Wage debates in twentieth-century Europe were dominated by a new regulating principle: the minimum vital, ‘living wage’ or Existenzminimum. This chapter analyzes the political-scientific content of the ‘vital’ or ‘living’ component of the living wage. The figure of the vital minimum traveled from classical political economy to physical energetics, Marxism and social Catholicism, to social statistics to Fordist wage regulation and welfare. The vital minimum performed multiple rhetorical and political functions, often contradictory. It could refer to a physiological threshold, grounded in chemical-thermodynamic studies of individual male model organisms (workers.) Or the vital minimum could describe a collective cultural and sociological norm, subject to change over time. Welfare politics invoked both physiology and sociology via the vital minimum. The French welfare state first mobilized the vital minimum as an individual minimum wage. Later it changed sites and reappeared as the logic behind a collective family allowance.
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