The Unwinding by George Packer: How America became like Walmart

An impressive piece of work – but not a happy one.

The Unwinding: an Inner History of the New America
George Packer
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £20

George Packer’s vivid account of the American invasion of Iraq, The Assassins’ Gate, won him prizes and attention when it was published in 2005. The Unwinding is following suit. It is an inner history of the destruction of what Packer aptly describes as the “Roosevelt Republic”, a process that is far from complete, unstoppable by politicians or the public that elects them, and unlikely to be curbed by the financial elite who are its main beneficiaries. The outer history of the great unwinding is a familiar story: the destruction of US industry and the collapse of the industrial towns of the Rust Belt, the collapse of small-town commerce at the hands of Walmart, the rise of a politics dominated by rich donors and the arrival of a new elite of the super-rich of Wall Street and Silicon Valley who measure their success by how many billions they have made.

What makes this an “inner history” is its form. The book is structured by the lives of four characters, three of whom Packer follows all the way from 1978 to 2012: Tammy Thomas, a black woman from Youngstown, Ohio, and a victim of deindustrialisation and a dysfunctional family; Jeff Conaughton, a southerner from Alabama, drawn into politics by the mesmerising (if sometimes plagiarised) rhetoric of Joe Biden; and Dean Price, from the tobacco country of North Carolina, a typical small-store-owner victim of the competitive advantages of big business, but still pursuing utopian dreams of success in the biofuel business. The last is Peter Thiel, the immensely rich and successful creator of PayPal and investor in Facebook, who seems at the age of 45 to be possessed of megalomaniac ambitions and not much idea how to realise them. The conquest of death is his most recent preoccupation.

Recurrent chapters on their successes and failures – Conaughton made his money as a lobbyist in a line of work he would have despised as an idealistic teenager – are surrounded by short set pieces on such heroes and anti-heroes of our time as Newt Gingrich, Jay-Z, Colin Powell, Alice Waters, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell and Robert Rubin. And because both the housing boom and bust and the collapse of Lehmann Brothers were features of the first decade of the 2000s, they get chapters of their own, as does the Occupy Wall Street movement. The town of Tampa, Florida, is almost a character in its own right even if, strictly speaking, it is more of a shelter for the hard-luck stories of the victims of the bust, acid portraits of venal politicians and crooked developers and their financial backers, with a little over 20 pages on two heroes of the scandals.

One of these is the journalist Michael Van Sickler, who began by exposing the crimes of the developers and local crooks who profited from the boom in sub-prime mortgages, and bit by bit saw the way the money trail ran all the way back to respectable bodies such as Citibank and HSBC, a connection that struck him shortly before the collapse. The other is a foul-mouthed lawyer, Matthew Weidner, who has been fighting a holy war against the kleptocracy, one foreclosure at a time.

Like other books that originate in essays in the New Yorker, The Unwinding sometimes makes you wish that the author would just get on with it and stop providing ever more redundant detail. But Packer is an artful writer; he knows that the unravelling of the Roosevelt Republic is a messy process and wants a literary form that reflects that.

Every so often he presents us with a single page of quotations from a particular year – 1978, 1984, 1998 and so on – culled from politicians, newspapers, broadcast reports. I’m not sure they add much to the book. They hardly need to, because Packer pushes three uncomplicated thoughts, and nails villains big and little, with a deeply engaging passion. The first is that what has “unwound” is the institutional structure that allowed ordinary individuals to have a moderately prosperous, predictable and stable existence for 30 years after the Second World War. This was the achievement of the Roosevelt Republic, which did a strikingly good job of achieving FDR’s “four freedoms”, especially freedom from want and freedom from fear.

The second is that, as a consequence, individuals find themselves on their own, with nothing to rely on but their wits. The new world is Margaret Thatcher’s world: the operating principle is the devil take the hindmost. The third is that America has suffered a moral collapse. It has always been true that financial and political elites can predate on the worse-off, the less educated, the less well connected. Unless they practise self-restraint, the only limit on how much they will take for themselves is the fear that their victims will finally rise up against them. Some time in the late 1970s, the elite took off the shackles of moderation and decided that there was no such thing as enough.

Oddly, two of the characters for whom Packer seems to have the deepest loathing are far removed from Gordon Gecko and his mantra of “Greed is good”. The chapter on Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, is a fairly plain piece of narrative, though the observation that all his life he got a five-dollar haircut from the local barber and never left a tip signals the unfriendly tone. Packer’s conclusion is sobering: “Over the years, America had become like Walmart. It had gotten cheap. Prices were lower and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters.” Meanwhile, “six of the surviving Waltons would have as much money as the bottom 30 per cent of Americans”. Robert Rubin, on the other hand, has never looked like one of the plain, everyday folks Walmart employed and sold to. Harvard, Goldman Sachs, the Treasury, Citigroup are his territory. What enrages Packer is Rubin’s disavowal of responsibility for the meltdown of the financial industry. He taught Goldman Sachs how to profit from risk-taking of a wholly novel sort, he encouraged the deregulation of the industry and he was chair of the executive committee of Citigroup when it loaded up with, it turned out, worthless derivatives. Even Alan Greenspan confessed that he had made mistakes. Rubin not. The Unwinding is an impressive piece of work – but not a happy one.

Alan Ryan is professor of politics at Princeton

A closed-down factory in Waterbury, Connecticut. Photograph: Getty Images
HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad