America's New Landscape of Class and Conflict
by phil a. neel
university of chicago, 192 pages, $20
In Hinterland, shattered souls and ruined lives are the plot, and the post-industrial wasteland created by global capitalism is the setting. Phil A. Neel has written a gripping, brutal book that is part travelogue, part neo-Marxist analysis, and part confession.
According to Neel, neoliberalism has created a new and unsettling geography that’s rendered irrelevant the conceptions of class that defined the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today’s struggle is not between the urban proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but between those living in “vibrant” megalopolis beehives and those living outside of them, in the hinterlands where jobs have mostly evaporated—where the remaining residents live off the metaphorical fumes of federal spending or the literal fumes created in backyard meth labs. Neel himself is a product of the desiccated landscape he chronicles. He spent years working its fire lines, waiting its tables, attending its protests, and occupying its prison cells.
Neel believes these economic and spiritual deserts gave rise to a desperation—the desperation driving the populism that continues to shake the foundations of liberal order in America. Though the desertification of the American interior is cheered on in the pages of The Economist, deindustrialization has been a disaster for American workers. The focus of Hinterland, though, is chiefly the spiritual desertification of American society, and the inevitable socio-political consequences that have followed. Neel writes:
Each individual is gradually alienated from all others… the ritual reaches down to the depths of human identity... Our families grow smaller... 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.
It was only a matter of time before radical, violent movements cropped up among the residents of these hinterlands. Neel examines militia groups like the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, and the Wolves of Vinland, each of which is attempting to create its own autonomous fiefdom of control to fill the void left behind by the evacuation of capital, governance, and family. Neel says the chthonic impulses which drive these new far-right groups have less to do with the racial and sexual resentment of the Alt-Right, and more to do with a general impulse toward “retribalization” in the face of mass atomization.
Jack Donovan, a prominent member of the neo-pagan, white nationalist group The Wolves of Vinland, explains that the group’s socio-political vision is “about escaping to another world… 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.”
The Wolves are attempting to reimagine tribes focused around the rule of a strongman, and operate under rigid dominance hierarchies which distinguish, in Nietzschean fashion, between the strong and the weak, between the exploiters and those who deserve to be exploited 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 birth is defined by “sodomy and the lash.” Today's far right, Neel argues, is less an anti-establishment party than an anti-party, one that has dedicated itself to the collapse of the current order and placed its hopes in violence, out of which a new people may emerge.
To combat this emerging violence, Neel prescribes class solidarity—though some of his solutions are unconvincing. Neel claims that “the white rural migrant has far more in common with his... Middle Eastern counterpart than with the urban professional.” Though obviously true in an economic sense, differing religions—and differing cultures influenced by those religions—may unfortunately prevent the universal class solidarity for which Neel pines. Contra the far right, these cultural distinctions between groups are not based upon the superficialities of race or “blood and soil.” Rather, they are based on differing conceptions of the good. Neel doesn’t note that without shared foundational assumptions of what constitutes the good, assumptions which ultimately only revelation can provide, no lasting solidarity is possible.
This observation would seem like irrelevant pedantry to radicals like Neel, since no such solidarity seems to be on the horizon for the broken souls of the American hinterland. But stranger things have happened. Perhaps beneath the torpid mechanization and drudgery of the world which capital has created, a spiritual awakening and new revelations may emerge: revelations which can only be perceived in spiritual deserts by those who, like the Christian Fathers before them, have nothing left to lose. “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... 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.
Perhaps it will be the meth-addled tweakers or strung-out juggalos, the holy fools of the twenty-first century, who will be the first to see what awaits us at the end of the tunnel which the market has constructed for us, and begin repairing the spiritual desertification of the hinterland.
Daniel DeCarlo writes from Washington, D.C.