You also speak about the myth in American popular discourse: that each man can make his own destiny if he just believes in himself. How has this myth affected both popular culture and economic thinking today on an individual basis?
I think it can be a positive force: it encourages people to be creative and self-reliant. This is an idea that goes back to Emerson. It does have noble pedigree, in that it encourages resourcefulness and imagination. America has always rewarded that. It is a country for entrepreneurs. But it just gets taken to its mystical limit in Americans’ minds too easily. Oprah preaches this idea. And Napoleon Hill, with his book, Think And Grow Rich, was one person to really push it also.
Is the idea more prominent depending on how the economy is doing?
Well I find it’s particularly powerful when a lot of people feel trapped by economic circumstances. And when inequality is getting greater, like now. So instead of having a practical idea of: one step at a time, hold down a job, make a living, and raise your family, people think magically. They begin to think, if my mind is powerful enough then I can do anything. That is just demonstrably false.
But Americans cling to it because there is an incredible yearning for it to be true. It can lead to a lot of broken lives if it is taken to literally. It’s a great incentive, but it’s not a law of human life. Too often we make it a law, and the failures and the people who get left behind often have nobody to blame but themselves.
At what stage in American history do you think the Republican and Democratic Party really came to stand for the same two things: money and corporate power?
Well, we are a two party country. And the two parties have been closer to each other historically than parties in Europe, for example. There has been no socialist or fascist party here in the US that has had any traction. The Democratic Party moved a little closer to socialism under Roosevelt, and the Republican Party moved a little closer to fascism during the McCarthy era. But the middle ground is where American politics takes place.
Money is making the parties ever more alike. They both depend on it for the same things. They both have corporate breakfasts on K Street. And senators from both parties have to take the calls of business lobbyists to write the bills. All the noise and vitriol that we hear on cable news etc is a bit of a distraction from the systematic take over of congress by big money. There are, of course, some exceptions. Obama got a Financial Reform Bill passed. But it took a once in a half-century crisis to get to that. In normal times, money rules Washington.
The Unwinding by George Packer is published by Faber (£20.00).