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Raj Patel on “The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy”

StoryJanuary 12, 2010
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Author and activist Raj Patel joins us to discuss his new book, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. “We’ve come to believe that the only way we can value things is by sticking them in a market,” Patel says. “The trouble is, as we’ve seen through this recession, that markets are a tremendously bad way of valuing things, tremendously fickle.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For our last segment, we’re joined by author and activist Raj Patel, who’s just come out with a new book, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. The title comes from Oscar Wilde, who wrote, quote, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Raj Patel’s earlier book is widely considered the authoritative work on the global food crisis, called Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power, and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. Raj Patel has worked at the World Bank, at the World Trade Organization, at the United Nations, has also protested them on four continents. He joins us now, well, from Boston, though he’ll be coming to New York tomorrow night. We’re going to be having a big event at the Ethical Culture Society with Raj and Naomi.

Welcome, Raj. The Value of Nothing, why did you name it that?

RAJ PATEL: Well, good morning, Amy.

The reason, as you say, it comes from the Oscar Wilde quote, people today “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

And, I mean, I think that we’ve been beguiled by markets. We understand prices, or we think that we understand what’s going on when we’re faced with a price. But, in fact, we miss a great deal about how the economy operates, if we believe in prices. And we’ve come to believe that the only way we can value things is by sticking them in a market. The trouble is, of course, as we’ve seen through this recession, that markets are a tremendously bad way of valuing things, tremendously fickle, and systematically unable to put — to actually incorporate a great deal of what we find valuable.

You know, just to put some flesh on those bones, think about the price of a hamburger. I mean, you know, if you go to your local burger joint, you will find, what, a $4 hamburger. But researchers in India did some calculations a few years ago looking at what would happen if we started to include the environmental costs that are part and parcel of the production of that hamburger. If, for example, that burger is produced on land that once used to be rainforest, well, then you’ve lost the rainforest, you’ve lost the ecosystemic services that that rainforest provides, you lose the carbon, you lose the biodiversity. And all of a sudden, when you start imputing those environmental costs, it turns out that the price of a hamburger should be nearer $200 rather than four. And that, of course, is just one element of the costs that are squeezed out of our food and pretty much everything else.

But sticking with that hamburger for a moment, I mean, if that hamburger is consumed in the United States, then the chances are that the tomatoes on that hamburger will come from southern Florida, where, since 1997, over a thousand people have been freed from conditions of modern-day slavery and where the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, of tomato pickers in southern Florida, have been campaigning for a living wage for quite some time. And, of course, the cost of slavery doesn’t feature in that hamburger, either. And that’s, of course, just on the production side.

Of course, there are consequences to the cost of consuming junk food. And in the United States, one in five healthcare dollars is now spent on taking care of someone who has diabetes. And the rise of diabetes, in no small part, is related to the fact that we don’t pay the full costs of the way we consume when we buy our food. Of course, we pay those costs in the end. But the corporations that sell us that food are able to exclude those costs out of the price. And it’s important for us to have new ways of valuing things other than the market.

AMY GOODMAN: Raj Patel, the opening pages of your book cite the comments of the former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan. In October 2008, as the financial crisis was in full gear, Greenspan testified before the House Oversight Committee. He was questioned by the committee’s chair, Democratic Congress member Henry Waxman.

    REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Dr. Greenspan, you had an ideology, you had a belief, that free, competitive — and this is your statement: “I do have an ideology. My judgment is that free, competitive markets are by far the unrivaled way to organize economies. We’ve tried regulation. None meaningfully worked.” That was your quote.

    You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others. And now our whole economy is paying its price. Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?

    ALAN GREENSPAN: Well, remember that what an ideology is is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one. You have to. To exist, you need an ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not. And what I’m saying to you is, yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is, but I’ve been very distressed by that fact.

    But if I may, may I just finish an answer to the question previously posed?

    REP. HENRY WAXMAN: You found a flaw in the reality —-

    ALAN GREENSPAN: Flaw in the model that I perceived as the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.

    REP. HENRY WAXMAN: In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right. It was not working.

    ALAN GREENSPAN: That it had a -— precisely. No, that’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I’ve been going for forty years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Federal Reserve head Alan Greenspan being questioned by Henry Waxman. “A flaw.” Raj Patel, you begin your first chapter with — you title it “The Flaw.”

RAJ PATEL: Well, that’s right, because, I mean, that admission is seismic. To have one of the high priests of free market fundamentalism admit that there was something very wrong with this idea of markets everywhere is, I think, a profound revelation. And the trouble is that we’re not very well equipped to think it through and to think about what we might replace free markets everywhere with. And in the book, what I try and do is come up with other ways that have been very successful of valuing the world that don’t involve free markets, because if Alan Greenspan is wrong, and by his own admission he is, then we do need other ways of thinking about valuing the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about those other ways, Raj.

RAJ PATEL: Well, what — I mean, the latest Nobel Prize in Economics was won by a woman called Elinor Ostrom for her work on what’s called “the commons.” Now, the commons is a way not only of delineating a set of resources, but also of governing those resources together. And the way that commons are governed can be tremendously successful.

In a recent study in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, over eighty forest communities were examined, and those forest communities that were able to common together, to work autonomously and to have enough forest to sustain the community, well, those communities did much better. They were able to provide better development for their — for the members of the community. And they were able to sequester more carbon. They were able to take care of the forest much better than communities that had governments or free markets come in. And so, what we see is that there are ways in which we can value the world without free markets. And those commons are well worth looking at, because historically they’ve worked quite well, too.

And historically, commons have been venues for — actually, for struggles for justice. And in the book, I talk about how those struggles for justice look today. And, in particular, since I’m particularly concerned around issues of food, I’m very interested in the success that the International Peasant Movement, La Via Campesina, is having around food systems and food justice, and particularly their vision of food sovereignty, which is about communities having control over the food system. Well, that vision of food sovereignty is tremendously exciting for the principles of justice that lie at its heart. And there’s a slogan about food sovereignty that I think is very exciting. One of the slogans for food sovereignty is that food sovereignty is about an end to all forms of violence against women. Now, to have that slogan, you know, to start off with thinking about food and ending up with violence against women shows the trajectory that this organization has gone on to understand the root causes of injustice that lie behind capitalism. And what they’re offering is a way of valuing that involves equalizing power relationships everywhere, from the household to the international level, when it comes to exchanging food. And that kind of comprehensive, thoughtful strategy is something I think we can all be inspired by.

AMY GOODMAN: Raj Patel, we have less than a minute, but you end with Anton’s blindness. Explain.

RAJ PATEL: Anton’s blindness is a deficit where people — a neurological deficit where people believe that they can see, when in fact they are blind. And in many ways, that’s sort of a metaphor for the way we’ve behaved with markets. We believe that we can see the real value of things through prices. But in fact, markets have let us down, and we do need to come to develop other ways of sensing the world around us. And luckily, we do have those faculties, if we behave more like citizens, rather than consumers, and rely on our faculties of trust and of judgment and cooperation, rather than on our faculties of selfishness.

AMY GOODMAN: Raj Patel, I want to thank you for being with us. His new book, just out, is called The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy.

On Wednesday night at 7:00, we’ll be together at the Ethical Cultural Society in New York — it’s around 65th Street and Central Park West — along with Naomi Klein, who is releasing her tenth anniversary edition of No Logo. And we’ll have a discussion about value in society.

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