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The Midas Touch

a comparative Marxian analysis of the Midas story


Published text, accompanied by an inkjet print.

full text:
King Midas’s greed lends itself perfectly to a Marxian reading. He portrays a typical ruler, an owner of lands and perhaps even an owner of means of production; he is the symbol of greed. The Phrygian king wishes only for one thing and one thing only, and that is wealth. His insatiable desire for the earthly riches doesn’t go unnoticed. When he found the missing satyr Silenus, foster father and old educator of the god of alcohol and festivities Dionysus, he can wish for anything he ever desired. The foolish king wishes for a golden touch, for everything he touches to turn into gold. What follows next is a sudden awareness, paired with regret. The food he tries to eat turns into gold, the wine he tries to drink turns into gold, the flowers he tries to smell turn into gold. He regrets his wish, for his life will be filled with hunger and thirst, without the sensation of touching anything that isn’t golden. His despair grows when his daughter hugs him and turns herself into a golden statue. Midas seeks out where Dionysus is and begs him to rid him of his curse.

The Marxian analysis of the story and the golden touch starts with the king’s late awareness. It symbolises the commodity fetishism Marx describes. Moreover the myth of king Midas describes our alienation of our commodities, of money and of gold. Midas doesn’t see gold as a metal, he only sees the wealth paired with it. In a way the king’s wish wasn’t a golden touch, he really just wished for unmeasurable wealth. The golden touch on the other hand can be seen as a curse, a god-sent punishment for his insatiable greed, disguised as a blessing; although that might be a western, western, christian interpretation of his, so-called, sins. The cleansing ritual the king goes through fits easily into this western, christian tradition. He washes himself in the Pactolus river to rid him from his curse and cleanse him from all his sins, a ritual that sounds surprisingly comparable to the christian baptising rituals. He foresaw great wealth and prosperity for himself and his family, instead he got a curse, filling him with regret and sorrow.

Die erste Funktion des Goldes besteht darin, der Warenwelt das Material ihres Wertausdrucks zu liefern oder die Warenwerte als gleichnamige Größen, qualitativ gleiche und quantitativ vergleichbare, darzustellen. So funktioniert es als allgemeines Maß der Werte, und nur durch diese Funktion wird Gold, die eigentümliche Äquivalentware, zunächst Geld. […] Geld als Wertmaß ist notwendige Erscheinungsform des innerlichen Wertmaßes der Waren, der Arbeitszeit. (Karl Marx, Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie - Cologne: Anaconda Verlag, 2009)

[An English translation from http://www.marxism. org/ reads: “The first chief function of money is to supply commodities with the material for the expression of their values, or to represent their values as magnitudes of the same denomination, qualitatively equal, and quantitatively comparable. It thus serves as a universal measure of value. And only by virtue of this function does gold, the equivalent commodity par excellence, become money. [...] Money as a measure of value, is the phenomenal form that must of necessity be assumed by that measure of value which is immanent in commodities, labour-time.”]

The alienation Midas embodies, when seeing gold for the values it stands for, instead of gold as the metallic material it is, echoes in today’s consumerist society. The king in his wild enthusiasm, allowed to wish for whatever he wants, forgets that gold isn’t wealth: gold acquires value through our own valuation of the material. In itself gold is gold, and its value is an abstract concept attributed to the noble metal by men. Within our contemporary, consumerist society, we see the same concept of alienation. Contemporary people are not only alienated from the value of gold, and therefore money (as gold is the standard for money); they are alienated from the commodities they purchase and their actual value. The consumerist populace isn’t confronted with the process of production, nor with the resources needed for their commodities. The long production line, which is spread all over the world for most products, has become an abstract concept for both the consumer and the workers, working to produce these products. Arguably, the only people with an oversight over the production process are the owners of the means of production, the bourgeois populace.

Setting gold as the standard for moneydevalued labour itself. Workers get paid in money, for the value of gold, instead of the value of their labour. This helps the alienation process, in which labour isn’t valued as labour, but gets valued in terms of a metal. The consumers don’t pay with their own labour for the commodities they purchase, but they pay with the abstract value of gold, for the labour of their co-labourers. The production-purchase process in this society is an abstract process, where every act and every product and commodity gets valued through the abstract value of gold, which only gets valued through the valuation of men.

© Marnicq Roebben
Berchem, Antwerp, Belgium