Malcolm's Reviews > The Value Of Nothing: How To Reshape Market Society And Redefine Democray

The Value Of Nothing by Raj Patel
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's review
Oct 17, 11

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bookshelves: marxism-and-the-left, political-economy
Read from October 12 to 17, 2011

Patel is in that school of recent left-ish social critics, and much more left than some, who are on a popularising mission to develop a critique of the contemporary capitalist order. The important thing that this group of writers share (think Naomi Klein, Hilary Wainwright, Arundhati Roy, George Monbiot and Eric Schlosser) is a broader critique of neo-liberal capitalism than we see from more economically specialist writers as well as a compelling writing style that brings the critique to life – the weakness is that of the list above, only Wainwright seems to have articulated a clear or programmatically focussed idea of what to do.

Patel’s case here is a useful and powerful supplement to this set of writers in that he sets out to do two things: 1) explore the limitations of the market as a way to value stuff, and 2) in response advance a case for a democracy based in participation and the idea of the commons. The idea is compelling, to democratise markets includes a struggle to get business to bear the full costs of its activities rather than palm those costs off on others (the state or citizens of other countries for instance) along with a willingness to get it wrong and start again. But this willingness to get it wrong, this need to slow down, this need to slough off the dominance of the powerful in favour of the many is scary, takes a long time, and requires that we work to overcome two principle errors of contemporary social life – the first is its destruction by neo-liberal ideologies that hold that there is no such thing as society (even while its advocates get all het up about social exclusion – surely that’s a paradox), and the second is that the market is a meaningful and accurate way to value things.

The first, the end of society, is hard one to overcome – and means that we need to begin to work together, not through intermediaries but through direct democratic and face-to-face means. The second is perhaps even harder, and requires that we throw off not financialisation but a blindness that constructs the capitalist market where some enter to enhance their profits and bolster their self interest as not just a meaningful way to assess and determine value, but the only way to do so. It’s all kinda of intimidating.

The book has some great case studies and stories of people organising for themselves to not only speak the truth to power (with apologies of Orwell) but force power to concede. Sometimes it seems tiny – like the Florida tomato pickers whose campaign focussed not on their family owned employing companies but on McDonalds and the like who purchase the tomatoes, with the outcome of a wage increase of a penny a pound. It may seem miniscule (and it is) but more important than the size of the increase was that there was an increase after years of nothing. Sometimes it is not the material gain that matters but learning the skills of organising and the possibility of resistance.

Even better than the case studies is Patel’s impressive ability to explain economics in clear and obvious language, and in a way that means that we don’t quite realise that he is talking economics, mainly because he does not get hung up on the obscure worlds of so much economics-linked obscurantism, but he focuses on the people at the centre of the stories.

Amid all this however, the book is quite frustrating because it seems quite disconnected from a sense of what-do-we-do. This is not so much a problem of Patel’s but of current politics – he emphasises the commons, he calls for fundamental changes in the ways we think, and then says that it won’t be easy. I’m pretty sure that as with Patel many of us can imagine a new future, what we need to know and work on is how to get to it. Sadly, this doesn’t take us far down that road. Throughout the book, however, I was reminded of a comment by the great Uruguayan writer Edurado Galeano – ‘democracy is often confused with an electoral ritual’.

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