Conflict in the Hinterlands: the Fragmented Geography of the Cold Civil War

Photograph Source: Cover of Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict by Phil A. Neel

When the U.S. had its first great break-up in 1861, the geography was fairly well defined. The core area of the Southern slaveocracy versus the rising industrial North. There were conflicts within the border states that stuck with the Union. “Copperhead” confederacy sympathizers existed in pockets of the North. But the lines of battle were pretty clear.

The geographies of today’s cold civil war are far more complicated. States are split between urban and rural. Metropolitan regions are splintered.  Urban cores and increasingly multiethnic and working-class inner suburbs are in tension with largely White outer suburbs and exurbs.

The fragmented geography of a dividing U.S. is the center of a recent book by Phil A. Neel, Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict(Reaktion Books, London, 2018). In this two-part series, I first offer Neel’s overview of this fractured landscape, then in the second part give my own analysis with some ideas on how to pull it back together.

As the title indicates, Neel sees the national terrain ripped by class divisions in an increasingly unequal society, setting rural areas where employment possibilities have collapsed against metropolitan regions where the winners are concentrated.  But not everyone.  Neel illuminates the complex rifts within the metropole, where the number of poor in suburban areas exceeded those in cities proper by 2011, and White flight to the outer rings has created the core geography of the U.S. right.

Neel defines the loser regions as two hinterlands, mostly defined by distance from prosperous urban cores. A far hinterland of collapsed economies is mostly rural. The near hinterland is largely those inner suburban rings where working class people unable to afford increasingly expensive cities are being driven.

Neel brings a unique perspective, a framework of hard left analysis built on a foundation of hard knocks life experiences. He has seen the degradation of rural areas. Neel grew up in a trailer in the Siskiyou Mountains near the California-Oregon border, where natural resource-based economies have declined, and worked in the northern Nevada town of Winnemucca.

“The way of life has been destroyed in a devastating, irrevocable fashion, essential industries torn out from under us, ecosystems razed, and everyone left suffering not just material deprivation but an expansive social and cultural collapse that can only be characterized as apocalyptic,” Neel writes. The meth-sodden tweaker is “the vanguard of whatever’s coming  . . . the most basic recognition of the ways in which the far hinterland has been made futureless, an organic nihilism emerging from the American countryside, unprecedented and unpredictable.”

With traditional economies in decline, rural areas become dependent on climate-driven disaster industries funded by government.  “If timber and ore were the gods of the old west, fire and flood are the gods of the new one.” Highway departments fix roads washed out by annual landslides. Wildfires draw in armies of firefighters, their efforts setting the stage for even larger fires. “There is no final crisis, just the continual management of widening collapse.”

The far hinterland’s extreme crisis “acts as a sort of window into the future of class conflict in the United States.”  Neel is critical of both left and liberal approaches to rural areas.  Liberals do not much care about such low-output, low-population areas.  Being substantially from the managerial class, they are focused on the important part of the economy, the metropolitan.  Meanwhile, the left has largely retreated from the far hinterland, where it traditionally did labor organizing, to coastal cities and college towns, downplaying issues of class and poverty that cuts across ethnic lines in favor of identity politics.

One group is organizing in the far hinterland, though. Neel provides a chilling description of efforts by “Patriot” groups such as the Oathkeepers who anticipate a coming civil war between conservative rural areas and liberal cities. They are moving into the gaps left by failing public services, offering their own substitutes. Building power in the underserved interstices hearkens to “competitive control” concepts of insurgency, Neel notes.  “The thing that makes the Patriots unique, then, is their recognition of the need to build power within these wastelands . . . “ Resistance will first emerge in the far hinterland, where the right can organize and form a rural base of power aimed at taking control of federal lands and resources.  Neel’s writing calls to mind rancher Ammon Bundy’s war with federal land managers.

Neel cites writings from Jack Donovan, leader of the Cascadia chapter of the Wolves of Vineland, a neo-pagan, White ethno-nationalist cult.  Donovan speaks of creating “tribes” that go back to the land to build “autonomous zones.” The appropriation of languages common in anarchist and other subcultures, even the bioregional descriptor “Cascadia,” should raise red flags.  Tendencies that look to “third way” organizing, where left and right supposedly meet, can easily fall into traps. The litmus test, Neel accurately points out, is whether the politics supports a circle-the-wagons approach to the outer world, or affirms the commonality of humanity. For instance, should public lands be placed under local control or kept in the common domain? Local organizing that addresses local needs is crucial on every landscape, but it must connect to broader causes, inclusionary rather than exclusionary.

The author has also experienced urban life from the bottom end. Neel describes how he journeyed south into California in a barely functional car looking for work.  Finding none he ventured north to Seattle, where he still lives.

“Skyscrapers and construction cranes glinted in the late-setting September sun. Staring at the skyline, you could almost hear the capital pouring in from the other end of the Pacific Rim . . . It was my first time attempting to live in such a city – in any city, really.  People often don’t realize that the barriers to entry for these narrow corridors of prosperity are almost impossibly high for those of us migrating from the countryside.” Neel found work in an industrial kitchen on the south end. “That hinterland of decaying, industrialized suburbia seemed to offer a certain counterpoint to the ‘creative class’ and its urban palace. From this distance, hidden sightlines could be found and the occluded core of the region’s economy unveiled.”

What Neel saw in that area near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, also a major truck-rail link and warehousing hub for the seaport with its strategic location close to the markets of Asia, was the “true center of the world economy . . . not to be found in the ‘creative,’ financialized, or high-tech downtown cores of its global cities, but instead in the complex mesh of material infrastructure that links them together . . . the vast logistics-industrial spaces that extend laterally from these cores  . . . ”

That near hinterland “will likely be the central theater in the coming class war . . . large populations of people who have been made surplus to the economy live and work along its integral corridors.” In another place, he writes, “ . . . the near hinterland is particularly important, since future struggles on such sites have the capacity to fundamentally cripple global supply chains in a way that occupation of parliaments or parks in front of financial centers do not . . . giving them the ability to spread disruption beyond the local sphere in a way not dependent on media spectacle.”

Meanwhile, “the whitening exurb,” not the rural area, is “the material core of the far right.” It is where wealthier landholders, business owners, cops, soldiers and self-employed contractors tend to live. “This is the geography of latent civil war, the interests of the wealthy downtown core aligned with its extremities in the form of the militarized white exurb, a recruiting hub for the far right.” The exurb is the link point between metropolitan and non-metropolitan forces, and will be central to attempts to control the near hinterland, he asserts.

Neel reports on his own journey to an early struggle in the near hinterland. He and a group of black-clad friends, all of whom met during the 2011 Occupy Seattle protests, visited Ferguson, Missouri, site of the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests that followed the police killing of Michael Brown. “The first round of riots was then only major uprising in an American suburb within living memory.” Ferguson “is the unambiguous entry of the United States into the global era of riots,” born of a collapsing social order.  Events since have born him out.

The uprising was grounded in the deindustrialization of the St. Louis era, “last hired-first fired” Black people seeking cheaper rents in the suburbs, and systematic police abuse. Ferguson covers declining revenues with tickets, court fees and warrants. In 2013, when 35,975 warrants were out in a town of 21,000, tickets and fees represented 20% of the town’s budget.

The author and his friends were there to observe and learn. He contrasted cities, heavily surveilled and policed, having dense land use patterns that lend themselves to crowd control, with near hinterland places such as Ferguson. A minimum of streetlights, many back streets onto which protestors could escape, fewer police.

Neel’s future is one of a long crisis, of conflict ramifying to conflict, with unpredictable outcomes. He sees himself and his cohort as “not a single, temporarily fucked generation but instead the first in a grand parade of the futureless.” When “the next bubbles burst and the gains of the tech industry are shown to be hollow . . . those within the hinterland will increasingly be thrown into a condition of survival on the edge  . . . “ Younger generations will bear the brunt.  “. . . I don’t know what’s coming, even though I know something is rolling toward us in darkness, and the world can end in more ways than one.”

In the next part, I will offer my analysis of how class struggles intersect with a geographically fragmented U.S., including some crucial dynamics within the urban core that I think Neel underplays.  Are there slivers of daylight in a darkness Neel all too accurately depicts? I’ll try to begin answering that question.