Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict

Neel explores the flip side of the creative class and coastal bubble cities, telling about his experiences in the hinterlands of the Nevada desert, the border between Oregon and California, Ferguson MO, suburbs of Seattle, and outskirts of southern China. This is the real deal, more legitimate than  JD Vance’s much praised but highly suspect Hillbilly Elegy—he’s got the pedigree to talk about the underclass but doesn’t blame the poverty-stricken for the woes of late stage capitalism.

It’s beautiful writing as well as being sharp and pointed. Here he reflects on jail time from participating in the riots of Occupy Seattle: “If was only in those dull chrome holding cells and glass-glittering streets that I fully realized how cold that distant landscape had been, the downtown towers simply the crystallization of dead labor drawn together from all across the globe, the streets nothing but corridors for cops and capital. Everything that we were doing there—rioting, occupying, walking out of our jobs as fast-food workers—was all caught up already in the spectacle of itself, captured in a cold, dead space built to contain it. And it was really only from outside the walls that this could be seen clearly. 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.”

His description of the work-release program included mention of how the whole system depended on the functioning of an underlying software system that told the guards to let you out to work or record when you should be back. The system crashed one day, wiping out the data so everyone was stuck inside while people had to be called up to input their work schedules one by one. Trapped inside for five days, they played hearts and talked about what they used to do and what they would do when they were released, “even when we knew the reality was that we had done and would be doing much the same thing, only more alone. When things break, it only shows that everything is already broken.”

Coastal cities survive and thrive because “they are where all the factors of economic concentration tend to be combined—seaports, rail and interstate hubs, first-stop destinations for foreign air freight, historical endowments in the form of established universities, wealthy residents, and leisure industries.”

The Ferguson discussion was interesting, noting how because the area was previously wealthy and majority white, it lacked the necessary narrow street infrastructure and security cameras usually used to quell rioting in cities.

The concept of the near-hinterland, that outer ring near cities dense with industry, likely to be “the central theater in the coming class war, the most concise summation of which is simply the fact that large populations of people who have been made surplus to the economy live and work along its integral corridors.”