Review- Neel, “Hinterland”

Phil Neel, “Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict” (2018) – This is a very interesting and provocative look at the contemporary geography of class conflict from someone steeped in insurrectionism. Forget the “brain-hub,” “creative class” cities, Neel tells us- the most interesting spaces, both from an intellectual and an insurrectionist standpoint, contemporary capitalism has created are the hinterlands. Neel divides them into far — rural and exurban — and near hinterlands, the latter of which are the interstitial spaces within urban areas into which capitalism shoves both infrastructure and poverty.

The far hinterlands are, well, not “familiar” but are at least examined in many a post-2016 work. Neel is a native of rural northern California (the “State of Jefferson”), but doesn’t truck with the native tale-bearer/interpreter role that J.D. Vance has taken on. Neel does, however, borrow from Vance’s fellow militant liberal, counterinsurgent David Kilcullen, in arguing that in in the void left by the economy and increasingly by government in rural western areas, whoever evinces “strength and stability” will attract a following. In some places, Neel notes, militia groups like the Three Percenters and the Oathkeepers present more of that strength and stability than does the local government, and certainly more than any left-leaning formation. Ironically, most militia types can no more claim to be the salt of the earth hinterland types than most liberals, being largely well-heeled exurb dwellers, but could potentially attract a following.

I found the discussion of the near hinterlands most interesting. Geographers have long observed that the inner ring suburbs of many cities, originally all-white, are rapidly diversifying and becoming poorer as black and Latino residents flee the inner cities. Ferguson, Missouri is a good example of this outside of St. Louis. At the same time, the infrastructural supports of capitalism extend outward spatially into these same areas- the warehouses, the trucking depots, server farms, etc. This activates Neel’s insurrectionist imagination. He had a rioting bust from Occupy Seattle and is in general dismissive of most other leftist strains (sometimes eye-rollingly so, as when he puts too much analytical weight on identity politics as a failing of the contemporary left). He was on the ground in Ferguson, too, one of the much-maligned “outside agitators,” but there wasn’t much need for outside agitation. The people of Ferguson were pissed, and their situation isn’t all that different from the other near hinterlands- poverty, insecurity, racism, a state absent in terms of dealing with needs but omnipresent in terms of doling out fees and police violence. Ferguson, Neel notes, was the first major suburban uprising, and the geography was totally different than that of traditional urban uprisings, much less dense and more spread out, darker, both in the sense of fewer streetlights and just a general sense where the cops didn’t know what was going on.

Where does this leave us? Neel theorizes about the “historical party” of revolution, the implicit mass ready for what might come, and “overcoming the riot” – going from rioting (or occupying) to a more sustained revolutionary action. He wonders where the “ultras” of the American near hinterland scene may be, alluding to the soccer hooligans who did so much to bolster crowd resistance against regime forces in Egypt, Ukraine, and elsewhere. He calls for an “oath of water”: where the reactionary militias have an “oath of blood” to a community defined by exclusion, the advancers of revolution need an oath to the flood, the overcoming of all boundaries (I wonder if Neel has read Klaus Theweleit?). His prose flows beautifully and his observations are sharp. I can’t say I agree with everything here — Neel would probably find me a softie, with my book review and noise demos and tendency to stay put in dear old Massachusetts — but this is a fascinating, compelling read. *****

Review- Neel, “Hinterland”

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