By Sarah Ensor
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The Value of Nothing

This article is over 11 years, 6 months old
Raj Patel, Portobello Books, £8.99
Issue 355

Raj Patel has worked for the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations. He has since protested against all of them. His last book, Stuffed and Starved, is the best single book available on the commodification of food and why so many people go hungry when there’s plenty to eat.

This book is about the commodification of everything that we need to live and why we must reverse this process. It is an overview of the education forced on us over the last four years of the unfolding economic crisis and before that of 30 years of neoliberalism. The neoliberals are the new cynics – those “who know the price of everything and the value of nothing”. By packaging up and selling on mortgages that had been fraudulently sold to the poor, they created value, or profit, out of nothing.

In discussing Keynesianism, the book The Great Transformation, by Karl Polanyi, and (briefly) Marxism, Patel describes a process that began with the enclosure of land and has brought us to the abyss between bankers like Bob Diamond and those of us who are expected to pay for their lifestyles and “mistakes”.

Patel is very good at the snappy economic arguments against inequality and tax relief for the rich. He is strongest on the detail of impoverishment of communities and the social dislocation it causes. For instance, he makes a sound case for equating attacks on “witches” in Africa now, as land is grabbed and communities are displaced, to a similar process in 17th century Europe. His writing is angry as well as funny and accessible.

We are familiar with reviews that describe a book’s strengths and go on to say that it offers no solutions, when it never claimed to. However, Patel does make claim to solutions and they are completely inadequate. He wants real democracy: “We will have to govern ourselves and live in common.” He argues that to achieve this we will need direct action. He very much admires the Zapatista movement in Mexico and notes its strengths and weaknesses, and then mentions the build-up of the army in Chiapas as worrying. Solidarity groups describe in rather more detail the rising death toll of activists.

But the problem of the state is not an esoteric obsession of the old left – it is an immediate problem for anyone who wants reforms, whether unionising cleaners attacked by immigration officers, students being battered by police or Tunisians facing down their government and army. These are the lessons on the street now and all serious activists have to catch up.

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