Empire’s Tracks is driven by this question: What would a genuine anti-imperialism look like from the vantage of North America? I understand imperialism as a form of class rule, arising through the centralization of finance capital (the union of industrial and banking capital) into cartels, which control wide swaths of the economy, thereby suspending the principle of economic competition that is supposedly so central to bourgeois society. In this process, competition over territory replaces economic competition, leading to war.
My question is not a new one. The field that would become institutionalized as ethnic studies was forged amid a historic upsurge of anti-imperialist solidarity in North America against US wars of aggression in Southeast Asia.1 I have found that answering this question pulls me back to earlier work. For example, considering the relationship between the Opium Wars and Chinese migrations to California, which was then undergoing a particularly vicious colonization, involves engaging prior scholarship in Asian American history.2 As Amy Lee suggests, focusing on imperialism in North America can draw our attention to wider geographies. It can draw attention to particular infrastructures of capital and labor mobility that establish linkages across these geographies. I agree that this approach to the study of history can be a compelling resource for raising questions about collective relationships in and with land in the present. Moreover, I agree that thinking about relationships can mitigate tendencies toward despair amid conditions of generalized and deepening ecological, political, and economic crisis. Focusing on the contradictions of imperialism, as Lee suggests, can help us fulfill collective commitments to achieve an end to imperialism as surely as those in previous generations worked tirelessly, with incredible courage and discipline, toward the same goal.
Understanding imperialism as class rule provides further focus to my core question. As opposed to definitions of imperialism that rest on culture, psychology, or power in itself, an understanding of imperialism as class rule raises questions about class formations and class exploitation within racialized and oppressed communities. As Denise Khor traces out, the life of Chin Gee Hee, a railroad worker who was able to rise to the status of a labor contractor and merchant for railroad and coal-mining companies, might provide some answers to these questions. Chin’s history gives glimpses into experiences of racist violence, into the tensions between mutual aid and exploitation within Chinese diasporic communities in the Pacific Northwest and how these experiences of racist violence, mutual aid, and exploitation in turn shaped some of the larger currents of Chinese nationalism.
What kinds of relationships does anti-imperialism foster and reproduce? This is at heart a pedagogical question. In his last book, translated into English as Pedagogy of Freedom, Paulo Freire argued that the task of critical pedagogy is the development of an “epistemology of curiosity” among students and teachers, against an “immobilizing ideology of fatalism . . . which insists that we can do nothing to change the march of social-historical and cultural reality because that is how the world is anyway.”3 Sandy Grande’s deeply moving reading of the pedagogical impulses behind Empire’s Tracks exemplifies an epistemology of curiosity. In the Indigenous modes of relationship that she charts, Grande provides us with a set of terms that might cohere some core aspects of anti-imperialism as a mode of relationship: restoration, accountability, interconnection, collectivity, expansiveness, relinquishment, dispersion, giving, heterogeneity, and enhancing the conditions for more life in a place.
Anjali Nath draws out the work of specificity on the level of tense and temporality. Charting a genuine anti-imperialism from a North American vantage point necessitates precision about the relationships between the past and the present. In critiquing exceptionalist ideologies, I have aimed for historical and geographical specificity, precisely to draw out larger patterns and unanticipated connections. What “strange and terrible resonance,” in her sharp words, can we glimpse across histories and geographies? To assess the possibilities for a genuine anti-imperialism in North America, she maintains, requires that we understand how imperialism is at work beyond the confines of the US or the West—drawing connections, for example, between the occupation of Kashmir and the occupation of the northern plains. Solidarity and internationalism animate the heartbeat of any sustained answer to the question of anti-imperialism.
We are living amid a rightward shift in the Western hemisphere that directly targets the leadership of Indigenous peoples, landless workers, and the poor. This rightward shift ossifies borders, hardening systems of racist policing and xenophobia. This rightward shift has been accomplished by Christian fanatics in alliance with local and international finance capital, the police, and the military. Studying imperialism requires us to ask certain questions: In what direction is the situation moving? Do I support that direction? Will the changes enhance the liberation of oppressed nations, workers, and the dispossessed? I think of anti-imperialism is a kinship of ideas and practice.4 Who do I claim as my kin in ideas and in practice?
If imperialism is a form of class rule, anti-imperialism is also a class politics. Studying anti-imperialism requires us to study the conditions both of work and of the reproduction of labor, as Jaskiran Dhillon writes so movingly of her uncle in the International Coal and Coke mines in Coleman, Alberta. What does it mean to work in a coal mine? How does it shape a relationship to the land—the land of the mine and the land of daily life? At the heart of anti-imperialism are two interrelated projects: building and sustaining working-class internationalism, on the one hand; and assessing the most progressive alliances between the working class and other classes, on the other. I understand working-class internationalism as a mode of relationship. What kinds of relationships are reproduced through our practical analysis of anti-imperialism? This question continues to drive my work. In this sense, we might understand a book as a collective thing, a dispatch from a future we would like to make present.
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 coeditor, 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 coeditor of The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power (New York University Press, 2013). He is an assistant professor of American studies at Barnard College.
1. Gary Okihiro, Third World Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 7–8.
2. For example, see June Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration: Guangdong to California, 1850–1882,” in Labor Immigration under Capitalism: Asian Immigrant Workers in the United States before World War II, ed. Lucie Cheng and Edna Bonacich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 219–47.
3. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), 26–27.
4. I take this phrase from Amita Kanekar, A Spoke in the Wheel (New Delhi: Navayana, 2015).