Hope and anger: Raj Patel on free markets, commons and being an activist bum

Raj Patel – the author of The Value of Nothing and Stuffed & Starved – was in Sydney for the writers’ festival. In an electrifying conversation with journalist Ross Gittens, Patel blasted free market ideology, extolled ‘commons’ and confessed he’s a big disappointment to his family. Here are seven things Patel said.

Raj Patel and Ross Gittens1. Becoming an activist
Raj Patel has an Indian name, sounds English and lives in America. His mother was born in Kenya, his father in Fiji and Patel grew up in London helping out in the family convenience store. ‘My father thought I was a bum until I was thirty. Then I got my PhD and now I’m a Dr bum. I’m a big disappointment to my family because I didn’t become an accountant, I didn’t become a lawyer. I became an activist.’

When Patel was five his family visited India. One rainy day Patel heard knocking on their taxi door: ‘There was this little girl in a monotone asking for money, saying please can we have some money.’ He began to scream at his parents. ‘I was wondering why she was on the outside and we were on the inside. Why she was wet and we were dry. Why she needed money and why we had it.’ That moment set Patel on his path to activism.

2. The Global Financial Crisis
The problems of the GFC are far deeper than we realise – and prompted Patel to write The Value of Nothing. He was especially enraged by the lack of response to Alan Greenspan’s admission in Congress that his free-market ideology was flawed. For Patel it was like the Pope saying there is no God or the Dalai Lama saying ‘violence does solve everything’.

Greenspan’s ideology has governed the USA and most of the capitalist world for the past forty years – and it’s wrong. But we still cling to the myth of self-regulating markets. And when they fail, instead of serious analysis, we make up stories (more regulation, Bernie Madoff was craven, Wall Street is greedy). Yes, we need more regulation. Yes, ‘there was greed – who knew? – on Wall Street’. But ‘there’s something deeper going on’ and that’s what The Value of Nothing is about.

3. Commodities are fictions and we invented the market
Drawing on Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time Patel says our commodity-based market economy is not natural, but was created in 19th-century England. The ‘great transformation’ is the process by which things became commodities.

‘There’s a lot of political work and sometimes also a lot of violence that goes into making us believe that we can buy and sell stuff.’ Right now we’re seeing the construction by our governments of a new commodity: carbon. ‘Can we buy and sell the right to pollute the environment?’

‘But the original commodities had a much darker history’, especially land and human labour. ‘Today we think nothing of selling our labour for a salary. We think nothing of being able to buy and sell land. But it’s not natural.’

Capitalism emerged through the often violent enclosure of commons. Shared land was turned into private property which could be bought and sold. The people kicked off the land were sent to the city ‘to buy and sell their labour as part of the urban proletariat’. Polanyi shows us that ‘the market needed to be created by society itself. The market and society are the same thing.’

4. There’s no freedom in free markets
There is nothing inherently wrong with markets: they decentralise decision-making and exchange happens peer to peer. But modern capitalism is ‘the anti-market’. It involves such concentrations of power ‘that everything that’s good about markets’ is destroyed, including freedom. The free market is not about liberty, it’s about money: if you don’t have money you’ll starve and be denied freedom.

‘That seems to me to be a very bad way of distributing resources.’

5. We’re made for our economy like we’re made for our food
Supermarkets are ‘the most manipulated environments on earth’. They are ‘engineering us into becoming consumers. We believe that our food is made for us – but in every way that matters, we are being made for our food.’

The comparable idea in The Value of Nothing is that ‘we are being made for our economy. We’re being transformed into the sorts of people who are unable to make real and effective change through political action. We’re taught how to be consumers, so if we want to change something we go to the right shop and buy the right product. But when it comes to deeper political transformation we’re not equipped to be able to make the change. We’re told that the overriding concern is precisely the one about efficiency. And everything else be damned.’

To be a citizen ‘is to re-own the idea that in fact there are different ways in which we can allocate resources other than by the grinding calculus of neoclassical efficiency.’

6. Commons
Neoclassical (free market) economics says we’re selfish, greedy, rational, calculating. Yes, our genes may be selfish – but we are not. We are primates, capable of altruism and cooperation. Research into forest communities by Nobel Prize winning Elinor Ostrom has shown that if governments and corporations are removed and the communities are given enough forest space, not only do they achieve higher welfare levels but they sequester more carbon. The communities managed the forest better than governments and corporations, who developed the forest ‘by chopping it down’.

‘We are not forest communities. We live in urban areas. But we can start to recreate some of these commons – and one of the most exciting ways we can do this relates to food.’ To feed 9 billion people in 2050 we’ll need urban agriculture and farming techniques not hostage to fossil fuel and cheap water. This will take political work. ‘And the dark side here is that I fear that in many ways we’ve been disempowered by consumer capitalism not to have the imagination to think that we can do stuff.’

‘But I think activism around food in particular is something that offers hope.’

7. There’s plenty to get angry about

  • ‘Women in Australia earn 70% of what men do for the same work.’

  • ‘The biggest subsidy to modern capitalism comes from raising children, building communities, caring for the elderly, work often denoted as women’s work.’

  • ‘In 1995 the UN found that unpaid women’s work was equivalent to 50% of the world’s total output.’

  • ‘300,000 people die every year because of climate change. In Australia it seems to me that climate change is a very real environmental issue.’

  • ‘BHP Billiton has announced that you should get rid of this government rather than it suffer a small tax on its already marginal 13-14% tax rate. When corporations are inciting you to overthrow your government so they can pay less tax, then there’s plenty to get angry about.’

If you’re interested in hearing more, Raj Patel’s session was filmed (I assume for Slow TV although it’s not online yet). Patel is an incisive, inspiring thinker and The Value of Nothing is one of the most exciting and hopeful books I’ve read in ages.

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.

More by Jane Gleeson-White ›

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  1. Jane, thank you. I look forward to reading through the links and more of Raj Patel’s work. This taps right into my thinking and scares, but reinvigorates me. I feel like crying! The beauty and the terror of the world, and all that. The power of an idea, a word (‘consumer’ and ‘soldier’ spring to mind), the frailty of our consciousness – so whole heartedly duped: and from what I saw in Uganda and Botswana, less ‘developed’ communities aspire to become consumers, capitalists and still believe it is profoundly ‘good’, while we who ‘have’ would rather die (and kill) than change a thing, it seems.

    And it seems all the best people are disappointments to their parents – how curious.

  2. Thanks Clare. It taps deeply into my thinking too – and Patel’s hopefulness is pretty rare in the econo-world. And also almost uniquely for an economist, he doesn’t get stuck in theory, but engages with what is actually happening, at the grass roots. And what’s happening there is inspiring. He addresses it at length in ‘The Value of Nothing’.

    And your thoughts about fact we’d rather die and kill than change a thing is something that’s also been on my mind, especially this week.

    In Uganda and Botswana, did the people you met and worked with aspire to become consumers and capitalists?

    1. Hi Jane. Some of the folks I met and worked with in Uganda were certainly on their way to a capitalist lifestyle – and ended up embezzling money donated to a school; but it was more the approval of things like DDT and plastic and the feeling that anything Western was ‘good’ – (darling people didn’t know that burning plastic was toxic!) and yes, an aspiration for a Western-type job and economy. In South Africa, the poverty was definitely Western and the aspirations for the things of capitalism: phones, American clothes…it’s complicated. I’m really not in a position to comment, but that’s how it seemed in 2007

      1. I say ‘darling people’ because Abraham, the man I am thinking of, really is a darling, selfless, wonderful human being. It is the fashion, though, to burn rubbish – plastic and all, and locals did not know that the smoke was toxic.

        What I learned in Africa is that I don’t know anything about Africa, so I should just be quiet now!

        1. Thanks so much Clare. After I asked the question about people in Uganda and Botswana aspiring to become consumers I thought it was a silly question – of course they want to improve their standard of living, quality of life, have mobile phones, stuff.

          I really appreciate your first-hand view of Africa. You might have learned there that you know nothing about Africa but that’s way more than I know about it.

  3. Thanks Jane. I watched the Slow TV interview and another lecture and have decided that if Raj Patel is Satan, I’m ready to meet God 🙂 Really great discovery – thank you. (Ross Gittens was pretty cool too)

  4. you’re so right Clare! (‘If Patel is Satan …’) And yes, Ross Gittens was brilliant, dry and suitably skeptical but responsive. The perfect foil for Patel.

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