10 truisms of capitalism from the mouths of robber barons

The callousness and greed of today’s bankers, financiers and corporate CEOs calls to mind the 19th century robber barons. Here’s a relevant sample of classic statements made by some of the worst U.S. capitalists in history.

1. “We are not in business for our health.” A statement attributed to J.P. Morgan, when fellow parishioners in New York’s Trinity Church criticized him for “investing” church funds in lucrative East Side slum property. Capitalists have never been in business for anybody’s health and today that is most evident for banks, pharmaceutical firms and insurance companies.

2. “What do I care about the law. Ain’t I got the power?” A quote from the early great robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose most recent relatives produced designer clothes and, in the case of Wyatt Cooper of CNN, have become TV news people. Vanderbilt’s statement gives us insight into the capitalist class view of legality, namely that it is something to manipulate and enforce to increase capitalist wealth and power, and to be undermined and, where possible, ignored when it seeks to regulate or limit capitalist wealth and power.

3. “The public be damned!” A quote attributed to Cornelius Vanderbilt’s son, William, in response to popular criticism of his creation of a private monopoly in New York street transit and his subsequent doubling of the fares. Today capitalists have PR firms to make sure that they are never caught saying “the public be damned,” but their policies in most areas continue in that vein.

William, by the way, was very badly treated by his father until he won dad over during the Civil War by cheating (according to anti-monopoly scholars) Union Army cavalry stationed on Staten Island, N.Y., on the price of hay that he was selling them from a farm. Then his father finally respected him and took him into the business.

4. “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” A very famous quote attributed to robber baron Jay Gould, whose fellow big capitalists called him the “Mephistopheles of Wall Street.” Actually, the struggle to unite the working class, to fight against all forms of racist and other prejudices, is an attempt to prevent Gould’s boast from being carried forward in policy — which capitalists in their use of some workers, immigrants and minorities to break strikes, along with police and militia drawn from the working class, have done many times in the past, especially before the enactment of federal labor laws in the 1930s.

5. “In a Republican district I was a Republican. In a Democratic district, I was a Democrat. But I was always for Erie.” Another quote from Jay Gould explaining his and most capitalists’ approach to politics. The Erie Railroad was a company he both controlled and used in a number of wildly corrupt activities in the 1870s. The quote shows the capitalist class conception of representative government and its approach to non-communist, non-socialist political parties.

At one point, Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt were bribing New York state legislators, hand over fist, in a battle to obtain railroad franchises. The cost of bribes got so high that they actually held a meeting in Albany, the state capital, to fix the price of bribes (a sort of bribe cap) to protect their interests.

6. “God gave me my money.” A quote attributed to a frustrated John D. Rockefeller, in response to critical inquiries about how he had attained his wealth. Rockefeller was a religious man, but the quote gives us insight into the capitalist view of religion as a justification for inequality and exploitation. Rockefeller endowed religious and secular charities, practicing what Andrew Carnegie, a fellow great capitalist, called the “gospel of wealth,” that is, charity from the rich as a substitute for public social programs.

Tax reform led by political progressives also led Rockefeller and other like-minded big capitalists to set up foundations which enabled them to spend monies for charitable purposes that otherwise they would, in large part, have had to turn over to the government, and also provided them with good PR.

7. “Character.” The response that J.P. Morgan, near the end of his life, gave to a congressional committee in 1911 investigating his enormous finance capitalist empire. Morgan probably believed it. Like the great capitalists who called themselves “captains of industry” and “industrial statesmen,” he saw himself as superior not only to workers but also to small businessmen, professionals and politicians in the great market struggle of life and the corporations he created. For the great capitalists, the wealth they garnered was proof of their moral superiority. When Morgan died in 1913, the syndicate of industrial/bank capital that made up the Morgan interests controlled an estimated 13 percent of the investment capital of the world. Today, corporate leaders and even many of their small imitators have adopted the military term CEO to replace the 19th century “captain of industry.”

8. “What good is $10 million if you can’t have real money.” A statement from Jesse Livermore explaining his suicide in the 1930s. Livermore was a famous Wall Street speculator of the 1920s who lost most of his wealth in the Depression. At the time of his suicide, creditors were closing in but he still possessed $10 million. This shows in effect the difference between what capitalists and workers (including those who call themselves middle class) think about money. I don’t know what Livermore would have said when he heard that John McCain defined being rich today as having a $5 million annual income — although McCain (who didn’t deal with total assets of course) would probably see men like Livermore as the kind of “entrepreneur” on whom American progress and prosperity was based (the way men like Livermore were seen in mass media before the Great Depression). Certainly McCain and fellow Republicans would do what they could to keep Livermore’s taxes as low as possible and to bail him out financially, regardless of what that meant for taxpayers.

9. “There are no social classes in America. Only the middle class.” A wildly irrational statement, proclaiming in effect a capitalist “classless society,” attributed to Herbert Hoover in the 1920s. Hoover found out the hard way that there was a working class which would not passively accept his platitudes that “the economy is fundamentally sound” and federal relief “would rot the moral fiber of the people.” While Hoover was not in the same league as Rockefeller, Morgan or the Vanderbilts, he was a very wealthy and successful capitalist who hung onto his wealth even as he lost the presidency.

Unfortunately, capitalists, in the U.S. particularly, continue to use the term “middle class” in the sense that Hoover did, to spread a false consciousness among workers that their interests lie with their employers and that government taxation, minorities, undocumented workers and the poor are the cause of their economic problems.

10. “Take the money and run.” A term that was the title of a Woody Allen movie which connects many dots over the centuries of the capitalist mode of production. In pursuit of greater markets and cheaper natural resources and labor, capitalists have always taken the money and run, explaining that this was the road to progress and prosperity, whether they called it “free trade” as they did in the 19th century, or “globalization” and “outsourcing” as they do today. It is as much a truism as the Communist Manifesto’s call for the workers of the world to unite because they have nothing to lose but their chains.

And we must guard against the capitalist class natural inclination to take the more than $800 billion in public money from President Obama’s economic rescue plan and run.

Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.