Book Review: The Value of Nothing

By Richard Pithouse · 24 Mar 2010

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Picture credit: rajpatel.org & CIRHR Library
Picture credit: rajpatel.org & CIRHR Library

Book: The Value of Nothing

Author: Raj Patel

Publisher: Picador USA

Published: January, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-312-42924-9

Raj Patel is a writer whose activism has got him into all sorts of trouble. He’s been tear-gassed on four continents, thrown out of Zimbabwe by Zanu-PF and stood his ground in the face of an impressively wide selection of the range of competing authoritarianisms that have done their best to beat, ban, slander, counsel and discipline democracy into submission in Durban.

His problems with authority don’t stem from an abrasive personality. On the contrary it’s not often that you’ll have the pleasure of meeting a kinder or more charming person than Raj Patel. His problem is that he is a political heretic who, against the common sense shared by most of the competing political dogmas of our day, takes democracy seriously.

And the idea that we should take democracy as a practice of immediate equality premised on the view that ordinary people should have as much control over decision making and resources as is possible strikes at the heart of the authoritarianism that is widely shared across the political spectrum. Of course some dress up their authoritarianism in the name of subordination to the nation, others in the name of the economy, development or even socialism but as soon as responsibility requires subordination to experts or leaders, democracy comes to mean obedience rather than participation on the basis of equality.

Given this, there’s no small irony in that fact that when Patel’s new book, The Value of Nothing, exploded onto the New York Times bestseller list, a usually obscure cult decided that he was the Maitreya, the long anticipated ‘world teacher’ or messiah. He responded by posting an appropriate clip from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian on his website.

Patel’s previous book, Stuffed & Starved, has become the key text on the inequities of the global food system. The Value of Nothing is his response to the financial crisis. It’s one of those popular books written for the non-specialist reader that weaves the best insights from the academic and activist worlds into a single rollicking narrative. Of course there is always an element of flattening out in these synthetic projects, but when they are done well, as this book most certainly is, they can cram years of reading and struggle into a few pages. And one of the great pleasures of reading Patel is that, as a former stand-up comic, he writes with real wit and verve.

The Value of Nothing begins with Alan Greenspan’s admission that after the financial crisis he had to accept that he actually didn’t understand economics as well as he had thought that he did. It then goes on to provide an elegant but devastating demolition of some of the key myths that have held the post-cold war economic orthodoxy together. Patel shows, for instance, that we just don’t make all our decisions on the basis of our financial interests, that having lots of money just doesn’t make us happy, that women’s work is systemically undervalued and rewarded and that if corporations were people they’d be dangerous psychopaths. He also shows that the price of things often has very little to do with either their social value or their social cost. So, for example, the price of the coltan in our cell phones and laptops has no meaningful connection to the devastation that its extraction has caused in the Congo.

Patel also provides a brief history of how we came to be in this economic mess in which a billion people are going hungry while the rich continue to get richer in their gated communities. Historicising economics has the great benefit of showing that what we often take to be natural or uncontroversial has in fact been constructed as orthodoxy by and for elites – and often with considerable violence. He pays particular attention to the historical and ongoing process of enclosure – the process by which resources that used to be managed collectively, like land or fisheries, are turned into private commodities. But he pays equal attention to how each new round of enclosure has been accompanied by popular counter movements. He shows that some of these counter movements have been deeply reactionary, often taking racist or xenophobic forms, while others have defended society against its subordination to the predatory logic of the market.

Patel then takes the reader on a quick world tour of contemporary popular and progressive resistances that includes the international peasant movement La Via Campesina, the international free software movement, the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida and Abahlali baseMjondolo here in South Africa. What they all have in common is a rejection of the politics of patience and passivity in favour of an appetite for conflict and a commitment to posing the radical democratisation of expertise against the degeneration of democracy into rule by experts. He’s also very clear that insurgency is not quick and that a politics built around collective deliberation is inevitably a slow politics.

From Abahlali baseMjondolo activist, Shamita Naidoo, he takes the idea that “The main work of a social movement is to put the rich in their place” and shows that the most successful and happy societies are always the most equal societies. He doesn’t play the easy game of only valorising movements out of state power but also looks at experiments in democratising state power in places like the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil and the state of Kerala in India.

There are lots of critics of the kind of economics in which Alan Greenspan used to have such blind faith who suggest that a technical shift from one policy or set of policies to another is all that we need. For Patel this doesn’t cut it. He is clear that economic relations needed to be embedded within social relations and that, to put it simply, this means that the economic realm must be democratised.

For Slavoj Zizek capitalism is private ownership of property, socialism is state ownership and communism is the transcendence of property via the collective self-management of resources. If we accept that definition Patel has achieved three remarkable things. He has written a communist book with a real sense of humour and a real commitment to radical democracy and had it up there with Karl Rove on the New York Times bestseller list.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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