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The Value of Nothing

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

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Patel is at his best when he is writing like the professor he is, rather than like an activist. He can explain the practice of “shorting” a stock in a brief paragraph as well as it can be done. He cites the exquisite example of how a perfect storm of circumstances totally unrelated to its intrinsic value sent Volkswagen stock soaring by an order of five while Wall Street wunderkinds were betting for it to drop like a stone, like every other automotive company was.

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It is hard to argue with much of Patel’s indictment at a time when many bankers have received taxpayer bailouts for bringing the economy to its knees, followed closely by obscene bonuses. Anyone who has bought a $10 toaster knows at some level that something has to be amiss somewhere. How much could they have paid the people who made it, and how many other corners were cut to attain that paltry price? When cold cash is always the bottom line, a lot of very valuable things undoubtedly are getting sold short. Government leaders from around the world met recently to try to figure out how to mitigate the damage that our modern economic practices are doing to the planet.

The problem with the book comes in the second half when Patel tries to articulate solutions. He cites numerous examples of groups and movements that are challenging injustices and the machinations of governments and big business, like the Zapatistas in Mexico and the international peasant movement La Via Campesina. But he can’t pull them all together in any coherent or convincing way to explain how such approaches might play out on a grand scale.

At times, advocacy gets the better of the author and his prose: “In the relentless enclosure of the natural world, we have destroyed our planet, and if the quiet whispers among many climate scientists are to be believed, it may be too late to do anything about it.” If our planet was destroyed, no one would be whispering, quietly or otherwise. Often it is not clear why Patel is citing a particular anecdote, such as the cause for the rising crime rate in Bhutan, “once the world’s happiest nation.” The introduction of television is the culprit.

Toward the end of the book, the best he can do is vague bromides: “In other cases, it means developing new ways of sharing, and of stinting.” Or this: “In order to reclaim politics, we too will need more imagination, creativity and courage.” Amen.

David Holahan is a freelance writer in East Haddam, Conn.

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