The Value of Nothing

How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy
by Raj Patel
250 pages, Picador Press, 2009

In Review

book cover thumbnail, number zero made of many zeros

Meet Raj Patel, your newest progressive public intellectual.

Tall, dark, handsome, and possessed of a boyish energy, Patel is a perfect fit for television, a must for today’s idea peddlers. His Oxbridge accent and professorial stammer give him just the right charm for public radio. He’s also a quick wit, another necessity in an all-too-snarky age: During a recent appearance on The Colbert Report, he made the host himself crackup, no small feat.

Oh, and most importantly, he’s wicked smart.

Patel made a name for himself a few years ago with his first book, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. His thorough takedown of our industrialized food system established Patel as a go-to analyst for explaining the perversity of how millions are famished while millions more are obese; he was, it seemed, a kind of junior varsity Michael Pollan. In his new book, The Value of Nothing, Patel shows that his concerns go far beyond the inequities of agriculture. He is interested in nothing less than exposing and overturning the root cause of so many of our contemporary problems – that is, corporate capitalism.

The title of the book, Patel explains on the opening page, comes from an Oscar Wilde quote: “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” More than a century ago, that was a cute quip; today, it’s a dark joke that captures the very operating principle of our society.

According to Patel, the reason we are facing a cascade of environmental and social ills is that we’ve allowed ourselves to become Homo economicus – beings solely motivated by the rational cost-benefit analysis of profit and loss. Encouraged by Ayn Rand pabulum and the nostrums of the dismal science, the market is now the primary prism through which we understand our world. This has made us (or some of us) richer. But it hasn’t made us any happier. And in surrendering control over much of our lives to massive money-making machines (i.e., corporations), we’ve sacrificed much of what is best in life: real, human relationships.

Patel, as you’ve probably guessed by now, comes from the Marxist tradition, and so naturally he is interested in the push-and-pull of dialectics. Yes, free market fundamentalism has gone too far, but at the same time popular movements have risen to provide a countervailing force. Careful of readers’ critique fatigue, Patel spends the second half of his book cataloguing encouraging trends. For example, he investigates “participatory budgeting,” a hyper-democratic form of governance that lets local citizens, not unelected bureaucrats, decide exactly how their tax monies will be spent. He shares stories about municipalities that have become “transition towns” – communities dedicated to being free from fossil fuels – as well as successful campaigns to halt corporations from taking over local resources. These movements for local sovereignty are, Patel says, revolts against the notion of Homo economicus.

Most of this, both the good and the bad, is well-covered ground. Writers such as Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Jeremy Rifkin, among others, have touched on similar issues. Patel’s contribution is his way of combining the thoroughness of an academic (he is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley) with a pop sensibility. Few books manage to mention both Harvard’s Reith Lectures and The Price is Right.

Patel’s humor and his knack for tricking sentences into sound bites gives The Value of Nothing real verve. After reviewing a raft of psychological studies about the nature of sharing, he concludes: “The opposite of consumption isn’t thrift – it’s generosity.” During a short digression into the dangers of a corporatized media, he points out: “A community without the watchdog of a free press is a community without a commons.”

A fine example of his sharp pen comes in the last chapter, when he writes:

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.

It’s this chattiness that gives Patel his unique voice, one that I look forward to hearing for years to come.

– Jason Mark

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