Shattered souls and ruined lives are the plot, and the ever-burgeoning, post-industrial wastelands created by the forces of global capitalism are the setting in Phil A. Neel’s gripping and brutal new book Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict. Part travelogue, part neo-Marxist analysis, part confession, Hinterland is the kind of work that, in lesser hands, such as those of a D.C. journalist, would have been superficial, patronizing, or, at best, semi-interesting. Neel is able to pull off this gloriously odd mixture, however, in part because he himself is a product of the very dessicated and diseased landscape he is chronicling, having spent years working its fire lines, waiting its tables, attending its protests and occupying its prison cells.
Neel’s prose is striking and beautiful, displaying a level of creativity and daring which frequently ascends into the realm of the genuinely poetic. It’s the kind of creativity that’s usually beaten out of most young writers by the mediocrities supervising their MFA programs well before they write their first book.
Neel’s thesis is that the forces of modern global capitalism have created a new and unsettling geography that has rendered many of the old conceptions of class which defined much of the 19th and 20th century irrelevant. The new struggle, as Neel sees it, is not between the urban proletariat and their neighbors and enemies the bourgeoisie, but rather between those living in the “vibrant” megalopolis beehives of late capitalism and those living outside of them, in the hinterlands where economic activity has mostly evaporated and the remaining residents make do living off the metaphorical fumes of federal spending or the literal ones created in backyard meth labs.
It is in these economic and spiritual deserts, which, like the forces that helped to create them, have now become global phenomena, that Neel sees the desperation and confusion which have helped to fuel the forces of both revolution and reaction which have driven the populism that continues to shake the foundations of the liberal political order, in America and elsewhere.
The economic desertification of the American interior has been discussed ad nauseum. It needs little explication beyond a brief restatement: though it has long been cheered on in the pages of The Economist, deindustrialization has been a disaster for the majority of American wage earners. Yet if Hinterlands were merely the regurgitation of this accurate, if tired, analysis, it would be less than noteworthy. What makes the work stand out is its portrait of the spiritual desertification of American society and the inevitable socio-political consequences following in its wake.
As Neel observes:
Each individual is gradually alienated from all others as the heart of production becomes more opaque, the connection between every node in the supply chain more distant, and the basic infrastructure of the world more complex. The ritual reaches down to the depths of human identity. We are defined increasingly by work and debts and purchases and each seems every year to resemble more the others until maybe sometime soon all three will simply fuse into a single form of near-complete evisceration. Our families grow smaller, our groups of friends diminish. Our subcultures are evacuated of all sacrifice and intimacy until they resemble little more than many minor bureaucracies propping up the great palace of consumption.
Some of the most striking points in the book come from the author’s own experience living and working in these deserts and the perceptions that have been granted to him by these brushes with reality. His experiences working fire lines in the hollowed-out rural municipalities of the Western United States are particularly compelling. Such jobs, though seasonal in nature and inherently dangerous, represent some of the few decent-paying jobs left to able-bodied men in many rural, Western places.
The budget for firefighting operations in the county by which he was employed had steadily grown over the years, seeming to mirror the decline in the real economy following the 2008 financial crisis. Federal funding flowed in to staunch the bleeding, but the result was the creation of a society riddled with drug abuse and broken homes, whose only true hierarchical delineation was between “those who write the fines, and those who pay them.” “Those working the [fire] line,” he writes,
know there are few other options. Most are not local to the area, but the vast majority tends to come from the same global hinterland. After working a season on a crew in Idaho, Lennon Bergland, a journalist writing for Vice, confirms this, explaining that his coworkers “come from a range of places and backgrounds, but most have spent at least part of their lives at the edge of society, in broken homes plagued with abusive families and drugs.”
Under such desperate conditions, the kind found throughout America’s burned-out hinterlands, it was only a matter of time before new kinds of political radicalization began to take hold of the shattered spirit of its residents.
Barbarians: The New Far Right
Neel possesses, for a Marxist, a surprisingly deep and nuanced understanding of the burgeoning new far right and, in particular, of the chthonic impulses which drive it. The real forces driving this new right, in Neel’s telling, have less to do with the rhetoric of racial and sexual resentment which have been promoted by the impressively incompetent frat-boy fascists of the so-called “Alt-Right,” and more to do with a general impulse towards a kind of “retribalization” in the face of the atomizing forces of global capitalism.
Groups like the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, and the Wolves of Vinland all occupy this new mental space, increasingly manifesting itself in physical space, with each attempting to carve out their own autonomous fiefdoms of control within the larger hinterland, filling the void left behind by the evacuation of capital, governance, and other forms of family.
Neel quotes Jack Donovan, a prominent member and spokesman for the neo-pagan, nationalist group The Wolves of Vinland, who explained that the group’s socio-political vision was
about escaping to another world, not just for an hour or even a day, but for good. The Wolves of Vinland are becoming barbarians. They’re leaving behind attachments to the state, to enforced egalitarianism, to desperate commercialism, to this grotesque modern world of synthetic beauty and dead gods. They’re building an autonomous zone, a community defined by face-to-face and fist-to-face connections where manliness and honor matter again.
Donovan is a bald, heavily muscled homosexual who wouldn’t necessarily look out of place dancing atop a float at a West Village gay pride parade: a seemingly odd figurehead for a far right group like the Wolves. But if one understands groups like the Wolves properly, as Neel does, as an appeal to the vital energies supposedly contained in tribal (and thus pre-civilizational) forms of social organization, then Donovan’s ostentatious personality begins to make more sense.
The tribal groups of the type the Wolves are attempting to imitate and recreate are inherently cult-like, focused around the unitary rule of a charismatic strong man, and operate under rigid dominance hierarchies which distinguish, in crude Nietzschean fashion, between the strong and the weak, between the exploiters and those who deserve to be exploited – penetrated – materially, physically and sexually. Like the British navy of Churchill’s time, the world Donovan and many of his fellow travelers on the American far right seek to give birth to is one defined primarily by “sodomy and the lash.”
Groups like the Wolves, though they may represent the future of post-Christian right-wing thought (or rather, feeling) in America, are still largely a fringe phenomenon. Organizations like the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers, on the other hand, boast far larger memberships and operate within the well-marked boundaries forged by the right wing militias of the 1980s and 1990s: their ideological framework is that of the American Libertarian tradition. In general, these latter groups have a message that’s far more appealing on a political and emotional level to the residents of the broader American hinterland.
Yet in spite of the nascent successes of the aforementioned fringe groups, Neel, echoing Trotsky, finds the heart and soul of support for the far right not in the far hinterland, but in the suburbs and exurbs that gave birth to the conspiratorial frat-boy fascism developed by the Alt-Right. “[T]he truth is,” he writes,
that…there was not even resounding support for Trump across the mud-soaked trailer parks and wind-swept mountain hamlets of the American hinterland, where most people simply did not vote. The material core of the far right is instead the whitening exurb, the actual home of most… Third Positionists, which acts as an interface between the metropolitan and non-metropolitan, allowing the wealthier landholders, business owners, cops, soldiers, or self-employed contractors to recruit from adjacent zones of abject white poverty, essentially funneling money from their own employment in urban industry into hinterland political projects…
This reactionary politics is simply the idea that the regular violence used by the status quo in its maintenance of the present world of police, prisons, and poverty might also be widened, aimed at the urban core itself and the soft-handed liberals made to suffer. The world can be restored into the hands of the barbarians through salvific acts of violence, capable of forcing the collapse and hastening the approach of the True Community. It is in this way that the far right in the U.S., as elsewhere, is an essentially terroristic force, and will almost always target the innocent, the weak, and the dispossessed in its exercise of power.
Thus, the burgeoning far right, in the author’s reading, is less an anti-liberal or anti-establishment party as it is merely an anti-party, one that has, consciously or subconsciously, dedicated itself to the apocalyptic collapse of the current civilizational order and placed its hopes in a renewing symphony of brutality and violence out of which it imagines a new community of deep blood, racial, and clan ties may re-emerge: “That salvific, absolute body to come, maybe. The tribe, the nation, the ever-approaching community. The maddened eagle rising from the flesh.”
The New Left
If there is a weak point in Hinterlands, it is in the author’s idealistic, though tentative, prescriptions for potential class solidarity in the face of the social and economic catastrophe he correctly describes as “the long crisis.” Neel claims, for instance, that “the white rural migrant has far more in common with his Mexican, East African, or Middle Eastern counterpart than with the urban professional. But this commonality is obscured from both ends: by racial resentment and Islamophobia stoked among the poor and by the Identitarian politics of privilege promoted by wealthier urbanites.” Though obviously true in a material and economic sense, this analysis suffers from a willful naivete regarding the deep and powerful effects religion and culture have on the identity of particular groups – effects which ultimately prevent them from rising to the universal class consciousness and solidarity, for which Neel seems to pine.
Such materialist naivety, ironically enough, is precisely what makes so much of Neel’s initial neo-Marxist analysis of America’s post-industrial cultural wasteland so compelling and accurate, as it strips the more superficial aspects of contemporary “culture” bare to expose the brutal economic logic which frames so much of our “long crisis.” Nevertheless deeper cultural realities exist, even beneath the secondary layer of the economic brute events that Neel believes, incorrectly, are the key to forging a new class consciousness in a post-industrial age.
Neel and others on the left are correct when they diagnose the racial resentments of the far right – resentments that are frequently manipulated by elites to divide cohorts of wage earners who would otherwise be natural allies. These are, to some degree, petty obfuscations of economic reality. But the hard truth is that this economic analysis still ignores the deeper distinctions between groups which inevitably prevent the establishment of genuine “class solidarity.” However, contra the far right, these distinctions are not based upon the superficialities of “blood and soil” – to believe this is fundamentally to affirm something that is just another version of materialism. Rather, the distinctions are based upon the mytho-poetic imagination of particular cultures and civilizations: imaginations which are ultimately derived from peculiar religious traditions and which subconsciously frame the symbolic orders and value systems of particular peoples.
Without shared foundational assumptions of what constitutes “the good,” assumptions which can, when one is being honest with oneself, only be provided by religious revelation, no real and lasting solidarity that transcends the superficial is possible.
Of course, such observations may surely seem to be so much irrelevant pedantry to radicals like Neel, as no such metaphysical solidarity seems to be on the horizon anytime soon for the dispirited and broken souls of the American hinterland.
Then again, stranger things have happened before. Perhaps beneath the torpid mechanization and drudgery of the world which global capital has created, new, hyper-rational revelations may still emerge: revelations which can only be perceived in the desert by those who, like the Christian fathers before them, have nothing left to lose. And perhaps, ironically enough, it will be the meth-addled tweakers or strung out juggalos, the holy fools of the 21st century, who will be the first to see whatever it is that awaits us at the end of the tunnel which the logic and necessities of the market has constructed for us all. “After a life lived mostly in the country,” Neel writes:
I am convinced that the eyes of tweakers see something that other eyes do not. Those orbs gouged deep down into their sockets like antlions awaiting prey, their presence only hinted at by that brief glint of quivering motion beneath the surface—as if the eyes are sunk straight back into the brain and thereby opened to some sort of neural augury, the iris black like a single, dilated pupil open to the world’s many wounds and thus capable of seeing that world as it is: a congress of explosions tearing bodies apart all at different speeds and in different directions… Explosions form a sort of foundational ritual here because they match the tweaker’s vague recognition with an equally vague hope: the sense that cataclysm is a thing that can be built and not just suffered under, that it might be possible for people living in the wake of a world-breaking apocalypse to build their own forms of spectacular violence. Not striving to become born again or build another, better world, but just to force the end of this one to go all the way up.
An abbreviated version of this review first appeared in First Things