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Abraham Lincoln and Wage Slavery

I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science in 1995. My interests include political and social issues and history.

During Abraham Lincoln's time, most people did not have jobs, nor did they expect to be stuck in jobs, unlike our present time in which we assume jobs are necessary and that we are stuck keeping one and must get one and have one. This necessity to rent yourself to someone who has the capital and owns the company is called wage slavery. Certainly, most people would be doing something else other than going to the job and giving up their time and energy, their lives, except that they can't do anything else due to the fact they feel they must, for the sake of survival, be tied to the job. That's slavery. In chattel slavery, you would be bought and sold and work for no pay, except the food and board, such as it was, to keep you alive to work. In wage slavery, you are paid whatever it is that will give you the money to keep you alive to work. So, the only difference is in the pittance.

Consider what Noam Chomsky, brilliant linguist and academician and activist, said about wage slavery, chattel slavery and Abraham Lincoln.

Noam Chomsky, Abraham Lincoln, Wage Slavery and Chattel Slavery

What Were Lincoln's Views on Labor?

Lincoln's view on labor was that the functioning of the world presupposes that labor will exist. People will work to produce and this will make the world go round, so to speak.

The divergence from Lincoln's thought on labor, which was common during his time, and how we think of it today is in this perception today that we must work for someone else for our livelihood. During Lincoln's time, this would have been seen as an absurd assumption. At best, wage labor, or wage slavery, was a stepping stone to working for yourself and enjoying the fruits of your own labor directly, not through the authority and control of a monied class.

Even in all our slave states except South Carolina, a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters. In these free states, 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 on capital on the one hand, nor of hirelings or slaves on the other.

Indicating Lincoln saw wage labor merely as a stepping stone, he goes on to say:

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...This, say it's advocates is free labor - the just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all, gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.

So, clearly, Lincoln did not see wage slavery as a permanent condition. Nor did he think it was a desirous condition. The underlying assumption of his statements on the matter is that you will not want to labor forever for someone else, renting yourself out to those with capital. Indeed, you will want your own capital and use your labor and its products for yourself and reap all of its benefits; and this is beneficial to everyone, and everyone ought to be free to do it.

Lincoln's objection to chattel slavery was, in fact, that this movement to economic freedom was not possible under its yoke. While, at least there's a possibility of breaking off from wage labor and being independent of a master. Neither the condition of the chattel slave nor that of the wage slave was considered ideal, for you have a master you are beholden to on the one hand and an employer that controls you on the other.

Freedman's monument, first statue made in honor of Lincoln, the idea of a freed slave after hearing of Lincoln's assassination. The statue is also the first depiction of a prominent African-American, Archer Alexander, last slave to be captured.

Freedman's monument, first statue made in honor of Lincoln, the idea of a freed slave after hearing of Lincoln's assassination. The statue is also the first depiction of a prominent African-American, Archer Alexander, last slave to be captured.

What happened to labor after the Civil War?

Well, strangely enough, even with Lincoln's conception and observation of free labor, soon after the Civil War and after slavery was abolished, free labor began to die and be replaced by wage labor. As the New York Times revealed in 1869 that free laborers

...had become far less common than they were before the war...the small manufacturers thus swallowed up have become workmen on wages in the greater establishments, whose larger purses, labor-saving machines, etc., refused to allow the smaller manufacturers a separate existence...a system of slavery as absolute if not as degrading as that which lately prevailed in the South.

Thus, America became a nation of wage workers, no longer free with their time and energy to produce on their own and reap the benefits of their hard work, time and energy. They had become controlled by a monied class that controlled the means of production and, therefore, the people who worked for them. Not a big step beyond chattel slavery at all.

Frederick Douglass freed himself from slavery and went on to become one of America's leading abolitionists and even advised Lincoln on occasion.

Frederick Douglass freed himself from slavery and went on to become one of America's leading abolitionists and even advised Lincoln on occasion.

Frederick Douglass and Wage Slavery

Frederick Douglass was the man who was a slave down South, who became keenly aware of his condition, strengthened his mind, and even went as far as beating his owner for beating him. With his smarts and determination, he escaped slavery and the South and went to New York where he was aided by abolitionists to stay safe and free.

At first celebratory about being able to earn a livelihood from his work as opposed to being a chattel slave that was owned and exploited by the Southern slave master, Douglass, being a thoughtful man eventually changed his views on wage slavery too.

...experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.

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What had previously been human tasks will soon be replaced exclusively by the work of robots.

What had previously been human tasks will soon be replaced exclusively by the work of robots.

What is the future of wage slavery?

With the advent of the Internet and other technologies which make life easier, communication better and more things possible, it seems we are soon to see the death of wage slavery; for certain we are seeing its decline. More people are working for themselves online, at the very least not tied to a job they have to rush off to and stay at while under the thumb of the boss and the strange social order of the workplace. More people are becoming entrepreneurial in spirit and considering the value of working for themselves and being free with their time and to direct their own lives.

The industrial age is dying and being replaced with people choosing their own way, saying what they need to say and rejecting the old tradition of wage slavery and being tied to the monied elite for their livelihoods. We are communicating more, the people themselves decide how products are presented and what is said about them. Particularly because of the Internet, we have seen a surge of real everyday people making decisions as opposed to everything being directed by corporations and big money marketing.

Ordinary people are telling other ordinary people which products are worth buying. Regular folks are telling other regular folks how they see the world. We are no longer sat in front of the TV screen passively taking in the information that big companies want us to receive. We are actively participating and making the decisions and having an effect on the world.

So, the future of wage slavery is that it is going away and being replaced by people having direct lines to each other and a direct line to economic opportunities for themselves, in an atmosphere that requires less capital to do so and the technology to make it happen.

As is obvious, machines are taking over the tough labor. It will soon be completely unnecessary for human beings to do the menial and degrading tasks that we have had to endure in the past. We will be freed up to make our own decisions daily, use our minds creatively and thereby create a better world, in which we are healthy, happy and doing what we love to do, no longer held down by employment and no longer having brain and body broken down by the job.

What will happen when technology replaces human labor?

It certainly is inevitable that robots will replace the human laborer and we will involuntarily get rid of wage slavery. But what we do from there is totally up to us.

© 2014 Nathan Bernardo


Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on August 27, 2020:

Hi, Rachael. Well, to me if your job determines whether you live or die, and it does, then it's pretty much slavery. But definitely much worse if you are underpaid, which is the situation for many of us. My feeling is that it will all change, because sooner or later we will see that it's an unworkable system that leads to more problems than it's worth and that maybe we would be better off considering people's well-being and what they can do with their time that is actually productive and creative. And then there's the possibility that there will be no jobs due to technological advancements, which I think is the case. Eventually there will be alternatives because we'll have not choice but do things differently. Maybe we will need to install Universal Basic Income and human activity will change, maybe be freed to do worthwhile things not just slaving away.

Rachael Lefler from Illinois on August 26, 2020:

I like your points, and I was surprised by your quotes of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. But, the problem with your assessment that things are getting better is that it's not getting better for everyone evenly. It's a global system of trade. Manufacturing creates wage slavery now, not so much in the U.S. and other "first world" nations, but very much the practice is still alive in China, South Asia, and so on. The majority of the world's population live in countries that are exploited by the West for manufacturing and resources. And, even in the United States, they make it pretty damn difficult for an ordinary wage worker to become an entrepreneur, because wages are so low and stagnant relative to inflation that few people can have any savings. You need savings and investments to open up a future for yourself as an entrepreneur, or you rely on the generosity of someone else. Both options are accessible only to a few, while the vast majority end up staying at the minimum wage their whole lives.

Dylan B. Raines on July 04, 2020:

I certainly hope technology can replace much of the work humans currently do. However, as I read your essay, I wondered why wage slavery didn't come to an end during the 19th century. I also thought about the boom in consumerism which began and burst throughout the 20th century. It seems to me that if people lived based on what they needed and luxury within reason, perhaps there would have been far less work for people to do. Yet with more "needs" and markets for products beings created all the time, I am skeptical that even if with technology replacing human-jobs, we will just invent more unnecessary stuff in order to perpetuate wage slavery.

Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on October 08, 2014:

I see now that I read your statement incorrectly, Ron. You were referring to workers using this technology as people making money online; that's how I'm now reading it anyway. That's food for thought whether the new technology would make anything different for such people or just create a different form of the old form of worker, but without benefits, being "independent". I'm not sure. I know I'd prefer not to work for an employer if I can help it. The other issue is whether people would rather not work on a job; I do know job satisfaction is at an all-time low these days. People are less satisfied with their jobs and have less time to live their actual lives outside of work.

Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on October 08, 2014:

Good food for thought, Ron. I think a lot of people would definitely choose freedom over being trapped by a job; but it's a good question how many. It's also still a question of whether anyone will have a choice at some point. I think jobs will be gone within several decades; at least, jobs as we know them. I think more and more they will be unnecessary, and particularly the unnecessary ones will be going away. I suppose there will be some, as you suggest, but even those I'd think would be few: How many people are Google-type engineers? I think Google doesn't have that many employees, and those they have are treated very well; they can afford to treat a small group well. (I just Googled it while writing up this comment: Google, in 2010, had 24,000 employees worldwide. To compare, I looked up how many people Nestle employs; it's 333,300. Just went and checked McDonalds; they employ 1.7 million. Fairly significant difference).

I've even heard it suggested, and it is possible, that the government could be run by computers. Doing that makes more sense than the circus we now call politics, which is mainly show and a lot of other things we don't know about. Administration of anything could easily be done by computers. I think we just go through the motions these days that our jobs are more important and necessary than they really are.

I also think with the advancement of technology and the freeing up of time and improvement of lives, we are liable to have an entirely different system; might not be any more questions of benefits and other advantages had by workers. If we truly advance, these things would be available regardless. I think we will be surprised by what the future holds.

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 08, 2014:

Interesting discussion. I would suppose that the Labor Movement was a reaction to perceptions of wage slavery. But is "wage slavery" really dying because of technology? Think of the major producers of that technology. Could a Google or Microsoft exist without armies of wage earners working for them? Designating those workers as independent contractors wouldn't change the dynamic, except for the worse - now they'd still work for what the employer was willing to pay, but with no benefits. Certainly technology is allowing many workers to genuinely go independent, but will the vast majority ever want to accept the economic uncertainty, as well as the requirements of technical, financial, and marketing sophistication that go with being on your own?

Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on February 01, 2014:

Exactly, Cecile. I think the overall result in machines taking over labor will be that people will be able to avoid exploitation and will be free to pursue more meaningful and independent work. It's said this change from human to machine labor will be complete by 2040 or 2050. It will be a dramatic change. We've already moved from manufacturing jobs to service jobs, now we'll move from service jobs to no jobs; but I think we will have something better in the end, if we do the right thing.

Cecile Portilla from West Orange, New Jersey on February 01, 2014:

Nice hub NateB11. If Machines take over menial labor then people will be forced to pursue higher education in order to qualify for non menial jobs. They will set an example for their children follow. Might not be a bad thing since too many successful companies thrive by exploiting poorly educated employees.

Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on January 28, 2014:

I totally agree with you about the grapes, that's for sure. Glad you stopped by Treathyl, always a pleasure.

Treathyl FOX from Austin, Texas on January 28, 2014:

Learned two things. The definition of “wage slavery” and the name of the last slave to be captured.

Also, with respect to technology replacing human labor? I for one will be very happy when grapes are no longer stomped on by human feet. :)

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