One hundred and sixty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his first annual message to Congress. The event entirely lacked the fluffery of the modern State of the Union Address; Lincoln wrote a letter and had it delivered to the Capitol, where it was read aloud to however many members felt like lending an ear.
At the midpoint of his message, Lincoln made a statement that would be nothing short of economic heresy today. “Labor is prior to and independent of capital,” he said. “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.”
As this is a nation founded on the notion of plunder, whose first major industry was the exploitation of enslaved people’s labor by capital, labor has always taken a back seat to the priorities of concentrated wealth. For its part, capital has never shied away from playing deadly dirty to defend its interests. When the power of unions peaked in the manufacturing sector midway through the last century, for one example, capital shipped those jobs overseas en masse, shredding the power of unions for generations.
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
This is hardly the only instance of capital breaking its opposition across its knee. A century ago last week, coal miners in Blair, West Virginia, rose up in revolt against the deadly and deplorable conditions they were made to work in. The New York Times reports:
In late August 1921, thousands of rifle-bearing coal miners marched to this thickly wooded ridge in southern West Virginia, a campaign that was ignited by the daylight assassinations of union sympathizers but had been building for years in the oppressive despair of the coal fields. The miners’ army was met at Blair Mountain by thousands of men who volunteered to fight with the Logan County sheriff, who was in the pay of the coal companies. Over 12 miles and five days, the sheriff’s men fought the miners, strafing the hillsides with machine-gun fire and dropping homemade bombs from planes. There were at least 16 confirmed deaths in the battle, though no one knows exactly how many were killed before the US Army marched in to put a stop to the fighting.
The Battle of Blair Mountain, as it came to be called, was the largest insurrection in the U.S. since the Civil War. This was not a group of states seeking to set up shop in their own country. This was labor taking a stand against capital. It was not the only such incident; the Battle of Evarts in Kentucky and the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado featured ownership using horrific levels of violence to quell labor uprisings. The Blair Mountain fight stands apart from Ludlow in one vital respect: Ludlow is remembered and commemorated in Colorado, while the Battle of Blair Mountain is mostly forgotten.
“In the final room of the Mine Wars Museum, Kimberly McCoy, the museum’s resident guide, and a great-niece of Sid Hatfield, opened up five different West Virginia history textbooks from the 1930s to the 1980s to the section where ‘the Battle of Blair Mountain should have been,’ Kim said, ‘but they’re all empty,’” writes Samuel Fleischman for The Nation. “In 1920, Governor Ephraim Morgan set up an American Constitutional Association to select the textbooks used in West Virginia schools, which excluded any mention of the state’s mine wars. Generations grew up cut off from their ancestors’ struggles because business leaders were afraid history would repeat itself.”
A century later, the U.S. is fighting a pitched “culture war” battle over what right-wingers are describing as the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. As Elias Rodriques and Clinton Williamson point out in their recent Truthout article, “In actuality critical race theory is a subgenre of legal studies that emerged in the 1970s and that plumbs the ways in which race and gender structure U.S. laws and policies, excluding some and granting rights to others.” But the right wing is now using the term as a catch-all for any discussion of racism, sexism or other forms of oppression, seeking to ban discussions of truths that they see as threatening to their white supremacist priorities. Furthermore, they see it as bad for business, an affront to the advertising that has millions believing this is the “greatest nation on Earth,” even when all available metrics vividly say otherwise.
While the current efforts to stifle discussions of racism and sexism in schools are different in meaningful ways from the forces that suppressed public education about the Mine Wars of West Virginia, they share certain commonalities. Simply put: Facts destabilize fictions, and fictions are the adhesive that allows capital to hold and maintain power. If you’ve never heard of the Battle of Blair Mountain, you would not know that U.S. business leaders machine-gunned and bombed workers who only sought a modicum of dignity and safety in their labors. If you know, you may be motivated to act, and that right there is what capital seeks to quash.
It is no small irony that a century later, the coal powers of West Virginia once again stand in the path of progress. A much-needed $3.5 trillion budget bill will soon come to a vote in Congress. Its fate hinges on the actions of one man: West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Big Coal in his home state. Manchin has made noises about the bill costing too much, but in truth, he stands against it because several climate-related elements of the legislation will be bad for Big Coal’s bottom line, and he has gotten his marching orders from the interests that line his campaign pockets.
For its part, capital likewise detests this bill, because it pays for itself with taxes levied against the wealthy and corporations, and seeks to protect the environment in ways that might shrink profits in the name of rescuing the species. Capital has set up a seamless little feudal economy in the U.S., where the top 1 percent has sheared $50 trillion from the bottom 90 percent over the last few decades. It has no interest in surrendering this particular catbird seat.
It is all unsustainable on its face, but powered into continued existence by the fact that most people have not heard the stories about those who fought back. If we tell the stories, new legends will grow, and we may come to realize that we are not as powerless as capital would have us believe.