The history of the transcontinental railroad is a process of “continental imperialism.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Manu Karuka. Karuka is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Barnard College. His book is Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Manu Karuka: Empire’s Tracks provides an anti-imperialist perspective on the second half of the nineteenth century, an era that is remembered as the high point of liberal imperialism. It is also remembered as a period of rapidly expanding U.S. infrastructure, military occupation, and capital claims over Indigenous nations west of the Mississippi River. It is remembered as a period of transition from a U.S. economy centered around chattel slavery, to a new racial regime that emerged in reaction to experiments in Black freedom. And it is remembered as a period of large-scale exploitation of Chinese labor in tandem with the development of a politics of Chinese exclusion from North America. Thinking about slavery, colonialism, and capitalism as co-constitutive, I refer to this process as “continental imperialism.” Close attention to this history can help us remember that none of these outcomes was foreordained, that these processes of colonialism and racist reaction were deeply contested at every turn.
In our own day, a century and a half after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, we are living within a structural malaise of contemporary imperialism. Amidst ecological devastation, the renewal of mass politics of revanchist racism, alongside the intensification of attacks on Indigenous communities, and the hardening of Northern borders against people fleeing the effects of imperialist violence in the South, the perspective offered in Empire’s Tracks might help solidify a shared understanding of the historical roots of the current imperialist crisis.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope that Empire’s Tracks can help buttress the centrality of anti-imperialism to people’s movements in North America. We have become accustomed to speak of imperialism as cultural or ideological domination. In Empire’s Tracks, I analyze imperialism as the nexus of war and finance capital. The U.S. military and the transcontinental railroad companies directly coordinated military occupation with railroad construction, as predicates for the capitalization of land grants over unceded Indigenous lands. The business and strategy of war, I argue, feeds and in turn is fed by, the ascendancy of finance capital,and the repeated and escalating crises that it unleashes upon the world. This was true in the late nineteenth century, and it is true in our own era as well.
North America is the space of hundreds of colonized nations, not the space of liberal nation-states. Already, by the third quarter of the nineteenth century in North America, we can see the centralization of capital, the formation of cartels, and competition between cartels leading to constant civilian-targeted warfare. Continental imperialism did not end with the supposed “closing of the frontier.” It is a structural, ongoing feature of capitalism in North America. The calcification of borders along racial lines developed out of the large-scale exploitation of Chinese railroad workers. Racist violence, alongside the formation of a Chinese merchant class in California, acted as labor control valves, helping to drive down the costs of Chinese labor. Working class white advocates of Chinese exclusion misplaced their critique of corporations, while Chinese American merchant critics of Chinese exclusion sought full participant status in the colonization of North America.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
If there is a single ideology I hope that Empire’s Tracks will help readers un-learn, it is the ideology of U.S. nationalism. When we invoke a national history, a national economy, a national culture, or national territory, we obfuscate the essential truth that the United States is, in the first and primary instance, an imperial formation. This is perhaps most clear from the vantage of Indigenous history and politics. For example, the U.S. expanded over the Platte River by asserting control over the Pawnee nation. Missionaries from the U.S. decried what they saw as the degraded status of Pawnee women, and the U.S. signed treaties promising to support the development of Pawnee agriculture. In practice, this resulted in attempts to expropriate Pawnee women’s skills, knowledge, and relationships with each other, with their communities, and with the lands that they farmed. Over decades, the U.S. effort foundered, and Pawnee women continued to farm the great bulk of Pawnee lands. U.S. assertions of control and primacy over Pawnee, and other Indigenous lands, remain unsettled in the present day, backed, in the final instance, by the threat of force. To contest the culture of war within the U.S., we must contest the idea of the U.S. as a nation-state.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
We are fortunate to be living amidst a great flourishing of Indigenous feminist critique. The work of Joanne Barker, Jodi Byrd, Mishuana Goeman, and Audra Simpson, in particular, has shaped my thinking. In Empire’s Tracks, I turn to the ways that Ella Deloria, Sarah Winnemucca, and Winona LaDuke theorized the production and reproduction of distinct kinds of relationships. Reading their work can help clarify the specific kinds of relationships that imperialism produces, namely: mass destruction, partition, and isolation.
W.E.B. Du Bois, along with Lenin, provided the basis for my analysis of continental imperialism in North America. Their work can help clarify the inherent tendency of imperialism towards catastrophic war. Like so many others, I am a student of Black Reconstruction: the apex of U.S. historical writing, the most significant analysis of North American history within a context of international class struggle, and the blueprint for a multiracial working class movement to win concrete victories like universal literacy, an end to malnutrition, healthcare and housing for all. Du Bois discussed the twin availability of free labor and free land as predicates for U.S. expansion, and he discussed new forms of collective governance that arose out of the collective resistance of Black and white workers. These insights shape my understanding of the politics of decolonization.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
The history of the transcontinental railroad, like the history of North America more broadly, has been framed through the perspective of liberal nationalism. This is a distortion. By understanding these histories in the context of imperialism, we might concretize our understanding of relationships that can connect Indigenous and anti-racist struggles in North America, with the mass movements of workers and peasants in the global South. Rethinking history in this way might help us forge more powerfully capacious forms of internationalism and solidarity for the present moment.
Mindful of Indigenous critiques, I am cautious about calls to build a new world, which can (even inadvertently) deepen existing structures of imperialism. The history of anti-imperialism teaches us that people can rapidly turn the existing abundance of knowledge and material towards the ends of a flourishing social life. This is a way to more deeply establish our relationships and responsibilities with the places where we live, a core element of Indigenous critique. Empire’s Tracks is driven by a belief that the unfinished project of decolonization illuminates the path ahead for humanity.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.