Faux Progressivism

One of the perks of being a name journalist is never having to admit you got it wrong. Take Michael Lewis, perhaps the most admired nonfiction writer in the US today, who in 2007, in a column for Bloomberg.com, casually dismissed warnings that the financial system might be at risk of a disastrous collapse. Not likely, said Lewis, financial institutions are more expert at managing risk than ever before. Not a word of apology from Lewis after the crash. Instead, he quickly wrote another bestselling book, The Big Short—“brimming with indignation,” according to his publisher—about the speculative bubble and a group of Wall Street players who predicted the crash and made fortunes betting on it.

As in publishing as on Wall Street, nothing succeeds like success. And with success, all is forgotten and forgiven.

George Packer isn’t a superstar like Lewis, but he enjoys success and high reputation as a journalist and interpreter of our times, for the last 10 year as a New Yorker staff writer. In 2005, he published The Assassins’ Gate, based on his reporting from Iraq following the US invasion and hailed by mainstream critics as a “magisterial” achievement. He’s back this year with The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, an even more ambitious book tackling no less than the vast transformation of the US economy and society that began in the 1970s and has rippled forward ever since—the end of the New Deal social contract, the deindustrialization of America, the rise to dominance of finance capital, and the devastation of countless working and middle-class communities.

Like his previous work, The Unwinding has been greeted ecstatically by mainstream reviewers. “Something close to a nonfiction masterpiece,” said New York Times. “A work not just of fact, but of wit, irony, and astounding imagination,” enthused the Paris Review. “Original, incisive, courageous, and essential,” said journalist Katherine Boo. An “awe-inspiring X-Ray of the modern American soul,” the internet magazine TheMillions.com chimed in.

Given the devastating metamorphosis it embraces, we could certainly use a work of the sort that The Unwinding claims to be, and it’s perhaps understandable that his Big Media compatriots should accept it as such. But before delving into what’s perhaps the most overpraised non-fiction book of the year, let’s take a closer look at Packer himself—his dubious rise to prominence, his muddled political thinking, and the essentially conservative presumptions that underpin his latest book.

Although he’d been writing and reporting for some years, Packer first gained wide recognition in 2002, when he came forward as a major “liberal” voice in favor of a US invasion of Iraq. In a series of articles including a New York Times Magazine cover story, he pumped up the public policy relevance of a small group of intellectuals supporting intervention who identified as leftists, notably journalists Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman. Given the tiny number of these “liberal hawks,” Packer was forced to shoehorn in a few other figures such as The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, who could be described as left or even liberal only by draining the terms of all meaning.

Nevertheless, Packer worked hard to create the illusion that there was a real debate on the left about whether unseating Saddam Hussein was American democracy’s absolute moral imperative and whether anyone to the left of Al Gore should therefore support the Bush White House’s plans for Iraq. Along the way, he did his best to delegitimize the mass opposition to the coming invasion, sneering in his Times Magazine piece that the movement was “controlled by the furthest reaches of the American left,” disparaging its use of “unnuanced” slogans like “No Blood for Oil,” and concluding, contemptuously, “This is not a constructive liberal antiwar movement.”

Packer’s next project, the reporting from Iraq that culminated in The Assassins’ Gate, was crammed with detail fully substantiating the movement’s conclusion that the occupation was a misbegotten disaster before it even began. And yet he offered not a word of regret for his role in smoothing the path to invasion, insisting in his book that the Iraq conflict was still winnable—while offering no hint of how he defined victory in such a place.

The closest he’s come to a mea culpa, in the introduction to a 2009 collection titled Interesting Times, are two brief, almost casual remarks—that he supported the war “for reasons having more to do with strong emotion than global strategy,” and that, referring airily to his Times Magazine piece, “something in the tone and language no longer sits well.” He’d certainly led his readers to believe that in supporting the invasion, he was going on something more than “strong emotion.” That’s generally the case when the newspaper of record features your advocacy in its pages, right? Well, maybe not.

Successful name journalists know how to shift gears, of course, or at least change the subject. And so The Unwinding focuses on America at home rather than abroad, adopting a superficially progressive political standpoint that aligns him with critics of the neoliberal economic order without pinning him down to any specific ideology. Like The Assassins’ Gate, The Unwinding is at once a cobbled-together collection of reportage and an ambitious attempt to sum up a major chunk of contemporary history. He builds his story around a series of long profiles he originally published in The New Yorker—of Tammy Thomas, an African American woman from Youngstown, Ohio who lost what she had thought was a secure job when autoparts maker Delphi was sold and stripped; of Jeff Connaughton, a lobbyist and political operative who gradually became disillusioned with the venality of Washington policymaking; of Dean Price, an entrepreneur struggling to build a biodiesel business in North Carolina.

Packer slices and dices these stories to fit a rough chronological framework that carries America from the Carter years to the present. Interspersing them are pages of soundbites evoking particular cultural-historical moments, none of them terribly surprising (“twenty-twenty-twenty-four hours to go / I wanna be sedated” … “WALL STREET GIANTS PROSPER AMID DOWNTURN” … “WHAT BOTCHED THE FACEBOOK IPO?”), and capsule biographies of public figures who exemplify aspects of his larger story: Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Jay-Z, Robert Rubin, Sam Walton, and Elizabeth Warren, among others.

The structure is derived from U.S.A., John Dos Passos’s trilogy of novels that provided a social-cultural history of America from roughly the beginning of the 20th century to the Great Depression. Dos Passos’s still very readable creation combines fine storytelling with a powerful understanding of how social and economic forces shape people’s lives and a strong—left social democratic—framework for understanding those forces. Packer, in using U.S.A. as a model, is clearly aiming not just for journalistic but for literary glory, notwithstanding the fact that the personal stories forming the core of The Unwinding are nonfiction (many of Dos Passos’s fictional characters were based on real people).

In comparison to his model, however, Packer’s book grievously lacks historical context. The decades of the New Deal consensus appear in a gauzy, sentimentalized light—never mind that they were also the years of the Cold War and Vietnam, that the Democratic Party had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the Civil Rights era, and that vital reforms like universal health care never came about. This deficiency runs deep. For instance, a biographical vignette in which Packer tries to turn Colin Powell into a quasi-tragic figure, an honest and public-spirited warrior forced to become the public face of the Bush administration’s PR campaign against Saddam Hussein’s fictitious chemical arsenal—omitting Powell’s backchannel political wire-pulling during the Clinton administration to preserve discrimination against gay people serving in the military.

Other of these vignettes veer wildly in the opposite direction, notably a critique of Jay-Z and his success-at-any-cost philosophy. Some perspective: Americans have been glorifying gangsters and smooth criminals going back to the days of Al Capone, at least. If Jay-Z is symbolic of anything, it’s the hypocrisies of a 200-year-old capitalist culture laced with racism, not of the “unwinding.” Likewise with Packer’s scathing slapdown of Oprah and the bootstrapping “magical thinking” she propagates through her media empire. No doubt he’s correct in his indictment. But tying Oprah specifically to the cultural atmosphere of the post-Reagan era is also a stretch. Her brand of moralistic self-help and self-reinvention has been an everyday part of American life at least since Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard. It’s not specific to the brutality of the period Packer chronicles, and didn’t cause it.

What makes this especially puzzling is that Packer’s affection for the people he profiles at length in his book partakes of a very Oprah-esque set of values. Although they come from different backgrounds, all are strivers—hard working, enterprising people who’ve been buffeted by the economic brutality of our era but who continue to tug at their bootstraps. Many of them have reinvented themselves multiple times. Except for one family profiled toward the end of the book, none of these people are on welfare—which is mildly disparaged—and all display considerable energy in pursuing their goals. These are the exemplary poor who Bill Clinton had in mind when he talked about people who “work hard and play by the rules” and still find themselves on the economic short end.

The result, in The Unwinding, is a drastically incomplete picture of America’s economic disaster, and an easy out for middle class readers looking to empathize without getting too far out of their comfort zone. Another writer who made a career of writing about economic and class differences, George Bernard Shaw, called attention, in plays like Pygmalion and Major Barbara, to the implicit differentiation between the “deserving” and the “undeserving poor.” It’s perfectly easy for respectable, propertied people to feel sympathy and even a certain amount of obligation toward the deserving poor. But they find it far harder to summon anything but disgust toward the “undeserving”—the panhandler, the addict, the “unemployable,” those stuck on welfare and food stamps because they never had the skills (or, perhaps, the skin color) the market prefers, anyone for whom bondage to money is simply poisonous.

The deserving poor are a perennial feature of the corporate media—see, for example, the New York Times’ “Neediest Cases” stories—always carefully screened to avoid anyone who might be guilty of not being, fundamentally, a striver. This principle applies fully to the stories in The Unwinding. There are no alcoholics here, nobody who ever seems to have despaired and given up, even for a short period. To all appearances, hardly anybody in this book even smokes. Packer gives us permission to sympathize with them because they are like us in these respects, not because of our common humanity.

Shaw’s point was that the “undeserving” poor test us, challenging our values and assumptions about the merits of middle-class life and what makes someone worthy of consideration by the rest of society—or of being called an “American,” perhaps. Packer, in avoiding these issues in his choice of subjects, merely follows the conventions of the kind of journalism he’s made his career. But his book suffers for it, offering us an insular and narrow-minded view of the 40-year tragedy he attempts to describe. Millions of people who were cast aside by the capitalist system had no chance even before “the unwinding” began, and their story is not included here.

Something else is missing from The Unwinding: race. Although one of his protagonists is an African-American woman, racism and its effects go practically unmentioned in Packer’s book. You’d never know from reading it that, for example, the housing bubble was not only a financial but a racial problem. Booby-trapped mortgages were disproportionately peddled to communities with majority-minority populations, and African American households were punished far more than whites by the collapse and the devastating wave of foreclosures and evictions that followed.

Yet somehow, Packer manages to tell Tammy Thomas’s story with practically no reference to the racism that defines the world she lives in. Deteriorating schools are mentioned in The Unwinding, but not the fact that urban public schools with largely black student populations have been defunded and degraded to a vastly greater extent than their counterparts in the suburbs. Racism vastly complicates the story of America’s 40-year journey away from the New Deal consensus, but it’s absent from Packer’s portrait.

One more important chunk of contemporary America is left out: the war. Astonishingly for someone who rose to fame writing about Americans in Iraq, 9/11 and the war on terror make practically no appearance at all in The Unwinding (aside from that brief mention in the Colin Powell vignette). Packer may have been—understandably—reluctant to grapple with the toll that the war he did his bit to facilitate has taken on the fabric of this country. But his refusal leaves out much of the tragedy of post-9/11 America:

* the thousands of veterans who have come back physically and emotionally disabled (barely mentioned here),

* the poisoning of civil society and degradation of civil liberties by the PATRIOT Act, the US torture gulag, and the pervasiveness of the Homeland Security state (not mentioned at all),

* the leverage that 9/11 afforded Bush to muscle through a succession of fiscally ruinous upper-income tax cuts (Packer completely misses the connection between the two), and

* the renewed pumping-up of the military-industrial-security complex, which helped crowd out a larger domestic stimulus following the 2008 financial crash (also unmentioned in The Unwinding).

Packer gets some things right in his book. His strength is his reporting, and the account of Youngstown’s decline that he tells in the sections on Tammy Thomas is shocking—even now—while the story of her economic victimization and her subsequent turn to activism is often affecting. The account of Washington cynicism and sleaze that comes through in the story of Connaughton, the former Beltway lobbyist (who last year published his own, more detailed book, The Payoff: Why Washington Always Wins), is intimate and revealing, if not exactly full of surprises. A series of snapshots of the housing bubble’s collapse in Tampa tap genuine outrage. Other elements, such as a capsule bio of Robert Rubin, Wall Street’s most influential emissary in Washington, are well told but overfamiliar.

The fatal weakness of Packer’s book, however, is its basic incoherence—the absence of any convincing, overarching explanation for what has happened to America—indeed, of any real explanatory roadmap. Amidst the torrent of praise greeting The Unwinding, the one critic who has grasped this, perversely, is the conservative voice of the New York Times op-ed page, David Brooks. Here, he nicely captures the problem:

“When John Dos Passos wrote the U.S.A. trilogy, the left had Marxism. It had a rigorous intellectual structure that provided an undergirding theory of society — how social change happens, which forces matter and which don’t, how society works and who causes it not to work. Dos Passos’ literary approach could rely on that structure, fleshing it out with story and prose….

“Packer’s work has no rigorous foundation to rely on, no ideology to give it organization and shape…. The lack of a foundational theory of history undermines the explanatory power of The Unwinding, just as it undermines the power and effectiveness of modern politics more generally.”

It’s not that Packer doesn’t know what’s going on. He notes the Reagan tax cuts, the deregulation of finance, globalization and the hollowing out of industrial America, the rise of a new and more politically ruthless conservative political machine, and so on. But he makes no attempt to tie all this together, and his few stabs at explaining the more fundamental drivers of the “unwinding” dissolve into a stream of vague complaints: of greed, of amorality, of political cynicism, of a culture of personal alienation. He stops far short of critiquing capitalism itself, or of asking whether something of the seeds of the post-Reagan order lay in the imperfections of the New Deal Republic itself. The tone in these passages, peevish and righteous, is actually not too different from the one that conservatives often take when they try to pin America’s economic and social woes on what they defined as the decline in “personal morality”: women’s rights, abortion, sexual freedom, popular culture.

As it happens, though, Packer has elsewhere expressed some more definite views on the root causes of the “unwinding”—and they suggest he has more in common politically with the right than he acknowledges in his book. In an op-ed for The Guardian shortly after his book came out, Packer summed up what could be called the mainstream, center-right version of recent American history.

“In one view, the Unwinding is just a return to the normal state of American life,” he wrote. “The rules and regulations of the Roosevelt Republic were aberrations brought on by accidents of history—depression, world war, the cold war—that induced Americans to surrender a degree of freedom in exchange for security…. Once American pre-eminence was challenged by international competitors, and the economy hit rough seas in the 70s, and the sense of existential threat from abroad subsided, the deal was off. Globalisation, technology and immigration hurried the Unwinding along, as inexorable as winds and tides. It is sentimental at best, if not ahistorical, to imagine that the social contract could ever have survived—like wanting to hang on to a world of nuclear families and manual typewriters.

“This deterministic view is undeniable but incomplete. What it leaves out of the picture is human choice.” Gingrich and other “conservative ideologues” exploited these inexorable developments in order to “serve their narrow, short-term interests, and when the Gingrich revolution brought Republicans to power in Congress, the tactics were affirmed.”

But the vast transformation of America wasn’t the dirty work of a gaggle of opportunistic politicians. And the “deterministic” view of the recent American past that Packer regrets but glumly accepts as fact, is false as well. The “Roosevelt Republic” was not an accident, but was made possible by mass movements that found their voice and demanded change during the Depression years. The New Deal consensus ended because America’s propertied class leveraged a series of economic jolts in the late ’60s and early ’70s to begin a systematic push in the opposite direction. Deregulation, globalization, and the pitting of American working people against cheaper labor in other countries were not inevitable, but were implemented piece by piece through laws and treaties passed and signed by politicians of both parties. Gingrich’s “poisoning” of Washington politics—toxic to begin with—was merely one element in their toolkit.

One final thing is missing from The Unwinding—a last chapter. Packer’s not obliged to tell us how we’re supposed to find our way out of this destructive era, but he at least should have posed the question. Can we simply vote the rascals out, turn back the clock to 1968, and write the next chapter in the story of American progressivism? Or has the US changed too much in the intervening decades, and does the country need to locate its next transformation somewhere else, perhaps in something more radical?

This is the question any progressive history of the past four decades must ask; by avoiding it, Packer arrives at a dead end. Late in his book, he treats us to mini-portraits of some people who were politicized by Occupy Wall Street, but fails to explore OWS itself or its reverberations. Was it a brief moment of engagement, or did the people he writes about go on to help build a longer-lasing movement? We never find out. Tammy Thomas’s community organizing work in Youngstown gets some space, but we never hear much about its strategy or objectives—or the larger ideological vision that might lie behind it.

Just as he had no use, in his pro-war polemics following 9/11, for an antiwar movement that focused on collective action outside the mainstream political discourse, Packer seems uninterested in whatever creative solutions to the neoliberal stranglehold may be brewing beneath the media-friendly surface. He ends The Unwinding with a glimpse of Dean Price reconstructing his biodiesel business from scratch—surely a fine thing, but a modest, unthreatening, entrepreneurial, non-ideological initiative. Nothing to challenge the basics of capitalism. Hardly the germ of a new social-economic vision.

Perfect for Oprah.

Eric Laursen is the author of The People’s Pension: the Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan (AK Press, 2012).

Eric Laursen is the author of Polymath: The Life and Professions of Dr. Alex Comfort, Author of “The Joy of Sex” (AK Press).