Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America by Ronald Takaki: reviewed

This imaginative book was published back in the late 1970s, but it is arguably still worth reading for people who want to understand the roots of the postmodern American Empire. This is because the academic analyses the different ways in which politicians and thinkers thought of the diverse people of the United States as it moved towards an industrial society. He also charts the way slavery, technology, the frontier, and imperialism combined to make capitalists perceive different sections of the working class in crudely stereotypical terms.

Although influenced by Marx, the text also borrows freely from Weber, Gramsci and Freud. The philosophical tools are deployed in a manner that is neither dogmatic nor reductionist. In addition, the writer uses fragments of Twain, Melville and Whitman as literary ammunition in his attack on racism and exploitation.

The United States was formed by an inspirational revolt against the British Empire, but it became an imperial power in its own right. The suggestion is made that its flawed rulers could not make sense of its internal contradictions without taking this dubious step. Professor Takaki maintains:

“Rational control and concern for profits yielded to irrational impulses which emphasized power, aggression, and death.”


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