Skip to main content
from saturday's books section

U.S. author/economist Raj Patel

It isn't every day that video trumps the written word, but the video trailer for Raj Patel's The Value of Nothing is such a pithy introduction to this challenging and important book, it bears repeating: "From the 1970s onward, our economy was hijacked by free-market fundamentalists whose mantra was greed is good, regulation is bad," Patel says on his website. "But it gets darker still: We were all along for the ride. We bought, ate and drove more. And paid for it with debt, diabetes and pollution.

"We mortgaged our future," he argues. "And called it freedom."

Sound timely? It is.

This book comes at an important juncture. At a time when every major Western nation is betting hard on a full recovery from the great global recession, this unprecedented attempt to spend our way back to normal - through hundreds of billions in bailout and stimulus dollars - is creating new risk. And it's not just because of incomplete reform of a financial system prone to collapse: More profoundly, many nations are depleting their very ability to govern and address critical problems like unemployment, health care and climate change simply because they are increasingly overspent on salvaging a broken status quo. Amazingly, the United States now boasts an unemployed pool that is nearly equal to Canada's entire population, where as many as six million households continue to live off food stamps, with no other income.

The cost of normal is becoming unsustainable, something that became clearer this month when President Barack Obama reported a budget of $3.8-trillion and unprecedented deficits for the next decade. That's quite a price tag for a recovery attempt that has thus far failed to rescue millions from destitution and foreclosure.

"There's a widely shared opinion that normality will ultimately return to the world economy," writes Patel, a renowned economist who divides his time among several institutions. "But it is a consensus view that rests on a narrative of [economic]bubbles being exceptions to the standard." If our assumptions about the stability and wisdom of markets were flawed, as former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan famously admitted to U.S. Congress in 2008, "then our faith in a gentle return to earth is misplaced, for there is not, and never has been, any solid ground beneath our feet."

Patel argues that our problem isn't just the size of our stimulus package, but a deep misapprehension about the relationship between society and economy that dates back well before the great crash of 2008. And, more to the point, it is our propensity to over-value destructive things - such as financial derivatives and crude oil - and under-value truly valuable things - such as sustainable food production, our global climate and other so-called externalities that market society has often neglected. This results not only in bad outcomes, but "indelible inequalities in power." In other words, if today's quest to regain yesterday's growth fails under the stress of 21st-century challenges, it likely won't be Wall Street paying the price.

Consequently, today's financial crisis is no mere anomaly, Patel argues, but a continuation of a struggle over resources, property and government that dates back to the privatization of common lands in the early decades of England's Industrial Revolution. "The perpetual quest for economic growth has turned humankind into an agent of extinction, through the systematic undervaluing of the eco-systemic services that keep our Earth alive," he writes. "In short, the consumer economy takes a great deal for granted, for free, and is constitutionally unable to pay for it."

With epic scope, The Value of Nothing poses a spirited exploration of everything from the influence of market extremist Gary Becker of the Chicago School of Economics (and contemporary of Alan Greenspan) to social movements on food sovereignty and participatory budgeting that show us what real democracy is, or should be, about. Even the Dalai Lama's views on economic justice are tied into Patel's own views about how to fix things (hint: more democracy and more activism).

What I like about this book is that is a work of engaged ideas, particularly Patel's investigation into the consciousness of market society. ("Seeing the world through markets not only distorts our sense of our selves, but projects our disability onto everyone else.") What I like less is the book's nascent ideological assumption that readers, alongside governments and financial elites, need to be disabused of any attachments to markets or private property. We're told that it is corporations, not people, who are to blame for the great environmental disasters of our time, despite the fact that, at last count, the planet boasted approximately 600-million climate-killing automobiles and a great many more drivers. Private property and sustainability may seem fundamentally incompatible, an assertion that is interesting but lacks proof.

Patel also rejects the use of market-based tools like carbon pricing to combat things like climate change. In other circumstances, this might be a tremendous statement of principle, but given that we have relatively little time to reshape whole economies in the face of advancing climate change - and eliminate vast energy and environmental subsidies in the process - rejecting carbon pricing or any other solution tainted by capitalism seems, well, a little precious.

Clearly, ideology is still the catnip of the global left, and this occasional weakness for portraying the world as a clash of malevolent ideas versus social movements often blinkers its proponents to over-focus on things that reflect a dialectical and neo-liberal bent, like the World Bank, American finance and Ayn Rand. Patel is hardly the worst offender on this point, but it does constrain his analysis. Simply put, free-market fundamentalism is an obvious factor, but it cannot explain the fullness of our crisis. Nor does it suitably explain major transformations like China's rise to power - which is literally rewriting the playbook on globalization and capitalism - or the mechanisms behind our deep dependence on affordable consumerism.

Patel's arguments are well-crafted and will likely, and predictably, find agreement among many who will purchase the book. But his real contribution is something bigger than another attack on neo-liberalism and the Chicago School of Economics. This is someone who has done field work around the world, listened prolifically to non-experts, and come away with a political modality that isn't just ideology, but speaks to human flourishing itself. "The opposite of consumption isn't thrift," says Patel. "It's generosity."

Gordon Laird is the author of The Price of a Bargain: The Quest for Cheap and the Death of Globalization.