Hell on Wheels as State or Nation-Building

I have a confession: When I first discovered Hell on Wheels, a TV show on AMC, I spent large part of a couple days watching the entire first season. In an effort to tie this into what I do and stave off my guilt over binging on TV when I should have been working, here we go: Hell on Wheels as nation-building.

Hell on Wheels is about the construction of America’s first transcontinental railroad as it moves west. The title of the show refers to the setting – Hell on Wheels is the name of the always moving settlement that sits at the front end of the tracks. The anti-hero protagonist is Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier (played by Anson Mount) who comes to Hell on Wheels to hunt down the Union soldiers who murdered his wife. But, as Mount said in an interview, ‘[T]his show isn’t just about revenge. Or even just about the building of a railroad. It’s really about the building of a nation.’…So ok, this isn’t my original idea, but I’m citing my work and like any good academic, I have my own twist on it.

Mount is talking about America specifically, the ‘opening up’ of the American West, and – as the show’s creator Joe Grayton put it – the ‘re-founding’ of America after the Civil War. I’m not, but let’s explore what they mean.

The Western frontier is the greatest source of America’s most potent founding myths, more so than the Revolutionary War. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously proffered the frontier thesis, which argues that American history and institutions have been shaped, above all, by westward expansion.  These institutions were forced ‘to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people–to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.’

Western films have followed suit. The frontier gives us archetypical American as the independent, stoic hard man subordinating nature, fighting evil (with great violence), and surviving despite the odds. All of the American Film Institute’s top ten Westerns deal with these themes. Turner continues:

American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.

While interesting (among other things, Turner’s argument has a lot to say, implicitly, about American foreign policy), this isn’t what I’m talking about. I don’t mean ‘nation-building’ only in this sense. I am getting at a more generalized usage of the term.

In 1985, Charles Tilly wrote an essay titled, ‘War Making and State Making as Organized Crime.’ Tilly’s fundamental hypothesis boil down to the following points:

  • War makes states
  • Banditry, piracy, gangland rivalry, policing, and war making belong on the same continuum
  • Mercantile capitalism and state making reinforce each other.

As per the title, he argues that the distinction between organized crime and creating states is not a clear one. In Tilly’s words:

At least for the European experience of the past view centuries, a portrait of war makers and state makers as coercive and self-seeking entrepreneurs bears a far greater resemblance to the facts than do its chief alternatives: the idea of a social contract, the idea of an open market in which operators of armies and states offer services to willing consumers, the idea of a society whose shared norms and expectations call forth a certain kind of government.

Tilly provocatively argues that governments bear a strong resemblance to racketeering rings seeking to monopolize force in their territory. Tilly describes his argument:

Power holders’ pursuit of war involved them willy-nilly [my comment: bonus points for usage of ‘willy-nilly’] in the extraction of resources for war making from the populations over which they had control and in the promotion of capital accumulation by those who could help them borrow and buy. War making, extraction, and capital accumulation interacted to shape European state making. Power holders did not undertake those three momentous activities with the intention of creating national states – centralized, differentiated, autonomous, extensive political organizations. Nor did they ordinarily foresee that national states would emerge from war making, extraction, and capital accumulation.

Instead, the people who controlled European states and states in the making warred in order to check or overcome their competitors and thus to enjoy the advantages of power within a secure or expanding territory.

After reading Khald Fahmy’s excellent All the Pashas Men, which is about Mohammad Ali Pasha, the Albanian founder of modern Egypt, I am sure that Tilly’s argument is not limited to the European experience.  Mohammad Ali was a mafioso extraordinaire and he knew what he was making.  He wanted to split his franchise off from the Ottoman Empire and European powers were only happy to oblige.

Back to Hell on Wheels: it is a microcosm of the state building process.  The show portrays entrepreneurs (of violence, industry, and commerce) and ‘big men’ trying to knit together a new collective – laborers, foremen, merchants, and prostitutes – toward a common commercial and industrial goal – the building of a railroad.  These actors are constantly challenged by managing the divided interests and agendas within this collective defined by race, religion, and politics.  These multiple, fluid solidarities are constantly erupting into conflict. The Irish laborers despise the newly liberated black former slaves.  Contempt is mutual between the Yankees and the Confederates who only recently laid down their arms and turned west.  Non-immigrant Americans look down on the Irish ‘papists’ – who make up most of the labor force.  Everyone fears and hates the Cheyenne Indians, who lurk in the plains waiting to strike – the enemies of ‘progress’ and ‘modernization.’

The biggest big man is Colm Meany’s Thomas Durant (a real person).  He is the businessman driving the tracks across the plains – his national project – leveraging the resources of outside powerbrokers – investors, a U.S. Senator, and banks – paying and intimidating laborers, and, above all, looking after himself.  Building the railroad is his war.  Durant induces, persuades, divides-and-conquers, and coerces. He performs these four activities, which, according to Tilly, all fall under the umbrella of organized violence: war making (fighting external rivals), state making (fighting internal rivals), protection (fighting the enemies of his clients), and extraction (‘acquiring the means of carrying out the first three activities’).

At several points in the plot, Bohannon becomes Durant’s chief but troublesome instrument of control – the Moltke the Elder to Durant’s Bismarck.  Justice, in the earliest period of the nation, is merely the will of the strong à la Thrasymachus; cold-hearted realism in pursuit of profit and power.  In Tilly’s words, ‘[t]he uncertain, elastic line between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” violence”‘ is a pervasive theme.

HBO’s excellent show, Deadwood, got at many of the same themes along with The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, the Sopranos, and even the Godfather Trilogy, but these are all explicitly about the criminal enterprises with a confusion of motives.  The characters in these dramas lack the unifying purpose that binds together the characters in Hell on Wheels – the construction of a railroad.

So how do we judge whether or not violence or political rule is legitimate or illegitimate?  Scholars have filled volumes over the course of centuries in an effort to answer this question, do don’t expect a satisfying answer here.  It is a question of pressing concern in Afghanistan, where, as I wrote in a recent issue of the Sentinel, the Afghan state adheres rather strictly to the idea of organized crime as state making.

As the French Revolution raged, the British political theorist Edmund Burke wrote that ‘many estates about you were originally obtained by arms, that is, by violence…but it is old violence and that which might be wrong in the beginning, is consecrated by time, and becomes lawful.’  For Burke, stability in the present day was the salient factor in determining legitimacy, but not the only factor.  For Hobbes, it was really the only one.  Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France launched a fierce debate on what constituted true political legitimacy.  His most prominent opponent was, of course, Thomas Paine.

Many observers of Afghanistan implicitly and explicitly take a Hobbesian position – that the state’s legitimacy hinges on its ability to provide stability, full stop.  Others are more concerned with democracy as well as the rights of women and minorities.  I advise that those others, in the words of the Man in Black from the Princess Bride, ‘get used to disappointment.’

A third season of Hell on Wheels is expected sometime in 2013.  Let’s see if Durant and Bohannan can keep things stable. The first season is on Netflix.  And no, AMC did not pay me for this, but if they want to, I’m cool with that.


10 thoughts on “Hell on Wheels as State or Nation-Building

  1. Paul T. Mitchell says:

    Excellent post; in the wake of the Newtown shootings and the debates over gun control, I have been thinking about the Western film genre and its links to ideas about the state and the concept of progress. The Canadian westward expansion was considerably different from that of the American (a Canadian Western movie would make no sense whatsoever). Here, our movement west was one in which the people effectively followed the state. Nevertheless, the North West Mounted Police, the fore-runners to the RCMP, were the violent end of the state. So despite the vast cultural differences between the American and Canadian move westward, violence and state-building processes accompanied each.

  2. Pamela Deas says:

    Turner’s “western frontier” started with Europeans landing on the Eastern seaboard. They were the first western wave of colonial settlement; in essence, the first “Western Frontier” was Roanoke, NC. It is easy to confuse his Frontier Thesis with American sagas of “the West” about homesteading, Indian Wars, fur trapping, cattle drives, and the overland migrations west of the 98th meridian. The Frontier Thesis addresses that frontier, as well, but Turner intended his ideas to explain expansion across the Atlantic and then overland to the Pacific. The fluidity in the quote you use refers to one frontier after another.

    Great post. Very thought provoking. Thank you. Makes one consider the activities taking place anywhere on the fringes, where the trains do not yet run on time.

    • Person says:

      Makes one consider the activities taking place anywhere on the fringes, where the trains do not yet run on time.


    • Ryan Evans says:

      Thanks for your comments, Pamela, and thanks for reading!
      Indeed, Turner does write:
      “At first, the frontier was the Atlantic coast. It was the frontier of Europe in a very real sense. Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American. As successive terminal moraines result from successive glaciations, so each frontier leaves its traces behind it, and when it becomes a settled area the region still partakes of the frontier characteristics. Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines.”

      But he does focus explicitly on the “Great West”: “The true point of view in the history of this nation,” Turner writes, “is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.”

  3. Camino K. says:

    Interesting post. I was particularly struck by the last paragraph in which you assert that “[m]any observers of Afghanistan implicitly and explicitly take a Hobbesian position – that the state’s legitimacy hinges on its ability to provide stability, full stop. Others are more concerned with democracy as well as the rights of women and minorities. I advise that those others, in the words of the Man in Black from the Princess Bride, ‘get used to disappointment.”

    State legitimacy however, not only hinges on a states capacity to provide stability. If/once stability has been attained, citizens will start looking for other dividends, including the delivery of basic services and access to resources. The incapacity or lack of will of a state to deliver those services etc. can undermine the legitimacy of the state (or whichever political party is in power) and, unless the necessary institutions and norms are in place, can eventually lead back to a situation of instability. So, perhaps the disappointment should be spread more evenly across both Hobbesian observers and your ‘others’…

    • Ryan Evans says:

      Thanks Camino. I don’t disagree. I wasn’t really taking a position on the legitimacy debate, but rather was expressing my pessimism regarding the case of Afghanistan – the land where optimism goes to die.

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