The Value of Nothing
How to reshape market society and redefine democracy
by Raj Patel
Paperback, 240 pages. $ 14
Published by Picador, January 2010
In Walden, that incomparable work that connects economics to all aspects of a person's life, Henry David Thoreau writes:
"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root ... "
In October 2008, Americans were told by all the experts that our economy had regressed 80 years, and was so weak it could crash and collapse like a bad soufflé. At that time, I had five thoughts:
1. The foundation of our economic system is thoroughly unsound.
2. If we survive this round of catastrophe, the same problems could strike gain.
3. Exploiting our health and our environment cannot be the foundation of economics of the future.
4. If anything is "too big to fail" then it must be made to regulated so that it is just the right size to succeed.
5. The Economy is too complex for any one person to understand.
I am thrilled to discover that I was wrong about the fifth item on my list. In The Value of Nothing, Raj Patel has not only explained the causes of our floundering economy, he has pointed to ways we can transform our floundering, ever-teetering and unjust economic system into a healthy, fair and stable one.
Part One of the book diagnoses our present peril. Patel calls back to that tense October 2008. In a telling moment, Alan Greenspan admitted to a Congressional Committee that his entire theory of laissez-faire capitalism was flawed. Patel then exposes and skewers other villains in the crisis: McDonalds, Monsanto, John Stuart Mill, psychopathic corporations, Goldman Sachs, and especially the misguided manifesto of deadly selfishness, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
There are a handful of heroes in this section, including Karl Polanyi, and his book The Great Transformation, which explains "how the most powerful groups in society tried to turn land and labor into 'fictitious commodities,' into things that were in principle very different from the goods that had previously been exchanged in markets."
In Part Two, Patel describes activities that have successfully challenged the free market system, and improved lives. La Via Campesina now operates in 69 nations and has 150 million members. Another organization, Abahlali baseMjondolo, in Durban, helps to prevent shackowners from being harassed and evicted. In Mexico, a group called the Zapatistas, run their political and monetary affairs using a slow-moving, Athenian-style democracy, where persons who serve in office wear ski masks to protect their identities.
Works such as The Soul of Man Under Socialism (Oscar Wilde), The Poverty of Affluence (Paul L. Wachtel), To Have or To Be (Erich Fromm) and to some extent Affluenza (film and book) argue that people are diminished -- intellectually, culturally, artistically, emotionally -- by lives devoted to acquiring too much money and things. Patel cannot be faulted for skimming past this dimension: there are too many urgent consequences to attend to. He reports that for American children born in the year 2000, one out of three will develop diabetes -- and for children of color, the odds jump to one out of every two.
This essential guide to a sustainable economy might have been called (if Schumacher had not already coined the phrase), "Economics as if people mattered." The Value of Nothing is a revelatory book, filled with indisputable facts and original insights. Most admirable in the author's approach is the balance. Patel sees the need for personal change (we must consume less and consume more wisely); we also need to change the big things, the free trade model of economics that exploits the many to enrich the few.
To complete the great thought of Thoreau:
"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve."