The Value of Nothing – Raj Patel

Having obtained degrees from Oxford, the London School of Economics, and Cornell University, Raj Patel explores the fundamental dilemma of market-based economies. Because prices do not accurately reflect the value of commodities due to their extensive externalities (Patel explains that a more appropriate price for an average hamburger would be $200 if these externalities were properly factored into the production process), an overemphasis on price and capitalism severely alters the balance of society. To overcome this dilemma, modern societies should integrate principles of stewardship and commoning. Socially, markets must abandon the pursuit of relentless expansion and profit.

Patel’s Take-Home Points:

  • Summarizing Karl Polanyi’s book, The Great Transformation, labor and land were deliberately turned into commodities to further capitalistic demands (18).
  • The fundamental problem with modern markets is their demand for profit (22).
  • The reduction of human preferences to economic models does not account for all decision making models used by people. Specifically, the economic theory of Gary Becker and his premise that all individuals attempt to maximize personal gains ignores cultures that highly encourage generosity such as Native American cultures (29).
  • Neurologically, human beings are selfish but these selfish tendencies have evolved to express themselves as cooperation, socialization, communities, love, and sharing (34).
  • Markets, particularly prices, only account for a fraction of the actual cost of producing any given product (46).
  • The discrepancy between market prices and actual cost, also called externalities, is a result of exploitation of the poor by the wealthy (50).
  • The constant need for expansion in the economy creates a system of exploitative labor (67).
  • Modern governments were designed to serve the interest of the wealthy; the wealth held by individual members of the Senate or House of Lords exemplifies this (82-83).
  • There is no “tragedy of the commons,” they were able to function sufficiently before the transformation to market economies (99-100).
  • Unlike commoning, market economies have no restrictions on resource exploitation (111).
  • Money limits liberty by limiting what people can or cannot do by how much they have (112-113).
  • The will of government representatives is shaped by a corporate agenda, not the electorate (118).
  • Giving land titles to slum residents only benefits the wealthy and results in higher rents (138).
  • Participatory budget programs offer an avenue for increased civic engagement and strengthened political systems within a given locality (148).
  • Cap-and-trade systems serve the interests of the wealthy and corporations, and do not restrain markets (161).
  • Because of inadequate amounts of water and fertilizers, industrial agriculture will not feed the projected population of nine billion in 2050. Only the locally adapted commoning of agriculture in conjunction with severe restrictions on the amount of meat consumed will produce enough food (163-164).
  • Using a Buddhist theory of value, Patel states that the value of something is not derived from the desire but from the need for well-being (174).
  • A correctly structured political system can build extensive degrees of trust between participants through increased time of engagement as the Zapatistas illustrate (184).
  • A genuine democracy will only be obtained when ownership is abandoned for stewardship or commoning, especially the relentless drive for expansion and profit (188).
  • Concepts of property and markets should also be subordinate to equity and sustainability (189).
  • Sharing and resource pooling are absolutely necessary, including the nationalization of the health care and banking system (192).

Bottom Line:

Not worth the time. Regardless of whether or not any of Patel’s arguments are valid, he fails to present enough evidence to support his claims or respond to counterarguments. Considering Patel’s education, there’s little doubt that he could compose an incredibly insightful book. This is not that book. Sadly, Patel’s book amounts to nothing more than a highly educated diatribe.

Response:

Even though Patel presents several claims that could have a great deal of validity, his process for exploring those claims is incredibly lacking. Unfortunately, broad and sweeping claims are made throughout the book without evidence, leaving the validity of most of his claims in question.  For example, Patel concludes that Western society’s endless pursuit of profit necessitates the nationalization of the health care and banking system. The problem isn’t that Patel advocates for policies such as nationalizing the banking industry, it’s that this book is not about the intricacies of incredibly complex issues like nationalization. Nationalization policy can easily fill volumes, yet Patel only mentions it once when he presents it as a solution. His prior arguments are assumed to support the policy without any connection between the two. This is by no means an exception either. Whether it’s nationalization, structural adjustment programs, the American military-industrial complex, or conditional cash transfers, Patel provides the briefest of descriptions, then uses them to support inordinate claims that desperately require a great deal more evidence and analysis.

Possibly the most egregious assumption Patel makes throughout the book without providing sufficient analysis and evidence is his reliance on dependency theory. In short, dependency theory claims that modern industrialized states (called the “core”) exploit developing and underdeveloped states (called the “periphery”). This is a highly complex theory with many arguments supporting and debasing it. Patel frequently references the exploitative nature of modern states as fact, without exploring any of the complexities that the debate over dependency theory has discussed.

Patel also attempts to offer examples of functional communal-oriented governing systems such as the Zapatistas but fails to illustrate how these social structures can be scaled and adapted to modern economies and political systems. Much of the book discusses the Zapatistas or similar communal-oriented political organizations, offering a great deal of potential, but falls far short of any pragmatic guidance for policy makers or scholars.

Citation:
Patel, Raj. The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. New York: Picador, 2009.

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