Book reivew: The Value of Nothing. How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy by Raj Patel

Taking as his starting point Alan Greenspan’s admission in 2008 that he had “found a flaw in the model” which, as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, he “perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works”, Raj Patel takes an axe to the ideology of market fundamentalism in this broad-ranging, US-centric polemic.

Patel, author of the best-selling Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, splits his accessible analysis in to two parts. The first, largely diagnostic, section includes a whistle-stop critique of mainstream economic thinking and a summary of the detrimental effects the pursuit of profits has on world hunger, climate change, our mental well-being and the political arena.
Regarding the latter, Patel highlights how Wall Street has co-opted the US Government, with President Obama’s economic team made up of those who initiated and often profited from the deregulation of the financial system in the 1990s – Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers and Bob Rubin. “People who were driving a school bus (blindfolded) and crashed it should never be given a new bus”, quips author Nassim Taleb. Presumably still on the subject of Obama, Patel wisely explains “the cult pact between leader and led isn’t… a sign of reinvigorated democracy – it’s the last desperate substitute for it.”
How millions of people are reinvigorating and reinventing democracy to combat neoliberal capitalism is the topic of the book’s hopeful second half. From South African shackdwellers to tomato pickers in Florida and the Zapatistas in Mexico, Patel describes how often poor and uneducated people – mainly in the Global South – have organised themselves and built “countermovements” to win some very real gains for their communities.
While the majority of humanity would like “a fairer and more compassionate society“, Patel notes the “the concentration of resources and power in the hands of a few“ is in direct conflict with successful democracy. There isn’t a quick fix to this age-old problem – what is needed is dedicated, long-term grassroots campaigning, including direct action, he argues. As the former slave Frederick Douglass once said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”

Sharp as Patel’s thesis is, those who are familiar with books such as Paul Kingsnorth’s One No, Many Yeses, Naomi Klein‘s The Shock Doctrine, Oliver James’s Affluenza and The Corporation are unlikely to find a lot of new information or arguments in The Value of Nothing‘s 198 pages. This, though, is a minor quibble. Patel has written a bang up-to-date, tightly-argued and timely study that deserves to be read by everyone concerned about the state of the world today.


The Value of Nothing. How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy by Raj Patel is published by Portobello Books, priced £12.99.




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