Escape From the Dismal Life

Raj Patel’s new book explains the value of nothing, and everything.

Mark Engler February 12, 2010

Taking it slow: Members of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) rest upon arrival at Oventic, in southern Mexico, in August 2003. (Photo by JORGE UZON/AFP/Getty Images )

In 1971, the most pop­u­lar field of study at uni­ver­si­ties in the Unit­ed States was edu­ca­tion. Social sci­ences and his­to­ry came in a fair­ly close sec­ond, with all oth­er fields falling far behind. But by the mil­len­ni­um, those pat­terns were a dis­tant memory.

‘What the Zapatistas are practicing is slow politics,’ writes Raj Patel. Slow Food and the Zapatistas share ‘the notion that everyone has the right to participate in, and enjoy, the world around them.’

Busi­ness had become king on cam­pus. It now awards twice as many degrees as any oth­er field. As a corol­lary devel­op­ment, the famed dis­mal sci­ence” is also surg­ing. Ask Har­vard under­grad­u­ates what they are study­ing, and their most like­ly answer will be Econ.”

In this age of bailouts and bonus­es, the high priests of finance lord over pub­lic pol­i­cy. As Oscar Wilde said, Nowa­days peo­ple know the price of every­thing and the val­ue of nothing.”

This is the premise of Raj Patel’s new book, The Val­ue of Noth­ing: How to Reshape Mar­ket Soci­ety and Rede­fine Democ­ra­cy. A writer, aca­d­e­m­ic and for­mer ana­lyst for the Oak­land-based Insti­tute for Food and Devel­op­ment Pol­i­cy, Patel traces the ori­gins of the dom­i­nant mar­ket-based world­view, exam­ines its neg­a­tive impact on the plan­et and final­ly maps an escape route. 

He writes, The daz­zle of free mar­kets has blind­ed us to oth­er ways of see­ing the world.” The rem­e­dy, he argues, is not a democ­ra­cy run by experts, but the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of exper­tise and resources.” 

In his inves­ti­ga­tion, Patel goes back to the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry – to the enclo­sure of the Eng­lish coun­try­side described in Karl Polanyi’s The Great Trans­for­ma­tion–and then moves to the present. Along the way, he shows how think­ing that views social rela­tion­ships as com­modi­ties can lead to some very scary places. 

In a noto­ri­ous 1991 memo, Lar­ry Sum­mers, now direc­tor of Pres­i­dent Obama’s Nation­al Eco­nom­ic Coun­cil, con­tend­ed that African coun­tries are vast­ly under-pol­lut­ed” – that the eco­nom­ic log­ic behind dumping…toxic waste in the low­est wage coun­try is impec­ca­ble.” Using the same kind of rea­son­ing, one can come to the con­clu­sion that the poor are over­ly pos­sessed of kid­neys and should be allowed to sell their organs to the needy rich. Indeed, Patel tells us this argu­ment was actu­al­ly made by Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go econ­o­mist Gary Beck­er, whose neolib­er­al views have become all-too preva­lent in Washington.

The mar­ket is not just amoral; it is short­sight­ed. Patel’s most eye-catch­ing claim is that a Big Mac, com­mon­ly sold for under $4, would prop­er­ly go for $200 if its true costs to soci­ety were fac­tored in. This is not an entire­ly nov­el con­cept; Patel cites a study from the Cen­ter for Sci­ence and the Envi­ron­ment in India, which in turn was the sub­ject of a 1994 Finan­cial Times arti­cle. Still, he uses the catchy exam­ple to give a skilled expla­na­tion of exter­nal­i­ties” – all those soci­etal costs that are not reflect­ed on an item’s price tag. 

In the case of the burg­er, the high cost owes some­thing to the fact that a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the beef grown world­wide comes from pas­tures that are clear-cut from eco­log­i­cal­ly pre­cious forests. Add in that fast food chains often pay work­ers so lit­tle that employ­ees’ pover­ty-line wages are sup­ple­ment­ed by Medicare, food stamps … and oth­er gov­ern­ment ser­vices.” Last­ly, con­sid­er the pub­lic-health costs asso­ci­at­ed with a ris­ing cri­sis in dia­betes and child­hood obe­si­ty. After we pick up the tab for all these things, that burg­er no longer looks like such a great deal.

The Val­ue of Noth­ing does not draw on the kind of weighty archival research that might give a book door-prop­ping heft, and it con­tains too few report­ed scenes to qual­i­fy as a journalist’s exposé. Rather, at just under 200 pages, Patel’s essay­is­tic nar­ra­tive is half a cri­tique of the market’s pen­e­tra­tion into our col­lec­tive con­scious­ness and half a show­case of bot­tom-up social move­ment respons­es, with some Mal­colm Glad­wellian social psy­chol­o­gy thrown in. It is left-wing polit­i­cal econ­o­my in a con­tem­po­rary, user-friend­ly for­mat. T0 the extent that our era of eco­nom­ic cri­sis cries out for such main­stream repack­ag­ing of ven­er­a­ble but too-often-ignored ideas, it is a fine and noble con­tri­bu­tion to today’s polit­i­cal debate, if not an alto­geth­er ground­break­ing one. 

Patel is a wit­ty writer, capa­ble of some fun turns of phrase. Yet he too often reach­es for tired ref­er­ences. He cites FDR (in a sto­ry that is pop­u­lar but, Patel neglects to men­tion, prob­a­bly apoc­ryphal) telling activists Okay, you’ve con­vinced me. Now go on out and bring pres­sure on me!”

One of the more humor­ous pas­sages in the book is a para­graph about Ayn Rand: There are two nov­els that can trans­form a book­ish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a child­ish day­dream that can lead to an emo­tion­al­ly stunt­ed, social­ly crip­pled adult­hood in which large parts of the day are spent invent­ing ways to make real life more like a fan­ta­sy nov­el. The oth­er is a book about orcs.” Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this quip is by writer John Rogers, cir­cu­lat­ed on the Inter­net in the spring of 2009. (When alert­ed, Patel indi­cat­ed he was embarassed by his inad­ver­tent error and issued an online apology.)

When he turns to dis­cuss solu­tions to mar­ket mad­ness, Patel effec­tive­ly and appro­pri­ate­ly uses a dif­fer­ent joke, one about activists’ pen­chant for long meetings:

Q: How many Zap­atis­tas does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Come back in two weeks.

So fre­quent­ly are the masked rebels from south­ern Mex­i­co laud­ed by inter­na­tion­al admir­ers that one would not expect Patel to come up with fresh insights about them. But he does. All jok­ing aside, he argues that just as envi­ron­ment- and health-con­scious eaters are reject­ing McDonald’s and opt­ing for Slow Food,’ What the Zap­atis­tas are prac­tic­ing is slow pol­i­tics.” In the autonomous com­mu­ni­ties under their con­trol, they use vil­lage-wide assem­blies and rotat­ing gov­ern­ing coun­cils to bring all com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers into deci­sions about local gov­er­nance. Slow Food and the Zap­atis­tas share the notion that every­one has the right to par­tic­i­pate in, and enjoy, the world around them, and that gen­uine democ­ra­cy takes time.”

Of course, this brings to mind anoth­er one-lin­er fre­quent­ly attrib­uted to Wilde: The trou­ble with social­ism is that it takes up too many evenings.” 

Oth­er than par­tic­i­pa­to­ry process, what slow pol­i­tics” entails remains a bit unclear.Patel approves of the orga­niz­ing efforts of dis­si­dent Chi­nese work­ers, Flori­da campesinos, South African shack-dwellers and free soft­ware devel­op­ers. How­ev­er, he does not wres­tle with the hard ques­tions of whether small d’ democ­rats” should engage with polit­i­cal par­ties, how influ­en­tial but ossi­fy­ing labor unions in many coun­tries might still make a dif­fer­ence, or what lessons can be drawn from the inter­ac­tions between social move­ments and new­ly elect­ed pro­gres­sive gov­ern­ments in South America.

Yet, if some­times vague, The Val­ue of Noth­ing makes a force­ful case that our reliance on the mar­ket to solve pub­lic prob­lems must end. After pok­ing numer­ous holes in pro-busi­ness plans for a cap-and-trade sys­tem to address glob­al cli­mate change, Patel casu­al­ly observes, it seems unwise to use the same tools that have hewn [the tril­lion-dol­lar eco­nom­ic melt­down] to solve the most press­ing prob­lem fac­ing the planet.” 

It is a beau­ti­ful­ly under­stat­ed con­clu­sion. Busi­ness majors take note.

Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached here.
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