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Raj Patel has worked for the World Bank and WTO and been tear-gassed on four continents protesting against them. Writer, activist, and academic, he is currently a visiting scholar at[…]

Markets put a price on things that can be consumed. What about those that should be protected?

Question: What does “The Value of Nothing” mean?

Raj Patel: I wrote the book, The Value of Nothing, because it’s very clear that markets have failed us.  I mean the financial crisis is just one of a number of crises that we have gone through over the past few years.  I mean, we had the food crisis, we had the oil crisis.  And the bubbles in markets are obviously part of those markets, they’re endemic to the way markets function.  And right now is a very good time for thinking about other ways in which we can value the world.  What we don’t have is a real understanding about how to value the world other than through the markets, other than by sticking a price on something.  But the sad thing, of course, is even though we do stick a price on something we have no idea what that price means.  I mean, a Martian would find it very weird that one of the most popular game shows in the U.S. and around the world is The Price is Right, where people have to guess the price of something.  And guess wildly up and down until they win the thing that they’ve approximated the price to.  Prices are a mystery to us in general.  But what’s more mysterious to us is other ways of valuing the world. 

And so what I try to do in The Value of Nothing is try to explain firstly, why it is that we’ve been sucked into this way of thinking about prices.  And then trying to figure out a way, or show the many ways that already exist that we can behave differently.  One of the metaphors I use is this idea of Anton’s blindness.  Anton’s blindness is a rare neurological condition that happens after a stroke or a traumatic brain injury.  It’s a weird condition where you believe that you can see, where in fact you are blind.  So, people who have Anton’s Blindness will protest that they can see stuff.  Sometimes very strange stuff, odd people walking through, or a housing development outside their window that they could have sworn wasn’t there yesterday.  But in fact, they’re cortically blind.  And the way that you can diagnose this is when, for example, people with Anton’s Blindness run into stuff, because obviously they’re blind, and they’ll bump their toe on something, and then they will confabulate.  They will make stuff up about how, oh, I just didn’t see that there, or someone rearranged the room when I wasn’t looking.  And these confabulations, these ways of self-justifying, sometimes elaborate stories about why things people protest to see but in fact aren’t there, why reality and their vision of the world have clashed so horribly.  They confabulations, these stories, are a way of diagnosing the disease. 

Now, in many ways, the way that we’ve behaved around the financial crisis has been, oh god, well we should have seen that coming.  What we’ll need now is just better regulation, we’ll pad things out and it’ll make the world a better place.  Now obviously regulation is important, but we shouldn’t – I mean, we should use the opportunity right now to actually get slightly deeper into the problem of figuring out other senses.  Figuring out other ways in which we can value the world other than through the faulty prism of markets.  And luckily enough there are loads of ways in which we can value the world.

In fact, the most recent Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded in part to Professor Elena Ostrom who is a Professor of Economics at Indiana University, who has for a very long time done some work on something called The Commons.  Now, The Commons, I mean I have no idea what The Commons meant originally and I grew up in Britain where the House of Commons is basically a rowdy white man’s drinking club and although the boundaries of that have been pushed a bit, it’s still a drinking club.  And when I first came to America and we were on holiday in New York, and my parents were told, oh, you must go to Woodbury Common.  And we went to Woodbury Common which turns out to be this huge outlet mall in New Jersey.  And I thought common was just American for shopping. 

But it turns out that Commons is an ancient and venerable and also a currently existing way to not only delineate a set of resources, but also to share them sustainably and to maintain them.  And commoning, which is this sort of process of managing these natural resources invariably in common within a community.  That’s an amazing way of valuing the world that doesn’t revolve around markets and prices, but does revolve around political participation and engagement.  That may sound horribly distant to what we have at the moment to the world we live in right now.  But it doesn’t – what’s inspiring right now and what’s important to remember is that there are hundreds of examples, thousands of examples where commoning works today.  And in the book I talk a lot about what those examples are and how we can learn from them.



Question: How did Oscar Wilde inspire the title of your book? 

Raj Patel: The title The Value of Nothing comes from an Oscar Wilde line which is, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” 

The opening line of the book, and in fact the title The Value of Nothing comes from an Oscar Wilde line, “People today know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  Now, in the book I explain how we might value the world differently.  But it’s not an accident that I use an Oscar Wilde line beyond the fact that he is very clever.  Oscar Wilde was a Socialist.  And in the early 20th Century, pretty much anyone who was anyone was Socialist.  I mean, everyone from Albert Einstein to Helen Keller were Socialist.  And I think it is important to remember that there have been political systems that have valued the world differently and have figured out ways to valuing the world differently that have been erased by the triumph of capitalism by the fall of the Soviet Union.  In fact, those political systems, although we hear very little about them are still alive and well, and people do have visions of sharing the wealth.  Perhaps not along the lines of classical Soviet politics, and thank god they don’t have those kinds of lives.  But there are alternatives that are around us that are sort of suppressed, that are hidden.  And I have no doubt that when people read the book and find that actually I am not entirely critical of Karl Marx, they will all sort of froth at the mouth and brand me a communist.  But like Oscar Wilde, like Albert Einstein, and like a bunch of people throughout history, I’m not a communist, I’m just open minded.  And I think it is important to have a look at other ways of valuing the world, particularly when we are living as Lord Nicholas Sterns has said, right now in the greatest market failure in human history.  The way that we failed to value the climate and the environment, it means that we are heading towards a catastrophe of immense proportions and we do need to figure out other ways of valuing the world and actually there are some pretty sensible alternatives around if people are ready to be open minded.


Question: How can society assign economic values don’t involve prices?


Raj Patel: I’m trying to think of what a good example is.  What would it look like to have a world to where we value things where it wasn’t the market that was allocating resources according to supply and demand, but there were other forces at work?  One example, and in fact an example that springing up all over the world now is something called “participatory budgeting.”  And this happens at a municipal level.  It was pioneered in Brazil where the Worker’s Party pushed it in and the division is that when a city is deciding how to spend it’s money, wouldn’t it be a good idea if the citizens of that city were part of that decision as opposed to faceless bureaucrats who are following some formula, or who are corrupt in some way making spending allocations according to whoever bribed them the most. 

So, “participatory budgeting” is a very interesting way of assigning and allocating resources that have nothing to do with money.  I mean, usually the ways that these budgeting decisions are taken are by the poorest people in the city who gets together in local assemblies and then those decisions are communicated up into city-wide assemblies.  Now, if we were going to allocate resources purely according to the basis of the ability to pay, then the city’s poorest residents wouldn’t be able to afford those resources.  But because those resources are controlled democratically, poor people can make decisions about well we want a school her, we want a hospital here, we want it sequenced in this order because this would be fairest and this will cover the most people, and people taking political responsibility for themselves and actually engaging in democracy – we can get a taste of what valuing looks like under that process by looking at things like participatory budgeting which we find not only in Brazil now, but actually in a number of places across the world. 

And this is interesting because it gets us into a question about democracy.  And about what democracy is.  One of the things that I think is important for us to recognize is that pretty much none of us live in a democracy.  We live in a kind of complain-ocracy where if we whine loudly enough, then the bastards who are in charge of us can be replaced by different bastards who are in hock to slightly different interests and will run the government in slightly different ways, but they’re essentially following the same kind of plan.  But that’s not really what democracy is like.  And if you go back to the original democracy, if you go back to Athens, classical Athens had, obviously let’s get out of the way the fact that, yes, there was slavery in Athens, and yes, women were excluded.  Athenian democracy isn’t something one wants to replicate, but it is something to learn from it because Athenian democracy worked like this.  There were no elections in Athenian democracy.  Instead, 6,000 citizens were chosen at random at the beginning of every year to take charge of the city.  And they would be split up into groups of 500, and those 500 courts of citizens would be the law for a whole year.  And then at the end of the year, another 6,000 people would be chosen, again at random, and it was every citizen’s duty to take responsibility for themselves and for their fellow citizens.  And people who didn’t want to do this were called “idiots.”  I mean, one of the original ideas of Athenian democracy, or of democracy itself, is that it’s part of the obligation and the duty of every citizen, and the privilege of every citizen to be able to clean up after yourself.  We all know about personal responsibility, or personal hygiene, and we’re encouraged to buy the right thing and shop in the right place and get around by the right kind of transportation, but as soon as we try to take political responsibility, people look at you like you’re slightly bonkers. 

But if we’re concerned about democracy then that’s exactly what democracy is about.  Democracy is about taking personal responsibility for yourself in a political way.  And Athenian democracy was all about that and I think that what we have at the moment was intended to deskill us.  The education system we have, the mechanisms for political process and engagement that we have are intended really to turn us into drooling idiots when it comes to political responsibility.  And I think that there are movements and organizations around the world that offer us a glimpse into what it would be like if we did take political responsibility for ourselves. 

They’re not perfect and people make mistakes, but of course, that’s the point.  What in many ways what we are fighting for is the right to make our own mistakes because at the moment we are suffering the consequences of other people’s mistakes.  And democracy means getting the right to make your own and clean up after yourself and learn from it.  Right now, we spend a lot of time cleaning up after a handful of politico-crats.  And I think actually getting democracy involved and re-empowering ourselves to be able to make our own mistakes, and to learn from them.   



Question: What ideas perpetuate hunger?

Raj Patel: It was very interesting at the end of 2008 to see Alan Greenspan looking, basically, looking pretty hung over, appearing in front of the House Oversight Committee where he was grilled about why the financial crisis was happening.  And you can forgive him looking a little haggard because the party had lasted for several decades.  The party of free markets uber ****.  Free markets being able to be absolutely the best way of organizing the world.  And what Alan Greenspan was forced to admit is, in his words, “I have found a flaw in the ideology that I thought was responsible for the functioning of the world.”  And that’s a fairly profound admission from one of the pioneers of this kind of kooky free market libertarianism. 

Alan Greenspan, of course, is famously a disciple of Ayn Rand and Rand’s ideas of free market libertarianism that entrepreneurs should lead the society after the dark ages and any kind of organizing was parasitic on society.  Any kind of social justice organizing was destructive to society.  Those kinds of ideas are ones that Alan Greenspan more or less faithfully embodied in his pushing of the free market.  And at the end of 2008 it all came crashing down. 

Now, one of the reasons that I wrote this book is firstly, to show how those ideas ascended and why they inevitably fell to pieces.  But also, it’s a way of saying actually there was a few decades where the free market fundamentalists were able to take control of the economy and it’s going to be very hard to pry their hands off it, but there are ways of reclaiming our economy from these ideologues.  And those ideas are to be found in everything from sort of “work our own cooperatives,” to banking and finance that performs a social function rather than a speculative function.  There are loads of different ways in which we can get the economy back from the sort of corruptions of this zany free market idea that has never happened in practice and is seriously theoretically flawed.  And again, in the book I talk about how, for example, even Adam Smith who is the poster child for free market ideas.  Adam Smith never thought the free market was – an unfettered free market was a good idea.  He saw a strong role for government.  He saw a strong role for self-improvement, for education, for a certain kind of moral conscience that you will find no room for in the most extreme dogma of the free market libertarians. 

And so it is important to remember that and important to actually plunder history for lessons that are well worth learning as we try to build a better economy.  And right now is a good time to be learning those lessons and thinking about how we can restructure things because as we come out of the recession – although we are told that recovery is on it’s way, unemployment is still going to climb over the next couple of years.  No one pretends that for the poorest Americans things are going to get better.  But for the richest Americans things are starting to turn around, but for the poorest, things are going to get worse for a good two or three years, at best and I think now is a good time to be thinking about, actually if we’re not part of the plutocracy, what do we want?  And what can we learn from the past to make sure these mistakes don’t happen again?



Question: Why are a billion people obese and a billion starving?

Raj Patel: My last book, Stuffed and Starved, got it’s title from this odd paradox where today, we live in a world where over a billion people are starving, or going hungry and are malnourished.  They get fewer than – I’m going to have to start again. 

My first book was called Stuffed and Starved and the title comes from a strange paradox that we live in a world where today over a billion people are malnourished and going hungry and at the same time, more than a billion people are overweight.  And what I tried to do in the book is explain how it is that not only these two things are possible simultaneously, but how they are outcomes of the same system. 

So, for a start, let’s just understand the dynamic here, and actually you don’t have to go to Africa, one can imagine that the starving are in Africa and the obese are in America.  I mean, to some extent that’s true.  The United States is the most obese country on earth and only four out of 10 Americans have a normal body weight and the rest of us are a little portly.  But the fact is, there is hunger in America as well.  In 2008, 49 million Americans were food insecure.  They didn’t know during the year where their next meal was coming from.  So, it’s possible to have hunger and obesity in the same country at the same time and it’s possible to have hunger in the United States, even when there’s an abundance of food.  It’s not like in 2008 the shelves were emptied in the United States, but what happened was the price of that food went up and the incomes of people went down and that’s why people go hungry in America.  It’s not because of some malfusian shortage of food.  It’s because of poverty. 

Now, so the question that I ask is about, how do we get to the situation and also how do we get these outcomes of hunger and obesity?  Well, the hunger is easy to explain.  Hunger obtains when, as I say, people are too poor to be able to afford the food that is around them.  And the majority of the hungriest people on the earth today live in rural areas.  It’s a strange paradox.  The people who are the hungriest on the earth tend to be the people involved in agriculture, particularly farm laborers, or farm workers.  And what I try to show in the book is how the people who are growing the food are intimately connected to the people who consume the food through a kind of hourglass figure.  So, if you can imagine the millions of farmers on earth who grow food for us that we eat.  And the six, nearly seven billion of us who eat every day, but it’s an hourglass figure because there are millions of farmers, billions of us, but just a few corporations in the middle.  It sort of comes in like this and then back out again.  A few corporations controlling the majority of whatever corner of the food market you care to mention.  I mean, the package tea business, one corporation, Unilever controls 96% of the world’s packaged tea.  One corporation, 96% of the worlds market.  But in every major market there’s a handful of corporations that basically run the show. 

Now, those corporations have every incentive to pay the people who are growing the food as little as they possibly can and to sell the food in ways that guarantee them the maximum amount of profit.  And that means selling food that is processed, that is high in the sort of things that make us buy more food, so high in salt and fat and sugar, the kinds of things that our bodies are hardwired to crave.  And so you end up in a situation where the corporations pay the farm workers pitifully little and end up selling us food that is obesogenic that makes us fat, that makes us crave more of the food, that makes us eat in unhealthy ways.  And you end up in a world where you have over a billion people who are overweight and, as I say, now over a billion people starving.

Again, the key factor here again, is poverty.  Now, it used to be, if you were fat you were rich, and if you were stick thin, then you were poor.  But these days, increasingly, particularly in rich countries, obesity and hunger are two sides of the same coin.  Obesity and hunger are both symptoms, one more extreme than the other of an inability to control your diet.  An inability to be able to muster enough resources to be able to eat healthily and sustainably and in a way that is good for your body.  And again, in Stuffed and Starved I explain not only why that happened, but also what people are doing to fight that.  And it turns out that there are ways in which we can eat sustainably.  Ways that we can actually rebalance the food system and connect directly with the people who grow the food that cut out the bottleneck of the hourglass.  But that involves some profound social change.  And as it happens, The Value of Nothing is more of an in depth look of the kinds of social change that is going to be necessary, and the kinds of thinking that will get us out of the mess that we’re in right now.