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  • Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism ed. by Daniel E. Bender and Jana K. Lipman
  • Erez Manela
Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism. Edited by Daniel E. Bender and Jana K. Lipman (New York, New York University Press, 2015) 374 pp. $89.00 cloth $35.00 paper

Scholarship about the history of U.S. empire has proliferated of late, but this volume has an innovative contribution to make. As the title suggests, it aims to bring together U.S. labor history and imperial history, centering the experiences of workers across the U.S. empire while bringing a transnational perspective to U.S. labor history, traditionally focused on the domestic realm (or, in this context, the metro-pole). U.S. Empire, as the editors explain in their excellent introduction, is best seen not as a collection of territories but as a far-flung system of labor mobilization and coercive management. Following in the well-trodden footsteps of William Appleman Williams, the editors and contributors [End Page 246] frame U.S. empire primarily in economic terms, as an empire of capitalist expansion.1 But unlike Williams and his early followers, who focused primarily on the machinations of the capitalists and their enablers in Washington, this volume seeks to recover the perspectives of the millions of workers who labored in U.S. capital’s expanding domains.

This volume, it should be noted, does not present the U.S. empire as ubiquitous, all-powerful, or monolithic. Rather, its contributors, a group of scholars working at the cutting edge of this field, trace in fine-grained detail the contours of the racialized regimes of labor recruitment, circulation, and management, that were constructed to harvest the fruits of the tropics or to build an archipelago of U.S. military bases in the Pacific. This focus on imperial labor systems provides a useful framework for rethinking the relationship between labor and immigration histories, as workers circulating into and around the U.S. empire became part of a “multitiered system of labor relations” in which “domestic” and “foreign” spaces and workers were intimately entwined (19). This move also shifts the spotlight away from (usually white) industrial workers on which labor history has traditionally focused and turns it toward the agricultural laborers who predominated in colonial spaces, as well as the military labor (and attendant sexual work) that underlay the United States’ growing global military complex. For these workers the empire represented, at different times and places, both opportunity and oppression, and their responses to it ran the gamut from calculated collaboration to outright resistance.

This volume focuses on the circum-Caribbean and Pacific spaces that are the typical historiographical stomping ground of writings on United States empire. Hence it has little to say about such crucial regions as Southeast Asia (besides the Philippines) or the Middle East. (Has there been an industry more central to U.S. power in modern times than petroleum?) Moreover, despite the volume’s ambition to de-throne 1898 as the fulcrum of U.S. imperial history, most of the chapters hew to the traditional timeframe of the historiography of U.S. empire, from the end of the Civil War to the 1930s, leaving readers to wonder what happened to those labor regimes, and the power structures that underlay them, in the post–World War II era. Nevertheless, the book succeeds in offering a rich, illuminating view of colonial labor within the U.S. empire. It is recommended to anyone interested in the history of U.S. regimes of labor and migration as well as in the history of the United States in the world more broadly. [End Page 247]

Erez Manela
Harvard University


1. See, most notably, William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York, 1959).



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