Aladdin and Value

I found a free copy of The Arabian Nights on a stoop yesterday, so I spent the morning reading its version of the Aladdin story to my daughter. It’s a “junior” version of the story that was published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1946, but it appears to hew closer to earlier versions of the story than do the more popular and contemporary versions we see in the movies and such. In any event, it’s an interesting snapshot of its moment, whatever moment that may be.

Two things of note about this version of the Aladdin story.

First, it’s very much about the value form. Aladdin begins the story as a total naif about value: the genie gives him a silver plate, which he foolishly sells to a peddler, who’s a “rogue,” for 1/60th of its value. A good part of the story is about Aladdin’s gradual enlightenment as to the nature of value: understanding, for example, that he could and should sell the silver plate for its full value or that a set of glass baubles he possesses are in fact rare jewels. Not only that, but his gradual enlightenment about value constitutes his maturation as a man, his assumption of responsibility, his greater internal depth and awareness of himself as a person. And of the world, too. In fact, the narrative talks about his education at the hands of a group of honest merchants, and it mentions that this is his introduction to “the world.”

Second, though my daughter and I are almost finished with the story—it’s damn long, so what I’m about to say may be proven wrong in the last 15 pages or so—we haven’t yet encountered the proverbial “three wishes” from the genie. Aladdin’s wishes seem to be unlimited. In popular versions of the story, it’s the scarcity of the wishes that lead him to an appreciation of their value; he comes to appreciate how important—and well chosen—his wishes must be via a growing awareness of their finiteness. But in this earlier version of the story, at least so far, it seems as if his appreciation of value comes via his education from the merchants and his love for the princess, whose name in this version is Buddir al-Buddoor. Scarcity plays almost no role at all.

Two quick thoughts in response.

First, the story provides a good illustration of Ellen Meiksins Wood’s point that there were markets before there was capitalism, that capitalism is not reducible to markets or exchange.

Second, while the value form (in the economic sense) may have played a larger cultural role in pre-capitalist societies, its function as a moral tutor was not as dependent on scarcity as someone like Mises would have us believe. In fact, scarcity—at least as we encounter it in the story, in the form of Aladdin’s initial poverty—breeds a kind of ignorance or indifference about value (his thrifty and careful mother is, admittedly, a counterpoint to that claim, but that only goes to show that scarcity in and of itself need not provide us anything in the way of a particular model). It’s only when Aladdin possesses something—and is educated about what his possession might mean for his flourishing, which again has little to do with its scarcity—that Aladdin comes to appreciate its value. Which again might lead us to wonder how important scarcity, as opposed to abundance and prosperity, is to the moral justification of capitalism as opposed to other modes of exchange.


  1. John July 5, 2015 at 1:44 pm | #

    I too enjoy the Fairy Tale School of Economics. I must disagree about Ellen Wood’s thesis. Capitalism existed in many permutations prior to the creation of markets based upon a commodification of goods. Any human who enslaved an animal was a . If he made a tool and lent it for a return, then he was a market creating capitalist. Rather Woods would have been closer to the mark if she had claimed there was no informal Labour Theory of Value prior to markets.

    I sympathize with your second point and my own thoughts and expressions of variations on this theme got me in big trouble at Wharton although it seems to have inspired a lost generation of crunches who live off the grid. I apply the loathsome basic needs test here say are Princeton undergrads who have housing, books and an eating club membership indifferent about bucks? I hope so.

    Read on! We shall take up retirement account looting, superannuated civil service and Greek and US pension funds (both looted!) in the context of the Grimm’s “3 Musicians of Bremen”, shall,we?

  2. Unlearner July 5, 2015 at 2:12 pm | #

    Is the edition that you found the one in the link?

  3. Stepan Petrichenko (@pyotr_kropotkin) July 5, 2015 at 2:19 pm | #

    From my perspective, the most interesting aspect of Woods’s book is her explanation of how capitalism was essentially created *by the state* – in the English countryside, via Enclosures and forcibly handing common property over to private interests. In other words, the implication is that capitalism would never have come into being without the state and, I would add, could not exist at all to this day, without state support. From this one can conclude that in order to move beyond capitalism to socialism it is necessar also to get rid of the state.

    • hoen July 5, 2015 at 4:39 pm | #

      Stepan Petrichenko: “capitalism would never have come into being without the state and, I would add, could not exist at all to this day, without state support. From this one can conclude that in order to move beyond capitalism to socialism it is necessar also to get rid of the state.”

      What? Say that S is necessary for C to exist. It doesn’t from that follow that removing S is necessary for removing C. Because there may be other factors X Y Z that are also necessary for C to exist and it may be possible, and result in better consequences, to remove one of those factors instead.

  4. Jara Handala July 5, 2015 at 5:30 pm | #

    Just a few points:
    1) the value of an entity has been variously conceived of in terms of scarcity, marginal usefulness (utility), or, by classical political economists, in terms of the socially necessary labour time needed to produce what’s on sale;
    2) ‘capitalism’ was Werner Sombart’s term for a society; the word, ‘Kapitalismus’, was never used by Marx – he was preoccupied with contemporary society being principally determined by the capitalist way of producing, not by commodity production (i.e., capitalist production is unique in that the commodification of the productive & destructive forces have proceeded to include people’s capacity to labour, ‘Arbeitskraft’ – hence Wood’s stress on enclosing as a way of separating producers from conditions such as access to land, turning them into hiring out (not selling) their labour-force, usually erroneously translated as labour-power);
    3) markets are a condition of the distribution of goods & services, not their production;
    4) Aladdin’s society had commodity production but it was a subordinate way of producing; & like all societies it was able to provide the means for entertainment, including tales of wonder, for both children & the older ones.

    On the supposed paradox of the price of water & diamonds, an illustration of how to adjudicate the epistemic worth of competing conceptions of value, please see this post: (All paradoxes are illusory, a statement of our current ignorance.)

  5. yastreblyansky July 5, 2015 at 8:28 pm | #

    Pretty sure Three Wishes is an entirely German trope. The Disney script is not even strictly speaking a “version” of the Aladdin story so much as a deconstruction; a new story composed of a selection of its semantic elements variously transformed and inverted, like all their cartoons since Little Mermaid.

  6. Bill Michtom August 7, 2016 at 3:27 pm | #

    At least since Pinocchio, which is significantly different from Collodi’s version.

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