“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.” — Abraham Lincoln’s Message to Congress, Dec. 3, 1861.
Capitalists, the owners of capital, spend billions of dollars trying to erase this basic truth. Lincoln, today, would understand that wealth is not created by big bankers and financiers staring at computers on Wall Street. The trillions of dollars they send flying around the world electronically, the billions they hide in hedge funds and their personal bank accounts, are really wealth created by the work of steelworkers, hotel housekeepers, autoworkers, nurses, electricians, computer programmers and truck drivers.
Wealth is made when workers take raw materials, the bounty of nature, and turn them into useful products that meet people’s needs — iron ore becomes steel becomes bridges.
You’ve got to wonder what Lincoln would have thought about the millions being made off of bottled water by the giant soda pop transnationals. Water is one of the basic building blocks of life. It belongs to all. Yet capitalists can hire workers to put it in plastic bottles and sell it for a tidy profit. Without workers to make the plastic, to build and run the bottling machines, there would be no “water” capital. Bottled water has its uses. But Lincoln put a priority on the “common good.” He probably would have been more in favor of spending the capital created by those workers to provide clean drinking water for the millions on this planet who do without.
Labor Day is a good time to renew the idea that labor is “prior to” capital. Labor, the overwhelming majority of our people, has the right to demand that capital be invested in rebuilding our country, not sent overseas in search of greater profit. As our great labor anthem, “Solidarity Forever,” says it: “They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn, But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.”
Remember that on this Labor Day.