The crisis of the United States is a manifestation of decline

An inner history of the New America

by Prof Dr Klaus Hornung

How stable is the “leader of the world” (President George Bush 1992), “the indispensable nation for peace, freedom and democracy in the world” (President Bill Clinton 1997)? At that time, the United States might have considered themselves to be at the height of their history after winning the cold war. Two decades later, after the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan turned into disasters, they drifted into their serious financial and economic crisis and currently sit on an astronomically high mountain of national debt amounting to nearly 15 trillion dollars.
For the American journalist George Packer, the crisis reflects decline, the disintegration of social solidarity into extreme individualism, not least into a widening gap between rich and poor. His book traces this inner history of the present-day United States, and the author locates the roots: those in power in the financial world have cancelled their contract with society in an orgy of excess and cynicism. A system of “revolving door policy” has developed between Wall Street and Capitol Hill, the financial oligarchy, Congress and House of Representatives, which displays all the symptoms of decline.
Packer does not look at foreign and military policy. He wants to describe the internal history of the US scenario through a long series of detailed social biographies of contemporaries in politics and business, including people from all population strata. There is, for instance, Jeff Connaughton, who spends his life between the financial sector and politics and moves up the ladder from the campaign team of current Vice President Joe Biden to the high bureaucrats and ministers in Washington, acquires a considerable fortune and witnesses the relentless power struggles for influence and financial gain in the elites and their networks.
The conduct of a large number of bankers, lawyers and financial auditors is often far off the law, characterised by the greed for bonuses in the millions and the pursuit of a further rise to profitable political offices and positions. It is the panorama of a political style in which the reckless are the winners, the picture of an elite exercising their power far beyond the classical democratic standards and the rule-of-law. Within this framework, there also appear well-known figures of contemporary history, such as President Bill Clinton with his sex stories and solemn oaths, by which he succeeded to evade the law.
And there is also the tragic figure of Colin Powell, child of immigrants from Jamaica, who fought as a soldier in Vietnam for many years and was promoted to the prestigious Chief of Staff and Minister of Foreign Affairs, to be finally misused by President Bush junior to deliver his famous address to the UN Security Council, to lie about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction which was to justify the US military intervention in Iraq and destroyed the reputation of the upright civil servant.
The author then switches to Silicon Valley, that symbol of the inexhaustible American renewal force. A certain Peter Thiel is his biographical witness, son of a “born-again” Christian family, gifted Stanford student, decidedly anti-communist and anti-gay, who one day had to come out himself. Later he founded several hedge funds, through which he became a Titan of billion assets, spending his days as an influential major sponsor in his luxury villa in Stanford on the Marina.
These were the years in which California seemed to develop into some kind of heaven on earth due to the defense and space technology and later on due to Internet and Facebook, but has eventually not escaped decline after the bursting of the Internet bubble and the subsequent crisis in 2008. Thus, the libertarian Thiel started to realise the intellectual and political limits of the American dream dance around the golden calf and its consequences.
Parker’s book is an idiosyncratic mix of documentation and literature. With real commitment, he outlines the more recent internal history of the United States. The author’s call for decisive corrections of the political system of his country and for a social renewal can be seen throughout the text. Packer’s panorama of this decline is reminiscent of social scientist Christopher Larsch’s book, “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy” (1994), which also sees the core of the American crisis in a “democratic malaise”.
It is the story of the privileged elite’s alienation from their society, of those who control the international flow of money and information, who with their multicultural lifestyle of work and leisure in their foreclosed, well protected enclaves, abandoned their civic duties long ago. This world appears to be the realisation of Max Weber’s famous vision of a society of “specialists without spirit, hedonists without a heart”.     •

George Packer: The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Faber and Faber,
London 2013, ISBN 978-0-571-25129-2

(Translation Current Concerns)