By Raj Patel

The Value of Nothing by Raj Patel
Part of the books by Raj Patel series:
Editions:Paperback: £ 9.00
ISBN: 9781846272189
Pages: 196

Opening with Oscar Wilde's observation that "nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing," Patel shows in The Value of Nothing how our faith in prices as a way of valuing the world is misplaced. He reveals the hidden ecological and social costs of a hamburger (as much as $200), and asks how we came to have markets in the first place. Both the corporate capture of government and our current financial crisis, Patel argues, are a result of our democratically bankrupt political system.

If part one asks how we can rebalance society and limit markets, part two answers by showing how social organizations, in America and around the globe, are finding new ways to describe the world's worth. If we don't want the market to price every aspect of our lives, we need to learn how such organizations have discovered democratic ways in which people, and not simply governments, can play a crucial role in deciding how we might share our world and its resources in common.

This short, timely and inspiring book reveals that our current crisis is not simply the result of too much of the wrong kind of economics. While we need to rethink our economic model, Patel argues that the larger failure beneath the food, climate and economic crises is a political one. If economics is about choices, Patel writes, it isn't often said who gets to make them. The Value of Nothing offers a fresh and accessible way to think about economics and the choices we will all need to make in order to create a sustainable economy and society.

Reviews:Gordon Laird on The Globe and Mail wrote:

"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. [...] What I like about this book is that is a work of engaged ideas, particularly Patel's investigation into the consciousness of market society. [...] 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 [...] 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. [...] 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. [...] 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."

John Gray on The Guardian wrote:

"The idea of a post-market economy is today what it has been for decades: an intellectual toy rather than a serious political project. For all his forensic dissection of free market thinking, this is a predicament that Patel cannot escape. The first half of The Value of Nothing, showing the unreality of efficient markets and Homo economicus, continues the demolition of market fundamentalism that events have set in train. The second section, where Patel discusses options to the hegemony of the market, is markedly less convincing. [...] Patel fails to confront the most fundamental contemporary fact, which is that the majority of people in every country clearly want a type of economy – the sort that rich countries have enjoyed in the recent past – that the planet cannot sustain. [...] It is telling that when trying to flesh out a non-market account, Patel turns to religion, in this case Buddhism. The Buddhist tradition gives him what he needs – an understanding of human wellbeing that does not centre round the satisfaction of wants. [...] It is a thought that occurs to many well-off people from time to time, but it is hard to imagine large numbers of people ever acting on it."

Adrew Rosenberg on New York Journal of Books wrote:

"Patel’s The Value of Nothing is very much in the tradition of the Victorian moralists, particularly those who wrote sermons—many of them graduated from Oxbridge universities as he did. [...] Unfortunately, that hardly represents a viable vision of the world we live in. In the real world, greed is good. Base passions like the desire to earn money make the world go round, and the real people who live in it use them not only to survive, but also to make the world better. The world needs markets and prices to make that effort work. [...] Certainly, companies need increased social responsibility, and this has been one of the themes of corporate governance in the past ten years. But to jump from there to a facile and illogical condemnation of market economics is a leap from the sublime to the ridiculous."

Book Trailer Video

Or watch this interview with Patel about the book (30 minutes) or this lecture on the book (1,5 hours including Q&A) at the London School of Economics.

About Raj Patel

Raj Patel

Photo Credit: Sheila Menezes

Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at the university currently known as Rhodes University (UHURU), South Africa. He has degrees from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cornell University, has worked for the World Bank and WTO, and protested against them around the world. In addition to numerous scholarly publications in economics, philosophy, politics and public health journals, he regularly writes for The Guardian, and has contributed to the Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Times of India, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Mail on Sunday, and The Observer.

Table of Contents

Part I

  1. The Flaw
  2. Becoming Homo Economicus
  3. The Corporation
  4. On Diamonds and Water
  5. Anti-economic Man
  6. We Are All Commoners

Part II

  1. The Countermovement and the Right to Have Rights
  2. Democracy in the City
  3. Back to Food Sovereignty
  4. Anton's Blindness