Labor is the Superior of Capital

One Hundred and Fifty Eight Years Ago today, these word were spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his First Annual Address before Congress on December 3, 1861.

I thought it might be interesting and fitting to take a look at the conclusion of this speech considering the moment we are in today. As always, I would love to hear your reactions in the comment section to what is perhaps one of my favorite quotes of all time.

The bulk of the address touches on what one would expect from a CEO at a meeting of the Board of Directors; various issues of the government including Foreign Affairs related to the war, the Supreme Court and possible remedies to the Circuits, the Budget, Postmaster, the conduct of the War, ect, ect.

The conclusion veers sharply from the mundane accounting of the year's activities and proceeds rather abruptly to the section of the speech that contains perhaps the most powerfully progressive words ever spoken by an American President.

Lincoln segues from pro-forma reporting of all things governmental to his masterful conclusion by defining the Rebellion itself as a war on the people's right to republican self governance.

It continues to develop that the insurrection is largely, if not exclusively, a war upon the first principle of popular government--the rights of the people. Conclusive evidence of this is found in the most grave and maturely considered public documents, as well as in the general tone of the insurgents. In those documents we find the abridgment of the existing right of suffrage and the denial to the people of all right to participate in the selection of public officers except the legislative boldly advocated, with labored arguments to prove that large control of the people in government is the source of all political evil. Monarchy itself is sometimes hinted at as a possible refuge from the power of the people.

Isn't all of our history a story of Elite Preservationists seeking refuge from the power of the people? Lincoln says so just as Paine said so. To Lincoln, Elite Preservation is the source of all evil and the power of the people must prevail.

In my present position I could scarcely be justified were I to omit raising a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism.

He presents his warning of returning despotism in between his excoriation of Southern Slave Holding Elites in the prior paragraph and the proceeding paragraph that cites Capital in general, which must include Northern Capitalists and their burgeoning power over labor. He is preaching the first modern sermon of Economic Populism.

It is not needed nor fitting here that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions, but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.

This is an overview of Mudsill Theory which today has its analogue in the modern notion of technocratic management of the corporate state. Rule by expert has replaced rule by aristocracy. As with the latter, the former produces in short order rule for expert and eventually this becomes de facto rule by aristocracy once again.

From here Lincoln brings the wood to this bogus claim. This is where the red meat for Progressives begins to be served:

Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.

Having politely told Mudsill adherents then and now where to stick their preposterously arrogant worldview, he delivers for the ages a redirection that all good parents must teach their children.

He takes Mudsill and flips it on its head:

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class--neither work for others nor have others working for them. In most of the Southern States a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters, while in the Northern a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families--wives, sons, and daughters--work for themselves on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand nor of hired laborers or slaves on the other. It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital; that is, they labor with their own hands and also buy or hire others to labor for them; but this is only a mixed and not a distinct class. No principle stated is disturbed by the existence of this mixed class.

Again, as has already been said, there is not of necessity any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. Many independent men everywhere in these States a few years back in their lives were hired laborers. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all.

A generous and prosperous system. Opens the way to all. Gives Hope to all. Gives energy and progress to all. This conclusion to a drab and boring recitation of the facts and figures of 1861 gives a clearer understanding of who Lincoln was thinking of when he stated in the Gettysburg Address:

...that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

When Franklin strode from Constitutional Hall after the drafting of our Constitution, he gave a quizzical statement to the question of what the form of government was. Famously he said, we have a Republic, if we can keep it. Jefferson and Jackson warned against the moneyed corporations (Big Capital) taking it from us. Lincoln likewise gives us a similar admonition:

No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.

To be clear, Lincoln did not seem to be advocating for another system other than capitalism. He is re-ordering the priorities of government toward labor and away from capital. Although he surely would have been aware of Karl Marx and may have been sympathetic to Marx, he was no Marxist.

This closing segment of the First Inaugural Address was actually an excerpt from his famous speech given at the Wisconsin State Fair. In that speech, Lincoln adds to his certainty of labor supremacy the notion that labor must be educated. Here he seems to crafting a forward to the great John Dewey's masterpiece Democracy and Education:

The thought recurs that education -- cultivated thought -- can best be combined with agricultural labor, or any labor, on the principle of thorough work -- that careless, half performed, slovenly work, makes no place for such combination. And thorough work, again, renders sufficient, the smallest quantity of ground to each man. And this again, conforms to what must occur in a world less inclined to wars, and more devoted to the arts of peace, than heretofore. Population must increase rapidly -- more rapidly than in former times -- and ere long the most valuable of all arts, will be the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community whose every member possesses this art, can ever be the victim of oppression of any of its forms. Such community will be alike independent of crowned-kings, money-kings, and land-kings.

Throughout American History there has been a Progressive spirit that has been ingrained in us despite the constant efforts of Elite Preservationists to squelch that yearning. That spirit flowed from Paine to Lincoln and today we find this spirit in resurgence by the Occupy Movement and the Presidential Campaigns of Bernie Sanders and others.

With these closing words by Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address we are able to see the essence of our long political struggle. Lincoln is telling us in plain unequivocal speech who our political enemy is and who that enemy will be henceforward. This is our fight. It is the old fight.

It is ours to win.

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Raggedy Ann's picture

We are straying far from Lincoln's words and have been since Reagan took the helm. It was planned, of course, by those that Lincoln is warning us about.

It's hard to have ethics when so many unethical opportunities come your way. Look at Biden and Pelosi's sons. They both benefitted from Ukraine. Put a lid on it lest the rabble find out and demand their government represent them and not the only the elite. Fools.

Anyway - I enjoyed the read. Makes me think about how we humans love repeating history - especially bad history.
Pleasantry

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“The trouble [with injustice] is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There is no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”
-- Arundhati Roy

jobu's picture

@Raggedy Ann

That is what they are. They don't even hold the founder of their own party in as high a regard as the current occupant of the WH.

YouGov Poll

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Raggedy Ann's picture

@jobu
between Reagan and Herr Drumpf. They both were in office to enrich the oligarchy and succeeded at our expense. No difference. Pleasantry

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“The trouble [with injustice] is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There is no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”
-- Arundhati Roy

Abe could make ideas dance with his speeches.
Consideration for the 'mixed class'. 99%

Thanks for the essay!

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May we be united and strong -- laurel

jobu's picture

@QMS

Consideration for the 'mixed class'. 99%

One could only imagine what benefits to the "mixed classes" would have been forthcoming if Lincoln hadn't been taken from us.

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Lookout's picture

We come a long way from Lincoln. In fact, the inverse is more like our current actions...
charity for none and malice toward all.

The capitalist model has metastasized into a morass of profit above all...people, planet, biosphere...

At this point I don't see how we rein in the gollum we have created...can it be tricked into the fires of Mt Doom?

Thanks for the Lincoln lesson!

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

polkageist's picture

You have done an excellent job. Lincoln was a giant and our greatest President, but, unfortunately has had little competition for the title. For most of my life our Presidents have been pygmies.

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Greed is not a virtue.
Socialism: the radical idea of sharing.

jobu's picture

@polkageist

It always amazes me how much of what we dwell upon today is ground that has already been plowed, laid fallow and plowed again.

This era from about 1830-1860 is loaded with passionate orators and essayists speaking this very progressive language. It is not surprising that Lincoln was able to distill those sentiments so perfectly throughout his life. His mind was cultivated in the fertile ground of that time.

Perhaps all the (Neoliberal) manure that has be laid down on our heads the last 40 years has made our time fertile enough to grow some giants of our own.

Thanks as always, p-g

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Is very bad to steal Jobu's Rum, is very bad...

... why is Labor always begging Capital for an "opportunity" to work?

You can't just go out and start working on something, then expect someone to come along and pay you for it.

Right now I'm looking through the lens of being unemployed and rapidly going broke. All the blue collar jobs listed in sunny (very expensive) Seattle pay what amounts to starvation wages. I'm beyond frustrated. I don't want to live this shit life without hope.

I am envious of those who are able to live on little homesteads. I've been working hard and trying to better my lot for decades. The recession took it all away, and I've been stuck in poverty ever since.

If anyone has any ideas or resources to get there, I'm all ears...

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@BORG_US_BORG
Will share the resources I have.
Agree about the practical disconnect betwixt
capital and labor. We've 'progressed' since then.
Were it so simple now.

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May we be united and strong -- laurel

thanatokephaloides's picture

@BORG_US_BORG

If Labor is the Superior of Capital...

... why is Labor always begging Capital for an "opportunity" to work?

Because we replaced our free enterprise system, where Labor unrest was a threat to all rich and poor alike (i.e., the way things should be) with today's monopoly system wherein Labor has no power at all and only Capital's opinion matters.

That's why they call it Capital-ism. Bad

Remember, Capitalism is what Free Enterprise devolves into.

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"I say enough! If Israel wants to be the only superpower in the Middle East then they can put their own asses on the line and do it themselves. I want to continue to eat."
-- snoopydawg

thanatokephaloides's picture

@BORG_US_BORG

You can't just go out and start working on something, then expect someone to come along and pay you for it.

In Lincoln's day, if you lived in a city or town, that's exactly how you came by your livelihood. Even most medical doctors learned their trade by apprenticeship.

We need a LOT more of that today.

Right now I'm looking through the lens of being unemployed and rapidly going broke. All the blue collar jobs listed in sunny (very expensive) Seattle pay what amounts to starvation wages. I'm beyond frustrated. I don't want to live this shit life without hope.

I am envious of those who are able to live on little homesteads. I've been working hard and trying to better my lot for decades. The recession took it all away, and I've been stuck in poverty ever since.

Welcome to my little slice of Hell. Bad

Hard work and an enterprising spirit -- the things which used to be the formula for escaping poverty -- are essentially useless today as no job one can get without a debt-free fresh university degree (!!) will support one. And the cost of inhabitable land reasonably free from usage encumbrances, that one could live on, has shot up to the highest heavens.

No amount of effort will get one past this little dystopia, either. Everything is biased in favor of those who start out with real money, i.e., Capital. But this wasn't the case in Lincoln's day.

I feel for you as I have been/am there.

Sad

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"I say enough! If Israel wants to be the only superpower in the Middle East then they can put their own asses on the line and do it themselves. I want to continue to eat."
-- snoopydawg

Bollox Ref's picture

than Abraham Lincoln??

Does not compute....

There are many issues with Lincoln's office holding, but still..........

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3 users have voted.

Gëzuar!!
from a reasonably stable genius.

Mark from Queens's picture

@Bollox Ref

and he's on that show firin' people, and in that expensive suit, and his hair doesn't move, and he's all tanned, and he's got all that money, with his name on buildings and airplanes, and has his own resort, and golf courses...he's "successful," because he's got a lotta money.

you just don't like 'im 'cause he tells it like it is.

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"If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:

THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC"

- Kurt Vonnegut

for bringing this all together so well. I hope you will post it far and wide. Lincoln's Wisconsin speech has always inspired me, especially this part, said slightly differently from the Address that you quoted:

http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/fair.htm

... The world is agreed that labor is the source from which human wants are mainly supplied. There is no dispute upon this point. From this point, however, men immediately diverge. Much disputation is maintained as to the best way of applying and controlling the labor element. By some it is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital -- that nobody labors, unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow, by the use of that capital, induces him to do it...

But another class of reasoners hold the opinion that there is no such relation between capital and labor, as assumed; and that there is no such thing as a freeman being fatally fixed for life, in the condition of a hired laborer, that both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them groundless. They hold that labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed -- that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior -- greatly the superior -- of capital.

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Mark from Queens's picture

because we don't read history (and sure as hell aren't taught it or the real essence of dissent that runs through it at our public schools) we don't know that it's filled with prescriptions for the current moment. Financial crashes are strewn throughout, but we still play the same games with deregulation, etc.

Fascinating period, this. In which so much real craftsmanship and self-sufficiency and the philosophy of the collective existed amongst the populace. Capitalism just ruthlessly crushed this spirit out of the citizenry. Not entirely though. It's the propaganda that keeps so many voting against their own interests, though they know on some level there's a different, better way (socialism).

The Story the Republicans forgot: How Marx & The British Working Class helped Abraham Lincoln defeat the slaveholding Confederacy

As Hitchens wrote about Marx the journalist and his fervor for Lincoln's philosophy of America:

Commenting acidly on a writer whom I perhaps too naively admired, my old classics teacher put on his best sneer to ask: "Wouldn't you say, Hitchens, that his writing was somewhat journalistic?" This lofty schoolmaster employed my name sarcastically, and stressed the last term as if he meant it to sting, and it rankled even more than he had intended. Later on in life, I found that I still used to mutter and improve my long-meditated reply. Émile Zola - a journalist. Charles Dickens - a journalist. Thomas Paine - another journalist. Mark Twain. Rudyard Kipling. George Orwell - a journalist par excellence. Somewhere in my cortex was the idea to which Orwell himself once gave explicit shape: the idea that "mere" writing of this sort could aspire to become an art, and that the word "journalist" - like the ironic modern English usage of the word "hack" - could lose its association with the trivial and the evanescent...

In considering this huge and multi-faceted question, Marx faced two kinds of antagonist. The first was composed of that English faction, grouped around the cotton interest and the Times newspaper, which hoped for the defeat of Abraham Lincoln and the wreckage of the American experiment. The second was made up of those Pharisees who denied that the union, and its leader Lincoln, were "really" fighting a war for the abolition of slavery. Utterly impatient with casuistry, and as always convinced that people's subjective account of their own interests was often misleading, Marx denounced both tendencies. Henry Adams, the direct descendant of two presidents and at that time a witness of his father's embattled ambassadorship to London, wrote in his celebrated memoirs that Marx was almost the only friend that Lincoln had, against the cynical Tories and the hypocritical English Gladstonian liberals. Surveying the grim landscape of the English industrial revolution, he wrote, in The Education of Henry Adams, that it "made a boy uncomfortable, though he had no idea that Karl Marx was standing there waiting for him, and that sooner or later the process of education would have to deal with Karl Marx much more than with Professor Bowen of Harvard College or his Satanic free-trade majesty John Stuart Mill".

Marx himself, in reviewing a letter of Harriet Beecher Stowe's to Lord Shaftesbury (and how splendid to have the author of "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon" seconding the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin), ridiculed the smarmy arguments of papers such as the Economist, which had written that "the assumption that the quarrel between the North and South is a quarrel between Negro freedom on the one side and Negro Slavery on the other, is as impudent as it is untrue". The Lincolnians, it was generally asserted, were fighting only for the preservation of the union, not for the high-sounding cause of emancipation. Not so, said the great dialectician. The confederacy had opened hostilities on the avowed basis of upholding slavery, which meant in turn that the union would be forced to tackle emancipation, whether its leadership wanted to or not. See how he makes the point in so few sentences, and shows that it is the apparently hard-headed and realistic who are in practice the deluded ones: "The question of the principle of the American Civil War is answered by the battle slogan with which the South broke the peace. Stephens, the Vice-President of the Southern Confederacy, declared in the Secession Congress that what essentially distinguished the Constitution hatched at Montgomery from the Constitution of the Washingtons and Jeffersons was that now for the first time slavery was recognised as an institutional good in itself, and as the foundation of the whole state edifice, whereas the revolutionary fathers, men steeped in the prejudices of the 18th century, had treated slavery as an evil imported from England and to be eliminated in the course of time. Another matador of the South, Mr Spratt, cried out: 'For us, it is a question of founding a great slave republic.' If, therefore, it was indeed only in defence of the Union that the North drew the sword, had not the South already declared that the continuance of slavery was no longer compatible with the continuance of the Union?"

Society can't function without fearless, intrepid journalists dedicated to explaining the moment we're in. People watching and reading MSM don't have the first clue to how badly they're being propagandized and misinformed. We're in a bad place if we don't start convincing the citizenry of this.

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"If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:

THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC"

- Kurt Vonnegut

jobu's picture

Only when you start peeling this onion do you realize how many layers there are, especially in this era.

Fascinating period, this. In which so much real craftsmanship and self-sufficiency and the philosophy of the collective existed amongst the populace. Capitalism just ruthlessly crushed this spirit out of the citizenry. Not entirely though. It's the propaganda that keeps so many voting against their own interests, though they know on some level there's a different, better way (socialism)

.

Elite Preservation has always sought to crush the progressive spirit unleashed during the enlightenment and its starting point here with the Declaration and Constitution, however flawed they may be. It was an unleashing of the idea of universal egalitarianism even if early on the universality was so woefully lacking.

The elite counter has always been the intellectually unsustainable dictum of 'Just because we deem it so'. Whether it was the Mudsill nonsense of Lincoln's day or fear of Lippmann's "Bewildered Herd". Lincoln saw through this nonsense and dismissed it so powerfully in these two speeches.

Others have made their attempts at demolishing once and for this Rule by Expert theory, however it manifested itself in any particular time. John Dewey countered Walter Lippmann version of rule by Expert as thoroughly and methodically as has even been done before or since, although much less poetically than Lincoln. (Dewey's words inform, but they do not dance)

Therefore, Elites are left only with Propaganda as you keenly observe. It has turned out to be very wise decision as propagandists are much cheaper than guns and bayonets and much, much less messy.

Chomsky has distinguished himself with his immense work in educating people to this sorry fact of life. Here he is describing this concept and his relationship to Dewey:

Thank you for these wonderful additions to this topic.

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Bisbonian's picture

@jobu

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"I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” —Malcolm X