John G Bell


Fall '03 - Gomez & Unsel

Week 6 – Critical Integrative Comment

Free Labor, Free Soil: An Economic Interpretation of the Civil War

One comment made about slave labor in lecture was that a slave owner could always underbid a wage earning labor force, but I wonder if this is really the case. I wonder if the economic advantage of slave labor isn't more of an illusion than a fact. I wonder about the fact that a labor force of slaves has to be taken care of, essentially cradle to grave, where a wage labor force can be commoditized and only need be paid for during it's productive lifetime. Slave labor, when infirmed or dead, has to be replaced at great expense, as a capital investment; whereas wage labor can be replaced by new workers at only the cost of training them, or by even cheaper labor in a race to the bottom. Here's my guess: the idea that one could just work a slave to death because it was free labor was rather less true than for wage labor: the cost of replacing the slave was likely greater than the wages paid to the worker if the health of both is not cared for by the capitalist.

On the topic of land, the South, with an economy based on slavery, seemed to require more free land to survive. On the one hand, the South was trying to nationalize slavery into all the territories in order to expand. On the other hand, the South was eyeing the land of Mexico, further south as a place in which to expand. The South was going to fight over nationalizing slavery north, or it was going to fight over new territory in Mexico. That seems to suggest that the economic structure of slavery was seriously out of whack. If the only way for it to survive was to expand, then it wasn't something that could reach a stable state. What I mean is that if they required an influx of free land on which to expand slavery, then the economics of slavery was not creating a positive balance of wealth in the long run.

Free labor wasn't really free but by slavery moved labor into a kind of capital investment. Wage labor is not free either, but it's more like a commodity, once deskilled, in the industrial north moved labor into a simple means of production, a kind of natural resource like land. Both movements remove agency from the people and place it in the hands of the capitalists. Both attempts dehumanize labor by removing agency and determination from its value.

Free land wasn't really free by by expansion acquired more land to broaden the available production capacity of the agriculturally centered economy of the South. But that land would require investment and improvement in order to become productive, and that's an investment. Further, expansion of capacity is a temporary fix to an unbalanced economic system. Once production was up to speed, the amount of wealth necessary to keep the system running would exceed that production in the end.

The South was like the franchise that has to increase profits in it's annual reports. However, since they've maximized profits at all existing stores, the only way to get more profit is to expand into new markets. This expansion provides a boost to the quantity of profit as a whole, but the added expense to the bottom line of a new storefront, new workers all add up and catches up to the profit. Then, the franchise is further expanded, ad nauseam. Finally, the expansion becomes a dire necessity, but is ultimately the cause of the company's collapse. Another example that comes to mind is the way that the timber industry and oil industries are always clamouring for additional land from which to derive profit. This constant need for expansion means that the existing company is not running a sustainable financial model.

I've not really thought before that the Civil War was an action taken by the South to protect a doomed, failing economic system, but it sure seems like one plausible analysis of what triggered the conflict.