By Larry Barnett
The idea of labor as a commodity, the creation of a class of people subject to competitive rates who can be bought and sold on the open market, is inherently dehumanizing.
But we live in a capitalist world addicted to consumption, increased productivity and shareholder profit. Accordingly, though relegated to virtual wage-slavery and perpetual poverty, our lowest paid workers additionally suffer the indignity of hunger, exhaustion and insecurity in support of their families. Measures intended to ameliorate their worst economic pain include a minimum wage, but the business community and its political allies have successfully resisted any meaningful increase of late, arguing that it would be bad for business, prices and the consumer. Such arguments are not new.
As the devastating poverty of the industrial revolution began to be felt across England at the beginning of the 19th century, policies were implemented to influence the availability of labor to sustain the supply of underpaid workers. At the heart of these policies were “the powerful pangs of hunger.” Economists of the time, such as Edmund Burke and Jeremy Bentham, disagreed about methods, but both agreed, in the words of economic historian Karl Polanyi, that when it came to finding workers, “If hunger would do the job, no other penalty was needed.”
We still find this bias among those who oppose an increase of the minimum wage, which has fallen far behind inflation. Hunger and want remain coercive tools of modern capitalism which, in the current withering of government-supported social safety nets, provide the supposed inducement the lowest paid workers need to fill jobs others find distasteful.