$200 hamburgers and The Value of Nothing

Raj Patel’s The Value of Nothing is my favourite book of the summer. It’s vividly told and riveting. Which I wasn’t expecting from a book subtitled ‘How to reshape market society and redefine democracy’.

'The value of nothing' I’ve been interested in the anomalies of capitalism since studying economics in the late 1980s when shoulder pads, Gordon Gekko and Milton Friedman’s free market ruled. Except the ‘free’ market is so patently un-free. It’s run by a few companies and financial institutions, characterised by vast concentrations of monopolistic capital, and depends on reserves of unemployed and unpaid domestic labour. Inequalities and hidden costs are fundamental to its ‘success’. But when we questioned the free market we were dismissed with the same raised eyebrow and ‘it’s very complicated’ that Bill Nighy uses in his ‘Robin Hood bank tax’ video.

So nothing much has changed – except that in 2010 the Global Financial Crisis has made the failings of free market global capitalism blindingly obvious. For the moment. And plenty of people have been diagnosing its failures and outrages. Naomi Klein’s bestselling The Shock Doctrine, which came out the year the market crashed, is one of the best, most comprehensive books on the subject.

Patel’s The Value of Nothing is different. It gives a lucid and compelling analysis of market capitalism and why it continues to fail. But almost uniquely, in the second half of his book Patel leaves criticism behind to explore ways of going beyond the market. Or, ways of shifting power back to where it belongs in any democracy: in the hands of the people – not in the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. These ways are tentative, improvised, local – the very qualities which make them for me convincing and plausible. Patel is not searching out a new ideological program. He is examining various community-based, grass-roots democratic works in progress.

So if you’re after a lively discussion of 21st century capitalism and what you can do about it, I’d recommend The Value of Nothing – for three outstanding reasons.

First, because Patel uses memorable images to make his arguments, most notably his $200 hamburger, which he explains here:

and here on ‘The Colbert Report’:

Second, because his historical analysis is excellent, especially his revision of economic thinkers like Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Karl Polanyi. Patel knows his stuff. He’s an economist who’s studied and worked on five continents in his thirty-eight years. He’s also been on the inside, worked for the World Bank, the WTO, the UN – and protested against them all.

Third, because he offers possibilities for political engagement – or engagement with the market, especially through the reclaiming of ‘commons’. He remembers that we are democracy, not our politicians or our political institutions. And he writes about places where change is happening, imperfectly and slowly, but change nevertheless. It’s inspiring. Like a group of urban shackdwellers in Durban, South Africa, self-titled ‘professors of their own suffering’, who’ve fought for their right to the city – and won. Patel quotes their former president on their success:

I don’t just mean victories in courts, or evictions that have been stopped, or water and electricity connected. I am talking about seeing comrades becoming confident, being happy for knowing their power, knowing their rights in this world … seeing people who have never counted being able to engage at the level at which the struggle is now fought. Young comrades are debating ministers on the radio and TV.

Patel also makes the clearest analysis of why an emissions trading scheme is wrong:

With climate change the stakes are incalculably higher than the trillion-dollar meltdown, and it seems unwise to use the same tools that have hewn this recession to solve the most pressing problem facing the planet. Yet so blind are we to alternative ways of valuing the world around us that this market-based larceny is the only answer to climate change that we can see.

Of course, The Value of Nothing is not perfect – even if its author has just been proclaimed the Messiah by followers of a New Age religious sect. Sometimes Patel tries too hard for a joke or a pop culture reference that doesn’t quite work. But more worryingly for me, towards the end of his book he pulls Buddhism out of his hat as the basis on which to build an alternate world. While I’m sure there are lots of people who’d welcome Patel’s Buddhist perspective, I get nervous when economists start talking religion.

But I’ll take Patel for his $200 hamburger and his clear thinking about capitalism any day. Anyone who can write this:

This does not mean that polluters shouldn’t pay and that carbon dioxide has to be free because there’s no good way to price it. Handing the matter over to capitalism is, however, likely to prove as good an idea as asking the iceberg to fix the Titanic.

has my attention.

Jane Gleeson-White

Jane Gleeson-White is a writer and editor with degrees in literature and economics. She’s a PhD student in creative writing and the author of Double Entry (2011), Australian Classics (2007) and Classics (2005). She blogs at bookish girl and tweets at @janeLGW.

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  1. I haven’t read the Patel book, though I did note the quite amazing story about how a bunch of cultists decided that he was, in fact, the Messiah (an anecdote that seems particularly apt, given his flirtation with Buddhism.

    I do have a question, though. Why is it that some academic fields produce people who can write for a mass audience and others don’t? It seems to be an issue almost altogether removed from the nature of the discipline. Like, you can think of a whole bunch of popular (and populist) economists but in Australia, at least, there’s almost no-one from literary studies who has any kind of popular profile. History tends to produce public intellectuals — think Geoffrey Blainey, John Hirst, Henry Reynolds, Marilyn Lake, Stuart Macintyre. Politics, on the other hand, doesn’t.

    What is the determinant?

  2. I think that’s a great question Jeff.

    I can think of two outstanding Australians from literary studies with popular profiles – Germaine Greer and Clive James, but curiously they’ve both fled Australia. Perhaps this is related? Is there no mass audience here for literary questions, compared to the UK? And although Greer’s discipline is literature, her success came originally from writing on politics and feminism and her more recent notoriety from her views on Indigenous politics. So arguably she’s a popular political as well as literary commentator.

    As for the multitude of popular economists, perhaps their high profile is related to the reason I decided to study economics (and politics) after a degree in literature – there was an urgency and immediacy about questions of wealth distribution, for example, that I didn’t feel when analysing an Elizabethan couplet. The genius of Greer and James is that they make Elizabethan couplets seem urgent and immediate – but I think it’s much harder to do.

    The other group of academics prancing in the limelight are the philosophers – something I wouldn’t have predicted after seeing the dust strewn cobwebbed corridors of the philosophy department when I was at university. But like Greer, James and Patel, they make their subject urgent – they appear to have the tools to navigate a complex 21C world of secular moral relativism and religious warfare and dogmatism.

    Less surprising are the high profile academics from media studies, like McKenzie Wark and Catharine Lumby.

  3. It’s a great review and I have bookmarked the title to pick up post studies — thank you for bringing it to everyone’s attention, Jane. I have Klein’s works alongside a few others and have also found Clive Hamilton’s books to tackle similar issues.

    I think the subject area of history tends to produce public intellectuals because it shares narrative styles with fiction. To write history or fiction, it is advantageous to be a good storyteller and it is not surprising to find writers who have had a hand in both. On the other hand, Australian literary studies in its current post-colonial and post-national phase tends to be weighed down with theory and with definitional issues over what exactly constitutes “Australian” fiction these days. Speaking from experience, it’s a vibrant area of research but it is a tough nut to crack in making it accessible (which is code for relevant in some circles) to the public.

  4. Does anybody know a good list of decent left-leaning economics books? I’ve read a few – David Harvey’s book on neoliberalism is excellent, Ha-Joon Chang’s book ‘Bad Samaritans’ is not bad, but it’d be good to have some broader reading suggestions.

  5. Yes, good point Jason, and something I was thinking too – that literary studies, not just in Australian literature, tend to be weighed down by theory and definitional issues. And yes, there are some brilliant and fascinating things going on in literary departments, things that feel urgent, but so far they’re not being shouted from the rooftops. Or not that I’ve heard lately. I also think that writers themselves, Tom Keneally being a prime example, are the ones bringing literature to the streets.

    THR: I’d definitely recommend Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’ as the best left-leaning analysis of recent economic history, post WWII, since Milton Friedman’s free market radicalism took hold of governments and financial institutions like the World Bank. It’s exhaustive, global, fascinating, really well written and full of interviews with key players and other first hand experience. If that sort of historical economic analysis is what you’re looking for.

    Another book I have on my list but am yet to read is a collection of essays by leftie economics writers on what’s going on today, post GFC, called ‘People First Economics: Making a clean start for jobs, justice and climate’. Naomi Klein is one of the contributors.

    And one of the best, more theoretical but very accessible and well-written economics books I’ve read lately (although published in 1994) is an analysis of what happened to the discipline itself, mostly how it was derailed by the introduction of mathematical models to everything in incredibly inappropriate ways, fittingly called ‘The Death of Economics’ by Paul Ormerod.

  6. Just thinking on my own question, most disciplines don’t really talk much about writing, even though it’s the core of what they do. I”ve just been reading Ann Cuthoys and Ann McGrath’s book How to Write History That People want to read, and it provoked a realisation how rare such guides are. Like, if you study lit, you spend lots of time analysing prose but very little talking about your own (or, at least, that was the case back in my day, when we used to ride to class on dinosaurs). It’s just assumed that, cos you are interested in literature, your writing will take care of itself.

    Perhaps the difference with people like Patel is precisely that economists, when they move away from graphs and equations and so forth, have to make conscious decisions about their writing, which forces them into different modes. Maybe that’s why there’s so many popular science writers and so few popular writers of lit crit.

    Just a thought, anyway.

  7. Yes, I’ve been thinking about your question too, Jeff, after Jason’s comment about literary studies being weighed down by theory and definitions – because if any academic discipline is torn apart and weighed down by theory and definitional issues it’s economics. When I studied it (dinosaur tethered outside) there were two departments, one teaching Marxism, the other teaching maths based ‘neoclassical’ economics, ie Friedmanism. (I was one of the few who did both.) And mostly when our teachers moved away from their graphs they were tongue-tied. Unless they were at the pub.

    But I like your thought. I just wonder though if, in the case of popular science, it’s more to do with the fact that the great discoveries and cutting edge, life-and-death issues today are being generated by science. As for economics, perhaps it’s as simple as Madonna says – we are living in a material world. And everyone has a stake in the subject. Why economists seem to be able to write well about economics, however, remains a mystery to me.

    And I wonder, what urgent issue (of interest to a mass audience) would a lit crit writer address?

  8. Yes, well. That last point is just it, isn’t it! One suspects that there’s no mass audience for a lit crit writer cos there’s no mass audience for literature.
    Nonetheless, there’s a certain amount of chicken and egg going on. I mean, if you could get a popular academic writing on books, that might help extend or maintain popular interest in literature.
    In any case, what about cultural studies? Wasn’t the whole point of that, at least originally, to extend critical insights to everyday culture?

  9. But isn’t there a mass audience for some literature – like ‘The Road’? And locally, say, ‘The Slap’ and ‘Breath’. (I won’t venture into twilight and da vinci territory. Zeitgeist conductors? Yes. Literature? Perhaps not.)

    Maybe cultural studies has succeeded too well. Maybe we’re all now lit crits – always talking books and reading in reading groups and with Oprah and Jennifer Byrne. Who’s got time for the learned opinions of academics when we can all spout our own?

    On the other hand, I don’t know any science groups or economics circles or first tuesday historians’ clubs.

  10. Whenever I’ve attended literature conferences in Australia, after a few, it’s like going to a family re-union. On the one hand, it’s great because Oz Lit conferences are generally friendly environments for everyone’s research and you know that eyes are not going to glaze over when you talk about your particular subject; on the other hand, it means that most publications, whether intentionally or not, are addressed to people within that circle rather than beyond.

    There have been attempts to change that, going as far back as 1994 with the “Australian Public Intellectual Network” initiated by my supervisor. It’s been dogged however by changes in university policies urged by changes in government priorities: the shift in emphasis in the arts & humanities from cultural capital to audience creation (aka bums in seats) did tremendous damage to how the arts & humanities should be valued and its worth assessed by the public. Nowadays, it is hard work to undo the stigmatization that is attached to being a “student” or “academic”. In contrast, “scientists” and “economists” seem to face this less because their namesakes automatically suggest quantitative research; but a “student” or “academic” implies qualitative research which is nowadays incompatible with the mathematical logic generally ascendant in western societies.

    Literary criticism though has not been slow to respond to this. There are two changes occurring. One is the marrying of statistical research with literary history called “distant reading” (as opposed to “close reading”). It looks at a mass of literary facts and assembles them into a broader history examining the material aspects of literary production. Sydney University published the first book in Australia on this important change in literary criticism earlier this year called “Resourceful Reading: The New Empiricism, eResearch and Australian Literature Culture” (I have a chapter in it called “Is a Picture Worth 10,175 Novels?”).

    This builds on the second change underway in literary criticism, that is, Print Culture studies or History of the Book studies which examines literary criticism and literary history from the perspective of publishers. My own PhD which I’m in the final stages of writing up (9 weeks to go!) looks at the London office of Angus & Robertson and how a small group of people thirteen thousand miles away established the export market for Australian ideas and writing.

    Naturally, having been immersed in 18,000 documents from the Mitchell Library A. & R. archives specifically connected with their London office, I think is it a fascinating area. But it has me wondering whether one way to popularize literary criticism and knowledge of Australia’s literary history would be to make a TV series. Not a scholarly program but rather something along the lines of “Mad Men”, set in say the Sydney A. & R. bookshop during pre-first world war period or the London office post-second world war. Having read the letters, there are enough interesting characters, politics and drama to spur several seasons. But instead, we have shows like NCIS which routinize the “other” as a locus of suspicion, which Australia happily copies in its “Border Patrol” clones, and which favours forensic (quantitative) analysis over deeper forms of critical thinking … Anyhow, I have rambled too long 🙂

  11. I think that’s all fascinating Jason – especially the sound of your PhD subject and your idea for a tv series. You should get working on it … you know, in 9 weeks’ time.

    As for your observation about science and economics being associated with quantitative research and therefore valued by a western world in thrall to maths, I think you’re absolutely right. In fact economics labours to make itself as ‘scientific’ as possible, knowing it’s actually a pseudo- or social science. And therein lies much of the damage done by (mathematically abstracted) economics in the post war period.

    I’ve always been suspicious when literary scholars attempt to ape the apparently mathematically rigorous approach of the hard sciences. (Although I’m curious about ‘distant reading’ and will check out the USyd book.) I remember one literature academic telling me with the straightest face that research in literary theory was as rigorous and potentially momentous (in its implications for humankind) as that in physics. I thought: gods of literature save me from that delusion.

    Especially because I think it distracts from what literary scholarship can do for a broad audience – and what science and maths can’t do but attempt to – and it’s more in line with what pop philosophers and psychologists are doing so successfully these days, which is to provide some context – ethical, moral, authorial, words long banished from literary theory – with which to navigate the world, as crazy now as it’s always been (Homer’s Greece, Shakespeare’s England, Cervantes’ Spain). Even if it’s ‘just’ to make us laugh at it.

    Writers write from a sense of urgency, they have something to say. I think so much literary scholarship, rather than spreading their words, sucks the life out of them.

  12. Jason, your comment prompted me to interrupt my own line of reading (appropriately enough, in mathematics) to check out ‘distant reading’ – looks fascinating. Have just read some of Franco Moretti’s ‘Conjectures on World Literature’. He mentions several of my heroes (Goethe, Marx, Braudel) in almost one breath so I’m hooked. Thanks so much for mentioning it.

  13. The work of Franco Moretti is what kicked me off on my current line of research, combining the statistical analysis of Australian publication data with documentary analysis. After three years, it’s been an intriguing journey.

    Even as I use both distant and close reading methods myself, I share your concerns and ramble about them somewhat in the USyd book (the editors have made their introduction available for free online as a sample of the whole book at http://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/2123/5854/1/Introduction_ResourcefulReading.pdf). For me, the closer association of calculation technologies with literary research is creating a new ontology of Australian literary studies steeped in “facts”. Furthermore, this new variant of Australian literary studies doesn’t appear to be taking full account of the ideological or methodological shifts still unfolding within the discipline in its contemporary turn towards computer-based visualisation techniques. For example, I was present in one seminar where someone graphically demonstrated an analysis of the star signs of Australian writers — that is, which star sign wrote the most novels! — and I was immediately reminded of a quote by two US scholars who work in statistics: “Just because results are statistically valid and humanly interpretable does not guarantee that they are meaningful. … [For] we can give a gloss or a paraphrase for all varieties of nonsense”.

    The other issue is that “distant reading” requires the researcher to trade in a close reading of a literary text for something that looks like a close reading of experimental results. The word “distant” as an antonym to “close” also implies “objectivity” and therefore capitalizes on this imported association as being a less “intimate”, less “sentimental”, more scientific type of reading without actually claiming it is so. Similarly, there’s an irony that where the literary scholar had hoped to explain or understand those larger structures within which an individual text has meaning, they find themselves acting once again as interpreters. That is, through analysing charts and graphs, we end up engaging in the kind of literary criticism and literary reading practices which new empiricism supposedly distances itself from. Navigating through the pros and cons even as it is employed in my own work has thus been a daunting process and still very much a work in progress. Fortunately, Moretti is an excellent guide through these kinds of things.

    Yes, I totally agree on how literary scholarship, when held against pop psychology and philosophy, seems neutered like say “Muppets Tonight” versus the original “Muppet Show”: the edge and urgency appears to have evaporated along with the necessary and important links to the social and cultural lives of humans that humanities scholarship is all about.

  14. Again, all fascinating Jason. I’m definitely going to look into it when I’ve finished my work in progress (due end June). And amazing that Moretti’s work is what got you started – although I guess not so much if, as I gather, he’s the father of distant reading. What particularly grabbed me in the snippet of his I read was Marc Bloch’s ‘lovely ‘slogan’’: ‘years of analysis for a day of synthesis’ and his comment that if you read Braudel you immediately see what Bloch had in mind. Because I’ve been reading Braudel and I do see what Bloch had in mind and it’s exactly what I love about Braudel. So if distant reading has anything to do with Braudel’s massive synthesising and recalibrating exercise then I’m in.

    I’m interested in so much of what you say – the fact that statistics can be massively abused, that just because something can be quantified doesn’t mean it has any inherent value or interest (like the astro signs of Oz writers), and fact that the use of empirical data and statistics ultimately takes us back to interpretation. Even the hard sciences now know, thanks to Heisenberg, that what we see depends on who is seeing it.

    I’d love to read the intro you link to on the USyd website, but the link doesn’t seem to work.

    (I’m currently working on quantification too, but in quite a different, non-literary area.)

  15. You’re welcome, and thank you too for the opportunity to participate in a discussion — from literary and non-literary sides of the spectrum — on the cultural work of quantification, an aspect often overlooked because of its apparent logical qualities.

  16. I finished the introduction last night – now want to read the whole book. I’m enrolled in a PhD in English lit at UNSW next semester, so I might be after further conversation about quantification and literature later in the year, Jason.

  17. Jane,

    I wholeheartedly agree with your comment:

    “Writers write from a sense of urgency, they have something to say. I think so much literary scholarship, rather than spreading their words, sucks the life out of them.”

    Geoff Dyer is hilarious on this exact topic in his book ‘Out of Sheer Rage: In the shadow of D H Lawrence’. There is no way that lit crit can get a wider audience while it destroys that which it purportedly seeks to preserve. Poor lit crit often uses the work before it as a starting point for a rant on other intellectual issues rather than engaging with the work (and author) in a generous way.

    If a critic truly respected a work, he would write with the desire to reveal to us what the work is trying to do rather than how it fits in with or confirms his research interests. You will find examples of excellent literary criticism when you study older writers. The criticism remains so fresh, despite being written almost one hundred years ago now, perhaps because first and foremost it celebrates the work and the writer and tries to unveil to the reader the intricate layers of meaning to be found in the work. And often times, it still succeeds in locating and contextualising the work.

    I really believe it’s all to do with the critic’s starting point: do they approach the task at hand in a spirit of generosity or negativity; collegiality or competition. I think this is why so much excellent criticism is produced by writers rather than by academics. In my view, the writer critic reviews in a collegial spirit with a desire to move the whole project of literature (and life) forward. He sees other writers as perhaps part of this project too and therefore is ready to celebrate great writing put before him.

  18. Excellent, Jane, I look forward to that and knowing more about your work. I can be reached through my blog (http://www.artsnaked.com/postscripts/) or Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/jason.ensor).

    I see your point, Betty, and I’m not going to disagree with it as I have encountered a competitive and unnecessarily critical spirit during my own travels within the discipline. However, I do wish to complicate the finding that such a spirit is representative of the field as a whole and is the default stance of most who engage in it at the academic level, with reference to recent publications. There are many excellent works by academics regarding Australian literature whose love for the subject and its workers is immense, collegial and generous. To name just a few: “Stella Miles Franklin” by Jill Roe, “The Making of the Australian Literary Imagination” by Richard Nile, “Literary Activists: Writer-Intellectuals and Australian Public Life” by Brigid Rooney, the recent “MacQuarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature” and the “Cambridge History of Australian Literature”.

  19. Thanks for the book ref Betty – as an avid lover of DH Lawrence I’ll be checking it out. And I agree with your thoughts on celebratory and embracing criticism. But I also think much deep and interesting thinking about literary ‘texts’ and their complex relation to reality and experience can be gleaned from more theoretical literary criticism, once you decode it. And I guess that’s the problem – it’s not widely accessible. It seems academic literary scholars have moved into an almost self-sufficient realm where they’re not so much mediators as creators in their own right, with the texts as exemplars. Which I guess is what you’re saying.

    I also agree, Jason, that there is generous literary scholarship in academia – I especially like your example of the ‘Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature’. And I’ve read some fantastic lit crit essays in the last year, one on Christos Tsiolkas’s ‘Dead Europe’ and Elizabeth Knox’s ‘The Vintner’s Luck’ (‘Gardening in Hell’ I think) comes to mind.

    (And thanks v much for your contact details Jason.)

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