Not yet midway through Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad, Manu Karuka writes, “This is the war-finance nexus. The United States, as it appears in the Pacific Railway Act, was not a place, or a set of a relationships in a place. It was, more precisely, a set of threats about what would be done in and to the places it described.”1 My short reflection on Karuka’s work begins with this quote to clarify that Empire’s Tracks presents far more than a history of the railroad. Karuka retells the railroad as a reckoning with racial capitalism from the standpoint of its victims and resisters. The quotation above, like so many others in the book, can be excerpted as a reflection in and of itself: The United States . . . not a place . . . more precisely, a set of threats. Perhaps at its most simplified, you may characterize Karuka’s work as a history of the militarized making of the transcontinental railroad between the corporation, the Chinese who built it, and the Indigenous people and lands who opposed its aggression. But from this particular story of the antagonism between labor and capital springs forth a panoramic view of the ideas and practices that animate American history in general.
Despite its unique intervention and elegant prose, Karuka’s book is, by his own admission, not singular; rather, it emerges from broad and deep conversations about the imbrications of imperialism and race, colonization and infrastructure, and empire and capitalism that have long occupied critical observers of US history, like W. E. B. Du Bois. Karuka’s history moves between past and present seamlessly, rejecting a linear view of historical time and moving between multiple temporalities. The prose itself reflects his approach. In his description of Cheyenne defense against the United States, he writes, “U.S. Countersovereignty feints the originary position, on theological grounds, but the United States is always reacting to Indigenous modes of relationship, which already exist (and continue to persist) in the ‘homeland’ of continental imperialism.”2 Writing in the present tense, Karuka often describes the contours and effects of imperialism’s past and present within the same paragraph, laying bare the links between the history he narrates and our world today. But further, by focusing on modes of relationship (rather than simply modes of production or sociality), Karuka’s project assesses the project of America through the lives of people and places who live and lived before, against, and through it. In his careful analysis of the corporate and military sources of its making, Karuka denaturalizes the idea of America. It becomes impossible to conceive of America outside of American lawfare, as a series of threats lingering somewhere: America as an imperialist project, produced over and over by the force of law. Karuka denaturalizes America not only by his aforementioned reconsideration of established national chronology but also through a confrontation with imperial geography. The striking maps produced for the book by Elsa Matossian Hoover reveal a new way of seeing the United States, one where Indigenous sovereignty is circumscribed by law, permeated with violence, and linked indelibly to Africa and Asia.
One crucial area of scholarship that has much to learn from Empire’s Tracks is the critical study of militarism and war. As a theoretical treatise, Karuka’s work intervenes both directly and indirectly in critical militarization studies, but it does so as an intensely internationalist intellectual project that refuses academic silos and the production of exclusory expertise. Present studies of militarism are often undergirded by both a technofetishism that privileges the process of dispossession and a focus on the newness of permanent war in the age inaugurated by the events of September 11, 2001. That is to say, this work focuses on the militarization of American society rather than American society as militarization. The latter formulation would emerge from countersovereignty, as Karuka terms it—the United States as a consistent and aggressive response to Indigenous modes of relation. Among the concepts that drive the book’s argument is what Karuka refers to as the “war-finance nexus,” as in the quotation I open this review with. Karuka summons this concept like a poetic refrain throughout his carefully researched descriptions of countersovereignty’s violence. “This is the war-finance nexus,” Empire’s Tracks asserts repeatedly.3 The epilogue of the book reckons with the imperial sovereignty of the United States in the past two decades and the ascendance of permanent war as a fact of modern life.4 Working backward from Karuka’s forward-looking conclusion, we might understand the book as a treatise on the longue durée of American war, tracing the war-finance nexus through railroad colonialism of settlers in North America and of British colonizers in South Asia. To write this history, Empire’s Tracks both mobilizes the history of infrastructure in the relief of global capitalism and theoretically draws upon the scholars who, in various contexts, theorized the politics of both colonial rule and insurgency against it.
Drawing on the theoretical contributions of Indigenous anticolonial feminism of Ella Deloria, Winona LaDuke, and Sarah Winnemucca, Empire’s Tracks formulates an internationalist and international history that demands white settler activity be understood through the modes of relation it reacted to, suspended, and destroyed. With the United States as his case study, Karuka also draws upon and revises influential theories of colonial rule from beyond North America. In particular, Empire’s Tracks engages the contributions of the Subaltern Studies school of Indian historiography, which emerged in the early 1980s in response to the movements of workers and peasants in the decades prior, including the Naxalite insurgency in West Bengal and the massive 1974 rail workers’ strike. The Subalternists produced a body of historical work on the colonial and early nationalist period in India that was critical of both liberal nationalism and the official historiography of the Communist Party of India. Exposing the lies that dwell in the settler colonial rumor, Karuka draws attention to Indigenous and Chinese modes of relation by revising the Subaltern school’s methodological approach to the colonial archive, which celebrated the rumor as the subversive voice of an insurgent peasantry. Indeed, his first chapter, “The Prose of Countersovereignty,” pays homage to Ranajit Guha’s 1983 essay “The Prose of Counterinsurgency.”5 However, unlike in the case of Guha’s British India, Karuka argues that a “critical historiography of continental imperialism would necessarily participate in rumor control rather than rumor interpretation.”6 The rumors of countersovereignty that proliferated among Nevadan settlers constituted repeated attempts to legitimize their invasion of Native lands. Rumors—indeed, lies—served the colonizer, not the colonized. Karuka’s acts of colonial comparison continue into his final chapter, on the stakes of anti-imperialism in North America today, which draws on the French Egyptian theorist of capitalism and underdevelopment Samir Amin and the Indian Marxist economists Amin Prabhat and Utsa Patnaik.
In the Sacramento Valley where I work, local institutions have commenced celebrations to mark the 150 years since the transcontinental railroad’s completion—festivities tempered to some degree with sober acknowledgments of the railway’s racialized labor history. These respectable overtures, however well intentioned, inadvertently relegate these stories to the past and fail to confront the theft of labor and land as it lives in the present. Through Karuka’s historical materialist analysis of continental imperialism, we arrive at a clarified understanding of the war-finance nexus, of the ideological work of American law as threat. But within an insistently internationalist tradition, the critique of railroad colonialism is exclusive neither to the United States nor to the West. I end with a final reflection; as I was writing this review, the Republic of India announced a unilateral annulment of Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian constitution, which were meant to protect Kashmiri autonomy.
Even as Article 370 hardly enabled Kashmiri autonomy, its revocation marks a unilateral and aggressive seizure of Indian-occupied Kashmir. The siege of Kashmir began on August 5, 2019, with a complete curfew—Kashmiris imprisoned in their own homes, cut off from all communications networks, randomly picked up and detained. Railroad colonialism, a project throughout both North America and South Asia that Karuka so meticulously describes in his book, has a strange and terrible resonance with the current moment. Kashmir Valley was not connected to British India by rail at the time the British landscaped the subcontinent in tracks. But in the past decade and half, leg by leg, the Kashmir railway project has proceeded, moving steadily from the southern plains state of Jammu, furrowing through the Pir Panjal Himalayan range and into the valley of Kashmir.7 That is to say, the looming threat of trains from Delhi rumbling into Srinagar and all the way to Baramulla must be understood as what Karuka calls countersovereignty. As Kashmir Valley sits in present-tense siege, an open-air prison with an uncertain future nestled between nuclear states, auctioned off to Indian businesses, Karuka’s concluding words, drawn from anticolonial Indigenous feminism, resonate: “There is no alternative. Decolonization or mass extinction.”
Anjali Nath is an assistant professor in the Department of American Studies at University of California, Davis.
1. Manu Karuka, Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 67.
2. Karuka, 141.
3. This short sentence appears in the quote mentioned at the outset (Karuka, 67), during a discussion of policing and theft of Pawnee horses (112), and concerning the mobilization of settlers in the military incursions into Cheyenne lands (140).
4. Ranajit Guha, “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency,” in Selected Subaltern Studies, ed. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Spivak (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
5. Karuka, Empire’s Tracks, 6.
6. Khalood Kibria, “Occupation on Track: Rail Infrastructure in Kashmir,” Society and Space, November 2018, https://www.societyandspace.org/articles/occupation-on-track-rail-infrastructure-in-kashmir.
7. Karuka here specifically cites Ella Deloria, Sara Winemucca, and Winona LaDuke in these concluding words (Empire’s Tracks, 200). See also chapter 2, “Modes of Relationship.”