The Unwinding: Is George Packer John Dos Passos Without a Theory of Social Change?

David Brooks takes a lot of punches here at Hit & Run, but he's also an often-acute observer and critic of trends in the way elites talk about American society. A case in point is his review of George Packer's The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, a non-fiction book that seeks to dramatize the way that various large-scale changes are massively altering what it means to be poor, rich, and middle class in today's America. 

The Unwinding, Brooks notes, is filled with gripping anecdotes of insiders and outsiders who are experiencing what Packer considers the three transformative characteristics of our world: growing economic inequality, the effects of the Great Recession, and "the unraveling of the national fabric." Brooks raises questions about whether these things are in fact following Packer's script but praises The New Yorker staffer for offering vivid anecdotes and stories about everyone from Peter Thiel (whom Packer admires) to a disillusioned aide to Joe Biden (of course disillusioned) to a barely-getting-by couple who have lost jobs, teeth, and dignity over the past several years.

The Unwinding borrows its structure from John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy (1930-1936), arguably the high-water mark of modernist fiction by an American author (if memory serves, there was a time when Jean-Paul Sartre and many others thought of Dos Passos as the greatest living American writer). U.S.A. is a vast, sprawling work that weaves the stories of dozens of fictional characters with "newsreels," "camera eyes," and other journalistic devices about actual historical figures into something that is both pretty impressive and (frankly) difficult to slog through.

Brooks writes perceptively:

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.

The left no longer has Marxism or any other coherent intellectual structure. Packer’s work has no rigorous foundation to rely on, no ideology to give it organization and shape. But 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.

He's right about U.S.A., which combines an expansive sense of daily American life with a particular theory of social change. And I think Brooks is right about the contemporary left for the most part. They are whiskey priests who for the most part no longer believe their own catechism but can't completely give up the ritual that entails either. They tend to rail against a hierarchical, top-down system that punishes the poor and rewards the already-wealthy but the solution they propose is typically an inversion of the same by elite. One of Packer's heroes is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who exemplifies not anything approaching radical transformation but an unironic and un-self-conscious return to a Kennedyesque/LBJ-style rule by the best and the brightest. But it will be our best and brightest, don't you see?

For all the recent thumping about libertarians as lunk-headed, ahistorical idiots savant (minus the savant!), it strikes me that the willingness of libertarians to use public-choice economics, a Hayekian understanding of decentralized decision-making and knowledge, and an optimsm about human possibilities (especially regarding the dignity and native intelligence of relatively poor and uneducated people) would help fill gaps in the left's torpor. (For a good time, read The Declaration of Independents!).

Hat Tip: Kenan Malik's excellent Twitter feed.

For lit-crit fans: Here's a 1970 essay about Dos Passos' later work, after he turned away from Marxism and the American left after the Spanish Civil War. Once he broke with the left, the general critical opinion of Dos Passos is that his superior literary gifts deserted him completely. Richard F. Hill argues that's certainly a convenient theory, but one that owes more to ideology than aesthetics (which, truth be told, are very often the same thing for many people).

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  • John||

    Look no further than their embrace of multiculturalism for proof that the left no longer believes in anything beyond power. Marx was the least multicultural thinker there ever was. Native cultures were to be exterminated and replaced with the proper socialist culture. And now the left thinks all cultures are equal? Really?

    Leftists are like those Japanese soldiers they used to find in jungles back in the 70s who had never heard the war was over. They just don't recognize the failure of the Eastern block and what that means. And more importantly, they don't even try to be coherent anymore. They just move from one intellectual authoritarian fad to the next. They are in short, insane.

  • NeonCat||

    I can picture a leftist reading your comparison and thinking not that they are insane/stuck in the intellectual past but that they are hardcore motherf'ers who will bring about the Revolution someday, somehow.

  • ||

    Argument I made to a kid that told me all cultures are equal:

    Poverty, violence, disease, oppression, slavery, sadness. These are bad. Any culture that enshrines any of those is inferior to cultures that dont.

    Prosperity, liberty, good health, happiness, self-ownership. These are good. Any culture that enshrines these is superior to any culture that does not.

    It is as simple as that.

    It saddens me that anyone would have to make such a self-obvious point. Unfortunately most of the lefties I talk to just dont see this.

    So yeah John, they are insane.

    *Idea that just popped in my head thinking of inferior cultures: Instead of paying a carbon tax, could we self-flagellate? No, I dont mean Warty style, I mean like this-

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viWunyHapPA

  • Fluffy||

    I think the "coherence" of Marxism, and the impact of the loss of that so-called coherence on the left, is somewhat overstated.

    The left's central animating principle is that you can get better social results using state terror than you can get by voluntary trade.

    They have never wavered from that principle for even a moment. Thinkers have come in and out of favor, but the principle has always been the same.

    The failure of world Communism didn't unman the left because it discredited Marx. It did so because it (temporarily) discredited state violence as a motivator for economic activity.

    It was definitely easier to see history as a one-way progression towards total state terror in 1932 than it is now, and I suppose that had an impact in decreasing the left's confidence, too. They were like 2nd generation Christians, suddenly realizing the Second Coming wasn't happening any time soon. But the principles remained the same, even when they could no longer look forward in hope to an imminent eschaton.

  • John||

    They are not really that since what they are selling is much older. People with better weapons have been showing up and telling everyone else how to live since the first ape figured out how to make a tool.

  • ||

    They are whiskey priests who for the most part no longer believe their own catechism but can't completely give up the ritual that entails either.

    That's great, Nick.

  • Killazontherun||

    When he starts using 'hedge wizard' like he did 'whiskey priest' (I'm just the drunk reciting the words) I might start getting worried.

    I've got a great whiskey priest story involving my paternal grandparents, but I'll save it for a time that I have a lot of spare time.

  • Fluffy||

    What's funny about this book is that it's been promoted out the ass, the guy was on the Daily Show for Pete's sake, and every liberal a-hole is pushing it, it's the #14 book at Amazon...but there are only a relative handful of Amazon reviews.

    I guess people are buying this one and then not reading it.

  • John||

    Liberals love to buy books that look good on the shelf but they never actually read. Obama's multiple biographies are a recent example of this phenomenon.

  • Loki||

    I guess people are buying this one and then not reading it.

    Maybe this is one of those books that lefties like to have on their bookshelves so that other lefties will see it and know that they're part of the club. They have no intention of ever actually reading it, it's just a status symbol.

  • John||

    You could have a pretty large library of such books.

    Anything by Obama
    Flat Drunk and Stupid (or whatever it is) by Tom Friedman
    What's the Matter With Kansas

  • Loki||

    You know it occurs to me there's a golden entrepreneurial venture here. Start a publishing house specializing in nice, expensive, leather bound re-printed box sets of left-wing pap to sell to retarded lefties with more money than brains who want to be able to show off to their lefty friends how "smart" and "enlightened" they are without having to go to all the trouble of actually reading stuff.

    You could make a mint of these people... then start a PAC that supports libertarian causes and libertarian leaning candidates. Just to see how many of their heads you can make pop like that scene from Scanners.

  • John||

    That is a great idea. And you could offer discounted editions that don't actually have any print on the inside, just the bindings to put on the shelf. I mean it is not like anyone is going to read this crap.

  • ChrisO||

    All I seem to take away from the left these days is childish name-calling of anyone who disagrees with them. They don't even try to argue, they simply belittle.

    That probably dovetails with Brooks' point about their intellectual bankruptcy. That said, I find it a little rich that Brooks is going on about "rigorous intellectual structure," when I don't see much of it in his own work.

  • John||

    What, judging someone's fitness for the Presidency by the crease in their pants doesn't strike you as intellectually rigorous?

  • ||

    I must confess John Dos Passos has long been one of my favorite authors. I always knew he was a creature of the left, but the sweep of his story-telling seemed always to be talking about you and me.

    In some ways, reviewing the history of "the Golden Age" and "the Robber Barons" I see why leftists came to the conclusions they did. Just as I understand the way the men of my parent's generation came to believe that government could scientifically solve all the problems of the world because they had been drafted and kicked the ass of Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini (disclamer: my father was actually a career Naval Officer in the front line in the North Atlantic before Pearl Harbor so he was not a conscript in the fight).

  • Redmanfms||

    In some ways, reviewing the history of "the Golden Age" and "the Robber Barons" I see why leftists came to the conclusions they did.

    I don't.

    The Gilded Age was anything but. It was solid gold, the greatest period of wealth creation in human history. It saw the foundation and predominance of the American middle class. The fucking proto-fascist weasels who called it that did so only because they were angry that their philosopher-kings weren't running the show.

    Robber Barons were the products of progressive winner-picking cronyism.

    So one is an outright fabrication and the other is the creation of their own policies, so I don't grant them any quarter. The foundations of the Flapper-era Left's ideas were every bit as based on lies and products of their own policies as they are now.

  • PVP||

    "Packer’s work has no rigorous foundation to rely on, no ideology to give it organization and shape. But 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 strikes me that Brooks' criticism applies as much to his own work "Bobos in Paradise," similar in its gripping narration and brilliant insight but lacking an explanation for what the anecdotes mean.

    I'm looking forward to reading the Unwinding anyway.

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