In Chapter 8, Marx presents the concept of surplus-value as the key to capital’s increase: “This surplus-value is the difference between the value of the product and the value of the elements consumed in the formation of the product, in other words the means of production and the labour-power” (317). He then establishes corresponding terms in constant capital (means of production) and variable capital (labour-power). I am convinced—at least for the time being—of the calculations explicating the constancy of constant capital (including depreciation). This, of course, leaves the variability of variable capital as the only possible source of increase. Marx has previously explained that “in its pure form, the exchange of commodities is an exchange of equivalents, and this it is not a method of increasing value” (261). I think it is worth noting how heavily Marx deploys polemics to support this argument whereas he uses formulations in his discussion of variable capital. But I think that the “in its pure form” caveat does the necessary heavy lifting to make this argument work.
I am interested in the continuing legacy the exploitation (or theft) of labour-power from the worker. I was listening to a conversation about the new minimum wage hike proposals; someone on the neo-liberal left was debating someone on the neo-liberal right when the topic of the minimum wage for tipped employees came up. I had forgotten, since I left the hospitality industry a decade ago, one of the things I learned that shocked me the most. As many are aware, tipped employees don’t receive paychecks, or rather, they receive checks for zero dollars.
Tipped employees make $2.13. As long as employee tips make up the difference to $7.25, the employer does not need to pay them more. This difference is calculated at a fixed percentage of sales (something like 8%). As tips are taxable, the employer also withholds taxes also in accordance with that same percentage of sales. So, provided that overtime is not a factor (and overtime is really not much of a factor), then the employer is responsible for some (relatively fixed) percentage of sales for withholding for tax purposes. Beyond the payroll tax duties, it cannot exceed the payroll amount calculated at $2.13 per hour (Checks can be zero, but they can’t be negative). Tipped employees do have some rights in declaring actual gratuity, but in my experience this is typically not done. My first question was whether or not this represented some shift in labour-power from variable to constant capital since the percentage of withholding is based on a fixed percentage of sales plus the minimum per hour wage; the equation based on number of hours and percentage of sales is at least predictable. But then I considered the role of the server’s labor in the commodity—the other side of Marx’ argument. If it is agreed that the value of the commodity of a plate of food is increased or decreased by the quality of service, then the capitalist (the employer) provides a relatively fixed wage (though not necessarily received by the employee), while the value of the commodity increases in a manner that is potentially limitless. The hope of a gratuity isn’t a wage even if it spurs and improved commodity: better service, servers performing side-work, etc. The gratuity isn’t a factor in the purchase price of either the means of production or the labour-power. True, taxes are withheld on all wage workers. However, to withhold taxes on tipped employees is to withhold taxes on an imagined wage not provided by the employer.
(Note: I haven’t been associated with this stuff in a while, but I did do some poking around online. I may have a detail or two slightly off, but I do think the big picture is right. These practices do also vary from place to pace and state to state. I just know a lot of people that never got a paycheck even if they were raking in the cash.)