Thoughts on wage labor
[Sheesh, I thought this would be wildly controversial! I'm stickying this because I really do need feedback on it, partly on the diagram style. As in, does it work? --lambert]
I must apologize for not writing up Point 1 of the 12-Point Platform. I've been blaming myself for dithering, and in fact I have been dithering, but it finally dawned on me that "A Living Wage" isn't only a simple social justice matter, but the crux of all the points and reforms that must follow it. Why?
Because we live in a capitalist society, and wage labor is the fundamental and distinctive social relation of capitalism. And so, in order to explain what a "living wage" is, I also need to explain what a wage is, and the manner of life it supports. So I dusted off my memory of the Old Mole, and came up with this diagram, using my mad iPad sketching skillz. And if you would give me feedback on the diagram, I'd appreciate it. I'm probably not going to learn to sketch better, but since the sketches of my garden have helped me gather the knowledge I intended them to gather, I don't think my artistic skills are at issue; but I may very well have gone wrong, conceptually. So herewith:
Now that I think of it, this is probably a little two abstract, and I need stick figures and houses and food on the "commodities" side, and lots of dollar signs on the money side. Spoiler alert: The Old Mole had at least two cycles through which money moved C-M-C (blue) and M-C-M' (red). But I want to avoid that jargon if I can, and express the ideas with the simplicity that the truly have.
So. We are looking at a simple model world of commodities ("stuff") and money, and people who own, that is, can buy and sell, money and stuff. And in our simple model world, people enter into social relations with other other, and are defined by, their relationship to money and stuff. (This means that we're leaving out a lot of other social relations, like families, and friends (Facebook or not), and other more complex relationships, like voting, or joining a co-op, or being a student, and so forth.)
And in our simple model world (diagrammed above) there are two kinds of people.
1) In blue: People who sell stuff (C) for money (M) in order to buy more stuff (C). No, not at eBay; maybe you work at McDonalds on the line, or at Walmart restocking, or at the doctor's office keeping the books, or at a university as an adjunct, or as a factory worker on an assembly line, where the money you get for selling stuff is called a "wage," and the place where you sell that stuff is called your "job." We call the blue people "wage laborers" or "workers."
"But what stuff (C) am I selling?" you ask. Well, you aren't selling yourself; that would be slavery (or indentured servitude). And you aren't selling things aren't stuff to begin with, like pride in your work, or happiness in service people, or taking joy from creativity; you "can't put a dollar value" on your state of mind or your heart. The "stuff" (C) you are selling is called your "labor power," and that is what's left over from what you do at work after everything that would make you uniquely you is stripped away. We say "nobody is irreplaceable" or "no-one is essential" exactly because every job calls upon sets of basic skills that most people in society share the power to do, or can learn to do. For example, when I was a braider tender in the mills, I could change X thousands of bobbins an hour, and anybody who could change the same number of bobbins was interchangeable with me; or any two people, since I was very fast. The ability to change X thousands of bobbins an hour as a braider tender was an exercise of my labor power (C), for my wage (M), with which I bought food (C), paid the rent (C), etc.
2) In red: People who use money (M) to buy stuff (C) to get more money (M). My mill owner, for example, bought yarn (C), machines (C), electric power (C), the mill (C), and my labor power (C), and all of those commodities (C) were transformed by the operation of labor power into a product, cord, that he sold, receiving money (M). We call the red people "owners" or, better, "capitalists," since if I am not mistaken, the money (M), whether in cash, at the bank, or translated into commodities (C) like yarn, or machines, or electric power, or (when purchased) labor power, is all "capital."
So, workers begin with a commodity (C), labor power, sell it for money (M, a "wage"), and use the money to buy commodities (C), beginning the cycle again.
Capitalists begin with money (M), purchase commodities (C), among them labor power, and transform the commodities into money (M), beginning the cycle again.
We call this set of social relations "capitalism." (Parenthetically, one of the nice things about thinking of wage labor in the form of this diagram is that it disposes of the whole "jobs creators" canard. I mean, it's always been silly, because businesses aren't social welfare organizations; they are there to make money, and not "create jobs." But, more subtly, "jobs," from the owner's perspective, do not exist so that you, as a person, can lead your life; they are there to provide, as it were, a product specification for the purchase of labor power from whoever has it.
So, now we know what a wage is; what do we mean by a living wage?
The capitalist, in paying your wage, is purchasing your labor power (C), and the price (M) they would like to pay is how much it takes you to "live" (consuming C1, 2, 3 .... n) and come back the next day, every day, as long as the requirement for your labor power exists. (In the jargon, this is called "the reproduction of labor power.") Assuming you are a worker, you can see at once this is a power relationship in which the capitalist has a lot more power than you; since any given worker is, by definition (at least in our small model world), expendable and interchangeable with any other, there's a lot of scope for gaming workers (like "human resources," bullying, firing, blackballing, creating conditions where people are desperate for work, "hiring one half the working class to kill the other," and so forth.) And so the natural tendency, all other things being equal, is for wages to sink to just enough to let you come in to work the next day, and the day after, and the day after (this is called "the subsistence level").
And so in China, for example, a "living wage" could well imply eating at a company cafeteria, sleeping in a company dorm, and a very low wage. In Cambodia, a "living wage" could mean much less. In Germany, a "living wage" might mean enough to own your own home, a car, acquire education, and so on. In this country, the "living wage" is somewhere between China and Germany. It is true that commodities (C) are cheaper in China or Cambodia than in Germany or here, and so whatever basket of commodities adds up to the subsistence level is different for each country, but it's also true that in German workers have more clout than Chinese workers, and Chinese workers have more clout than Cambodian ones, for reasons having to do with the history, sociology, and culture of each country. We might also bring in globalization at this point, since that tends to equalize the living wage all over the world, and for what is considered subsistence to average out (that being one thing "trade deals" are supposed to help with). And in fact that's what is happening in the U.S.; our wages are gradually trending toward the worldwide average.
You can also see a second level of power relationships when you look at where each cycle terminates. For the worker, the cycle begins with C (labor power) and ends with C (consumption of commodities). It's easy to see that the worker, even if they could do so, can't get more political power by accumulating, say, loaves of bread or wide-screen TVs; and it is equally easy to see that capitalists can and do gain political power by accumulating money (M), since they can use some portion of their profits to make sure the balance of power between them and their workers such that workers can sell their labor power for the minimum amount that is "politically feasible."
You can see clearly the idea that capitalists would prefer (although there are exceptions to everything) to keep wages at a subsistence level if you've been following the minimum wage debate and in particular, Walmart. Walmart has so much political power that it's actually able to pay it's workers below subsistence; if workers had to live on Walmart's wages alone, they would not be able to reproduce their labor power! How do we know this? Because Walmart workers must supplement their wages with Food Stamps and other forms of public assistance.
Finally, people on the street are asking for a $15 minimum wage. But Obama and the Democrats are proposing a $10.10 minimum wage. Why $10.10?
For all Walmart workers, if you do the math: M = Wages at $7.25 per hour + Public Assistance = Wages at $10.10.
In other words, the minimum wage at $7.25 plus public assistance equals the minimum wage of $10.01 and no public assistance. So the Democrats are just playing a shell game, and there's no more money in your pocket.
With $15 an hour, there would be more money in your pocket (and nobody would go out of business, either, although that is a post for another day).
NOTE I realize this is an explicitly reformist post. That is because the 12 Points and 12 Reforms are exactly that: Reformist and not revolutionary. However, taken in their entirely, I think the whole package would drastically improve the lives of workers everywhere, and the record of revolutions in the 20th Century is not a good one. Of course, anything can happen when reasonable demands are refused.
NOTE  Libertarians call this "the magic of the marketplace" or, perhaps, "freedom."
NOTE  I need to look more into the part-time / full-time distinction here. I'm guessing even the full-timers need help.