- American Literature and the Long Downturn: Neoliberal Apocalypse by Dan Sinykin
In 1964, Richard Hofstadter observed in his influential essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” that “the paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.” For Hofstadter, the apocalyptic fever dreams of American politics stretch from the nation’s founding, when fears of Jesuit and Masonic plots ran rampant, to the McCarthyism and John Birch anti-communism of his mid-century present. Dan Sinykin’s American Literature and the Long Downturn picks up where Hofstadter left off, exploring the heightened apocalypticism of what historian Robert Brenner dubs “the long downturn”: an extended period of economic decline and precarity stretching from the late 1960s to the present that is marked by deindustrialization, wage stagnation, financialization, deregulation, an explosion of public and personal debt, and growing economic inequality. Sinykin views neoliberalism as the “dominant ideology” (9) of the long downturn and “neoliberal apocalypse” as its central “form” (19), a form that he locates in an array of late-twentieth-century writers—James Baldwin, William Luther Pierce, Cormac McCarthy, Leslie Marmon Silko, and David Foster Wallace—who use apocalypticism to offer “imaginary solutions to real world problems” (19). As neoliberalism creates dire material conditions from which there appears to be no escape, an apocalypticism promising “total annihilation” emerges as a “seductive way to respond to a lack of alternative” (10).
These formulations reveal a core tension that runs through Sinykin’s analyses. If apocalypticism functions as a “seductive,” “imaginary” solution to lived material inequities and injustices, then it’s clearly not Sinykin’s preferred response. Its capitulation to the perceived inexorability of neoliberalism undermines the pursuit of real-world alternatives and solutions to the long downturn’s many conflicts and crises. On the other hand, Sinykin recognizes that material conditions are in fact quite [End Page 198] dire and even, in some cases, seems sympathetic to the apocalyptic turn his authors make. Given the poverty, racial violence, mass incarceration, widespread addiction, climate change, and resurgent white nationalism that define daily existence, Sinykin understands why we might conclude that the end is nigh, although he would also like us to remember that apocalypse is just a “story” and not “a description of reality” (1). But why would Sinykin write a book about a collection of texts that are doing something that he would rather they not do? Why not write a book about some texts that do better, that don’t succumb to apocalypticism, that get it right? Because, as Sinykin explains, he “remain[s] unconvinced that we should look for successful politics from our literature” (11). So even though the apocalypticism Sinykin identifies in the literature of the long downturn represents a failure of politics, he nevertheless sees it as a very telling failure of politics. Thus, his literary analyses treat apocalypticism symptomatically, using its presence to critique neoliberal America and highlight many of the long downturn’s socio-economic contradictions.
Sinykin proceeds chronologically, with the first two chapters exploring the divergent responses that African American and white evangelical authors had to the racial and economic crises of the 1970s. Comparing James Baldwin’s critical but ultimately hopeful The Fire Next Time (1963) to his much more apocalyptic No Name in the Street (1972), Sinykin suggests that Baldwin and his contemporaries embrace apocalypticism once they realize that the racial gains of the Civil Rights Era were meaningless—that Black Americans would remain immiserated and powerless—without a corresponding dismantling of capitalism, a dismantling that for Baldwin was such an impossible dream that it only seemed achievable via apocalypse. Notably, white evangelical novelists such as William Luther Pierce, Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey, and Tim LaHaye also view capitalism in the long downturn as a decadent and corrupting scourge destined to end in apocalyptic collapse. When that critique of capitalism is combined with a white racial animus that perceives Black racial uplift as an existential threat to white America, however...