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.