Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx: How Money Corrupts American Democracy

In Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, he presents an argument favoring law and order as contingent for the preservation of American democracy from the threat of mob rule and demagoguery. He states that mob rule is capricious and punishes the innocent as much, if not more so, than the guilty. As he puts it, “When men take it in their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake. And not only so; the innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down, and disregarded. But all this even, is not the full extent of the evil.–By such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained.–Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation.” [1] Lincoln, however, was blind to the true threat to democracy.

It is wealth which threatens democracy. In Lincoln’s time, black men, women, and children were the property and wealth of prestigious white families. It is not a surprise to consider that those households with the most slaves were the wealthiest of Southern families.  Likewise, it was in the name of slavery that the Confederate States of America seceded from the United States. It was in the name of owning other human beings that our country went to war with itself. It was a war over wealth.

Despite the bad press given him by many past and present, Marx was social reformer confronted with a Europe changed by the Industrial Revolution. Marx saw the way labor was exploited for the benefit of the rich. It was this exploitation he would criticize in his work. Through his essays, particularly The Communist Manifesto, Marx would lay out his theories on society, wealth, and many other issues. His work would have a lasting influence on many later social reformers and radicals.

Lincoln praises the law and exhorts us to follow it or at least suffer the consequences of breaking them. Unfortunately, wealth brings power and the more wealth a person has the greater their influence in society. Moreover, the wealthy are insulated from the suffering of the poor. They can know they’ll have bed or food or a job whenever they want it, but for many of the poor these will only be pie in the sky hopes.

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When one is barely making enough to feed themselves or house themselves, something is wrong with society. If allowed to, companies would gladly allow their workers to work for a pittance. In the days of the robber barons and company towns, some workers were paid in company money to buy goods in company stores in a form of debt bondage. As Chris Rock puts it, “I used to work at McDonald’s making minimum wage. You know what that means when someone pays you minimum wage? You know what your boss was trying to say? “Hey if I could pay you less, I would, but it’s against the law.”

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In their pursuit of profit the modern day robber barons keep their workers on subpar wages, forcing the workers to rely on welfare. Consider these articles from Mother Jones for example. In “New Report Shows How Walmart Forces Its Employees to Live on the Dole“, the author discusses how Wal-Mart keeps its workers on welfare while the company makes extravagant profit. In another article, “Walmart Gave Workers a Raise—But It’s Not Enough to Keep Them off the Dole“, Mother Jones reveals how Wal-Mart’s wage increase still doesn’t help their employees. This is equally true in the fast food industry. If all businesses and their owners placed employees first, this would not be a problem. But they don’t, and unions have been the principal defenders of the working class. It was unions who gave us the eight hour day and many other benefits we take for granted. And to do it, they often had to break the law.

The greatest deception of all is the belief hard work will deliver us all into the world of the wealthy. It justifies the punishment and dehumanization of the welfare recipient for the benefit of the wealthy elite. It subverts democracy to plutocracy. A true democracy allows the workers’s voice to speak and be heard. Only by limiting the corruption of wealth’s influence can democracy be saved from the mob rule of money and the dollar demagogues.

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