The Center Has Fallen and There's No Going Back
This month brings the publication of Phil Neel’s Hinterland, the first in the Field Notes series of books published by Reaktion Books in association with the Brooklyn Rail, to provide in-depth analyses of today’s global turmoil as it unfolds. I could not think of a better book to begin with than Neel’s insider’s analysis of the U.S. working class outside the big-city centers to which most media attention is paid. I’ve taken advantage of this occasion to ask Phil Neel to discuss some of the fundamental ideas of his book.
Paul Mattick (Rail): Near the end of the book, you make the fundamental observation, that “the character of production sculpts the character of class” in any historical period. How is the current form of production reshaping class relations, and why does understanding this require a focus on what you call the “hinterland”?
Phil Neel: This is a good place to start, because I want to be unambiguous that this question is really what the book is about, in the end. It’s a book of communist geography. There’s this new generation of thinkers who are trying to apply a rigorous Marxist method in ways that are neither frustratingly esoteric nor mind-numbingly dumb, and even while we all have our obvious disagreements, I think it’s a great thing. And the reason it’s possible is because so many of these questions that maybe thirty years ago were of purely academic interest are again becoming a lived experience. This itself is evidence of the basic thesis you mention above: the book represents a class position, not the product of some personal ingenuity. It’s something that I’ve articulated in a first-person narrative, but the basic ideas are wrought from collective experience. I think it should be read as a kind of collaborative text, formulated out of a whole horde of experiences and stories, of which my own are only a part. Stories don’t come out of nowhere, though, and when you trace things back, there is this basic scaffolding that shapes the really important things in life, and that scaffolding is economic.
All the stories I tell about the border region between Southern Oregon and Northern California, to take one example, simply wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for the way that capitalist accumulation drove the need for violent settlement, reshaped the area’s basic hydrology and ecology, and then instigated a whole series of crises that wrecked the mining, timber, and farm industries. So the picture is then one where there exists this lower class, working in the black markets, the grey markets, or on contracts fighting wildfires, for example, because this is really the only way to buy food and pay rent and pay taxes. It’s not some sort of lifestyle choice. What seem to be cultural peculiarities are actually rooted in this class experience. And at the same time you have the formation of this other class of landowners and industrialists who put forward a claim to “white working class” identity, but really they’re just using cultural signifiers to obscure the fact that they own the vast remainder of the land that the government doesn’t already own, and the few mills and mines and factories that still run, and honestly many of them are just living off income from farm subsidies and, like, an Arby’s franchise near the freeway. But because the Bundys wear Carhartt jackets you get all these urban commentators talking about the revolt of the “white working class.” Regardless of how it gets distorted, though, you can see how a certain class character is basically shaped by these conditions of production.
What I call the “hinterland” is central to this simply because of how production has been changing. I said above that the book is a work of communist geography. The notion that class emerges from the character of production—and that class is inherently conflictual—is pretty clearly packaged in the “communist” part, but it’s also important to remember the “geography” portion, because the economy takes shape in space. That means that class takes on a spatial pattern as well, and the conflicts that arise from it become embedded in real territories. I don’t mean this figuratively, either, because for about a decade now it’s been very fashionable for academics to use these geographic metaphors, explaining how concepts “map onto” one another, or how ideas are “territorialized.” What I mean is that there are factories and warehouses and ports and rail yards out there somewhere, they take up space, they tend to cluster and sprawl in certain patterns and certain locations, and the people who work in them also live somewhere. So really the focus on the hinterland is an attempt to puncture this amorphous view of geography that we’ve sort of intuitively absorbed, helmed by the notion that the downtown core of the “Global City” is somehow the real heart of the economy, since it’s where the “knowledge” is—whether because of its concentration of tech workers, producer services, or the so-called “creative class.” I’m saying, no, in fact, the heart of the economy is still the production, processing, and transit of goods, and this largely does not take place downtown.
Rail: To follow up on this: You quite rightly dismiss the idea that we live in a “post-industrial” capitalism, insisting that “industry is more expansive than ever.” What is the shape of this expansion, and why do you think it implies that “the near hinterland will likely be the central theater in the coming class war”?
Neel: The hinterland is basically the space that lies beyond the administrative centers of the global economy, which tend to be centered in the downtown cores of (largely coastal) metropoles. Obviously, there is enormous variation in what this space looks like. But I use the word “hinterland” to try to capture the idea that these places are not peripheral in the sense of being on the “edge” of capitalism and therefore having relative autonomy, where self-sufficiency and subsistence might be possible. They are fully dependent, subordinate to these administrative centers. But their priority does differ: the “far” hinterland is lowest in this hierarchy, suitable for the sort of things that are best kept out of sight. At its best, it is defined by some sort of extractive primary industry (mining, farming, timber, etc.); at its worst, it’s just a sort of abandoned zone, dominated by informal work and black markets, where small towns desperately compete with one another to be the host site for a new prison or landfill. And it’s important to note that these spaces don’t necessarily map directly onto our intuitive idea of urban and rural. The far hinterland is certainly mostly a rural space, but it would include that deep rust belt decay you see in Flint, MI, for example. One part of the concept’s utility, then, is to point out that the experience of poverty in rural Kentucky is actually not going to be that fundamentally different from the experience of poverty in “inner city” Detroit—the two will be distinct, but both will certainly be far more similar to one another than to the average life experience of someone born to a moderately wealthy family in Boston or Seattle. At the same time, you also have these islands of affluence in rural areas, which are usually either leisure centers (like Aspen, CO), or simply commuter exurbs, and these places have a much closer relationship with the urban core despite their distance.
The “near” hinterland is something that’s more visible, but for some reason you still constantly run into people who basically have no clue that it’s there. For example, in a city like Seattle, all the highest poverty census tracts, all the census tracts with the highest shares of foreign-born population, and all the census tracts with the lowest shares of white population are located in suburbs or on the urban fringe, with a few (rapidly gentrifying) exceptions. These are the same areas that have the highest concentration of employment in manufacturing, utilities, warehousing, and transportation. I mean, in Kent, WA, just south of Seattle, you have a massive Amazon Fulfillment Center, and across the street is a literal campground where people are living in trailers and tents and they’re walking over to work in the warehouse, joined by people commuting in from the uphill suburban neighborhoods where they live in decaying postwar single-family houses subdivided to accommodate multiple extended families. So you have this massive working-class population that is hyper-diverse, employed for poverty wages sorting packages, processing goods, driving shorthaul runs, and even doing “traditional” manufacturing, all taking place in these peri-urban centers just outside the borders of major “post-industrial” metropolitan centers like Seattle. But I still run into people all the time who really think that Seattle is somehow a “post-industrial” city, and that the suburbs are where white people live—and of course these people themselves are living in “inner city” areas that maybe used to be part of the city’s black neighborhood, or Asian neighborhood, but are now seventy, eighty, or ninety percent white, and they think it’s a hip, “diverse” urban lifestyle.
This sort of poverty just really isn’t visible to people, because the cul-de-sac doesn’t look anything like the old housing project. The case of cities like Seattle, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Atlanta act as a kind of vision of the future for urban areas that are economically successful. They revert to what is more or less the global norm of inner city wealth, mostly poor suburbs, and then corridors of suburban wealth that extend out into more affluent exurbs. But there are also these massive, exploded cities like LA or Houston, where there are multiple cores and this extremely complex mesh of logistics infrastructure, and really large sections of the city are essentially “suburban” in some sense, and plenty of these areas have often been poor for decades or longer. People often forget that LA, while certainly a huge service center, is also among the biggest manufacturing hubs in the country. And on the other end you even see cities within the Rust Belt where inner-city poverty is still prevalent, and segregation has actually increased, but because of the breakdown of racial zoning ordinances and the destruction of public housing, there is also this explosion of poverty out of the urban core, usually sprawling in one direction into neighboring suburbs. These suburbs then experience white flight, and the wave moves out farther.
This latter example is what shaped the events in Ferguson, MO, which I’ve written about elsewhere and I return to briefly in the book. What Ferguson didn’t have, though (compared to somewhere like Kent, WA), was the concentration of key transit infrastructure and productive industry. But as suburban unrest increases, it’s going to inevitably be fused to growing labor unrest at “fulfillment centers,” food-processing plants, and all these new industrial facilities that are being opened in the Sun Belt. So then these revolts against police brutality and extra-judicial killings in suburbs like Ferguson or Anaheim are also going to be taking place in centers of production, and the very fact of the unrest will become much more dangerous to the ruling class, since it threatens to shut down or even damage these important nodes in the supply chain. To imagine what this sort of thing might look like, think of a Ferguson-style revolt paired with something like the Oakland port shutdown during Occupy in 2011. I actually think that what happened in Baton Rouge in 2016 hints at this sort of evolution, which is why I use it as a sort of final example to close out the book—again, there was an anti-police uprising, but people really forget that there is also this massive industrial corridor right there as well, stretched between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and Baton Rouge itself hosts the furthest inland port on the Mississippi that can accommodate ocean-going tankers and container ships.
Rail: The sense of looming class war in your book rests on the perception of what you call the Long Crisis, with its origins in the late 1960s or early 1970s. This is clearly a different concept from the usual economists’ ideas of “downturns” and “recessions”—even that of the Great Recession, which was supposed to have ended in 2009. What is the “Long Crisis,” how has it shaped the character of production, and the experience of class?
Neel: It’s not really possible to go into much detail about this here, and I even avoid most of the complexity when I mention it in the book. But the basic contrast is that mainstream economics envisions “crises” as temporary features of periodic business cycles, which take the shape of waves on the ocean—a boom peaks, then the market crashes and the crash clears unproductive capital, making the way for a new boom, which restores the economy to its previous equilibrium. The overall movement of the system is basically flat, even if the overall economy grows. The waves don’t change the sea level, and even larger, tidal trends will oscillate around some clear average. There is no long-term tendency toward systemic crisis, in this view, because the business cycle rejuvenates the system each time and restores it to its previous condition. But the crisis theory that I draw on, which is from the Marxist tradition, envisions these crises more as the kind of choppy, chaotic waves you see on a mountain river. Yes, there is this business cycle component to them, but there are also multiple centers and they often conflict with one another to create an extreme turbulence that’s very hard to predict. Then, as the river moves forward, it also loses altitude. The waves on the surface actually move along a downward line. There is this secular decline underneath the momentary cyclical crises, and in fact these short crisis cycles are caused by this underlying motion. The “Long Crisis” doesn’t start in the ‘60s or ‘70s, exactly, this is just an artifact of the U.S. postwar experience—we can talk about it in these terms, but this tends to obscure the more fundamental trend. The real core of the idea is that a deeper crisis is always there, defined by that long-term inclination, the altitude gradient driving the whole system forward.
To be succinct: this secular decline is manifest in the tendency for the economy to produce masses of surplus labor alongside masses of surplus capital—meaning people who can’t find regular work, or enough work, or any work, living in the same society with hyper-wealthy elites who can’t seem to find anything profitable to do with their money, so they buy a bunch of mortgage-backed securities or bitcoins. Infrastructure gets older and more obsolete, the few new growth industries become more and more monopolized, and the remnants of the old industries wither away as firms consolidate, automate, and move overseas. All of this is driven by tendencies in this thing called the profit rate, which itself is affected by the automation of production. Differentials in profit rates, labor costs, and currency values define where expansion happens and how, and different locations (within countries and between countries) are forced into a sort of zero-sum competition for a diminishing share of employment in key productive or administrative procedures. Both the shape of global supply chains and the hierarchy of American cities have been essentially sculpted by this process. The long-term result is greater inequality between these poles, as the top of the system becomes more exclusive and more regions, cities, and people in general end up on the losing end.
Rail: “In the present,” you say, “the riot is both the natural evolution of otherwise suffocated struggles and a constituent limit in expanding or advancing such struggles...” Are we still in the “age of riots” or have we moved to a new phase?
Neel: I don’t think it makes sense to argue for any sort of strict periodization. There’s this tendency to try and take the half-century or so between the 1920s and 1970s and the types of industrial actions that emerged from that period as some sort of standard. But using this stretch as a control group is not only arbitrary, it’s also arguably the worst possible candidate, because compared to the rest of the historical data, these decades have the most outliers in almost every regard—which is obvious when you think about the type of unpredictability that accompanies a sequence of worldwide wars. Compared to the time period prior, though, you actually see far more similarities. Just read about the 19th-century riots led by textile workers in the American Northeast, for example. The real difference lies in the fact that there is no longer a massive peasant or semi-peasant population in most parts of the world, and that the share of the population employed directly in productive industry has been decreasing globally. So unrest is going to take place elsewhere. It will take place in the streets, but also in the new centers of employment within service industries. I think Joshua Clover is basically right to point out that it has to do with intervening in “circulation” broadly understood, and this can mean a lot of things.
One of the big points in the book is that the unrest we’ve seen over the past decade was largely not taking place in the hinterland, and that’s one reason it was so easily crushed. The areas that saw it bleed into the hinterland more readily also saw the most successful insurrections, which then had to be destroyed in more nefarious ways. But the dynamic was really one in which people who lived in peri-urban proletarian neighborhoods or even rural areas entered into the downtown core in an attempt to draw attention and disrupt the normal flow of the city. During Occupy, for example, I worked in a wholesale food processing facility in one of Seattle’s southern industrial stretches and lived nearby. In the evenings I would take the train downtown in order to join the protests. The irony here is that the real ability to “shut things down” lay not in the city’s public square, but precisely in the neighborhoods that I lived and worked in. Meanwhile, the downtown cores of almost every major city are literally built with counterinsurgency in mind. So one of the real problems we see is this persistent inability of unrest to take place within the hinterland, because politics is so often seen as being about visibility, or “raising awareness.” Since so much of the hinterland is invisible, it’s just not attractive for these purposes. But when we shift the emphasis from visibility to questions of power, it’s clear that the near hinterland is of central importance.
Rail: The book was finished just as Trump became president, and one demonstration of its accuracy is the way in which it illuminates that political moment. You take this event as a symptom of more significant socio-historical phenomena. Can you say something about this, and also about the extent to which Trump himself represents a “material force” shaping the social landscape?
Neel: The book was largely written before the election happened, and though I review the election a bit, it’s not terribly important to the story I’m telling. I will emphasize a few points, though: First, the very idea that rural America is synonymous with “Trump Country” itself symbolizes the way that many of these spaces are occluded from view. If you’re looking for the real hotbeds of support for Trump, for example, you’re talking about exurbs, which have a very particular racial and class composition that I discuss in the book. And beyond that you’re actually going to find that the strongest support was among conservative wealthy people, in both city and countryside. The countryside, though, is numerically easier to sway, and the Republican party has a patronage network there that’s unmatched by anything the Democrats might offer—remember that the Democrats have essentially not had any sort of rural program for decades now.
But let’s be clear: the majority party in the U.S. is the party of non-voters. This is particularly true among the poor. And this shouldn’t be a great mystery, either. People aren’t really that dumb, and it’s not terribly hard to see that neither major party offers anything to anyone other than the rich and those within its patronage network. Talking to people from these places, you definitely see support for Trump—often almost exclusively out of spite for spineless liberals—but for every Trump supporter you’ll find two people who say fuck both parties, they don’t have our interests in mind. And remember that rural America is nowhere near exclusively white, either. I think when people imagine what the countryside looks like, they think of this archipelago of exurbs in places like the northeastern U.S.; they aren’t imagining rural New Mexico, or the Mississippi Delta, or reservations in the Dakotas. So obviously “Trump Country” is more just a weird name for this terra incognita, it’s just a place that many urbanites project their own fears.
Second, as a “material force,” Trump is not particularly important. He obviously cannot offer any sort of true economic revival, because he’s not able to put through the type of severe tariffs and massive public projects that would be necessary to do so (albeit temporarily). The trade policy he’s pursued has been haphazard at best. In the social sphere, there’s a lot of talk about how he “enables” these far-right mass movements, but the evidence is actually quite mixed. Generally, far-right mass movements tend to grow fastest and strongest under center-left Democratic regimes, because they thrive off these confrontations with an unpopular federal government—Waco under Clinton, and both Bundy stand-offs under Obama are clear examples of this. At the same time, this means that under a more right-wing regime you see the stifling of much of the energy in nascent far-right movements, which become simultaneously institutionalized under the supervision of the center-right (before they have the capacity to really seize power) and forced into more extreme action that, in fact, splinters the movement itself. So you see this increase in bloody vigilante attacks, huge media attention to extremely marginal and irrelevant far-right organizations, a state-sanctioned surge of particularly violent ICE raids, and obviously this federal infrastructure built up to disenfranchise people and defund potential opponents of the regime. The violence and abruptness of all these things create the image that there is a huge surge in the far right, but in reality it becomes much more difficult to sustain a mass movement, and the regime in power normalizes toward the standard set by basically all other regimes before it.
And here is the real meat of the issue: when you actually compare the data, you see that Democratic regimes were obviously not much better, and there’s no reason to assume that the Democratic alternative would have been any different, aside from these spectacular features. Despite all the horror of vigilante attacks against immigrants, for example, I actually think that the vast deportation apparatus is quite a bit more violent, and causes many more deaths—and this apparatus, in its current form, was really a product of the Obama years, as were many of the vigilante groups on the border. In fact, the first border wall was built by Clinton—and Clinton of course also built up this vast militarized police-prison apparatus to prey on the poor, on immigrants, and on black people in particular. In more recent years, it’s important to remember that Obama actually deported more people than Trump did in the first year of his last term, mass incarceration was at its height, and segregation in the Rust Belt cities was actually increasing. The thing I’m really puzzled by is this sort of blindness, where people somehow think that the withered, pathetic, completely full-of-shit Democratic Party would have somehow been different if it were just in power for another four years.
Rail: I agree with what you say in your conclusion, that something big is coming, and that we don’t know what it is. You sketch out a plausible path towards a communist future, without claiming its inevitability. To ask the scariest question, do you see any barriers to a global Syria as the outcome of the new class struggle—the transformation of civil war into total war against the working class, until rebellion is suppressed? And how will the addition of ecological catastrophe to the effects of the Long Crisis change the picture?
Neel: Honestly I think the scariest thing is that it’s hard to see any barriers to anything right now. The only thing I’m certain of is that the status quo simply won’t hold over the long run—there will not be the peaceful continuation and progressive improvement of the present economic system, though I tend to think it has more life in it than many crisis theorists often assume. The end isn’t just imminent, either—it’s already happened. The book is often post-apocalyptic, because it describes places where the economic apocalypse has already begun. These are conditions in which the center has fallen and there’s no going back because we’re not walking a path but instead plummeting slowly into that abyssal future.
The ecological analogy is a good one, then: the decisive conjuncture has already passed. We’ve already failed. But I think that it’s only in these conditions that there are real possibilities. The foreclosure of any easy utopian future forces people to act in qualitatively different ways. And it doesn’t make sense to try and predict whether we’ll face the harshest conditions or the best, because it’s still a bit too far off, and all the elements are just too variable. It’s a game of black swans—you can lay bets, but all your models will fail. What I can say is that things generally don’t fall to one side only. The likelihood of “total war against the working class” is probably about as good as “Bernie Sanders leads the peaceful overthrow of the capitalist system,” if only because of power’s own inherent paradox. Beyond this, speculation is probably best left to science fiction—which isn’t to dismiss it, of course. But just remember that even a “Global Syria” would still include a Global Kurdistan, whatever that might mean.
Available now from University of Chicago Press.