“The wealth of bourgeois society, at first sight, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities,”1 says Marx, and perhaps nothing could be truer of virtual societies as well, as we often find them in online games. The starting point for Marx is the commodity, which as we know he divides into use-value and value, but here we have already hit a problem. Use-value is what it always is in the Marxian tradition, and it makes no difference whether it satisfies virtual or “real” wants, but the normal answer to the problem of value is somewhat different. That we can transact use-values and therefore find them comparable in some way is what leads Marx to conclude, quite famously, that their equation “signifies that a common element of identical magnitude exists in two different things … Both are therefore equal to a third thing, which in itself is neither the one nor the other. Each of them, so far as it is exchange-value, must therefore be reducible to this third thing.”2

This “third thing”, according to Marx, is labor. But where is this “common element” in virtual economies? What is the substance of digital value? How can we measure its magnitude? Marx goes on to tell us that,

“This common element cannot be a geometrical, physical, chemical or other natural property of commodities. Such properties come into consideration only to the extent that they make the commodities useful, i.e. turn them into use-values.”3

Against this we may argue that all virtual commodities in an online market are naturally digital, and that this is true whether we take their use-value into account or not. But since we necessarily use them specifically in a virtual context, from the standpoint of a virtual economic actor their digital nature alone does not affect their utility any more than a commodity’s utility is affected by its “real” nature in the “real” world. In this regard, Marx’s basic argument still holds, but it forces us to think about how we deal with virtual economies in the first place. Some work has already been done on the interaction between virtual video game economies and the real world profits of the developers that make them, but there has not been significant study of the virtual economies themselves — especially not from a Marxian perspective. It only seems right that in an investigation like this, we must tackle the theory of value, but the anatomies of virtual economies are too fundamentally different for us to treat them as having prices determined by labor-time. Indeed, how can we speak of labor-time where the entire realm of production is nearly always missing, or at best only partial?

This brings us to a more substantial question. Why were these worlds constructed this way? An all-too-easy answer is that it makes the most sense, considering the fact that players are unable to participate in virtual labor on their screens without simply pressing a button to craft a sword or cut down a tree. In its more complex formulations, this will sometimes amount to a mini-game of sorts, but this never approaches the function of real human labor in the extra-virtual economy.  But why would this make the most sense? The all-too-easy answer gives way to an all-too-inevitable conclusion: this presentation of the virtual economy is almost precisely the presentation of neoclassical economics in its own attempt to grapple with the allegedly “real” world. The possible intersection here between an ideological theory of economy and, in turn, its ideological reflection in video games is a particularly interesting one.

Yanis Varoufakis, famously an “erratic Marxist” and former financial minister for Syriza’s left-wing Greek government, tackled almost this exact issue while working as “economist-in-residence” with Valve, and his comments are worth quoting at length:

“Digital economies, like Steam’s exchange platform, come closer to Adam Smith’s concept of an economy that sprang from a penchant for pure exchanges. People meet up online, enter into mutually beneficial trades with minimal other social obligations to one another, bear no debts (monetary or social), and walk off with whatever item they managed to acquire (via bartering) without any need to maintain a ‘relation’ with the person they bartered with. An economy created as if in the image of Adam Smith?”

Not quite. The exchanges that we observe on Steam are not exactly pure. As readers have perceptively remarked, many exchanges are highly impure. People simply use Steam in order to unload onto others items from their backpack that are surplus to requirements. Often, they will accept remarkably low ‘value’ in return. Value equivalence, a prerequisite for trading-proper, is simply absent. But then again, this is how trade began and continued to be practised for thousands of years: People sold goods that they produced, or gathered, over and above their ‘planned’ (i.e. needed) volumes. It is not that they produced these goods in order to exchange them (the very definition of a commodity being a good produced in order to be traded) but, rather, they sold the quantities that ended up being surplus to requirements. It is no exaggeration to suggest that, until the rise of industrialisation and market societies, less than 5% of goods produced were commodities. So, until a couple of centuries ago, most trade happened because of unexpected, or unplanned, surpluses: very much like those in the TF2 [Team Fortress 2] economy!”4

This is extremely interesting, especially when we return to the question of a virtual value theory and consider Smith’s conclusion that “[t]he real price of everything, what every thing really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it.”5 In virtual worlds, the amount of work required to produce an item can coincide with its cheapness, but it also generally coincides with the intention of the developer. Items which can be crafted by newer and lower-level players are going to be among the cheapest. This, taken with the amount of virtually necessary labor-time, might come close to something that looks similar to Marx’s own value theory. Smith continues by saying,

“What is bought with money or with goods is purchased by labour as much as what we acquire by the toil of our own body. That money or those goods indeed save us this toil. They contain the value of a certain quantity of labour which we exchange for what is supposed at the time to contain the value of an equal quantity. Labour was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased; and its value, to those who possess it, and who want to exchange it for some new productions, is precisely equal to the quantity of labour which it can enable them to purchase or command.”6

This is clearly incoherent in virtual contexts. Despite differences in virtual markets, money does not generally arise in these economies after long periods of exchanging labor and products of labor until we settle on some regular equivalent like gold or silver. On the contrary, money, labor, and its products usually appear simultaneously in these markets, with users often starting with a small amount of gold, a few cheap items, and a basic skill set for labor. The TF2 barter economy, having more in common with the Smithian telling of market history than most other virtual economies, should provide some sort of verdict. As Varoufakis notes,

“no item emerges as a common currency, a numéraire. Our close study of the TF2 economy revealed that there are times when different items are traded most frequently in different periods. If one item had ‘evolved’ into currency status, that item would have been the most traded all the time. Confounding my expectations that keys would play that role in TF2, Steam trading data shows that there are five or six items which alternate as currencies. How come? Why does one item within the TF2 economy not evolve into a currency given that everyone’s (trading) experience would improve (in terms of ease of ‘closing’ a mutually beneficial trade)? One possible explanation that the preceding discussion is pointing to is this: Because Steam trading, at least of TF2 items, are instances of impure exchanges; that is, trades that are not fully guided by the principle of trading items of equivalent subjective values. Norms of the social valuation of one item relative to another, beliefs of what one is ‘entitled’ to expect to receive for some valuable item (as opposed to what one actually would be happy to receive in exchange for that hat), expectations of a continued social relationship between buyer and seller – all these ‘impurities’ would, if indeed present, prevent the evolution of one item into the role of common currency.”7

This punches a large hole in the Smithian view, and even the usual Marxian view, when applied to virtual economies. There are, however, other games which tend closer to this economic legend, such as Diablo II, which essentially operated as a barter economy. The game actually had a pre-established in-game currency— gold —but it had problems. There was a maximum capacity for gold that you could carry, making certain expensive in-game transactions impossible, pushing players toward newer forms of currency. Over time, people settled on Stones of Jordan, referred to as “SoJs” by Battle.net players, as the primary alternative currency for player-to-player exchange8. SoJs were valuable, which meant that when equated with other high-end items, they could often be traded in single digits, rather than in large quantities of some less valuable item, and they were also small, so people could carry them easily without having to worry about taking up too much space in their inventory slots. There were sub-currencies, like Perfect Skulls, which for a time operated similarly to silver in the history of the precious metals, with gold being dominant, but they eventually gave way over time.

After numerous patches which worked to remove duplicate items, SoJs began to lose their status and went back to simply being expensive rings which were now being valued in terms of other, more reliable item-currencies. Today, the dominant currency is Runes, which were enhanced in later patches, making them more valuable, and after paralleling SoJs for a time as an alternative currency. This development, despite being somewhat truer to the Smithian story than what happened to the TF2 bartering system, is also in a sense its complete reversal, pushing people away from the established currency of gold, and toward commodities. Gold, which was effectively a state-decreed currency from the start, along Chartalist lines, was surpassed by items that were dropped in-game, before that was halted by further action of the state, in this case, the developers, who were also becoming keenly aware of the external markets developing on sites like eBay, where players were looking to make “real world” money by selling their virtual accounts. The Smithian historical view, whether it was ever true of history or not, does not apply here so simply, especially not where the invisible hand of the market is crushed by the visible hand of the developers.

It is clear from all of this that a “labor theory of value” of any sort cannot sufficiently explain underlying currency and price mechanisms in virtual economies. An obvious obstacle is the gap between the historical emphasis in the Classical and Marxian schools and the instantaneous or “impure” emergence of pseudo-commodities in virtual economies. A historical view cannot do the job where a history doesn’t exist, so an ahistorical theory is necessary. Perhaps no theory could be better than that which is willing to “assume a can opener”,9 as this is precisely the manner in which these products arise, i.e., out of thin air when it becomes necessary for them to exist. This sort of logic wholeheartedly accepts the fetishistic perspective, where commodities are believed to possess no history and simply exist as if they always have, ready for exchange and consumption. It is a superficial view, but one that has dominated the study of economics in advanced form for over a century. Neoclassical theory makes an enormous yet intentional error in abstracting from basically every relevant aspect of society in the determination of price and the inner-workings of economies generally, so that the rational individual (or user) might interact with the world as a Robinson Crusoe. The ideological implications are obvious and well-documented, but that is not true for the ways in which this problem intersects with online economic agents in virtual marketplaces. Studies of virtual economies at the level of these economies themselves and of the economic theory that goes into their construction (consciously or not) hardly exist, especially from a heterodox perspective.10 At best, one might find a work in sociology that aims to talk about video games with some Marxish rhetoric, treating them as is typical of all other forms of media being criticized by these sorts of thinkers, but a serious treatment of video games themselves, and in particular the way the economies within them function and reinforce assumptions about how economies work in the “real world”, simply does not exist in worked out form.

Perhaps the reason for this is that these economies are so obviously unlike our own that a comparison between the two seems laughable, but that in itself would take these economies at their word as very constrained markets with few if any hindrances, rather than understanding that these economies are created by people with economic ideas in mind. It is clear from all of this that we cannot use the Classical-Marxian analysis to explain virtual economies, as these are not truly capitalist modes of production in the first place, but that isn’t to say we cannot approach the subject — and especially the relationship between these synthetic worlds and mainstream economic theory — with the Marxian critique in our pocket.

At the same time, we cannot deny that the ahistorical nature of neoclassical theory and, by extension, the virtual economies as presented in video games, are themselves historical products. The implementation of markets in MMOs has been uneven but, in the end, hegemonic. Despite Varoufakis’ comparison of the history of capitalism to the history of TF2 exchanges, this does not tell us anything about the historical development of economic forms in video games as a whole. What happens in a particular game is not the entire story. That would be akin to ignoring the uneven and combined capitalist development within individual countries, ignoring everything before and outside of that country’s form of capitalism.

In truth, there are many types of virtual markets, each related to a complex history of experimentation in video game economies. Trial and error, by developers and users, played a large part in the implementation of economic mechanics of online games. Many of those mechanics were not successful, doomed to fail from the ignorance of their designers and/or the activity of their players, but many others still exist today, albeit often in revised form.

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As my previous post concerned Francis Hutcheson, a personal mentor of Adam Smith’s, it might be worth mentioning another major influence on Smith’s work: David Hume.

Last time I relied heavily on Hutcheson’s work in the form of excerpts from Ronald Meek’s Precursors of Adam Smith, an excellent survey of the literature that Smith would’ve been drawing from at the time when he was working on The Wealth of Nations1, and Hume also gets a spot in this line-up. What is somewhat interesting about Hume and Smith, especially when dealing with Meek’s work, is their relation to the Scottish Historical School.2

Meek places Hume as a predecessor to this school, noting in particular, regarding Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence (of which Meek was later to edit)3, that “Hume, with his interest in the origins and foundations of society, his rejection of speculative fictions such as the social contract, and his realistic evolutionism, was another obvious influence, both personally and through his writings.”4 This is suggested quietly,5 and he quickly forgets about Hume so that he can deal with the work of John Millar.6 This was obviously Meek’s interest in writing the piece, as it clearly was not supposed to simply be an essay on Hume’s relation to Marx, but it does seem to tiptoe around Hume’s significant influence, not only on Millar, but on Smith himself!

As Meek says years later,7 “Smith apparently read a paper on some of Hume’s ‘essays on commerce ’ to the Glasgow Literary Society very soon after their publication, and there is no doubt that he appreciated their quality.” Meek goes on to mention specifically “The essay Of Commerce [which] is interesting, first, because of Hume’s historical-cum-sociological approach”, that Meek traces back to Cantillon (at least through implication).

He quotes Of Commerce here in the introduction to the extracts from Hume’s Political Discourses,

The bulk of every state may be divided into husbandmen and manufacturers. The former are employed in the culture of the land; the latter work up the materials furnished by the former, into all the commodities which are necessary or ornamental to human life. As soon as men quit their savage state, where they live chiefly by hunting and fishing, they must fall into these two classes; though the arts of agriculture employ at first the most numerous part of the society. Time and experience improve so much these arts, that the land may easily maintain a much greater number of men, than those who are immediately employed in its culture, or who furnish the more necessary manufactures to such as are so employed.8

Meek then comments on the passage:

The stadial view of the development of society … and the associated idea that ‘manufacturers’ are maintained ‘by that superfluity, which arises from the labour of the farmers’, were destined to become in one form or another the common property of almost all the great economists of the latter half of the century, whatever the particular ‘paradigm’ they professed.

The second interesting feature of the essay is the way in which the economic (and military) potentialities of the nation as a whole are visualized by Hume in terms of the disposition of its labour force. ‘Every thing in the world’, we read, ‘is purchased by labour’. The ‘labour of the farmers’ produces a surplus which maintains those who labour in producing manufactured commodities, and many of the latter can if and when necessary be converted into soldiers. Thus ‘the more labour … is employed beyond mere necessaries, the more powerful is any state; since the persons engaged in that labour may easily be converted to the public service’, from which it follows that ‘trade and industry are really nothing but a stock of labour’.9

Put in this way, not only does Hume sound like Smith here, but also a good deal like Marx. This does not end here. Meek continues on to talk about the 2nd extract in the text, Of Interest:

High interest, Hume proceeds to argue, ‘arises from three circumstances: A great demand for borrowing; little riches to supply that demand; and great profits arising from commerce… Low interest, on the other hand, proceeds from the three opposite circumstances.’

Each of these three determinants, Hume goes on to claim, depends in its turn upon the ‘habits and manners’ which prevail among certain economic agents, and which themselves change as society develops and ‘industry and commerce’ increase. When a people emerges from the savage state, ‘there must immediately arise an inequality of property’, so that ‘the landed interest is immediately established’. The ‘habits and manners’ of this landed class are such that ‘the prodigals among them will always be more numerous than the misers’, so that the ‘demand for borrowing’ will be great and the rate of interest high.

The second determinant, too—’the great or little riches to supply the demand’—depends upon ‘the habits and way of living of the people’. When society consists only of landlords and peasants, the stock of money in the country, however great or small it may be, is never ‘collected in particular hands, so as to form considerable sums, or compose a great monied interest’. Thus the ‘riches to supply the demand’ are low, and interest remains high. Soon, however, ‘another rank of men’ arises—the artisans, who work up the materials supplied by the agricultural classes; and this increase in ‘men’s industry’ eventually leads to the rise of yet another class—the ‘merchants’, among whom ‘there is the same overplus of misers above prodigals, as, among the possessors of land, there is the contrary’. Through its ‘frugality’, this merchant class acquires great power over industry and amasses consider able sums of money, so that the increase in commerce ‘by a necessary consequence, raises a great number of lenders, and by that means produces lowness of interest’. And as a further consequence, it ‘diminishes the profits arising from that profession’, thereby giving rise to ‘the third circumstance requisite to produce lowness of interest’. The main idea here is that when commerce has become ‘extensive’ the increased intensity of competition between merchants lowers the ‘profits of trade’, so that when they leave off business and seek ‘an annual and secure revenue’ the merchants will ‘accept more willingly of a low interest’. Low interest and low profits, Hume argues, ‘both arise from an extensive commerce, and mutually forward each other. No man will accept of low profits, where he can have high interest; and no man will accept of low interest, where he can have high profits’.10

Again, you can see elements of both Smith and Marx in this outline. Meek immediately chimes in to say, “Smith accepted and incorporated into the Wealth of Nations a number of the elements of this account,” however he does acknowledge a crucial difference:

But in the Wealth of Nations the question of what determined the rate of profit became one of great importance in its own right, rather than a mere appendage to the problem of what determined the rate of interest—and it was not merely the profits of the ‘merchants’ (at any rate in the narrower sense of that word) which were a matter of concern. From the point of view of the shaping of the Wealth of Nations, indeed, it is arguable that the main influence of Hume’s essay Of Interest lay not in any of its specific arguments but in the ‘sociological’ methodology lying behind its general approach.11

This methodology, Meek suggests, is extremely important when talking about Smith’s place in the history of economic and sociological thought.

Smith was by no means consistent in his adoption of this kind of approach, of course; few pioneers can afford the luxury of consistency. But even if we cannot properly ascribe the materialist conception of history to Smith, we may certainly be able to ascribe to him a materialist conception of history which was not without considerable influence on later writers.12

The later writers he has in mind here obviously include Millar and Marx. Roy Pascal, in his 1938 article, ‘Property and society: the Scottish contribution of the eighteenth century’13 which Meek is in dialogue with, and which he admits had a huge impact on him and his thoughts regarding the Scottish School,14 speaks of Smith’s ‘new interpretation of society which is undoubtedly materialistic, and which his contemporaries and disciples … elaborate’.15

Andrew Skinner, in his commentary on Meek’s essay,16 mentions, “The first article which might be seen to build upon the basis provided by Pascal, but without adopting a Marxist stance, is Duncan Forbes’s ‘Scientific Whiggism: Adam Smith and John Millar’, published in the Cambridge Journal for 1954-5.”

Skinner notes, “As early as 1954, Forbes was arguing that the attitudes which Smith and Millar adopted to matters of contemporary debate were informed by an understanding of underlying historical processes,” before quoting Forbes himself:

The ‘scientific’ nature of the Whiggism of Smith and Millar is thrown into relief when it is contrasted with other historical attitudes, especially liberal ones, in England in the later eighteenth century. In relation to the appeal to history by the political reformers of the 70s and 80s, for instance, it may almost be said to stand as Marxian to pre-Marxian socialism, so crude, utopian and mentally parochial is one, so wide in the sweep of its historical survey, and so self-consciously ‘scientific’ is the other.17

Skinner follows this with the statement, “But whereas Forbes’s first contribution to the debate pursued an analogy with Marx, Meek’s opening article of the same year reflected a growing conviction that the Scottish contribution to Marxist sociology was ‘greater in degree, and to some extent different in kind, from what has commonly been imagined’. In developing this theme, Meek neglected the ‘political’ dimension of Pascal’s essay, while starting from the point at which he had left off, namely with the statement that ‘Marx’s first thorough exposition of historical materialism, the German Ideology … builds on the groundwork laid by Smith and his contemporaries.'”18

Smith’s “contemporaries” obviously included Hume, who mostly continues to fly under the radar, but undoubtedly leaves his mark on the literature. In fact, years later, Meek would bring up Hume’s influence on Smith in his introduction to Lectures on Jurisprudence, where he spoke of the editors’ ability “to go farther than Cannan in our detection of the probable sources upon which Smith drew… For example, whereas Smith’s use of Montesquieu is clear from LJ(B), his dependence on Hume’s History and Essays is more pronounced in LJ(A).”19 Meek goes on to mention further parallels between Smith and Hutcheson, completing the thought with the statement, “Another point of almost equal importance is that Smith’s use of the four stages theory as a kind of conceptual framework within which much of the discussion is set, and his constant acceptance of the more general ‘environmental’ or ‘materialist’ approach which underly the four stages theory, are more clearly evident in LJ(A) than they are in LJ(B).”20

So here we have a statement from Meek implying that the part of the work which Smith drew heavily from Hume is also the one where we can clearly pinpoint the “conceptual framework” of the four stages theory (here described as “materialist”), implying that Hume’s work was related to this outcome. This is, of course, exactly what we would expect based on Meek’s earlier assertion that Hume’s Of Commerce had a major hand in shaping “the‘ sociological’ methodology lying behind its [Wealth of Nations] general approach”.21

From all of this, it is clear to me that we can draw a very real line from Hume to Marx, despite the literature’s occasionally implied placement of Smith as an obstacle or unsatisfactory mediator between them, unnecessarily distancing the two, as if Marx didn’t read Hume  and as if Hume didn’t have a tremendous influence on Smith. I admit Hume can be interpreted in many ways, as the debates I’ve mentioned ought to make obvious, and certainly I do not wish to make any claims about Hume’s politics as being somehow proto-communist, but I will conclude this with one last quote and some final thoughts:

Let us suppose that nature has bestowed on the human race such profuse abundance of all external conveniencies, that, without any uncertainty in the event, without any care or industry on our part, every individual finds himself fully provided with whatever his most voracious appetites can want, or luxurious imagination wish or desire. His natural beauty, we shall suppose, surpasses all acquired ornaments: the perpetual clemency of the seasons renders useless all clothes or covering: the raw herbage affords him the most delicious fare; the clear fountain, the richest beverage. No laborious occupation required: no tillage: no navigation. Music, poetry, and contemplation form his sole business: conversation, mirth, and friendship his sole amusement. It seems evident that, in such a happy state, every other social virtue would flourish, and receive tenfold increase; but the cautious, jealous virtue of justice would never once have been dreamed of. For what purpose make a partition of goods, where every one has already more than enough? Why give rise to property, where there cannot possibly be any injury? Why call this object mine, when upon the seizing of it by another, I need but stretch out my hand to possess myself to what is equally valuable? Justice, in that case, being totally useless, would be an idle ceremonial, and could never possibly have place in the catalogue of virtues.22

Here you have Hume suggesting that if we could have all our “external conveniencies” provided to us, then there would be no reason to believe that property would’ve ever arisen. Of course, he is  writing this before the industrial revolution and dealing with a utopian order where it is the natural world doing all the work, but imagine an alternate version where these things come from the labor of machinery, minimizing human contact with the production process itself. Imagine that we could essentially realize many of the possibilities that exist in the utopia which Hume clearly believes to be impossible and unreachable. He is correct in that belief, but only in how he pictures it. There is a very real possibility, although we may not be destined to achieve it, for a similar type of society where it might never cross our minds to be territorial in claiming objects as our own property when we can just as well reach out and claim another exactly like it. Hume suggests that, in such a society, “justice” wouldn’t “have place in the catalogue of virtues.” I believe he is right (whether his intentions behind the statement match the way in which I read it or not), but that this “justice” must be done away with, rather than it simply being a matter of history unfolding without it, due to the naturally perfect conditions of the earth and the species.

Hume is essentially asking us, “What if the economic problem had never arisen?” Marx reacts in turn by considering the root and abolition of the economic problem itself and its eventual replacement by what might be considered a non-economy: communism. It is here that Hume and Marx politically diverge where they otherwise find much to agree on.23

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I have recently begun reading Ron Meek’s Precursors of Adam Smith and happened to find some very similar ideas being expressed by Francis Hutcheson in the selections from his 1755 work, A System of Moral Philosophy. At the time of the reading, I was also in the middle of writing up notes to Chapter 3 of Volume I of Marx’s Capital, so Hutcheson’s discussion of value and money complimented a lot of what I was reading in Marx, and in fact I even quoted him a few times.

This isn’t to say I was shocked by this finding; I am well aware that much of this was fairly standard in the literature up to that point, and Meek even states that the piece “is fairly typical for its time and does not contain a great deal that is really original.” I have no problems with this assessment, and I know that the following section on Hume (containing extracts from his Political Discourses) says some very similar things. My attention was caught primarily by the timing of the reading (in tandem with my notes on Marx) and the emphasis he places on certain things, as well as the way in which he talks about them. This, too, is what Meek brings attention to when he says “Some of the individual statements which Hutcheson makes in the course of his treatment, however, may well have impressed Smith.”

Here are some of the examples I noted:

[All page numbers from Meek (1973) and the Fowkes translation of Capital (1976)]

‘Tis the metal chiefly that has undergone the great change of value, since these metals have been in greater plenty, the value of the coin is altered tho’ it keeps the old names.

– Hutcheson (p. 34)

For various reasons, the money-names of the metal weights are gradually separated from their original weight names…

– Marx (p. 193)

In setting the values of goods for commerce, they must be reduced to some common measure on both sides. Such as ‘equal to the value of so many days labour, or to such quantities of grain, or to so many cattle of such a species, to such a measure or weight of certain fruits of the earth, to such weights of certain metals’.

– Hutcheson (p. 31-2)

Let us now take two commodities, for example corn and iron. Whatever their exchange relation may be, it can always be represented by an equation in which a given quantity of corn is equated to some quantity of iron, for instance 1 quarter of corn = x cwt of iron. What does this equation signify? It signifies that a common element of identical magnitude exists in two different things, in 1 quarter of corn and similarly in x cwt of iron. Both are therefore equal to a third thing, which in itself is neither the one nor the other. Each of them, so far as it is exchange-value, must therefore be reducible to this third thing.

– Marx (p. 127)

The qualities requisite to the most perfect standard are these; it must be something generally desired so that men are generally willing to take it in exchange. The very making any goods the standard will of itself give them this quality. It must be portable; which will often be the case if it is rare, so that small quantities are of great value. It must be divisible without loss into small parts, so as to be suited to the values of all sorts of goods; and it must be durable, not easily wearing by use, or perishing in its nature. One or other of these prerequisites in the standard, shews the inconvenience of many of our commonest goods for that purpose. The man who wants a small quantity of my corn will not give me a work-beast for it, and his beast does not admit division. I want perhaps a pair of shoes, but my ox is of far greater value, and the other may not need him. I must travel to distant lands, my grain cannot be carried along for my support, without unsufferable expence, and my wine would perish in the carriage. ‘Tis plain therefore that when men found any use for the rarer metals, silver and gold, in ornaments or utensils, and thus a demand was raised for them, they would soon also see that they were the fittest standards for commerce, on all the accounts above-mentioned. They are rare, and therefore a small quantity of them easily portable is equivalent to large quantities of other goods; they admit any divisions without loss; they are neither perishable, nor easily worn away by use. They are accordingly made standards in all civilized nations.

– Hutcheson (p. 32)

The money-form comes to be attached either to the most important articles of exchange from outside, which are in fact the primitive and spontaneous forms of manifestation of the exchange-value of local products, or to the object of utility which forms the chief element of indigenous alienable wealth, for example cattle.


Only a material whose every sample possesses the same uniform quality can be an adequate form of appearance of value, that is a material embodiment of abstract and therefore equal human labour. On the other hand, since the difference between the magnitudes of value is purely quantitative, the money commodity must be capable of purely quantitative differentiation, it must therefore be divisible at will, and it must also be possible to assemble it again from its component parts. Gold and silver possess these properties by nature.

The money commodity acquires a dual use-value. Alongside its special use-value as a commodity (gold, for instance, serves to fill hollow teeth, it forms the raw material for luxury articles, etc) it acquires a formal use-value, arising out of its specific social function.


The technical obstacles to coining extremely minute quantities of gold or silver, and the circumstance that at first the less precious metal is used as a measure of value instead of the more precious, copper instead of silver, silver instead of gold, and that the less precious circulates as money until dethroned by the more precious – these facts provide a historical explanation for the role played by silver and copper tokens as substitutes for gold coins. Silver and copper coins replace gold in those regions of the circulation of commodities where coins pass from hand to hand most rapidly, and are therefore worn out most quickly. This happens where sales and purchases on a very small scale recur unceasingly. In order to prevent these satellites from establishing themselves permanently in the place of gold, the law determines the very minute proportions in which alone they can be accepted as alternative payment. The particular tracks pursued by the different sorts of coin in circulation naturally run into each other. Small change appears alongside gold for the payment of fractional parts of the smallest gold coin; gold constantly enters into retail circulation, although it is just as constantly being thrown out again by being exchanged with small change.

– Marx (p. 183, 184, & 223)

If I read A System of Moral Philosophy in its entirety there would likely be more, but I’ve since moved beyond that bit of Capital and a lot of the ideas expressed by Hutcheson elsewhere in the text (in other extracts), such as his thoughts on interest and luxury, no longer read like Marx.

As someone that’s really into the history of economics, and also as someone, like Meek, that is guilty of projecting radical readings onto texts that are thoroughly bourgeois (or worse), all for the sake of calling this-or-that dead guy a “proto-Marxist”, I dig this sorta stuff and I may post some other parallels I find between Marx and other thinkers. This is my idea of a good time, so expect some more in the future.


This blog will basically just be a place for me to put half-formed ideas into words, get some feedback (hopefully), and chronicle my own education and development.

For a bit of background, I am a Marxian from the United States, currently situated somewhere between the Monthly Review school and the vague “surplus approach” of the post-Sraffa world. What I post will probably be informed by this position, but I am still in the process of learning and that will be documented here for all (or none) to see.

I do not claim to be an expert on the subject — at most I might generously refer to myself as an intermediate — but that’s why I feel the need to challenge my own understandings, publish them for all to critique and for me to return to, and chronicle everything here to help me study the literature that I will soon be tackling. It’s going to be a long and painful process (especially at first), but in the end I hope that my journey will at least serve as a starting point for those looking into these things for themselves. If all goes well, there will be something salvageable from this project.

I will try very hard to avoid language that is more complex than necessary and my tone will generally be informal. I have no interest in appearing more knowledgeable than I am. To attempt something like this only to fluff myself up from the start would be an utter waste of time.

But that’s enough of an introduction, I think. There are too many things I’d like to talk about and the depressing state of my self-confidence isn’t one of them.