Workers > Greed

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer

by Oliver Burkeman

The Guardian

Friday 21 June 2013 


A profile of ordinary lives provides a powerful portrait of the US

The Unwinding is the right title for George Packer's epic, sad and unsettling history of the last four decades in the US. His topic is the coming apart of something in the national fabric: the unravelling of unspoken agreements about the limits to Wall Street's greed; about what a congressman would or wouldn't do for the right price; about what a company owes its workers, or what the wealthy should contribute in tax.

The result of all this unwinding is more personal freedom than ever before: "Freedom to change your story, get your facts, get hired, get fired, get high, marry, divorce, go broke, begin again, start a business, have it both ways, take it to the limit, walk away from the ruins, succeed beyond your dreams." But it is the loneliest sort of freedom. What Packer's disparate characters share – as his narrative moves up and down the spectrum of inequality, from inner-city Ohio to Silicon Valley, to the exurban McMansions of Florida, to Washington's corridors of power – is that each is fundamentally on his or her own.

Packer's history isn't a matter of abstract politics or economics: there's almost no big-picture analysis of forces such as deindustrialisation, the neutering of unions, recessions, dotcom bubbles, the financial crisis and the rest of it. Instead, he tells his story mainly through five central characters (although one of them isn't a person). They are the entrepreneurial son of a failed tobacco farmer; the black daughter of a heroin addict, growing up in the Rust Belt; an initially idealistic aide to Joe Biden; the billionaire founder of PayPal; and Tampa, in Florida, one of the focal points of America's real-estate delirium, and of the Tea Party that delirium helped create.