You’ve probably heard the idea that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. That’s in large part because capitalism has remade the world, our understanding of our place in it and the relations between everyone and everything else. “A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things” is written in unique voice, which makes its points memorable, such as: Capitalism is cheapness at work. “Cheap lives turned into cheap workers dependent on cheap care and cheap food in home communities, requiring cheap fuel to collect and process cheap nature to produce cheap money.” And, unfortunately, “Keeping things cheap is expensive.”
The author, academic, journalist and social justice activist Raj Patel and Binghamton University Assistant Professor of Sociology Jason W. Moore explain why death and taxes are the only certain things and how they’re linked (hint: it’s modern warfare). As they lead us through the world capitalism has created and is consuming, they provide snapshots of the past 800 years. The most salient, but certainly not the only, of these snapshots is about the Irish Potato Famine: “During the 1845-1848 potato famine, poverty and market forces instructed the Irish to work for a living; even if there was no employment to be had and no food they could afford: at the height of the famine, Ireland was exporting around three hundred thousand tons of grain a year to feed the mother country.”
It’s difficult to cover almost a millennia of history, let alone the period where capitalism remade the world, in 212 pages, so the density of details is forgivable if not easily navigable. “A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things” makes a unique contribution to the annals of history books in that, while it goes into sometimes overwhelming and occasionally esoteric exposition about the major problems we face as those living under capitalism, it offers a holistic and integrated vision of what is possible. The movement for the end of capitalism is growing even as it is still too easily dismissed, and a common frustration of those who want a better world is articulating what a better world would look like.
Capitalism is so ingrained in the way we all think that, for example, “we continue to think of ‘real work’ solely as wage work and forget the care work that makes it all possible.” Such work that even those who perform it dismiss when they say they “don’t have a real job.” What Patel and Moore call “household,” nonmarket activity is roughly 80 percent of the gross world’s product: nearly $16 trillion. Thus, Patel and Moore can rightly claim that “to imagine a world of justice in care work [which includes household labor] is to imagine a world after capitalism.”
Even the way we measure our impact on the environment is, for Patel and Moore, suspect and needs to be reimagined. “The idea of the “individual [carbon] footprint teaches us to think of consumption as determined by “lifestyle choices” rather than socially enforced logics. If you have been gentrified out of your old neighborhood and need to commute an hour to your job, your ecological footprint isn’t a lifestyle choice. It’s a choice in the same way that English peasants, once kicked off the land, were “free” to find wage work — or starve … the ecological footprint, like so many environmentalist concepts these days, performs the very separation — of Nature from Society — that accompanied the rise of capitalism.” The Green Revolution failed, because it was still based in capitalism’s “world-ecology,” as Patel and Moore say. “Communities where the Green Revolution was practiced most intensively have more recently become cancer clusters, with some areas officially declared ‘cancer-stricken villages’.”
Readers may be asking, as I did, “OK, we know capitalism is awful. We now understand how deeply rooted in history it is. What do we do about it? Where do we start?” Patel and Moore admit that there is no roadmap for reinventing our relationships with each other and the natural world from inside the ecology that made us. “Restorative justice” is an approach that is gaining some traction in the justice system; Patel and Moore suggest that this only works if the status quo to which it aims to restore people isn’t awful.
But to name a few examples: “Cheap oil is coming to an end even as climate change is on its way to killing one hundred million people by the end of 2030” and “…up to ten calories of oil are required to produce one calorie of food” and “one pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water and seven pounds of feed to produce.”
What we need is a collective reimagining. “This reimagination is a collective act of liberation. Never under capitalism have the majority been asked about the world we’d like to live in.” Whatever that world is, we need more than allyship and unity. Patel and Moore would argue that we need a dismantling: “The practice of decolonization is more dangerous than simple solidarity because it’s more likely to work.” It starts with asking, from as blank of a slate as we can get, without constraining ourselves to what we have been told for centuries is possible: “What kind of a world do we want?”
Read more in the May 27 - June 2, 2020 issue.