The Fallacy and Legacy of “Free Labor”
The notion that capitalism equals freedom for workers has its roots in the Civil War.
Every war has its idealistic supposed purpose that has to resonate with the populace, and the Civil War’s was, of course, the issue of slavery. However, the majority of white Americans did not care about slavery; in fact, most were quite racist and resented having to fight a war on the behalf of people they didn’t even like. So Lincoln came up with a brilliant strategy: he presented the institution of slavery as the enemy of the American ideal of “free labor.”
As historian Eric Foner explained, “free labor” was the very American ideology that in a democratic society, every person has the right to labor for themselves and to determine whether and when they would work for someone else.38 In fact, this was the reality for the vast majority of Americans in the North. They lived in small towns and on farms, and for most of them, the ideal and the ethic of American life was to labor for themselves on their own farms or their own businesses.39
Knowing how strong the free labor ideology was, Lincoln used that to argue for joining the fight against slavery because it directly threatened the American way of life. According to Foner, Lincoln argued that slavery “embodied the idea that the condition of the worker should remain forever the same.” But in the North, Lincoln proclaimed, there was “no such…thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Men, with their families…work for themselves on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops.”40
However, the free labor ideology, as Lincoln was using it, became synonymous with Northern capital and Northern enterprise. As a result, Lincoln successfully sold to the American public the notion that free labor meant replacing slavery with Northern industrial wage labor. Even the abolitionists bought into that notion. Two days after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the National Anti-Slavery Standard, an abolitionist journal, wrote that with “the whole continent opened to free labor and Northern enterprise, the imagination can hardly exaggerate the glory and power of the American republic.”41
In reality, the free labor ideology had nothing to do with laboring for wages, but by using the phrase, Lincoln successfully juxtaposed its ideals of independence and self-autonomy—draped over the reality of wage labor—with its opposite: forced labor without freedom.
In the South, this had serious consequences both during and after the war. Southern blacks who had just won their freedom from slavery saw the free labor ideology as the American promise that their labor finally belonged to nobody else but themselves. To them, as Foner described, free labor “meant farming their own land, and living largely independent of the marketplace.”42 But to the rest of the nation—and especially the Northern industrialists and investors—free labor meant going back to work on the plantations, with the only difference being that they would now be paid wages, even though those wages were structured to keep blacks impoverished and subjugated.43
The propaganda campaign was so effective that the term “free labor” was used to describe the plantation labor system imposed on Southern black workers by the Union Army. But since the system had to be forcibly imposed, what then emerged was the bizarre and nonsensical phrase, “compulsory free labor.”
In reality, the “free labor” slogan was no more accurate than the “clean energy” slogans of today’s nuclear and coal industries. It was a co-optation of the ideology in order to transfer the desire for independence and free will onto a mercenary system of exploitation.
Capitalism is anything but a system of free-will labor, and most laborers were well aware of that in the 19th century. Resistance to the rise of rapacious capitalism was quite strong, even during the Civil War when strikes continued throughout the North despite Army intervention to put down worker rebellions.44 In fact, if anything, the war brought even more anger and militancy to the labor movement, As historian Howard Zinn explained:
In the North, the war brought high prices for food and the necessities of life. Prices of milk, eggs, cheese were up to 60 to 100 percent for families that had not been able to pay the old prices. One historian…described the war situation:45 “Employers were wont to appropriate to themselves all or nearly all of the profits accruing from the higher prices, without being willing to grant to the employees a fair share of these profits through the medium of higher wages.”46
Class-consciousness, already strong, was made more militant, more widespread, and more resistant to industrial capitalism as workers across the country saw wartime profits enriching the bosses fabulously while the workers’ conditions worsened. Workers had no illusions about this war, in which a wealthy man could get out of the draft by paying $300:
They thought the war was profiting a new class of millionaires. They saw defective guns sold to the army by contractors, sand sold as sugar, rye sold as coffee, shop sweepings made into clothing and blankets, paper-soled shoes produced for soldiers at the front, navy ships made of rotting timbers, soldiers’ uniforms that fell apart in the rain.47
After the war, the class-conscious labor movement continued to grow, particularly after 1873 when the country was thrown into yet another, even longer depression, worse than the previous. Yet, at the same time, the ideology of free labor and its association with Northern capital and its promise of progressive prosperity had permanently taken hold in the American psyche, and over the next several decades it became the mainstream of American outlook while the workers of the labor movement became the marginalized “special interest group.” To link the ideology of free-will labor with industrial capitalism so indelibly in the minds and hearts of Americans may have done more to ensure American loyalty to and glorification of capitalism than any other single factor in our nation’s history.
By the 20th century, capitalism became synonymous with democracy, the independent spirit, free will, and “free labor.” By the 21st century, the Reagan-spawned Tea Party had enshrined the “democracy and free labor equals capitalism” belief into the cult of exploitation.
In the current (and increasingly mainstream) version of this propaganda, a system based on democracy and free labor only works when an elite few can exploit and impoverish the majority, whereas a system based on providing prosperity and equality for the majority will enslave everyone. The cult of exploitation means believing that cutting social services so that corporations can be exempted from taxes will result in great wealth for all. It means believing that public access to health care is unAmerican, that industry regulates itself for the good of the people, that corporations are people, and that teachers are bleeding the system dry with their “bloated” salaries and “lavish” pensions.
It means that the propaganda of the Civil War is still controlling the free will, the free labor, and the democratic ideals of the American people.
The End of Slavery in the North
The Facts of War