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

Darren Hill mail at vegburner.co.uk
Thu Jan 14 12:11:31 GMT 2010

Interview with Raj Patel where he suggests developing "the commons" as a 
way of valuing the world outside of free market economics.  He mentions 
Elinor Ostrom winning the Nobel Prize.

Video and Audio versions available at this link-

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.”

*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/.

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