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’.
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.