Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Wobbly Times number 47
THE VALUE OF NOTHING by Raj Patel
Published: 27 November 2009
Format: Paperback , 256 pages
Imprint: Black Inc
Publisher: Black Inc
Categories: Popular Culture Economics, Finance, Business & Management
Raj Patel has written a fine book in which he describes the value of human tenacity, the value of people standing up to their rulers, the value of persistence and the value of solidarity, in other words, the value of nothing. Nothing which has a price that is. Nothing which is a commodity sold for the profit of its owners, unless they’re small owners.
Starting off his critique of the prevailing ideology, which can be summarised in Gary Becker’s concept of ‘homo-economicus’, Patel writes, “The dazzle of free markets has blinded us to other ways of seeing the world. As Oscar Wilde wrote over a century ago, ‘Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ Prices have revealed themselves as fickle guides: The 2008 financial collapse came in the same year as crises in food and oil and yet we seem unable to see or value our world except through the faulty prism of the market.” Patel is keen to link Becker’s prescriptions for realism to commodification, making literally every human activity and nature into commodities for sale. He succeeds quite well and this is important in a day and age when becoming a ‘maximising animal’ in the global market is lauded by capitalist apologists world-wide.
THE VALUE OF NOTHING is chock full of useful insights and history. Patel’s summation of Polanyi’s take on the “enclosure of the commons”, that is, the gradual privatising of what had been land held in common by the peasantry during Britain’s Middle Ages is articulated with verve and clarity . His history includes a fine overview of the British peasant revolt of 1381 and is itself, worth the price of the book. But like Wat Tyler, methinks the flaw in Patel’s analysis and suggested practice is to be located in a reverence for the ruling system of contemporary class political power, the wage system. In other words, the capitalist system which springs from the wage system, the system based on the buying and selling of commodities, in other words, ‘the market’.
Patel accepts markets and prices to value useful things. He sees them as being natural, but he also points to the flaws of equating price with its exchange-value. Bubbles occur in the global, corporate dominated economy and when they do price can become out of balance with value. As Patel points out, the 2008 deflation of the financial bubble in real estate was a prime example of a whole lot of pricey nothingness frothing around value.
In THE VALUE OF NOTHING, the reader will also find easy to read explanations of many concepts used in offhanded ways in today’s capitalist media, ‘shorting’ for example:
“Volkswagen was heading for tough times. Imagine you’re a trader who feels in your bones that the stock price can only fall. One way to cash your hunch in is to sell Volkswagen stock today, and buy it back when the price falls. Since you don’t walk around with Volkswagen stock falling out of your pockets, you’ll turn to someone who does, like an institutional investor. You borrow their stock, for a price, and promise to return all of it very soon. The institutional investor is happy because they make money from lending out the stock, which they will get back in one piece. You’re happy because you can sell this stock, wait for the price to fall, buy it back and with the profit, not only pay back the institutional investor, but make the next instalment on your yacht in Monaco. This practice is called ‘shorting’.”
But, here’s the deal. Raj Patel wants the market for commodities to function in less fickle ways, to wit, in grassroots democratic ways. He wants us to examine our concept of value, price and profit, but not through, “the false prism of markets” prone to corporate driven price bubbles which blow out way beyond asset values. Instead, Patel wants his readers to tame the fickleness of market society by making it operate through their own ideals. There will be a lot of subjective commitment required to keep value in line with price; but Patel believes we can do it. Patel wants us to compare our ideals with actually, existing capitalist outcomes. When we contrast the two, he believes that we can then achieve that primary Ideal of left-liberal discourse, social justice. We will attain this Ideal by gradually reforming our way to a more democratic market system, one where the market is more and more controlled by grassroots organisations and less controlled by corporate capital than they are today.
But, of course, we must change our existing ideals first for, as Patel observes, most of us suffer from “Anton’s blindness” in other words, the ideological domination (hegemony, if you will) which most of us absorb as we mature within capitalist class dominated cultures. In other words, Patel wants people to take charge of markets as opposed to letting the markets rip, a la Reagan or Thatcherite inspired neo-liberalist agendas. He believes this can be done, indeed, that it is already being accomplished in various ways by varying NGOs and peoples’ organisations at the municipal level.
Mr. Patel is a democrat and as a democrat, he wants the people to rule. He rightly sees that corporate capitalism is undemocratic and he believes that small, decentralised, democratically run capitalism is the answer to most of our political, economic and social problems. We, the people can do this, if we can develop and maintain our ideals, as he says the Zapatistas have and the workers’ collectives in Argentina have and, as members of Via Campesina have. If we can be like them, we’ve got a shot at saving the planet from almost everything evil, including climate change. Well, that’s what Raj thinks. In short, Patel’s organising vision doesn’t aim at abolishing wage-labour, but of achieving a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and fair price for commodities which issue out of small businesses. He wants workers, farmers, peasants, women, along with assorted nationalities and ethnic groups to self-manage their own wage-labour and capital through small, democratically run businesses mostly at the municipal level. It seems to this reader that he does so because of his sincere belief that there is no ‘realistic’ alternative to making and marketing useful goods and services as commodities and that a kind of populist, municipal socialism is realistic to work for.
As a result of his faith in the value of grassroots, democratically influenced free markets, free-time is not the focus of his programmatic thrusts. Working small farms to gain Patel’s version of ‘food sovereignty’ plays a major role in thinking behind THE VALUE OF NOTHING. It’s a reformist time sink, in this Wobbly’s opinion. Instead of advancing to a new way of organising time, work and industrial production to maximise free-time, Patel seems to prefer spending free-time away from production in achieving consensus at meetings a la Zapatista or Via Campesina. What is not said by Patel is that no matter how democratic small commodity production is and can be made, it usually means less free-time because the production of goods and services, even just for use and need, takes more human labour time, thus reducing the potential of free-time for ourselves.
Of course, we could always shoot for living with a LOT LESS in the way of good and services and this is a solution which Patel strongly suggests. But what is forgotten is that small scale production is where humanity came from historically and there are reasons why most humans don’t want a return to back breaking, time consuming production and consensus politics as a way of life, when it really isn’t necessary. However, if carried out with enough Idealism, Patel argues that the political trajectory he proposes would take us to a free market society, one always kept small by our idealist convictions. Mindless, conspicuous consumption is being critiqued in THE VALUE OF NOTHING and Patel’s Buddhist angle is presented as a kind of ascetic cure, a kind of generalised monasticism as a way out of mindless, conspicuous consumption.
At the same time another denial is operative in Mr. Patel’s thesis. It is a denial of what has actually occured in history and the inner motivation of humanity to gravitate toward freedom as a whole within class dominated societies. Since the dawn of civilisation, humans have wanted and indeed, worked to move away from chaotic domination by nature by creating more efficient modes of wealth production to release more free-time, especially as humanity has been eliminating the vestiges of feudalism and hurtling into full blown, industrial capitalism since at least the times of the great bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th Centuries. The drudgery involved in spending one’s life doing laundry with a washboard down by the river; going from human to horse drawn plough and then to tractors; those and other assorted tasks associated with the reduction of the expenditure of human drudge time, have been historical motivators, based on the human desire for more freedom. Over the course of history, these innovations and economies of scale have led to large scale industrialised production. Granted, in class society up to and including the capitalist system of the here and now, the free-time implicit in large scale production has been available mostly to the wealthy and the unemployed, in great amounts with, of course, different outcomes. But in a hypothetical classless society (such as this Wobbly imagines) where there is equal political power amongst humans and common control over socially produced wealth within collective goals (goals which include most importantly the expansion of free-time and living in harmony with the Earth) a free association of producers cannot make a fetish out of smallness and decentralisation without serious consequences for say, the four hour day. Where de-centralisation and smallness function to promote more freedom, fine; where they end up becoming a time sink, they should be discarded. Certainly, we need to have the self-discipline to curb mindless consumption based on competitive status building i.e. the inanity of keeping up with the Jones. We should do this for our own sanity, if not just to promote environmental health and shorter work time. But, we don’t need to do this by adopting Buddhist ethics of ascetic denial. Rather, a free association of producers can kill overproduction by using already existing productive capacity to reduce the labour time necessary to produce the good things of life. Of course, that would mean taking, holding and operating the existing means of production for ourselves, a goal which Patel doesn’t mention nor, it would seem, endorse. Like the Zapatistas, Patel is NOT aiming for a social revolution where the workers take over the means of production and abolish the State, but for fundamental reform of the capitalist system without taking political power away from the ruling class. In THE VALUE OF NOTHING, he is advocating a ‘smaller is beautiful’, grassroots, democratic, class society, based on a left-social democratic market, within an a-historical, mythical, small capitalism which never grows.