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).