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  • Hinterland: America's New Landscape of Class and Conflict by Phil A. Neel
  • Andy Oler
Phil A. Neel, Hinterland: America's New Landscape of Class and Conflict. London: Reaktion Books, 2018. 192 pp. $14.00 (paper).

Phil A. Neel's Hinterland examines American economic life through a geographic lens, focusing specifically on areas located some distance away from the major cities that are perceived to be the center of the global economy. Neel explores life in multiple U.S. regions, including the Midwest, Northwest, and Southwest. To do so, he anchors his analysis in the growth of white nationalist groups in the Southwest as well as his experience of populist uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Seattle, Washington.

Hinterland is not primarily a book about the Midwest, but Neel's focus on the economic struggle of the American countryside will feel familiar to scholars of the region. This is not least because he addresses many of the same spaces that preoccupy the field of midwestern studies. But because it covers impoverished zones across the country—and even recounts some of his travels in China—Neel's "hinterland" is more diffuse than even the expansive boundaries of (and endless bar debates about) the Midwest. Despite the term's connotations, Neel argues that the new American hinterland is not entirely rural. Instead, he defines the hinterland based upon its economic function: "as a disavowed, distributed core, distinct from the array of services and FIRE industries of the central city but more integral to the 'immediate process of production,' in which labor meets capital and value is produced" (17). Within this analysis, Neel distinguishes the spaces and economic activities of what he terms the "far" and "near" hinterland. According to Neel, the near hinterland differs depending on the country and is composed of suburban logistics hubs as well as peri-urban apartment complexes and "slum cities" that have been intentionally separated from wealthier parts of the city. The far hinterland covers a broad swath of American geography, including areas of agricultural production, extractive industries, and even the declined inner cities of the Rust Belt. [End Page 213]

Neel illustrates how global capitalism extends into the hinterland in a complex, interconnected fashion. For instance, in chapter 1, Neel's time working for the Bureau of Land Management in northern Nevada gives him a window into the Southwest's mining and natural gas industries. after the initial boom that occurs as these industries extract value from the land, property values diminish, causing a lower tax base and fewer services for new and old residents alike. Neel describes people who, like he himself, are oft en driven there by "the twin gravities of wages and debts" and who experience economic exploitation as a series of "rents;" Neel uses that term in the Marxist sense to mean taxes, land rent, and interest on debt (43). Drawing parallels between the residents and the land, Neel argues that this is a system in decline—that exploitation and crisis are not temporary, but enduring. Hinterland's purpose, however, is not doom-saying. Neel turns an encounter with a fox who made its den in a tangle of sagebrush into a metaphor for possible responses to the "Long Crisis" he describes: "In those eyes was a reminder that despite the mundane world-breaking driven by price and profit, worlds could still be born, linked together, made to bloom—that even when the economy seemed to have reached an unprecedented expanse, it was driven by a crisis that forced its very core constantly to decay, interstices opening within the cycles of accumulation and devastation" (51).

In the Southwest, the communities blooming in these interstices are right-wing ones, whose members comprise the so-called Patriot Movement. In the Midwest, the long-term deindustrialization of St. Louis and the imposition of dehumanizing fines and fees on its poor residents—focused disproportionately on the area's black population—resulted in the protests following Michael Brown's murder by the Ferguson police. Neel traveled to Ferguson with a group of Occupy veterans to observe the formation of riots in the hinterland space. His observations there contribute to Hinterland's thesis that twenty-first-century...