George Packer’s The Unwinding received the National Book Award for nonfiction Wednesday night. The citation described the book as a “novelistic and kaleidoscopic history of the new America,” but that tag misses the deep interior life of the book: it’s a book, as much indebted to Henry Adams as to Richard Hofstadter, about the unwinding of the moral center in individual lives, even those – especially those – of the country’s supposedly best and brightest.
Take Packer’s portrait of Peter Thiel, who, after thriving in high school, at Stanford and its law school, and in the white-shoe New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, found himself in his early thirties in the early 21st century and in what he called a “quarter-life crisis”:
The job was boring. If he were a Marxist, he would have called it alienated labor – working eighty hours a week at something he didn’t believe in so that eight years on he might make partner, with the next forty years of his life laid out for him. His chief rivals were under the same roof, working right next to him, competing like crazy for stakes that were all internally assigned, with no transcendent value. And that was the deeper problem: Thiel was beginning to question the competitive life.
He switched to finance, and took a job trading currency options at Credit Suisse, but found the work little different from corporate law: an internal competition for abstract rewards, whose arbitrariness and artificiality even money couldn’t disguise:
There was a philosophical dimension to his rolling quarter-life crisis, too. At Stanford he had attended a lecture given by a French professor named René Girard, which had led him to Girard’s books, and he became a devotee. Girard had developed a theory of mimetic desire, of people learning to want and compete for the same things, which attempted to explain the origins of violence. The theory had a sacred and mythic aspect – Girard, a conservative Catholic, explained the role of sacrifice and the scapegoat in resolving social conflict – which appealed to Thiel, offering a basis for Christian belief without the fundamentalism of his parents. Mimetic theory was also a challenge to Thiel’s worldview, because its explanation of human behavior by group attraction ran counter to his libertarianism. He was both intensely competitive and averse to conflict – he never gossiped, avoided the infighting that was part of working with other people, and presented such a rational demeanor that it became a barrier to intimacy. He also had a horror of violence. In the end, he recognized himself in Girard’s ideas: “People compete hard for things,” he said, “and once you get them you are sort of disappointed, because the intensity is driven by the fact that all these people want it, but it is not necessarily a good thing. I was very open to the Girard theory because I was more guilty of it than most.
There was a contemporary word for what Girard described: status.
I don’t know Peter Thiel (who went on to found PayPal), but I know the person in the portrait and know the world he lives in, and I’m guessing that you do, too.