Manu Karuka’s Empire’s Tracks, a re-telling of the history of the intercontinental railroad, was published only months before the 150th anniversary of the railroad’s completion. The celebrations of the railroad as a symbol of national unity and progress are a reminder of its continued power in writing the myth of the nation, and of the importance of challenging such nation-valorizing narratives. Karuka does exactly this in his timely and provocative book, creating new ideas with which to re-examine the well-worn story of the railroad, and studying it through a broad array of distinct cases. His work also insists on reading capital projects and war-making capacities together, positioning the intercontinental railroad as the product of what he terms “the war-finance nexus.”

The book moves across geographies and concepts in nine chapters. The first three develop an impressive array of novel theoretical ideas, which he returns to elaborate on in the final chapter. Three of his fundamental concepts are woven throughout the book: “countersovereignty”, “modes of relationship”, and “continental imperialism.”

Empire’s Tracks opens with an August 1867 letter in which Charles Crocker, director of construction for the Central Pacific Railroad, describes a drop in the availability of Chinese labor. Rather than pointing to the strike which began a month earlier, he blames irrational Chinese fears, explaining that naive workers gullibly swallowed “hundreds of … ridiculous stories” (page 1) from Paiute people, in whose territory the railroad was being constructed. The continuity of labor was critical as the majority-Chinese workforce was in the process of laboriously blasting rock and laying tracks through the Sierra Nevada mountains. The construction, which depended upon a contested agreement with Paiutes and on land grants of dubious legality, was necessary to ensure financial returns to investors.

This brief vignette exemplifies several of the innovative theoretical arguments in the book. The first of these, countersovereignty, conceptually de-naturalizes the United States as a sovereign nation. Karuka argues that the development of US national sovereignty was always countersovereignty, formally defined as through relationships to the sovereignty of nations, and in practice, always reactive to indigenous life and resistance to its expansion. The regimes of legal violence that constitute countersovereignty are created to overcome obstacles to its growth, and indigenous ways of life outside of capitalism were consistently one of the greatest obstacles it faced.

The wild imaginings of the railroad executive are manifestations of their anxiety over the incomplete occupation of Native land. These anxieties illustrate Karuka’s second theoretical innovation, mode of relationship, which highlights how ways of living with and caring for land comprised a network of relationships entirely incompatible with the relationships of isolation and spatial restriction necessary for capitalism. Building explicitly from indigenous feminist scholarship, particularly the organic intellectual contributions of indigenous activist women, Karuka calls for a shift in the focus of studies of imperialism and capitalism “from the production and reproduction of capital to the production and reproduction of relationships” (page 20).

Crocker’s reliance on rumor and fantasy resonates with a third key concept, continental imperialism, which links the disparate geographies in the book. Building on scholarship in American Studies which analyzes the US as an imperial formation, Karuka points to the broader trend of railroads as imperial projects globally. A series of maps shows railroad construction as part of colonial rule throughout the world during the 19th century, revealing the extent of US un-exceptionalism. The continental in Karuka’s formulation of imperialism asserts that sites of imperial expansion are not peripheral to the nation, but in fact constitute its whole. Indigenous territory ceded and then abrogated, the California sites of arrival for Chinese migrant labor, the eastern banks and headquarters for railroad corporations; all are places where empire reproduces itself. In particular, Karuka argues that speculation is central to colonial and capitalist expansion. In rethinking U.S sovereignty and its relationship to indigenous place, he argues that both military power and the expansion of market forces rely on financial speculation, as well as speculation as a mode of colonial myth-making.

Chapters four, five, six, and seven deal with specific cases to explore how the continental imperialism of the railroad functioned differently, as it encountered different sovereignties and relationships in Chinese workers, and the Lakota, Pawnee, and Cheyenne nations. In the chapters on the three Native nations studied in the book, Karuka uses tremendous detail and archival research to write against any tendency to flatten Indigenous colonization into a single experience; reminding us that each of these nations had their own unique struggle with and against railroad colonialism.

Chapter five, “Chinese,” studies the organization of racialized violence targeting Chinese migrants. Karuka points to a set of interrelated California laws in the mid 1800s: Coolie laws restricting immigration and defining Chinese migrants through their labor status, and Indian laws formalizing debt peonage. The construction of anti-Chinese racism, then, took place alongside constructing settler anti-Indian racism.

Chapter four, “Lakota,” shows the contradictions inherent in the practice of statecraft through the what Karuka describes as “the war/finance nexus.” Organized Lakota resistance posed grave dangers of stopping the progress of the railroad company. This was resolved by the intercedence of the state through the 1851 Ft. Laramie treaty which recognized a set of Lakota rights; however, the guarantees were ignored in the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act, granting land rights to the railroad company in violation of the treaty. Here we see the story of countersovereignty: the territorialist needs of land speculators and national identity, fused together through the railroad, required military violence to achieve. After the railroad’s future was secured by military violence, it then enabled further military power on a new scale, by facilitating troop movements through Lakota land, fulfilling Sherman’s imagination of the Union Pacific “as a weapon … of genocide” (page 74).

The case of the Pawnee in chapter six demonstrates how railroad colonialism found ways to exploit the often gendered labor of care, including the generations-long build-up of fertile soil. The process of appropriation was long and contested, as “Pawnees exploited gaps and fissures in reservation control to sustain a Pawnee mode of relationship” (page 105). But their relation to the landscape transitioned from a source of value to be appropriated to a target of erasure, as Pawnee were concentrated onto a reservation. The Indian Office expedited the incorporation of Pawnee land into US financial networks as colonial administrators profited from Pawnee confinement by redirecting and appropriating annuity payments, transforming them into speculative investments.

The Cheyenne attempted to adapt to railroad colonialism, but as the railway severed their relationships to land and other nations, their mode of life became incompatible with the continental ambitions of US imperialism. Geographically positioned as “central conduits between Indigenous … and colonial trade” (page 131), the Cheyenne at first found ways to benefit from trade with the colonial state. However, after multiple gold rushes increased the desirability of their land, the US imposed the 1861 Treaty of Ft. Wise, reclaiming the vast majority of previously ceded territory. The railroad cut through the trading routes they had relied upon. The response of the Cheyenne was to form raiding parties, destroy telegraph lines, disrupt supply trains, harass forts and outpost. The Army and Union Pacific struggled to respond with overstretched resources, showing us “countersovereignty as more of a sieve than a siege,” (page 138) underscoring the anxiety that lay behind the urgency of the deployment of additional army troops.

In chapter eight, “Shareholder Whiteness” Karuka turns his gaze to the emergence of the shareholder-owned corporation as the dominant system of organizing capitalism. This process of “emancipation of capital” (page 159) was part of a larger reaction to secure the ability to own and control property against the threat that the emancipation of slavery posed to ownership rights. To show this, Karuka uses US Supreme Court jurisprudence describing private property rights as “the original fundamental principle” (154) of both private alienable property and sovereign territorial claims, arguing that both of these together underpinned the legal entity of corporate personhood. Going further, he argues that shareholder property rights came into the world as shareholder whiteness, describing ownership of land and of corporate shares as part of the same racial construct of property.

The wide-ranging interdisciplinarity and theoretical concerns of the book makes it difficult to summarize. One of the most provocative implications arises from Karuka’s treatment of infrastructure and finance, both subjects of growing debates. Empire’s Tracks does not position itself to theorize infrastructure, and instead confines itself to studying the particularities of the specific infrastructural form of the railroad. Materially, railroad constructions in this period enabled two key pillars of imperial rule—the commerce that provided it with profit, and the military strength to safeguard its circulation. Railroad construction combined national power with private corporate investment, fusing together imperial control and financial risk (see Cowen 2019 for a similar treatment of the Canadian National Railroad). This insight from Empire’s Tracks resonates with other recent works in American Studies which excavate institutions of empire and their material manifestations: the railroad under the US army and railroad corporations in Karuka’s book, mining through the Department of the Interior (Black 2018), and Dam building and pipeline construction by the US Army Corps of Engineers (Estes 2019).

By reading Lenin on finance and empire, Karuka theorizes finance as part of larger process of capitalist speculation and the projection of imperial countersovereignty. Here speculation refers both to financial techniques, and a mode of imperial myth-making. He writes that “[a]s financial capital is fictitious capital, countersovereignty is fictitious sovereignty, sovereignty that follows the organization and functions of credit: a future claim that is backed by the full force of the state” (page 65). Karuka powerfully shows that finance and war making must proclaim lies that are made true through violence. Nation-builders and investors in the “war/finance nexus” make fictive claims on the future, and then deploy violent means to make those fictions come true.

The epilogue to Empire’s Tracks provides a vital connection between its historical concerns and contemporary anti-imperialist struggles. Karuka makes clear that the imperatives of speculation and security as they proceed today are deeply rooted in the early emergence of continental imperialism. By reading documents from 2001’s instantiation of the war on terror alongside energy security reports, he traces a line from the forms of violence and speculation of developed in service of the railroad to the contemporary, still imperial, oil-centered security concerns with the Middle East. American empire requires continual maintenance; and national security and energy security are complementary means of continuing the imperial work of class rule. As this book makes clear, the Lakota threat to the completion of the intercontinental railroad is the present ancestor of the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline that gathered on the Lakota territory of Standing Rock. This book is a history of US colonial strategies and fears, failures and fabrications, one which reads as a guide to decolonization.

Works Cited

Black, Megan., 2018. The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power. Harvard University Press.
Cowen, Deb., 2019. “Imposing Infrastructure: The Logistics City and Premature Death.” 2019 Urban Geography Plenary Lecture. Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers.
Estes, Nick., 2019. Our History is the Future: Standing Rock vs. the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. Verso Press.