Wageless Life

By Sarah BrouilletteOctober 27, 2018

Wageless Life

Hinterland by Phil A. Neel

PHIL A. NEEL’S Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict contributes to what is by now a good body of research tracking the collapse of the postwar economic order and the return of global economic turbulence and crisis. Research by the Endnotes and Chuang collectives and in the pages of Sic journal and books such as Golden Gulag (2007), Riot. Strike. Riot (2016), and Dead Pledges (2018), study how fundamentally economic decline has determined our social and political moment.

Though there is inevitable disagreement on particulars, a common jumping-off point across the field is Robert Brenner’s account, detailed in The Economics of Global Turbulence (2006), of a postwar boom period of prosperity lasting roughly from the 1940s through to 1973, a downturn beginning in the mid-1960s, and then a persistently fallow period after 1973, characterized by growing economic turbulence and what Brenner describes as reduced economic dynamism. In this last period, low demand for labor has led to a worldwide decline in wages and in secure full-time employment more broadly. In attempting to manage this situation, governments have taken on more and more debt, and have periodically undertaken reforms such as the elimination of some kinds of state-based social protections and programs. These reforms have ultimately deepened and spread immiseration and uncertainty yet further.

Neel has experienced much of what he charts. As a child, he lived in a trailer in the Siskiyou Mountains. His employment history is fitful and itinerant. He has been in riots and in jail cells. Now a geography grad student at the University of Washington, he has adopted a research program that is affiliated with the website Ultra-com.org, which states: “We have been farm workers, dishwashers, soldiers, waitresses. Today we are ultras — a name we use to designate those who have been transformed by the recent crises and the sequence of riots, blockades, occupations and strikes that followed. Ultras are the segment of generation fucked that has begun to realize that the world as it presently exists in untenable.” They link to Endnotes, Sic, and Chuang, as well as to Viewpoint Magazine and Commune Editions.

We can call this movement the ultra-left, and Hinterland is a manifesto for it. It maintains that the periods of economic “recovery” that have emerged amid overall decline have incorporated decreasing numbers of workers into secure employment, while concentrating populations in shrinking urban cores — in cities like Seattle, whose fringes Neel has lived on. Beyond these relatively prosperous centers are the “hinterlands,” where Neel was raised. Here, people exist mainly in fitful relation to anything like waged work, relying instead on jobs in the informal sector, on black-market activity, and often on temporary employment afforded by government programs. The hinterland isn’t rural in any conventional sense. Instead, it is the site of industrial farms, power generation sites, and logistics hubs. Resources continue to be extracted, developed, and managed across it. Neel describes it as a “disavowed, distributed core” — a sort of hidden abode, where the service sector and the “FIRE” industries (of finance, insurance, and real estate) that define the urban center find their integral foundations in massive operations of highly automated food and energy production. We all know a ton about the Googleplex, but do you know where the data centers are, or who works to maintain them?

Part of what Neel tracks is just how deeply people in the hinterlands depend now on federally funded programs for employment: in forest and land management, in school districts and health-care systems maintained by federal aid, or in farming that is sustained by subsidized government purchases. The amount spent on fire suppression — more than half of forest service spending in 2015 — is grimly telling: the hinterlands are where “productive industries have largely been replaced by an ever-losing battle against our epoch’s colliding catastrophes.” This battle is often state-backed, as politicians seek to mitigate disaster and keep people in work.

In this respect, Hinterland bears reading alongside work on taxation and social policy that emerged in the 1970s — work like Stuart Hall’s or Claus Offe’s, which arose to address the dire economic situation of the time and the state legitimacy crises that followed from it. Offe argued that modern state policy is first and foremost a set of scripts to address the problem of social integration of workers. In much liberal state theory, in contrast, part of good government’s work is to check the excesses of capitalism while making sure it continues along. When the state fails to check capitalism, something is supposedly amiss. From a perspective like Neel’s, however, which is one of anti-state communism, capitalism is itself always the problem. By occasionally managing its effects, the state helps to keep an inherently destructive system afloat in ways that never benefit very many of the world’s people. In the contemporary period, these efforts seem more and more destined to visibly fail. A population only fitfully employed can be hard to manage. Policing, border security, imprisonment — none of this is cheap, especially for a government weighed down by unfathomable debt. And this isn’t even to mention the cost of old age security and disability benefits. More and more, the state has come to be burdened with the task of managing the unwaged and the structurally unemployed at exactly the same time that it does not have the resources it needs to do the job.

Hall wrote about “policing the crisis,” to emphasize that a population suffering economic hardship is more likely to encounter the state as an iron fist than a warm embrace. Taking Hinterland as our guide, the difference between then and now is the deepening of wageless life, social despair, and the state’s decreasing capacity to manage increasing needs. In Neel’s account, state programs afford only a tiny bulwark against the slow decline of full employment, a decline that he takes to be inexorable: “[T]hose within the hinterland will increasingly be thrown into a condition of survival on the edge of the wage relation, mirrored by their sequestration at the geographic edge.”

Fallout from this process is profoundly shaping the American political scene. Neel’s account emphasizes hinterland towns as the grounds for the resurgent right. New rightist movements favor getting “back to the land” while devolving control away from federal programs to limited communities. These communities are defined by exclusion of nonwhites, immigrants, “foreigners,” anyone who can be construed as not “original” to the American project. They circulate masculinist fantasies of autonomous survival, in which violence will be perpetrated “in the name of a wholesome, salvific order-to-come.” They involve landholders, business owners, police, and former soldiers, but recruit from “zones of abject white poverty,” and prey on the feeling of having been thrown off the course of one’s natural, superior white destiny via a marked change in fortune.

Where this new wave of rightists feels underserved by the federal government, and is poor and in debt, they are ready to be persuaded that taxes and fees are a kind of exploitation and are open to embracing alternative offers of self-reliant community-building and support. Neel is no enemy of self-reliant communities and anti-state movements, but he rejects their being built upon racist exclusions and white supremacy. Whiteness continues to be disproportionately linked to wealth in the United States, but racist community leaders make poor rural whites feel as though they are somehow uniquely deprived. They will point, for instance, to social programs that exist to support refugees and new immigrants, and then ask why “real Americans” are left to work out, alone, the challenges of itinerant work and un- and underemployment. (Such racist narratives are, of course, fantastically tendentious, given how massively anti-immigrant the United States has generally been, and how much government aid supports the survival of these “real Americans.”)

These apparent contradictions are in fact integral to the whole operation. By fighting taxation, right-wing community leaders help to increase government debt and incapacity yet further, even though many of the poor rural whites whose loyalties they want to secure rely on the state for jobs. The conditions they lament are the same ones that they build their strength upon. And so, as hinterland towns hover constantly on the brink of bankruptcy, paramilitary groups like the Oath Keepers offer community preparedness and disaster-response courses. They encourage, in Neel’s words, forming “community watches and full-blown militias as parallel government,” while protecting those who fund their operations: small businesses, ranchers and other property holders, and extractive industries. Rightist patriot-style politics address real experiences of poverty and debt, however incoherently; they present such experiences as problems of land management created by the selfishness of wealthy urban elites and by an incompetent federal government that cannot manage the tax dollars it continues to collect.

What about the political left? In Neel’s account, it is made up of people who are committed to the idea that, even within capitalism, things can still get better — that we just need to elect more effective and more humane governments that are committed to spreading the wealth that capitalism produces. They protect the ideals of democratic elections and gradual change achieved through persistent agitation for reform. Neel subsumes these leftists into an overarching “Party of Order.” It is a willfully capacious category that includes anyone who “opposes both the extreme left and the extreme right” — anyone for whom “the problem is ‘extremism’ as such.” They are against riot and insurrection, in favor of administrated reforms. They favor peaceful protest, even in the face of the most obvious acts of direct violence, such as police and rightist militias conspiring to kill people. They think that we can marshal facts to win fights, and so hold on to the ideal of free speech even for fascists — going so far as to invite them to headline festivals of ideas, as we have just seen with Steve Bannon’s short-lived tenure as headliner of The New Yorker Festival. They believe that with fuller knowledge, people will achieve right thinking. (The last time I visited a US college campus I spotted a “Make America Think Again” bumper sticker.)

To the extent that they believe that the ship can be righted and set back on course, with profits distributed more justly, they miss the truths of rising rates of un- and underemployment, increasingly permanent ejection from regular waged employment, competitive automation, and declining rates of profit. They do not think that conditions have fundamentally changed in ways that make agitating for more and better jobs untenable, nor that the very existence of the institution of wage labor may have always been itself a major problem. Neel’s eviscerating account of their purview suggests that the new right is, in contrast, perhaps grasping something that the Party of Order isn’t: that people have already shifted their allegiance away from government and toward self-reliant networks that they hope can help meet their basic needs. The new right’s problem and crucial mistake is their retreat into racist and xenophobic communalism.

We arrive, then, at Neel’s preferred alternative: the “Party of Anarchy.” Against the resurgent right, the Party of Anarchy offers an inclusive allegiance: water, not blood. It is allied with the abject, and against anything but the fullest universalization of the results of active struggle. It is committed to overcoming capitalism’s “material community of separation,” which produces so many isolated souls who lack sustaining connection in ways that Neel argues make them even more vulnerable to xenophobic appeals. Fidelity to overcoming this separation is what defines the Party of Anarchy, and nothing else: no other inscribed identity and no other allegiance. It is defined not by a political platform or program (those are for the Party of Order) but by what Neel calls “a reflective fidelity to the unrest itself […] [an] inclusive, flowing unity of those who wish to push the rift open, to spread it further, to extend it longer, or to ensure that the potential spreads.”

It is evocative language, but not groundless. Neel sees potential that grew and will continue to grow in riots and blockades and gatherings in city squares, in the Occupy movement, in actions against police murders. These are sites of identification and community development, strengthening new bonds against state violence, against capitalism’s worsening immiserating effects, and against right-wing communalisms that are racist, nativist, gender normative, and much else. For Neel there is an inevitability about the deepening of the conditions that these movements address. As the economy deteriorates further, and government debt grows, the Party of Anarchy will swell its ranks. But so will the resurgent right. Reformist political projects that attempt to improve social conditions through elections and government programs will meanwhile continue to falter. If this is the case, why not devote ourselves to hastening capitalism’s demise and building the kinds of alternative communities that might survive it?

Though most deeply engaged with the American situation, Neel compares it to China’s, and recounts time he spent traveling by train with Chinese workers shunted between stimulus-fed worksites in cities built, populated, and abandoned in increasingly rapid cycles. It is common to describe China as the new global hegemon, busily incorporating new workers and replacing the United States in the task of keeping the global economy afloat. But Neel’s take on China’s economic dominance accords with the Chuang collective’s, which he draws upon: the Chinese economy will follow the overwhelmingly evident global pattern, lurching toward informalization and rising rates of superfluity. The economic growth fueling China’s expanding global lending and development regime required a massive proletarianization of the Chinese population, forcing people to abandon relatively rural enclaves and migrate to cities to find poorly waged work. How to assuage the unrest that results when jobs are lost, but people can no longer depend on escape to their villages as refuge, and can’t find more work with ease? Well, the Chinese government can afford economic stimulus, job creation via public works, and some concessions to workers’ demands, in no small part because of its international lending and development activities. It is the market of note for other countries’ debts.

This is a shaky economic foundation for a global hegemon. As is true globally, the workers Neel traveled with by train haven’t been incorporated into the kind of workforce that characterized the United States in the 1950s, or Britain in the 1890s. Fewer and fewer souls are needed to achieve higher rates of productive efficiency. Instead, while land is developed and resources extracted, workers are only fitfully and partially exploited, in temporary arrangements and short-term projects that fail to provide them with much material benefit, motivation, or futurity. Chuang argues that, as a result, the features characterizing the surplus population — informal work, precarious work, itinerant work, illegal work, reliance on black market goods — “become relatively ‘normal’ characteristics of the laboring population as a whole.” This is development without development, modernization without modernity.

One can’t help but notice how little faith Neel and his allies have in the new economic engines that are supposed to save us — the knowledge industries, and the rapidly expanding service sector. These are instead presented as deeply dependent on a foundational economy of productive work that will only continue to deteriorate. For the knowledge-worker whose expertise is in things like advertising and digital media production, their work is helping to move product — sneakers and smartphones. As Neel wrote in a 2015 article on Nike’s commodity chain: “[B]ullshitting is one of the few skills that hasn’t yet been fully automated.”

For those in the culture and tourism trades, their industry is about disposable income, and disposable income requires the ongoing accumulation of wealth. China’s richer global cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing, boast some of the world’s most lavish creative quarters and respected creative-economy boosters (the M50 Art District and the 798 Art Zone, respectively). Here you find high-paying jobs in creative, heritage, and tourism sectors, including of course marketing and commercial design. There are cultural workers as well in what the Chuang collective describes as the “vast state-funded, semi-speculative complexes of welfare and middle-income service work, most visible in the education, healthcare and ‘non-profit’ industries.” Neel sees the same thing in US cities like Portland and Seattle, which attract highly educated people not because they simply love the aura of creativity, but also because they hope to find some way to earn enough there to pay off their enormous student loans. In relatively elite enclaves like these, you can call yourself a self-employed contract-based flex-worker and take a job designing new sneaker lines or working in an art gallery. Or you can, like Neel himself, “re-attach yourself to the massive welfare structure of some university as a lab tech, adjunct or ‘grad student.’”

As for the expanding service sector — it accounts for something like 80 percent of private employment in the United States, and 45 percent and growing in China — most of its jobs are underpaid and precarious by nature. Jason Smith recently described, in a 2017 article in The Brooklyn Rail, the service sector as one in which, by definition, “labor processes can only be formally organized along capitalist lines.” Personal grooming services, restaurant work, eldercare and childcare: these can only be automated to a point. They pay poorly because, in the absence of other ways to economize or rationalize the work, keeping wages low is one of the only ways of securing profits and keeping the price reasonably affordable to enough people. It all depends fundamentally on other people continuing to have money to spend on services. How long can it be sustained?

Hinterland is about just how pressing this question is. No book is perfect, of course, and this one isn’t for everybody. Some readers will no doubt find Neel’s style too generalizing, too roaming and unsystematic, weaving between personal travelogue, expressive manifesto, and more academic methods of human geography. But it is, whatever else, simply bracing. It is easy enough in my cozy state-supported Canadian research enclave to ignore how my working life is connected to a bankrupt town in the US hinterland or to the Chinese proletarian traveling to wherever the jobs have gone. But Neel makes the unifying, underlying dynamics hard to deny — dynamics of dwindling state resources, growing demands stemming from unfolding climate catastrophe and rising superfluity, and deepening threats to government capacity and legitimacy. This is stark terrain that too few scholars glimpse with any clarity. Its implications are massive.


Sarah Brouillette is a professor in the English Language and Literature Department at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

LARB Contributor

Sarah Brouillette is a professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of two books, Postcolonial Writers in the Global Literary Marketplace (Palgrave, 2007) and Literature and the Creative Economy (Stanford University Press, 2014), and one forthcoming on UNESCO.


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