Pente on Neel, 'Hinterland: America's New Landscape of Class and Conflict'
Phil A. Neel. Hinterland: America's New Landscape of Class and Conflict. London: Reaktion Books, 2018. 192 pp. $20.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78023-902-6.
Reviewed by Graeme Pente (University of Colorado Boulder) Published on H-Socialisms (December, 2019) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54118
Class and Politics in America's Hinterland
In Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict, writer Phil A. Neel draws on his personal experience of precarious, low-wage labor to highlight the new economic and social geography that global capitalism is shaping. A new entry in the Reaktion Books series Field Notes, which examines “today’s global turmoil as it unfolds,” Neel’s Hinterland analyzes the increasing agglomeration of wealth and opportunity in a few key urban centers, the resulting hollowing out of rural areas, and the political consequences and opportunities these changes present, chiefly in the United States. Against the decades of global economic restructuring under neoliberalism, with its massive upward redistributions of wealth and widening inequality, something has to give. Neel emphasizes the anger and violence roiling beneath the surface of our daily lives. Whether the pending rebellion can be harnessed to create a more just order or will fuel reactionary, ethnonationalist ends remains to be seen. What seems obvious to Neel, however, is that the center cannot hold.
Neel’s framework of analysis, and the most useful contribution of his book, is the geographic notion of the “hinterland.” The hinterland is not a simple urban/rural dichotomy but rather a measure of distance from the dynamic cores of capital accumulation increasingly concentrated in a few urban centers, somewhat reminiscent of environmental historian William Cronon’s study (Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, 1991) of nineteenth-century Chicago’s impact on its surroundings. In the twenty-first century, booming urban centers tend to be located in coastal areas, which provide ready connections to global networks. As the shape of capitalism has become truly global in the last forty years, a few fortunate cities have emerged as nodes in the worldwide network, leaving other areas to rust and languish. As Richard Walker notes in Pictures of a Gone City (2018), “a typical laptop … is assembled from hundreds of parts made in dozens of locales around the world.” In this new reality of globalized production and the prominence of massive multinational corporations, logistics take on primary importance, their linkages mirroring the networked world established by the internet. These changes reflect a major industrial shift in the United States during the 1990s and 2000s that saw “an expansion of logistics clusters that coordinate the flow of goods into and out of population centers” and has made the FIRE industries (finance, insurance, and real estate) the drivers of urban capital accumulation such that we can now speak of a “real estate state.” Closer to these dynamic cores is what Neel calls the “near hinterland,” where much of the urban population actually lives, having been priced out of the prosperous centers. In these suburban areas, the growing ranks of the proletariat must commute lengthy distances to their service jobs in the city or to large logistics complexes. Farther from “the summit of the megacity” is what Neel dubs the “far hinterland” (p. 18). Such regions are more traditionally rural, now heavily polluted areas focused on resource extraction and riven by the informal economy and illegal drugs. Each of these hinterlands offers fertile soil for politics that reject the status quo.
Neel structures the four chapters of his book in two parts, corresponding to the two main zones of the hinterland: far and near. The first part, on the far hinterland, examines rural areas, the rise of the Far Right in them, and the economic basis of that political formation. As economies have shifted away from rural areas and neoliberal austerity has undermined local government services, white nationalist militias have flooded into the vacuum, seeing the far hinterland as a base on which to build dual power in opposition to the federal government. Here, so-called Patriot groups build “parallel government structures” that emphasize self-reliance, community preparedness, and disaster training (p. 30). Neel draws on the military theory of “competitive control,” usually applied to guerrilla insurgencies in failing states, to explain the phenomenon of militias overtaking local governments in the far hinterland. In this view, most residents of the far hinterland are not committed white nationalists but become so, as “support follows strength, and ideology follows support” (p. 32). All the same, Neel emphasizes that most rural whites have abandoned politics, with Trump’s election depending more on their nonparticipation than on enthusiastic support. Neel finds it notable that the Far Right has not yet found greater traction among rural whites of the far hinterland.
Neel’s materialism leaves little room for the power of ideas to shape people’s politics and outlook. As historian Kathleen Belew has shown, the white power movement, including many of the militias Neel surveys, has a longer history dating back to narratives to explain the US loss of the Vietnam War. These narratives provide a kind of American stab-in-the-back myth for white nationalists. In the 1980s, their so-called Northwest Imperative urged “white separatists to migrate to the Pacific Northwest,” marking their organized arrival in the emerging far hinterland. On the one hand, the lengthy presence of white separatists in the region attests to Neel’s point that their lack of progress in converting poor rural whites is notable. On the other, Belew’s study reveals the sophisticated networks by which such toxic ideologies spread, and economics alone cannot account for the ardor of their adherents. Closer to the present, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has demonstrated the importance of culture and narratives to the emergence of the Tea Party in rural Louisiana on the eve of Donald Trump’s election. Contra Neel’s purely economic reading, Hochschild emphasizes that “people gather around what [Emile] Durkheim calls a ‘totem’—a symbol such as a cross or a flag” and that “the real function of the excited gathering around Donald Trump is to unify all the white, evangelical enthusiasts who fear that those ‘cutting ahead in line’ are about to become a terrible, strange new America.” Here, material conditions alone cannot explain the enthusiasm for a figure such as Trump; rather, people need a narrative that reflects their cultural values to make sense of the world around them. What does emerge from Neel’s approach, at least, is the hope of the Left’s potential to shape its program to the needs of impoverished whites suffering in the far hinterland. So far, Neel notes, “the far right has been almost the only force attempting to shape” the politicizing process of “heightened expectations suddenly plummeting into a sharp reversal of prospects” (p. 86). There remains plenty of room for a far-sighted left political program to make headway in these neglected areas.
In the second part, Neel reverses the order, treating the economic dimension of the near hinterland before examining the political opportunities this new formation offers. Logistics, the warehousing and movement of goods, define the new global economy. “The true center of the world economy is not to be found in the … high-tech downtown cores of its global cities,” Neel notes, “but instead in the complex mesh of material infrastructure that links them together” (p. 97). Global capitalism has reshaped the urban environment such that the outskirts of many cities now serve as way stations for goods produced elsewhere. The laborers for these warehouses also sleep in these areas, having been priced out of booming real estate markets in the downtown cores. In the United States, the phenomenon appears as a “great inversion” of postwar prosperity, when one found wealth in the suburbs and poverty in urban centers. But Neel’s analysis, and indeed his own experience, goes beyond the American context alone. Having worked as a migrant laborer in China’s construction boom in response to the Great Recession, Neel highlights how this pattern of the hinterlands is being experienced globally.
In Rebel Cities (2012), geographer David Harvey illustrated the phenomenon that Neel witnessed in China, how “almost every city in the world has witnessed a building boom for the rich … in the midst of a flood of impoverished migrants converging on cities,” resulting in urban centers of “fortified fragments.” Neel explains that these ex-rural migrants around the globe have been priced out of those urban cores. When they “suddenly flood back” from the hinterland, the cities are paralyzed by insurrection and only then begins “politics proper” (p. 12). Alongside Occupy, the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri—importantly, a near hinterland suburb of St. Louis—in 2014 represents “the unambiguous entry of the United States into a global era of riots” (p. 144). For Neel, these moments indicate the coming era of proletarian unrest that must build power through community provision in the interests of competitive control. In the fires of urban riots, he sees the necessary alliances of a left-wing movement for a more just future being forged. Even since the book’s publication only last year, another massive wave of unrest has swept cities around the world, from Lebanon, Pakistan, and China to Chile and Haiti, among others. Opportunities to challenge the political and economic order seem to be emerging. Whether the Left can seize them will depend on its commitment to action, as Neel advocates, over analysis alone.
. Richard A. Walker, Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2018), 31.
. Samuel Stein, Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State (New York: Verso, 2019), 40.
. Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 161.
. Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: The New Press, 2016), 226.
. David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (New York: Verso, 2012), 12 and 15.
Citation: Graeme Pente. Review of Neel, Phil A., Hinterland: America's New Landscape of Class and Conflict. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. December, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54118This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.