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The Value of Nothing

Activist and academic Raj Patel offers a stinging indictment of capitalism.

By David Holahan / January 21, 2010

The Value of Nothing: How to reshape market society and redefine democracy By Raj Patel Picador 256 pp., $14


Ronald Reagan said famously and often, “Government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.” Simply get out of the way of free markets, and it would be morning in America ad infinitum. Raj Patel, activist, scholar, and author of The Value of Nothing, is not high on either governments or 21st-century capitalism. He makes a compelling case that matters have gotten so out of whack that, rather than staying the economic course that landed us on the rocks, we need to closely reevaluate doing business as usual.

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One problem the author has with government and capitalists is that he sees them in cahoots, feathering each other’s nest at the expense of the masses. He points to the White House, “hijacked” by Wall Streeters like Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, and to the emergence of the modern market economy, which he traces back to medieval England and the enclosure of common lands for the enrichment of the upper classes. Dispossessed peasants were forced to work in virtual servitude for large landlords or to migrate to the city, swelling the ranks of the incipient working class.

Patel draws parallels to practices today, where corporations pad their profits by exploiting natural resources such as fisheries, rain forests, and wildlife habitats – which he argues are not theirs to despoil and for which they are not paying anywhere near the fair market value. He estimates the true cost of a $4 Big Mac to be closer to $200 when its carbon footprint and government subsidies are factored in. Talk about an unhappy meal. Though he does concede after several pages of calculations that it is all “an approximation,” it’s small wonder that people (Patel included) refer to economics as “the dismal science.”

A better example he cites is the dramatic depletion of fish stocks off the Pakistani coast after the government, strapped for cash, allowed international trawlers to operate closer to shore. The small indigenous fishing operations along the nation’s 600-mile coastline report their catches dropping by more than 50 percent as a result.

Patel, an Oxford grad with a PhD from the London School of Economics, presents the problems of modern capitalism in the first half of the book, enlisting to his cause the likes of John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, and even a band of chimpanzees. Unlike “Homo economicus,” who is out for No. 1 in the dog-eat-dog marketplace, chimps exhibit endearing communal empathy toward one another. Exhibit A, however, is Alan Greenspan and his public mea culpa on his misplaced faith in the self-regulating power of the markets.