Marx on the origin of money

In the opening chapter of Das Kapital, Karl Marx explains his theory of the origin of money, beginning with the prerequisite discussion of the respective origins of value and exchange. He posits first that the primary source of the value of any given commodity is that a commodity is, by definition, a product of a certain amount of human labor expended to produce an item that others find desirable or useful. It is the combination of the factors of having been produced by human labor and having been produced for others that creates a commodity and lends it values to it. If a thing is useful but not the product of human labor, it possesses a measure of “use-value,” says Marx, but not “exchange value,” the actual value of an object in terms of its exchangeability with other objects. It is not, then, a commodity at all. If, on the other hand, the object is the product of human labor but is not produced “for others” or “if the thing is useless,” says Marx, the labor which produced it is also useless and should not be considered real labor at all as it “creates no value.” When an object is produced for the purpose of exchange, however, it is a commodity in the proper sense of the term and “commodities . . . are something-two-fold,” Marx continues, “both objects of utility and, at the same time, depositories of value.”

The second subject which Marx discusses before approaching his theory of the origin of money is the origin of exchange. The origin of exchange, implicit in Marx’s discussion of the origin of value, Marx locates in human need and the progress of the means by which human need may be satisfied. While, for example,“the human race made clothes for thousands of years, without a single man becoming a tailor,” the production of greater qualities and quantities of clothing entailed the specialization of labor. This specialization of labor, in turn, necessitates exchange as the specialized laborer is incapable of producing everything that he requires to satisfy all of his needs. Marx’s theoretical tailor, for instance, continues to require a home, which he no longer possesses the ability to make for himself due to his dedication of time and knowledge to the production of clothing. As he a result, his needs require the specialization of a carpenter.

Exchange now becomes necessary. The tailor and the carpenter must trade with each other for the needs of each to be met. To facilitate this exchange, however, there must be an agreed-upon value of the commodities being exchanged. “The simplest value relation is evidently that of one commodity to some one other commodity of a different kind,” says Marx. In other words, the exchange relationship between two commodities determines the value of each commodity.

A simple one-for-one exchange of commodities, however, is nonsensical. In an exchange in which a tailor trades a single item of clothing he has produced for an entire house, the carpenter clearly has taken a great loss as the latter has undoubtedly put a great deal more labor into building a house than the former did while producing an item of clothing. As a result, the natural means of equivalence between commodities is “congealed labor.” In other words, says Marx two commodities are of equal value because they “have each cost the same amount of labour or the same quantity of labour time.” The amount of labor put into a commodity, then, is, in fact, the value of the commodity. It is only in this agreement that the tailor and the carpenter are able to proceed with an exchange, the carpenter gaining from the tailor an amount of clothing items in the production of which the tailor has expended an amount of labor equivalent to the labor of the carpenter in the production of the tailor’s new home.

From this system of labor-equivalent trade Marx goes on to extrapolate his theory of the origin of money. A prevalent flaw in the system of commodity trade was the continually fluctuating and difficult to determine equivalencies of value. For each trade, it was necessary to calculate anew the labor expenditure on each commodity to be traded. Improvements in the process of production of certain commodities also caused the relative values of said commodities to shift, sometimes dramatically, in value relations to other commodities as the amount of labor necessary to their production decreased. As a result, a new commodity with “the character of direct and universal exchangeability” became necessary. This tertiary commodity, gold, became, “by social custom,” a commodity whose stable value provided the means by which the relative value of other commodities could be determined. In this agreement upon a commodity of stable value, says Marx, is the origin of the money system of exchange.

Laziness and Inhumanity

“Eight hours for work; eight hours for rest; eight hours for what we will!” So said a slogan frequently repeated by 19th century advocates of workers’ rights. Many of these activists dreamed that someday it would be possible, in the words of Karl Marx, “to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, … without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”[1] The results, however, have been quite different from what these dreamers imagined. A survey of American time use by the U.S. Department of Labor in June of this year claimed that the average working American spent more than five hours a day in “leisure activity.”[2] This seems like cause for the advocates of workers’ rights to celebrate, until the use of that “leisure” time is examined in greater detail. According to the study, “watching TV was the leisure activity that occupied the most time (2.8 hours per day), accounting for more than half of leisure time, on average, for those age 15 and over.” The next most common “leisure activity,” which the study describes as “socializing,” the act of communing with other human beings, clocked in at a mere 43 minutes a day for the average American. Of course, this use of so-called “leisure” time as an escape seems almost forgivable when confronted with the abysmally small number of people (13%) in almost any industrialized nation who report feeling “engaged” and having a “passion for their work.”[3] The words of Josef Pieper provide a succinct evaluation of the current state of work and leisure in the United States: “Cut off from the worship of the divine, leisure becomes laziness and work inhuman.”[4]

The removal of a central axis from man’s life, in both his work and his leisure, has resulted in a hatred of work and a desultory and escapist approach to time that should properly be spent in leisure. In the same work, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Pieper argues that “celebration is the core of leisure” and that the only available “basis” for authentic leisure is “divine worship.”[5] Elsewhere, he draws upon the imagery of God’s creation of the world in six days followed by his seventh day rest as depicted in the opening of the Book of Genesis. In his In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, Pieper avers that “the Seventh Day commemorates not only the completion of the divine work, but also the divine assent to Creation.”[6] A restoration of authentic leisure, which leads as well to a restoration of an authentic orientation toward work by man, is a reorientation to what the 4th century Church Father St. Gregory of Nyssa described as the very purpose for which man was first created; God “thus manifests man in the world,” he says, “to be the beholder of some of the wonders therein, and the lord of others; that by his enjoyment he might have knowledge of the Giver.”[7]


[1] Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Vol. 1, Part 1.

[2] “American Time Use Survey Summary.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. June 18, 2014. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[3] Susan Adams, “Unhappy Employees Outnumber Happy Ones By Two To One Worldwide,” Forbes. October 10, 2013. Accessed October 26, 2014.

[4] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 68.

[5] Ibid. 65.

[6] Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999), 47.

[7] Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Making of Man,” 2.2.


The royal eagles on high mountains fly

Not underneath sweet shades and fountains shrill,
Among the nymphs, the fairies, leaves and flowers;
But on the steep, the rough and craggy hill
Of Virtue stands this bliss, this good of ours;
By toil and travail, not by sitting still
In pleasure’s lap we come to honour’s bowers;
Why will you thus in sloth’s deep valley lie?
The royal eagles on high mountains fly.

Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme liberata

The little things

‘That’s the trouble with your generation,’ said Grandpa. ‘Bill, I’m ashamed of you, you a newspaperman. All the things in life that were put here to savor, you eliminate. Save time, save work, you say. … Bill, when you’re my age, you’ll find out it’s the little savors and little things that count more than the big ones. A walk on a spring morning is better than an eighty-mile ride in a hopped-up car, you know why? Because it’s full of flavors, full of a lot of things growing. You’ve time to seek and find. I know — you’re after the broad effect now, and I suppose that’s fit and proper. But for a young man working on a newspaper, you got to look for grapes as well as watermelons. You greatly admire skeletons and I like fingerprints; well and good. Right now such things are bothersome to you, and I wonder if it isn’t because you’ve never learned to use them. If you had your way you’d pass a law to abolish all the little jobs, the little things. But then you’d leave yourselves nothing to do between the big jobs and you’d have a devil of a time thinking up things to do so you wouldn’t go crazy. Instead of that, why not let nature show you a few things? Cutting grass and pulling weeds can be a way of life, son.’ 

Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine, p. 64

The head, the hands, and the human

We know that education must be revolutionized and we sense that this modern campus, separated from the surrounding reality and monopolizing to itself, against that reality, the whole idea of schooling, may be beginning to be a huge anachronism. There are thousands of situations in the world that can become apprenticing and schooling situations. It will only be a drop in the bucket of this problem if we assign two weeks before Election Day to give students the time to influence national elections. Again, we still live in a divided world where labor works with its hands and the intellectual lives a life of the mind, in a world not daring to face the consequences of the bitter cultural divisions that result from this old hypothesis. The laborer is cut off from his own mind, and the intellectual, worse still, is alienated not from the middle class but from his own hands. A new hypothesis begins to emerge which says that we can work with our hands and read Shakespeare too. Meantime we suffer intensely from this old aristocratic hypothesis of the division between the classes, the class of the hands and the class of the head, a division firmly established (and not moved beyond by us) in The Republic of Plato. But we must now hypothesize that this is not, except superficially, a division between town and gown, between middle class and intellectuals; it is a division rooted, tragically, at the very heart of the act of education. It is an old hypothesis that cannot work in a vast democratic society.

Fr. William F. Lynch, Christ and Prometheus: A New Image of the Secular

, p. 96-97