Book Review: The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy
By Raj Patel, Picador Books, Softcover, 2009, 250 Pages, $14
After reading his latest book, one gets the impression that author Raj Patel is fond of underdogs, long shots and impossible tasks. And though the daunting assignment implied by its subtitle might seem a bit ambitious for a book of only 250 pages, the effort is well worth it. If it's valuable for nothing else, "The Value of Nothing" will challenge your assumptions and make you think. In my book, that makes it priceless.
Patel begins with a simple premise: that the modern capitalistic way of assigning value to things is totally ass-backwards. This attitude is best exemplified by the Oscar Wilde quote from which the book derives its name: "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." Or, as the author notes: "We seem unable to see or value our world except through the faulty prism of markets."
The "Value of Nothing" includes several chapters that trace the history of modern economics and what Patel sees as capitalism's inexorable march toward transforming virtually everything -- land, water, air and even human life -- into commodities that can be bought and sold for a price. This trend toward "commodification" becomes bizarrely dysfunctional when applied towards government policies like "cap and trade," which Patel describes as "a market-based approach that effectively turns the atmosphere into something you can foul for a fee."
By focusing myopically on price -- particularly for consumer goods -- the author maintains we often neglect to acknowledge the hidden costs inherent in their creation. Resource depletion, environmental damage, and even social ills such as cancer, obesity and high blood pressure, are very real costs that we all pay for, one way or another. In fact, as Patel humorously notes, if we were to factor in all the costs for the common everyday items we consume, we might find the actual bill somewhat astounding. "According to a report by the Centre for Science and the Environment in India, a burger grown from beef raised on clear-cut forest should really cost about two hundred dollars."
While the notion of a $200 Big Mac makes for great theater, the underlying message of the book is more sober and harder to dismiss. The 2008 financial collapse, and unregulated speculation in oil and derivatives, are but two examples of the dysfunction that results from relying on price as a way of assigning value. As Patel observes, "Prices have revealed themselves as fickle guides."
The historical, philosophical and moral cases against commodification are thought-provoking. But it is in the area of global climate change that the author's arguments condemning reliance on price as a means of assigning value really hit home. While scientists and corporate businessmen are busy trying to dream up new ways of making money off global warming -- investing in everything from privatizing water supplies to developing "genetically modified climate-change ready crops" -- there really is no way of putting a price on the ultimate limiting factor: human genetics. As Patel notes, "There are no (human) genes to resist the half-dozen symptoms of human generated greenhouse gasses." Arguing in favor of carbon pricing and markets for pollution is pointless when what we're really talking about is not dollars but human lives.
As a book, "Nothing" is very good at outlining the problems of attempting to turn everything we see, touch, taste and smell into a commodity. Patel is equally convincing in his condemnation of capitalism's systemic problems, citing no less an authority than former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan who, after the economic meltdown was forced to admit: "I found a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works." In other words, to paraphrase the comedy troop Firesign Theater, with regard to Greenspan's market based ideology, everything he knows is wrong.
If the book falls short anywhere it is in the area of how exactly the author expects us to go about achieving change. Free market, unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism, while fatally flawed, is nonetheless extremely well entrenched in our culture. Trying to see another way is like trying to convince your brother, in a game of Monopoly, that the value of Park Place with three hotels is something other than $4,500. In addition, Patel's view of the future seems at times trite and even a tad Pollyannaish. "In order to reclaim politics, we too will need more imagination, creativity, and courage. We will need to remember that democracy's triumphs come not from the ballot box but from the circumstances that make democracy possible: equality, accountability, and the possibility of politics."
Despite these slight flaws, "The Value of Nothing," is well worth reading. The book is every bit as topical now as it was a year ago. For example, Patel's skewering of corporations for "externalizing" their costs is eerily prescient when one thinks of the recent disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In the final analysis, the ideas Patel puts forth are both logically valid and emotionally compelling. Will he convince enough of us to change the way we value things before it's too late? ... Well, let's just call it a long shot.