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Raj Patel’s The Value of Nothing is essentially an indictment of capitalism and the free market. According to Patel, we’ve lost sight of what is important: a sense of community and an active participation in the democratic process. The road to happiness is not lined with “things”, as we’ve come to believe, and our only chance for salvation is to become agents of change in a democratic society which is not run by corporations and greed, but by the will of the people. Patel purports that we have been sucked into the vortex of consumerism and in the process have given up our power to control our own destinies. All good advice, and probably all true, but nothing about these premises is really ground-breaking, especially in our current climate of a post-Bush recession and the general malaise many feel about big corporations and our governments’ willingness to bail-out organizations that have perpetuated the economic disaster in which we find ourselves.

The book is broken into two parts, and part one is certainly the strongest. It delineates some of the problems with capitalism, and there are indeed many interesting facts regarding the price tags we place on everything, including a human life. Patel writes: “Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Blimes estimate the coast of American lives lost in the Iraq war by using a standard U.S. governmental and actuarial figure of $7.2 million per life as part of their calculation of the total coasts of the war to the United States: in excess of $3 trillion.” One of Patel’s premises is that what we can put a price tag on changes with time. It was once legal and commonplace, for example, to engage in human trafficking, which most everyone in Europe and the United States found acceptable at that time. Now, of course, it’s not.

Patel argues, moreover, that large corporations, such as MacDonald’s, skirt the effects they render on the environment and the health of the population in the name of their product: “According to one estimate, the energy coast of the 550 million Big Macs sold in the United States every year is $297 million, producing a greenhouse gas footprint of 2.66 billion pounds of CO2 equivalent.” Corporations, in the name of keeping costs lower, do not foot the bill for the environmental and human damage. Rather, the planet is destroyed, and the corporations are protected by the government, in the name of keeping the prices competitive.

Patel’s major thesis is that those commodities we currently put a price tag on, including land, food, labor, and care, should been seen in a truly democratic society as shared goods. Patel is at his strongest in this section, working as the economist and showing the free reign corporations currently have in market society, and the devastating effects of their policies on our planet and our lives. In short, he maintains that capitalism doesn’t work, or works only for a select few. The rest of us suffer the consequences.

The book begins to fall apart, however, in section two. Patel tries to argue for activism in this section, and encourages readers to become the agents of their own destinies. But Patel’s solutions to the problems he outlines in section one seem watered-down, vague, and even non-existent in section two. It seems that Patel understands well enough the problems of our current capitalist climate, but he offers little in terms of practical, real-world solutions. He writes: “The concentration of resources and power in the hands of a few people and economic entities militates against a successful democracy. What we need is a more plastic idea of property, one in which property and markets are always subordinate to democratic concerns of equity and sustainability.” How this change will occur is as much a mystery to this reader as it seems to be to Patel.

The book ends with an optimistic call to action: “In order to reclaim politics, we too will need more imagination, creativity and courage.” Amen. But a more specific schematic is in order.

Contributor:  Dennis Fulgoni, B.A., M.F.A.

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