The Value of Nothing: Raj Patel

I know we’ve been over this before, but seriously, can we stop with non-fiction having the two titles all the time? Why is one title not enough to stand on its own in the world of non-fiction? I mean, if your title won’t induce a reader to pick the book up, turn it over and read the back to find out what it’s about, then maybe you need to think a bit harder about that title, rather than toss an annoying sentence underneath it. Imagine if publishers did this with fiction: 1Q84, Two Moons in the Sky, This Is Not the 1984 You Thought It Was; Nikolski, A Compass That Doesn’t Point to True North Ties Three Lives Together; The Master And Margarita, The Devil Comes to Moscow and Messes With People. Nonfiction publishers, hear me! Just let a title be a title! We’ll look at the back of the book if we want to know more.

You probably guessed already that The Value of Nothing has a second title. Sigh. But like the majority of these subtitles, it’s pretty accurate: Why Everything Costs So Much More Than We Think. And this is one of those topics that’s pretty dear to my heart, which is why it was such a treat to get it for my birthday from my mom this year (along with the latest Chester Brown) (It was a good year for birthday books).I am the kind of (annoying) person who is constantly considering the hidden costs of choices I make, sometimes to the point of near-paralysis. The surface good of an electric car is quickly undermined by the thought of the power plants the electricity comes from. Giving up paper tissue for handkerchiefs was preceded by a lengthy internal debate about which uses more water: tissues to process the trees or hankies to launder after use? Not to mention the water used in making the handkerchiefs in the first place.

Patel does not get down to quite this level of detail, thankfully. He focuses on a more general overview of our economy, the capitalist system and concept of growth that it’s based on, and notes how unsustainable and misunderstood it actually is, providing examples of different bases for an economy, ones that are more equitable and, unsurprisingly, require more participation from your average slob. You probably will not like this book if you are a proponent of neverending economic growth (as if something could possibly just grow endlessly. Come on, people. It’s just plain physics there).

On the path to our current grow-grow-grow economy, Patel gives us the enclosure of the commons via a look at the extremely fascinating sounding The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi. Given the fact that I grew up in a world where property is everything, it’s almost shocking to read about a time when there were things that everyone shared, other than a park with a sad swing set and a lonely slide where teenagers smoke at night. Think about this for a minute: “In order for markets to work, society needs to license the turning of things into commodities that can be bought and sold within the economy.” Uh, yeah, I guess so. Living in a world where pretty much everything can be bought and sold, it is incredible to think that this commodification took a concerted effort, something Patel himself notes. He further notes that this process of putting prices on things is ongoing, easily seen in things like cap-and-trade policies, which essentially make the right to pollute a commodity. Dang.

He connects this pricing of our world with the removal of our voices as citizens, turning us into consumers. “As a consumer of food, you can either proclaim your objections or refuse to buy—voice or exit.” Which is an admittedly poor choice. Patel argues that this consumerification (that’s my made-up word there, not his) removes us from the processes of democracy and turns us into couch potatoes who rouse ourselves every four years to cast a vote and pat ourselves on the back for taking a stand while picking up hot new toys at low, low prices.

He also takes time to point out just how we can have those prices so very low. A lot of that is connected to the system of subsidies, etc., etc., but I was glad to see him make the point that our economic system is able to provide cheap goods to the masses also partly because it turns half of the masses into slaves in everything but name. Yes, you know I am talking about teh ladiez. Patel spends more than a few pages arguing that women everywhere need the same rights as men for any real economic sustainability, but also explicitly outlines what their unpaid contributions mean to the paid economy: “Were all unpaid work [kids, housekeeping, civic work] to be remunerated, the sum was estimated in 1995 to be $16 trillion. … Of that, $11 trillion represented women’s unpaid work. Back in 1995, this was more than half of the world’s total output.”

The democracy Patel has in mind and the changes he wants to see are outlined in the second half of the book with researched rebuttals to economic positions he outlines in the first half, such as the concept of “Homo economicus”, a being of pure rationality always acting in his or her best interest to obtain the best economic outcomes. He also takes up specific examples of different societies, different economies. (And he takes a cheap shot at objectivism: “There are two novels that can transform a bookish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large chunks of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book about orcs.” Ha ha ha! Oh, burn, Ayn Rand!)

One of my favourite alternative systems he describes is participatory budgeting. First introduced in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the basic idea is that the people living in the place decide where the money goes, except for fixed spending like pensions, and “money is always set aside so that past and future debts do not fall on the shoulders of subsequent generations.” Of course, the key component in participatory budgeting is participation. Without the people in the area coming to the meetings and voicing opinions, this is just more top-down bureaucracy. My hopes of ever seeing this kind of thing implemented in Canada (especially under the current conservative government of both the country and the city I live in) are not high, but still, if we ever managed to make this happen, I would overcome my natural tendencies towards shut-in-ism and go to meetings and get a better transit system going on.

The Value of Nothing is full of delightful nuggets of information, like life insurance was once looked down on as “cash for death” in the US, and makes a good jumping off place, a solid overview of just what our current way of doing things costs us and a presentation of some tantalizing alternatives. Thankfully, with a comprehensive bibliography, Patel doesn’t just leave you there with nowhere else to go. Dust off your copy of Rules for Radicals and get out there and change the food system! (And you know, the other systems, too, I guess.)

Or you could just give up on the whole thing and start your own country. Your choice.

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