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Empire's Tracks

A conversation on decolonization and imperialism in the U.S. with Manu Karuka
By Manu Karuka |
JANUARY 29, 2020

Photo courtesy of AAWW
Manu Karuka is the author of Empire's Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (University of California Press, 2019). He is a co-editor, with Juliana Hu Pegues and Alyosha Goldstein, of “On Colonial Unknowing,” a special issue of Theory & Event, and with Vivek Bald, Miabi Chatterji, and Sujani Reddy, he is a co-editor of The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power (NYU Press, 2013). His work appears in Critical Ethnic Studies, J19, Settler Colonial Studies, The Settler Complex: Recuperating Binarism in Colonial Studies (UCLA American Indians Studies Center, 2016, edited by Patrick Wolfe), and Formations of United States Colonialism (Duke University Press, 2014, edited by Alyosha Goldstein). Karuka is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Barnard College.

Books are often attempts to make the reader think about a big idea in a new way. What idea is at the heart of your book and what new way would you like people to think about it?

The core concept behind Empire’s Tracks is imperialism. We have become accustomed to thinking of imperialism in cultural, ideological, or political terms. In Empire's Tracks, I define imperialism as the nexus of war and finance capital. The capital to build the transcontinental railroad, for example, resulted from the sale of shares in land grants that were bestowed by the US Congress (in violation of treaties Congress had signed with Indian nations). Because these land grants were illegal, and because they granted land which was, at the time, mostly empty of existing US settlements or infrastructure (although rich in indigenous habitation), construction proceeded through collaboration with the US Army, which protected railroad work crews. At the same time, the Army saw the railroad as a way to facilitate the conquest and occupation of indigenous lands. I aim to provide a way to understand the history of North America through the lens of imperialism, the war-finance nexus. I want to present a historical perspective on North America that emphasizes imperialism (as a process and relationship) rather than nationalism. Correspondingly, I want to suggest a framework for progressive and liberation struggles in North America as anti-imperialist struggles, and not as struggles to reform or redefine national inclusion or national rights.

Is there anything in your personal life or that of someone you know that inspired you to care about this topic?

I began graduate school in September 2001, in New York. In the weeks after 9/11, amidst talk of national unity, amidst the whispers of friends and relatives disappearing, there was an impulse to focus on what was exceptional about South Asians, Muslims, and Arabs. I was driven, instead, to broaden the analysis, to focus not on the racial categories themselves, but on the processes of capitalism and imperialism which produce those categories. For example, 9/11 occurred during a recession in the US economy. The ensuing surveillance, detentions, and deportations in Arab, Muslim, and South Asian communities took place during a contraction of the US economy. Immigrant workers, ranging from service, agriculture, airport security, healthcare, and information technology, were particularly vulnerable to layoffs during these weeks. The particular racial categories which made people vulnerable to surveillance, detention, deportation, and vigilante violence, emerged in a specific political and economic context. This impulse to broaden the analysis raised questions for me, about relationships between the exclusion and expulsion of racial aliens, and of indigenous peoples, from the space of the nation. The book began with those questions.

What did you learn while researching or writing that surprised you?

In Empire’s Tracks, I describe imperialism as the nexus of war and finance. I was surprised by how war and finance capitalism are so closely linked, each feeding and sustaining the other. For example, after the Civil War, the US military was larger than it had ever been. It had been funded by New York banks, which channeled small investments from Midwestern farmers. After the war, this newly massive military apparatus did not disband, and these investments did not dissolve. Instead, they sought new outlets and new openings, driving US expansion over Indigenous lands west of the Mississippi River.

For someone who might not be interested in this book’s specific topic, why should they still read this and what do you hope they will get out of it?

Picture, in your mind, the map of the United States of America. There is nothing inevitable about these borders. They are the result of contested histories. The transcontinental railroad, as a core infrastructure of the economics, politics, and culture of the post-Civil War United States, was itself the product of such contested histories. If these borders are not natural or inevitable, they are not permanent. We can govern our collective lives in a different way than we currently do. Close attention to these histories can suggest pathways to different futures.

What resonance do you think your book has for parts of the South Asian diaspora, per se?

I understand South Asian as a political identity. To identify as South Asian is to refuse the legacies of partition. It is, in other words, a commitment to the unfinished process of decolonization. I want to urge a commitment to decolonization in the places where we live (North America, for example), as well as in southern Asia. Decolonization, which at heart entails the return of land to the colonized, is a real demand across North America. The development of a fracking industry, and a corresponding pipeline network, has been one of the most transformative developments in the US and Canada in the past two decades. Many of the oilfields where fracking takes place, and much of the territory that pipelines pass through (or are projected to pass through) are on indigenous lands. Indigenous peoples, fighting for their land rights, are fighting some of the most important struggles against the fossil fuels industry on this continent. This was, of course, perhaps most visible at Standing Rock. Those of us who identify as South Asians, I would suggest, are taking on an identification with the unfinished process of decolonization here in North America. This commitment is at the heart of Empire’s Tracks.

So many people want to write a book but it feels daunting. What advice did you receive that really helped you in the writing process or what advice would you have for new authors?

More than anything, finishing Empire’s Tracks was a process of coming to confidence about my arguments, and about the best ways I could find of communicating them. I came to that confidence through a relentless process of revisions, on the one hand, and through collaboration, on the other. I was lucky and grateful to have many of the intellectuals who most influenced my thinking read and comment on the book as it was in process. I would advise any new authors take confidence in your work, and in its value.

If there is some social or cultural or political change that could come about from people reading your book, however large or small, what would you like that to be?

I believe that the development of a broad anti-imperialist front in North America is of the highest urgency. This requires us to develop a shared clarity about the history and structure of imperialism in North America, and the way it interacts with the rest of the world. I hope my work can contribute to that process.

What books would you suggest readers turn to in order to learn more?

Empire’s Tracks engages the intellectual and political legacies of W.E.B. Du Bois. In particular, it engages the arguments of his magisterial Black Reconstruction, a text which provides a history and a blueprint for revolutionary transformation in North America. I think that Black Reconstruction should be studied carefully, repeatedly, and collectively.

What is your next big project?

I have begun working on a book that thinks about imperialist tactics, and anti-imperialist strategies. It will move from Cuba, to Iraq, to South Africa, and back to North America. In Empire’s Tracks, I studied how imperialism happened. In this new work, I am focused on how we can defeat it.

Manu Karuka is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Barnard College.