“We believe”, John McCain declared in his acceptance speech at the Republican Party’s convention in St. Pauls on 5 September, in “letting people keep the fruits of their labour”.Now, that’s an idea. The only problem is that he seems to think that we are still living in 18th century colonial Americas when people worked for themselves at some trade and exchanged the product of their labour, whether farm produce, furniture, shoes, pots, candles or whatever, for the products of other people’s own labour. This was exchange for use, what Marx called “simple commodity production”, and where, as Benjamin Franklin who lived at the time noted, the products tended to exchange according to the time the independent producers had taken to make them. In this way they did get more or less the full equivalent of their labour.
But that was then. The artisan’s tools have now developed into the powerful machines of today owned by capitalist companies while the producers now sell their ability to work to one or other of these companies in return for a wage or a salary. They no longer own and control the products of their labour. These belong to the company, which sells them for more than they cost to produce, pocketing the difference as their profits.
When producers first became separated from the means and instruments of production, as was increasingly the case throughout the 19th century, it was not difficult for them to realise what was happening. They could see that what they produced sold for what it did when they had made them themselves as independent producers, but instead of them getting the full equivalent of their labour they only got a part of it as wages, the rest going to the capitalist who employed them. The source of the capitalists’ profits was their unpaid labour.
So the demand for the full “fruits of our labour” went up among the more radical of the newly proletarianised producers. All sorts of schemes were devised by critics of capitalism such as Robert Owen in Britain, Proudhon in France and Lassalle in Germany to try to recreate the same result as in the old situation. But it was too late. They all failed as they had become irrelevant due to production no longer being individual but a collective effort.
In this new circumstance, if the demand for “the full fruits of labour” was to be met it could only be done collectively. The whole product of society would have to be commonly owned and used for the benefit of all. This of course is socialism and it is the only way that, today, people can get to keep the fruits of their (collective) labour.
McCain, however, is still thinking in individualistic terms. His rhetoric imagines that the wage worker is still an independent producer entitled to the full product of his or her individual labour. But he doesn’t see this as not happening because of the profit extracted by the employer but because of the taxes levied by the government. In his eyes, it is the government not the capitalist that is the exploiter of people’s labour. This is the cry not of the exploited producer but of the capitalist employer who does not want to share the profits of exploitation with the government.
But he needs to be careful. The rhetoric of the “fruits of labour” was originally an anti-capitalist, not a conservative, demand, and could – and should – become so again.