Great Perturbations: On George Packer
The narrative tilt of The Unwinding keeps the proceedings at a scrupulous distance from Rubin and the other prime movers in the nation’s immiserating retreat from the widespread prosperity of the postwar New Deal social contract. This aporia is particularly exasperating because Packer does present sharply observed chronicles of the struggles of several of the book’s central protagonists, who are left to fend for themselves as they sort through the fallout from the steady contraction of their life chances in working America.
Tammy Thomas, an African-American assembly worker in Youngstown, Ohio, weathered successive crippling waves of industrial recession in her Rust Belt hometown, providing for her family as a single mother, only to be dismissed with a buyout from her employer, Packard Electric, after its new corporate owners shuttered the company in 2006—one among countless restructurings of American manufacturing plants aimed at shedding labor costs and shifting operations overseas. Thomas finds an invigorating new job as a community organizer, and she also volunteers on the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, which carried the critical swing state of Ohio in both elections. As Packer takes leave of her, Thomas has been given the grim task of pulling together a comprehensive map of abandoned properties in recession-ravaged Youngstown, even as she exults in Obama’s 2012 victory. “My God,” she thinks after the president’s re-election, “it means we’ve got the chance to do something for real.”
Meanwhile, another of Packer’s protagonists has also been riding a binge of Obama-fueled hope: DC insider Jeff Connaughton makes a triumphant return to the centers of Democratic power when his lifelong political idol, Joe Biden, is elected vice president. But Connaughton is understandably deflated by the news that the successful “change” candidate of 2008 is considering appointing none other than Robert Rubin as treasury secretary. As Packer sternly reminds his readers:
No more proof was needed that the establishment (the one Clinton had invoked that night in his private study) would emerge from the disaster in fine shape. The establishment could fail and fail and still survive, even thrive…. Rubin was no longer viable for Treasury, but his people were practically the only candidates under consideration by Obama, who, after all, had fought his way into the establishment from farther back than any of them.
In other words, Tammy Thomas’s hope and Jeff Connaughton’s mounting despair are left oscillating around the same larger-than-life presidency, with Packer offering only the bleak insistence that the transfer of power in Washington is so much shadow play, sponsored and leased for the good of the real manipulators of world events—the “establishment” on Wall Street. Which narrative is the reader to trust: the sickening cronyism atop our sanctums of economic policy-making, or the specter of “real change” finally taking shape before Tammy Thomas’s eyes? Likewise, given Packer’s half-tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Rubin’s term in office, are we also to see his chapter on a genuine financial reformer—the populist Massachusetts senator and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren—as more fodder for the inevitably sadder and wiser reckoning of misguided reformist ambitions?
It doesn’t seem to matter much in the world of The Unwinding. For all the wrenching personal details of loss, bewilderment and pain that Packer coaxes from his subjects, the baleful forces stripping them clean are weirdly impersonal: either an “establishment” that has reduced the White House to a glorified plaything of the investor class, or, just as frequently, the “institutions” that ensnare well-meaning dupes like Rubin and Powell, while leaving less fortunate Americans straining after vanished moral and social certitudes. In his portrait of one impoverished Tampa family, the Hartzells, Packer implies that they are as much victims of institutional abandonment—from the family on up to the national political scene—as they are casualties of material privation: “They were estranged from their surviving relatives, most of whom were heavy drinkers. They had few friends, and no church (though they were Christian) or union (though they were working class) or block association (though they wished the area was safe enough for the kids to go trick-or-treating). They hardly gave a thought to politics. What they had was one another.” These are, in short, the sort of figures that Packer’s narrative strategy instinctively favors: anomie-ridden yet hopeful; apolitical yet concerned; wounded but not yet angry. Should they tip over into the affirmative sphere of outrage or (shudder) entitlement, they might well end up homeless or jailed, like the hapless souls whom Packer chooses to symbolize Occupy.
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The “unwinding” itself is another such causeless abstraction. At most points in Packer’s chronicle, the phrase signifies the shriveled condition of the manufacturing economy and the liberal welfare state, as well as the steadily dwindling corps of supporters of both among the political elite and the downwardly mobile middle class. But in the reverie of another battle-tested American dreamer in the book, the energy executive Dean Price, the unwinding calls to mind the creative destruction of an inevitable new age of green power and entrepreneurial grit, an opportunity for a revived American Republic to flourish under the benevolent rule of a fresh generation of Jeffersonian yeomen. “When these farmers can grow their own crops and power their own diesel tractors and not be subjected to anybody and be their own boss, that’s a big change,” Price reflects. “And instead of us thinking that we are going into the unwinding, to me this is the greatest economic explosion that’s ever going to hit in our lifetimes, because all that money that’s being concentrated at the top, with food, fuel, clothing—what else do they control? banking—it might go back to little towns.”
In reality, of course, the economic travails that ordinary Americans are suffering amount to much less of an unwinding—or as Packer is fond of describing it in a misleadingly naturalistic simile, a “plague”—than an outright mugging. A speculative class of investors has grown rich on the systemic securitization of nearly every facet of American life—from the mortgage industry to the student loan bubble (inflated most precariously, of course, at for-profit universities) to the deregulated markets for basic commodities such as aluminum and oil. This is not a panorama of well-meaning Americans caught up in an inexplicably unresponsive battery of institutions; it is, rather, a mechanism for the upward redistribution of wealth, achieved by reducing the incomes of workers and consumers to another exploitable raw material.