Sunday, February 16, 2014

Walmart and Necessary Labor Time

I have been thinking lately about the rhetoric around Walmart workers, their wages, and the argument that the government is subsidizing Walmart by providing food stamps to the workers because they are not getting paid enough to live on. It’s an argument worth exploring, and reading Capital lends dimension to it.

When Marx writes about the exploitation of labor power (320), he uses the term “necessary labor-time” to refer to the labor time needed for a worker to earn enough to subsist, or for the capitalist, the labor-time needed for the continued existence of the labor (325).  The assumption is that the employed worker is making enough to meet his/her needs.   Later Marx writes that one of the features of Capitalism is that the constant annihilation of the workers’ means of subsistence provides their continued reappearance on the labor marker (719).

So it seems, in the case of Walmart employees, the annihilation of their means of subsistence happens when they are employed, not when they are “on the market.” One could argue that, because their labor power is not enough to produce even their means of subsistence, they are in a sense unemployed. This also illustrates the tendency of capitalists to push the cost of labor closer to “absolute zero” (748). It seems that Walmart pushes the wages of its workers to less than absolute zero. Not to pick on Walmart, though, any minimum wage job is going to put a worker in similar circumstances.

So, the government steps in to provide “subsistence” on behalf of the corporation. It gives a whole new dimension to the practice of corporate subsidies. In the current economy, many workers are forced to depend on government assistance whether or not they are employed. The difference is in degree.

1 comment:

  1. Kim, I think you make an excellent point about the fact that the minimum wage system of "employment" does not value its workers enough to - essentially- grant them life (the ability to pay for food and housing) but simultaneously takes away a more abstract sense of "living" in that the workers are devoting their time - away from their families - to system that requires them to turn assistance programs when they are, indeed, doing everything possible to support themselves and their families.

    I want the numbers on how the corporations that under employ these workers taxes match up to what the government in turn pays in "subsistence" - I don't say this in a way that would make it "okay" if the tax revenue were indeed to come out ahead - I'm just tired of hearing about how corporations need tax breaks to under employ more workers who are then in desperate need of assistance.


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