Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Minimum Wage

The seventeenth century Dutch of Amsterdam broke with all tradition in their Protestant disregard for Catholic teachings about commerce and, equally, in their emulation of the activities of the Jewish merchants among them.  The Dutch went where the Spanish were not, while Spain mined the New World of its gold and silver and thereby destroyed its home economy with inflation and corruption.  The Dutch led both the English and French in establishing a commercial "empire."  Of course the machinations of Louis XIV in France impinged on the freedoms the Dutch enjoyed and the Dutch East India company took, but the bourgoisie of both France and England became quite jealous of the prosperous Dutch.

It was the dawning of a global economy, nascent at least, but touching all the inhabited continents (but Australia) and most of their civilizations.  Human slavery was part of the whole, the three-cornered Atlantic trade being the most well-known to Americans and Europeans, and it was widely practiced.  Civilizations outside of metropolitan Europe practiced slavery widely, as well.  Seen as a economic question of raw materials, labor, and finished products ready for market, continuation of slavery was integral to the continuation of profits, for the competition among merchants kept prices low enough to hover over and dip down into the most flexible of the costs--labor.  Virtually free labor insured profits and continuation of the enterprise.

Almost needless to say slavery was eventually abolished and declarations of human rights proclaimed to establish a public, even economic, morality about it.  The occasional emergence of outright slavery today is thought to be almost entirely related to prostitution, and our imaginations roll away from the implications of it as if prostitution were a reasonable excuse for enslaving "those who allow their bodies to be used." 

Child labor is a form of slavery, and using one's own children to achieve economic gain is.  People will argue this point endlessly, but the fact is that the child has no alternative and no viable means of escape.  They are in servitude and their work is more or less free to their parents and relatives.  In fact, it is this sort of "economics" that perpetuates the overpopulation of the the planet, for subsistence farmers and city-dwellers alike see children as costing less that the economic benefit of their work to the economic unit of which they are a part.

Then there is so-called "wage slavery," a tricky concept, but nevertheless amenable to discussion and analysis.  Management would say that if a wage is tendered for the work obtained, then there can be no literal use of the term "slavery."  The labor side has to rely on a gestalt definition of a job that pays too little, yet consumes the available work hours to the point where the worker is reduced to a routine of work for the employer, recuperation time, work for the employer with virtually no chance of self-investment to improve one's lot.

The original idea of the Minimum Wage was less complicated.  It simply said that there is a point on the curve of incomes in THIS society below which a worker working 40-60 hours per week still cannot make ends meet and is caught in an out-of-control spiral downward toward economic unusefulness from ill-health, malnutrition, or a combination of meager economic circumstances.  The exploitation of labor at less than survival standards relative to the society is virtual slavery, not because of chains and fetters keeping the person in these circumstances, but because of the absolute lack of an alternative for such persons.

There was a day when picking up the family and carting them west was an alternative.  That frontier society and all the escape valves it could offer is long gone.  We are now a civilization of place holders (mobile only to the extent that we can hold different places by moving, but moving is an economic decision that is anything but free).  We are not unfree because moving is expensive and highly regulated.  We are unfree when the circumstances of our place holding conspire to keep us where we are because we cannot afford to move or we cannot afford to quit the dead-end underpaid job.

The recent refusal of the Republicans in Congress to consider raising the standard of living of millions of Americans by raising the Minimul Wage was an act of wage slavery.  It was as evil and hard-hearted a decision as the capture and selling into plantation slavery of Africans two and three hundred years earlier.  It is a deplorable act of selfish greedy and corrupt morals.  It is an act of class warfare against which all civilized men and women must struggle.