The Unwinding – a brilliant, devastating read – fits its writer George Packer for a prophet. He has revealed a future to us with a plangent warning.
The book tracks 30 years of American decline (the subtitle for the British edition) through the characters of both the people who shaped that decline and those who endured “the unwinding”. The book is elliptical in unspooling the characters’ narratives and leaving us to draw our own conclusions. This is mine.
United States residents read their recent history in the book. In Britain, where our leaders look to the ‘States for inspiration, we can look into this book as into a crystal ball.
There, all around the lives of the book’s characters is a mounting abjectness marked by two interrelated phenomena: ever more isolation and ever more poverty (relative and absolute).
Most starkly representative of this are the Hartzell family who came from deprivation and poverty but were determined to achieve the American dream by doing what they were supposed to: work hard, love and stick by each other, uphold good values and keep their noses clean. None of this availed them. They faced a world geared less and less to rewarding that side of the old social contract, and they faced it in isolation:
They were estranged from their surviving relatives, most of whom were heavy drinkers. They had few friends, and no church (though they were Christians), 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.
The virtual disappearance of jobs they could do, and the arrival of illness that sapped their meagre financial resources (no NHS in Florida) lost them their rented flat and precipitated them in an agonising plummet down society’s gaping potholes. On the way down, dad Danny got a job stacking shelves overnight in a supermarket. A part-time job for a low wage, his hours were cut as the store hired others at yet lower pay.
All new recruits including Danny were shown a video “on the evils of unions”, and instructed to dob in anyone who approached them with talk of starting a trades union.
Is this the ultimate expression of our vaunted flexible workforce? Zero-hours contracts and ever-lower wages to ever more desperate workers, and the fundamental human right to assemble and organise blatantly flouted by the wielders of power: large corporations.
The context for this immiseration of hard-working families is the unwinding of institutions that held the social fabric together and the transformation of American politics.
Packer paints a picture of the wholesale takeover of politics by big money. A politician cannot be elected without big money, cannot be re-elected without big money, and cannot look forward to a good life after politics without big money.
Jeff Connaughton was a marginal Washington insider, working as a lobbyist (the name given to fundraisers in Washington) helping to stoke the money machine that is US politics. In 2009 he took his legal expertise into congress as an assistant to Senator Ted Kaufman.
He observed Obama bringing in as advisers men discredited by making millions from dodgy investment banking in the years leading up to the crisis.
Connaughton watched all this with unease. He knew something about revolving doors and mutual favors and the unconscious biases of the powerful. He too had been steeped in these worlds throughout his career—investment banking, Congress, the White House, lobbying…
This complex of intertwined people and interests is the establishment (or “the blob”). But Connaughton and his senator mentor were ready to take it on – the time was ripe immediately following the financial crisis and the recession that raged in its wake. So they set about drafting legislation to curb the banks, and shifting the levers of Capitol Hill to bring it into law. They failed, of course. The way they were outsmarted and outgunned is heartbreaking for those of us who believe that our lives are subject to government will, and so put energy into trying to shape public policy for the common good.
Connaughton and Kaufman needed the Democrat chair of the Banking Committee, Chris Dodd – up to his ears in benefits from and obligation to Wall Street, and who could count on the support of the other committee chairmen, the President’s top advisers, the White House, and of course, big money. Kaufman’s bills never stood a chance.
Here in Britain, our governing political parties (there are only three – I predict just two by this time next year) also rely on a funding system that is, according to George Monbiot, utterly corrupt and corrupting, and are sold on the vision propounded by big money – committed solely to private enterprise and mythical “free markets”.
The revolving door is gaining speed in Britain too as it spins everywhere: in local government like here in Barnet council with its outsourcing corporations and lucrative consultancy companies; in Whitehall which has been restructured to include management boards on which sit business tycoons, and whose bill-drafting working groups are packed with business placemen; all the way to Parliament. In the House of Lords, the Regulators (such as OFSTED), and the drinking holes in and around the Palace of Westminster sit large business donors (I make no comment here on their physique, you understand).
How does Packer perceive that the establishment achieve this? The rules have been changing – loosening. Considerably. In the eighties, the laws holding banks in check were dispensed with, allowing financial companies to double their share of corporate profit in America, and salaries in finance doubled as a share of national earnings, producing “hereditary inequality beyond anything the country had seen since the 19th century”.
…it became possible to make millions of dollars in corporate booty… when norms began to erode and disappear, which had held people back at least from being garish about the way they made money, the culture changed.
In Britain we had the Big Bang in the 80s and the financial crisis in 2007-08, and are watching the country’s assets being sold off to the super-rich and big corporations, while bank bonuses and salaries of utility companies’ execs have risen to unabashed eye-watering excesses.
I’m not asking you whether we are heading for the nightmarish, violent unwound society that Packer describes. That’s a futile, speculative mind-wank.
I’m asking you – how do we avoid getting there?
How do we prevent a self-perpetuating, well-insulated elite coalescing into an impenetrable omnipotence that rides roughshod over our hard-won rights and safety nets, and against which we have no recourse?
For that is the message I take from Packer’s prophecy –– the evils of want and squalor, idleness, ignorance and disease will come down like fire and brimstone if we don’t recover an accountable democracy representing us and not big money.