Monday, February 12, 2024

Kroncke on Labor in the American Empire

Jedidiah J. Kroncke, University of Hong Kong, has posted Suspended in Empire: The Imperial Legacies of American Territorial Labor:

On the Trail, Northern Luzon, 1924 (LC)
A great deal of recent attention has been giving to acknowledging the full historical scope of American empire and its legal foundations. A recurrent focus of this attention has been the impact of the Insular Cases—a set of early 20th-century doctrines that legitimate American territorial acquisitions while denying their full incorporation under the Constitution. Issues of political citizenship and property have thus predominated critical work on the Insular Cases.

This article expands on this resurgent interest by focusing on another critical element of this acknowledgment: the history of territorial labor which has long been central to the political economy of American empire. Explicating the role and regulation of territorial labor reveals enables of more complete picture of American empire, as well as its evolving pursuit of new legal forms to project national power while avoiding democratic accountability.

Most concretely, the unprincipled doctrines of the Insular Cases have led to a paradigm of perpetually precarious bargaining in which territorial labor only enjoys the formal protection of labor and employment law subject to complete federal discretion and potential revocation. Mapping the diverse and contingent legal regimes this bargaining has produced unearths all too many tragedies past and present as the largely invisibilized labor of territorial people has been circulated throughout American empire while building its economic and military foundations.

Further complicating this formally inchoate set of rights are the practical realities territorial labor has historically been subject to under conditions of American empire: localized employer domination, tactics of racialized labor migration, and the overshadowing anti-democratic disciplinary rationales of U.S. national security. These realities are evident throughout the diverse range of contemporary territories as well as in their scarring effects within former American territories and military occupations. Moreover, imperial labors’ roaming logics of dehumanization are today increasingly displaced onto even more vulnerable foreign migrant workers within many territories themselves.

Acknowledging the role of territorial labor in American empire blurs the line between territorial and incorporated life and law. Most powerfully, it reveals how the conditions of territorial labor reflect back the enervated nature of American economic citizenship writ large. This reflection is just one of the many ways in which territorial history presents lessons increasingly applicable to broader swaths of American life under conditions of modern economic globalization. The article ultimately integrates territorial history into renewed demands for a democratic political economy for all those living under American sovereignty.

--Dan Ernst