If Marx’s Math is Fundamental, Why Do So Few Teach It?

Anthropologist professor Brian McKenna about the need to understand Marx and why one has to look beyond official education and media. s

“Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”

Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, (1867:233)

“Fuzzy math?” Obama accused Romney with it. Neither man touched on the most important math in America. It’s rarely taught. And, yes, it involves vampires … and jobs.

I’ve had 42 jobs in this life so far. The first was at age 6, in 1962, when I hauled groceries in my red wagon up a hill for elderly ladies from an A&P supermarket in Philadelphia. The women didn’t own cars. I’d get a quarter if I was lucky, maybe a glass of iced tea.

$0.00 an Hour

I’ve had several fast food jobs. I’ll never forget my first. I was 19 and I flipped burgers at Gino’s (a competitor of McDonald’s) in 1975 in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I was earning money for college. Ginos advertised “flexible hours” to cater to college student’s busy needs. I signed on at $1.90 an hour, plus one free hamburger per shift.

One day I was called in at the last minute for an evening shift of four hours. Not owning a car, I took public transportation to the place, about 4 miles away, for the 4:00 shift. It started to rain. When I arrived, soaking wet at 4:00, I was told, ‘we don’t need you anymore tonight, Brian.

“But it took an hour to get here and I want to work. Please let me do something.”

“Can’t you see?” the manager pointed out the window, “it’s raining out, hard, and no one is coming into Ginos. We don’t need you. Can you work a shift on Saturday at 11:00 to 2:00?”

“Can I at least have my hamburger?”

“But you didn’t work!” he said.

I got home around 6 PM. Total time spent from home to home again: 3 hours. Total wages earned: $0.00.

This was an education for me. I thought, why aren’t we paid for the time we travel to work, and for the time getting ready for work? Why do we have no real power at work? And how did they decide on the $1.90 price per hour in the first place? This led to a series of many more critical questions, over time, about commodity production and the reproduction of the laborer, about profits and people, about math, and about how we can and must resist.

Secret Knowledge

My 42nd job is the current one, as a teacher of anthropology. I’ve had it for eight years.  I’ve been a member of three unions in my time and have learned much about capitalism, resistance, and vampires since my red wagon days. One of the most important lessons I learned was Marx’s labor theory of value. It was quite a revelation. It seemed like secret knowledge that I wasn’t supposed to have. After all, no teacher or professor had ever mentioned it, all the way through the Bachelor of Arts.

Radical knowledge is about transforming the world, and yourself. Done properly, it gets quite personal. As Stanley Diamond put it, “Unless the anthropologist confronts his own alienation which is only a special instance of a general condition, and seeks to understand its roots, and subsequently matures as a relentless critic of his own civilization, the very civilization which objectifies man, he cannot understand or even recognize himself in the other or the other in himself” (Diamond 1972:402).

He wrote this about 40 years ago. I agree. That’s why I got into this field. And yet, today, most of university life still lacks the urgency for serious criticism of its own civilization. I’ve found that an application of Marx’s math to everyday life is an excellent point of departure to confront student alienation. Given my burger flipping history, here’s how I do it.

Marx at McDonalds

“Has anyone here ever worked for McDonald’s?” I ask. Usually 5 or 6 students raise their hands.

“And the pay. . . . How was it?”

“It was horrible, about $7.00 an hour.” “We were exploited, man.”

“Exploited? How so?”

“We should’ve been getting at least 9 or 10 bucks an hour,” one says.

“You have no idea. Let’s look at how Karl Marx and progressive economists today see it.”

Marx would note that McDonald’s Corporation, like all capitalist institutions, pays the burger flipper for her/his “labor power,” not their actual “labor.” Labor power,” means that the boss will pay you an ironclad wage, say $7.15 an hour, but then use all available means—surveillance, coercion, technical control—to extract every possible drop of labor from you. Your labor added enough value to the hamburger to pay for your hourly wage in the first 20 minutes of your labor. In other words, you work for free for a large percentage of the work day.

Let’s compare two sets of time behind the grill at McDonalds.

One time, during a rush hour, 5-6 PM. The other time during an average hour’s work.

The worker frantically flips 210 hamburgers between 5PM and 6 PM, besieged by the dinner rush. He cooks them under attentive eyes, adds the ketchup, mustard, pickles, and wrappers and presents them down the silver chute. Big Macs and cheeseburgers require extra preparation. The burgers are sold at $ 1.00 per sandwich. The cook has contributed some valuable labor (in addition to all those other laborers who to raised the cows, killed them, transported the meat, marketed the place, built the machines etc.) to help McDonald’s bring in $210.00 in sales for that hour.

Two hours later, between 8PM and 9 PM, the rush is over, and the worker returns to flipping the average rate of 70 burgers per hour. He’s still quite busy, but that hour McDonald’s sales from the burgers drops to $70.00

“Question for the class: Given that the worker performed three times the labor in the first hour than the second hour, helping his boss gather $210 versus $70 dollars in sales, how much more money did he receive in compensation for the rush hour?”

“None, he still gets the same,” the students answer.

“Yes, not a cent more. The worker is still paid the $7.15 per hour with no benefits.” He is paid for his “labor power,” his ability to perform as a virtual “wage slave,” i.e., his ability to take orders and perform potentially limitless amounts of work at his supervisor’s insistence, not a price for the actual results of his labor. The worker is like a Golden Goose.

$64.35 an Hour

But, in fact, if the worker was paid for his actual labor, he would have made approximately $64.35 for the rush hour and about $21.45 for the second (average) hour of work. That would be closer to the value that he added (this is explained in more detail below, based on consultation with political economist Hans Ehrbar using Bureau of Labor Statistics data).

Students fidget, unbelieving.

“You have been socialized to stick out your neck for the bite of the vampire.

That’s why Karl Marx compared capital to a vampire. You might know a lot about vampires from movies like Twilight and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but you have little conception of the real vampires in your everyday life. Despite years of math, you have never studied one of the most important mathematics questions: the value your labor produces per hour. Any comments?”

A critical dialogue commences with wild disagreements, challenges, confusion, insights and humor (Freire 1969). Some critique my interpretation, crediting the “job creators” for giving people a job, a chance to survive. “The capitalist takes the risk and deserves the money. Workers are lazy and need to be managed,” and so on. “Aren’t workers the wealth creators?” I ask. I let them speak and rarely intervene except to insure everyone gets a chance to air their views. I pull back to avoid so-called “politically correct” lines, since the pedagogical intent is to get students thinking and wrestling with ideas that closely impact their everyday lives.

So, then, where do Profits come from?

I share this tale with students and then ask them, “And so then, where do profits come from?”

“Supply and demand,” “raising prices at the store,” “moving factories to China.”

It’s as though they never heard me.

“You are onto something when you mention China, but that is not the precise essence. The essence, according to Marx, is that labor creates all value.

I return to the central point. “Under capitalism you are paid by a unit of time – the hour, NOT by a unit of production – like the burger.

“In short, capitalism is theft. The source of profits is you, from your stolen labor.”

One can show Alex Fu’s 6 minute video on “Marx’s Labor Theory of Value” (Fu 2007) to illustrate the above.

The Collapse of Work as Discussed in the Sunday New York Times of October 28, 2012

The colleges taught me very little about the above issues. But I noticed that the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News often talked about work life in the city. So I began to read newspapers everyday, closely and carefully, for evidence that supported my direct experience in the city. As a college student working 40 hours a week at various jobs, I was constantly on the subway going all around the city, and I put it to good use. I read.

What I found, is that you can pick up almost any mainstream newspaper and learn more about your local environment than you often do college!  Today colleges are accommodating you to jobs, not questioning the politics of labor. As I write this article, I noticed an article in the SundayNew York Times of October 28, 2012, that, if I were teaching this week, I would present for discussion, to underscore my point about the ubiquity of critical knowledge if we look for it. The story amplifies my Gino’s fast food experience. The current state of labor and math is truly gruesome.

In “Part-Time Life, as Hours Shrink and Shift,” NYT reporter Steven Greenhouse reported last week that “over the past two decades, many major retailers went from a quotient of 70 to 80 percent full-time to at least 70 percent part time across the country.”

In 2012, instead of looking out the window to determine who to call in to work, companies “plug in the temperature and rain forecast into. . .[new] software they use to schedule employees.” One software package, Kronois, finely slices workers’ hours and details the minutes a worker should be told to come in to work.  If they are unavailable when called in at the last minute, they risk losing their job (Greenhouse 2012).

How we arrive at the $17 and $64 hour estimates

I learned about the labor theory of value (LTOV) at the Center for Popular Economics in Amherst, Massachusetts at a week-long summer institute for activists in 1983. I was spurred to go there after reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Bowles and Gintis’ Schooling in Capitalist America, and Henry Giroux’s Theory and Resistance in Education 1983). I determined that I had to find a place where I could get answers to pressing questions that most often eluded formal schooling.

The CPE has been doing it for over 30 years now, and I encourage students to attend (CPE). There I learned about many resources I still turn to: Dollars and Sense, Monthly Review, union publications. Today I’ve extended it to other superb sources like Left Business Observer, Democracy now and lists like the Progressive Economists Network, PEN-L.

In preparing this article I asked PEN’Lers for their input. Hans Ehrbar, a political economist who teaches at the University of Utah, explained to me how he teaches Marx’s value theory.

“I tell my class that their wage is roughly half of the value created by their labor,” he said.

“To compute [the amount of value added by the burger flipper per hour] you would need to subtract the cost of materials and equipment transferred to the burgers from the price of the burger,” he said. “You cannot use firm-data for this, because due to the equalization of the rates of profit, some of the surplus-value created by labor intensive firms shows up as profits of capital intensive firms. Both of these objections can be remedied if you use national income data.”

“I can back this up by the following simple calculation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (See BLS 2012 below), total employment in the US is presently 142,974 thousand. With 52 weeks in the year, this means that 142974 x 52 =7,434,648 thousand weeks, or 7.434648 billion weeks, are worked every year.”

“According to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis (see BEA 2012 below), Gross Domestic Product in the third quarter of 2012 is at such a rate that for the whole year this would give $15,775.7 billion current dollars.  Dividing this by the number of weeks givesa value produced per person-week of $15,775.7 / 7.434648  = $2121.92 in current dollars.

“Now the BLS gives the “median weekly earnings” as $760 per week (see U.S. BLS 2011 Household Data Annual Avers below). Dividing this gives 760 / 2121.92 = 35.8 percent.  Including benefits, and making all the other adjustments which need to be made here one gets probably that average wages are a little less than half of the value created by the worker.”

“And the McDonalds wages?” I ask.

“I would agree that the wages at McDonalds are probably only a third of the value created, [BMcK: that is $7.15 * 3=$21.45 for an average hour and $64.35 for the rush hour] because unskilled laborers are in a worse bargaining position.  Even those with a so called well-paying job get only about half of the value created by their labor. It’s also important to remember that a piece wage for a burger flipper is not the solution. Even if they are paid piece wage, their piece rate per hamburger will still only be 1/3 of the value they add to this hamburger.”

Ehrbar said he made a very similar calculation for my class in 2007 using the exact same source data, (see Ehrbar 2007) and got a more favorable outcome for the workers: their earnings were 40.0 percent of value created. “I think the difference can be explained by the speedup since the 2008 crash.”

PEN-Ler Jim Devine, also teaches Marx’s Capital. He added that “one of the main points of CAPITAL is that despite the absence of the direct application of force . . .the nature of capitalism as a society means that workers are exploited despite their freedom. As Marx wrote, ‘the laborer purchases the right to work for his own livelihood only by paying for it in surplus labor’” (Devine 2012).

Dr. Devine insisted that I directly confront the notion of “job creators.”  “Tell them,” he said, “Yes, Virginia, capitalists _are_ job creators. But because of the way that capitalism is set up (with a small minority owning the means of production and the rest not), only they can afford to create jobs — and they only create jobs when they feel “property remunerated” (i.e., receiving a significantly positive rate of profit). Worse, the way that the system means that only the small minority — call them the 1% –  can be job creators. Individual workers can almost never afford to become self-employed — while the vast majority of those who do find themselves out of business very quickly. Workers’ cooperatives are even harder to set up, partly because banks refuse to lend to them.

The capitalists also work very hard in the political arena to prevent the government from creating jobs — unless it’s for military purposes or something else that doesn’t compete with business.”

Issues of supply and demand and raising store prices are all epi-phenomenon of deeper motions of capital, their essences revealed by more detailed argument.

The Twilight of Democracy

There are anthropologists who teach the LTOV, including Paige West at Columbia, and Gabriela Vargas Cetina at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán. Perhaps the most significant is Richard Robbins whose terrific text, “Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (2010 fifth edition) is one I use in my courses.

Eight of the top ten fastest growing occupations (numerically) 2010-2020 require no college education. These include retails sales (#2), home health aides (#3) and fast food workers like McDonalds (#6 at 398,000). Workers are compelled to leave the Bill of Rights at the door of the workplace as they enter it. There is little or no free speech, right to assembly, right to privacy, right to petition for the redress of grievances (given the virtual collapse of unions). That’s why we must send morestudents to college, to: 1) learn the secrets of this barbarian culture, 2) learn how they are immersed in history and 3) learn how to fight this oppression.

A central point is that there is no real democracy at the job, where it is most important. Capitalism requires a relentless search for cheap labor, raw materials and markets. War is often the result. In contrast, anthropology is about learning to see your own culture as a foreign culture. It’s very hard to see. As anthropologist Peter Rigby said, “capitalism is the most opaque form of oppression known to mankind, because in capitalism, people are convinced they are free, when, in fact, they are in chains.”

As amateur anthropologists in a savage land, you need to study your own working conditions. Study the power relationships at your job critically. Then, outside of work, find the time to critically reinvent yourself. Read Marx directly. Read as much as you can, including radical on-line sources daily – CounterPunch, Labor Notes, Monthly Review, New Left Review, Truthout.

And for you filmmakers out there, we need a remake of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Only this time, instead of hunting Civil War era slave-owners, take aim at the capitalist wage-slave owners … thereal vampires of today.

A version of this article was originally published in the Society for Applied Anthropology Newsletter, Vol. 23:4, November 2012. Pp. 19-23. Tim Wallace, editor.


Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn 


Center for Popular Economics (2012)http://www.populareconomics.org/

Diamond, Stanley (1974) “Anthropology in Question,” In Reinventing Anthropology, Dell Hymes, ed., New York:Vintage.

Devine, James. (2012) Email Communication. November 1.

Ehrbar, Hans (2012) Email Communication. October 28.

Ehrbar, Hans (2007) http://marx.economics.utah.edu/das-kapital/2012fa/920.html

Fu, Alex (2007) Marx’s Labor Theory of Value Video.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPAJgvM70OM&feature=fvsr

Grabiner, Gene (2012) The Real Wealth Creators, The Romney Doctrine. CounterPunch. October 29.

Greenhouse, Steven (2012) Part-Time Life, as Hours Shrink and Shift.New York Times. October 27.http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/28/business/a-part-time-life-as-hours-shrink-and-shift-for-american-workers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Marx, Karl. (1867) Capital, Volume 1. New York:International Publishers.

Robbins, Richard (2010) Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, 5th ed. Pearson:New York.http://faculty.plattsburgh.edu/richard.robbins/legacy/

U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (2012)http://bea.gov/newsreleases/national/gdp/gdpnewsrelease.htm

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012)http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012) Occupational Employment Statistics and Division of Occupational Outlook, Table 2. Occupations with the Largest Numeric Growth, 2010-2020.  http://www.bls.gov/ooh/About/Projections-Overview.htm

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011) Household Data Annual Averages, 39. Median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers by detailed occupation and sex. http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat39.pdf