Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Review of 'The Value of Nothing' by Raj Patel

There is no such thing as the contemporary Left. Instead, there are many hundreds of ribbons, flapping violently in the turbulence and blasts of air that form as capitalism speeds, Mach 4 or 5 now, to...the next quarter of financial results. Seen from afar, the ribbons might look small, but each of them is enough to consume millions of campaigners and dozens of supporting organizations (your heart sinks when you see the thin gatherings and the clattering pennies actually available). But although these ribbons sometimes come together to wave in a great undulating snake, it is always only in reaction to events (a war, a summit, a particularly outrageous injustice). There is no cross-weave actually holding them together, and they soon fall apart again, each dancing their solitary little death. As the Germans might have put it a couple of philosophical generations ago, there is no Idea.

There are some contenders. Mass-participation is one. Ecological small-scale localism is another. Global social justice is another. Social democratic compromise and market-regulation at the world level is another, middle-aged option. There are many other smaller eddies which might form a hopeful monster in the coming decade - a decade of reckoning. And naturally, you can mix n’ match.

These lack true force. They are still reactions to symptoms of capitalism - disenfranchisement, environmental destruction, inequality, socioeconomic chaos - rather than independent programmes standing on their own foundation of value.
Value – that is the crucial word. The way you elbow past what is superficial to capitalism, towards what is essential, is to keep your eyes trained on the question of value. Equally, the way you form a coherent notion of how things should be, is – this is obvious, a logical truth, since you are just saying the same thing two ways – to reflect on what is of value. And the movements mentioned above are only half-formed because their statement of how things should be, of what is of value, is only partial. Participation – yes, but to what end? Environmental harmony – OK, and then? Social justice – but justice is one aspect of the ethical domain, not its entirety. Social democratic compromise – that’s just a technical arrangement. (Incidentally, it is on the Right where the question of value is self-consciously posed. But always posed so pathetically – either in purely personal terms, or with reference to some great Age as written about in some great Book by some great Man, or in terms of some Nation or Empire or other badly-made political product of the rich and fat).

The question of value within capitalism, and within the counter-movements to it. Obviously, there’s a link – we sense we are somehow dealing with one thing rather than two, here. Negatively stated, the opposing formations do not state a truly convincing case, able to corral and galvanize a political-social will of real clarity and confidence, because they have not first analysed seriously enough the system they oppose, as an ordering of value.

Every economic system is a distribution of things among people. It is also a distribution of time between people. It is also a distribution of energy – generated and consumed. It is the principle according to which these distributions occur (whether self-consciously pursued or just an unconscious engine). Economic history reveals different formations. You can look upon these from a value-neutral perspective, maybe just as a succession of structures that human civilization takes as it bends into the eternal wind of the Second Law of Thermodynamics – this is a popular account, and no doubt correct. But it is also the case that in these different formations, different people get the gems and baubels on the one hand, and clean up the shit on the other; and successive times define different gems and baubles, and within times there is disagreement about what gems actually are, and about how much shit a bauble is worth; and people seem always to care rather a lot about this. And that is sufficient to make every economy a distribution or an order of value.

In my opinion, the best statement thus far - though not without serious flaws - of the principle that animates our order of value, capitalism, was given by Marx (don’t worry, it won’t get too boring). Marx defined capital as m-c-m’. “M” stands for money. “C” stands for ‘commodity’. “M” with the apostrophe, the prime, indicates a greater quantity of M, relative to the first. It would be overambitious to review the argument of the thousands of pages of Das Kapital and associated manuscripts just now, but in thumbnail form, under capitalism, someone with money (‘M’) uses it to acquire tools/machinery and labourers (both found on their respective markets, i.e. as commodities, so ‘C’), employs these to produce some goods (‘C’ again), which are then sold, for a larger sum of money than was expended originally, i.e. a profit (M’). The labyrinthine complexities, evolutionary tendencies, categories, crises, classes, differentiations, and so on which real-world capitalism develops, are obviously pertinent to an actual understanding of its character and trajectory. But nevertheless, they are all summarized by, are all baroque and centuries-long elaborations of, that one little formula: m-c-m’.

In English, that reads as: money, employed in the production of commodities, to make more money. Now, everyone knows, from their own experience, which symbol wears the trousers here. If you have waited on the phone listening to The Four Seasons before being met with customer services’ rendition of Kafka’s Castle, and compared this bored neglect with the riotous enthusiasm that greeted you before you bought your widget. Or if you took note when US Steel changed its name to USX (“What does the ‘X’ stand for?”; “Money”). Or if you registered the difference in the sums given to financial-, as compared to productive corporations in the recent crisis-transfers of wealth to private entities (viz., a few trillions). In short, if you have been paying attention, you will know that M beats C. Corporations must produce something; but at the end of the day, any crappy shit (as Marx put it) will do. You can produce waste if you like; you can produce war, death, lies, political parties – there are people doing all of these, with elan; just as long as you get more money at the end.

In fact Marx defined capital as the motion through that formula, through the circuit m-c-m’. Money must move to stay still, must constantly change into things and back again in order to be itself (as capital). Capital is its becoming more than itself. Philosophically expressed, capital is self-expanding value with no other ultimate goal than itself. It is Narcicus, Madonna, Tony Blair.

This is capitalism’s answer to the question of value. It is: growth. Growth is easily dismissed as an accountant’s value, but it is not difficult to argue that, as the precondition for the fuller conduct of all other activities, the expression of all other values, it is the master value. You could call it “freedom”, and that would be quite respectable, nobody would laugh. And in fact, this is what is maintained, very vigorously, in every media organ from the Wall Street Journal down. Capitalism is value-neutral, and delivers abundance. All the better for us.


A revolution occurred in the 17th century when Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and other practitioners of the new Experimental Philosophy, began the meticulous measurement of Nature. The keystone of any serious science since that time has been observation, “concentrated experience” as Nietzsche put it. It is easy to yawn over this hackneyed story. But you can reproduce for yourself the enormity of the relief this represented: Switch on TV. Find chat show. Watch. Repeat three or four times, and you are back to the state of primitive ignorance.

Now, the question is, If we observe the world around us - capitalism as it exists - do we observe an empire of Freedom and Abundance? Is that our day-to-day experience, of life lived? For one percent of the population, the answer to this might be “yes”. For another ten percent, it might be “sometimes”. For around thirty percent, it would be “not exactly”. The remaining fifty nine percent would laugh in your face.

True, these percentages will improve somewhat as a greater middle class is brought into being in developing countries around the world. But there are severe structural limitations on this, and anyway it is much more than that. To keep the point short: capitalism is ripping apart everything. Body, soul, world, culture, beauty, environment, life, society. Things we value – in fact, the very fabric of value. Ad hominem arguments are rightly frowned upon, but I would suggest that if you cannot see this, it’s already gotten you. Capitalism is certainly dynamic, and we do indeed stand on a great stratum of wealth that has been lain down now for a couple of hundred years. But empirically, it is false that this is the setting for a great flowering of what we value. Rather, there seems to be some fundamental antagonism between what we value, and capitalism. Enigmatically, capital’s self-expansion seems actually to be something very distinct from us (although we’ve probably reached the limit of the ability of this kind of language, of “self-expanding value” and so on, to illuminate it further).

You can tell that Raj Patel spies something similar, by his new book’s title, The Value of Nothing. Patel probably wouldn’t see it like this, but his book can be construed as a record documenting a struggle occurring inside contemporary economic theory over its foundations, in the face of ever more forceful evidence, that somewhere near its core sits a profound mistake. That this mistake has to do with neglecting and making invisible a whole world of value. And that based on this mistake, economic theory is becoming a primary force in abetting – the horrific realization – something like the destruction of humanity. (Obviously this sounds melodramatic, but I would maintain with all seriousness that, insofar as one can pin things down and attribute responsibility in this way, modern economic theory has been responsible for the deaths of more people than any other ideology in history, probably by several orders of magnitude).

The basic thesis of the book is suggested by Wilde’s aphorism that, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing” - the difference between price and value, and the consequences of eliding them, is the book’s rough object. The first half presents theoretical programmes and research findings within (non-orthodox) academic economics which challenge the assumptions of the dominant model in this regard. The second reports on various movements around the world which both fight against expressions of that model, and seek to institute different ways of organizing economic affairs.

There are lots of books like this. They could be placed on a continuum, according to the degree to which the basic premises of conventional theory are abandoned. Patel’s book is interesting because, I would say, it goes about close as possible to the edge of the mainstream in search of revisions which might accommodate a more humane –no, just a more realistic - perspective. The result, I think, is a classic dog’s dinner (this isn’t a vague slander, but a proposition about formal coherence), and the lesson is that, if you want the economy to run according to different values, you have to completely abandon contemporary economics, and start again on an independent footing. That is what Angel Economics sets out to do, and whatever its particular merits or failings, the basic approach (i.e. a complete break) is what is essential.


The book belongs roughly to that genre of ‘activist economics’, which emerged around 15 years ago as the publishing counterpart to the rise of disparate movements around the globe opposing the implementation of ‘neoliberal’ economic policies by their national governments, backed by various international institutions (the breakthrough book, for bringing these issues into the mainstream, was No Logo). It has a breezy, journalistic-cum-popular-science voice (though is often rather disjointed: too much cut and paste), and is clearly aimed somewhere around the 3-for-2 market.

The universe of reference is basically what is called “heterodox economics”, and Patel does a decent job of picking though some of the stronger critiques of orthodoxy: behavioural economics, critique of the corporate form, Keynesianism, research on altruism, happiness research, green economics, etc. Patel’s background – Oxford, LSE, Cornell and Yale- is a measure of the trenchancy of these critiques and how far they have climbed up the towers of learning over the past generation, by the sheer force of their truth. (And of course there are many additional lines of research from a similar perspective on which Patel could have drawn).

Just as with the ‘movement’, the eclecticism of these intellectual critiques is refreshing. But what none of them ever call into question in any clear way (and most to not challenge at all), is whether “the market” should be the basic organizing institution, our economic software. Patel follows this, but because he also participates in and reports on aspects of a movement which is asking precisely this question, he is led to say some strange things.

Patel, it sometimes seems, believes in the market in the same basic way as does the contemporary economic academy. There, it is a matter of a somewhat diffuse intellectual construct, hiding behind a sort of ‘power-word’, which is far more an article of faith and a linguistic habit, than a rigorously demonstrated proposition. There are casual justifications and cursory references all over this book. Early on, for example, he says that, “The idea of a market as a place in which people with diverse needs exchange goods is one that can be found in every human civilization”(22). First, this is false. Second, the ahistorical identification of every theatre of exchange under the rubric “market” – as though the New York Stock Exchange and some borderland region in Ancient Mesopotamia 4000 years ago differed only in degree – is characteristically superficial of today’s market champions. Third, history is a poor reference-point for what is a structural question. Society today is qualitatively different in its complexity and degree of internal organization, with institutions and pursuits never seen before. Referring to history in this way is lame.

Or – Patel reports the results of a study purporting to show that people living in societies in which they engage in market transactions are more cooperative (32, it is a “predictor of cooperating”). It is a tiring business critiquing these game-theoretic ‘experiments’ so beloved of social science, because one has so painfully to repeat such simple rules of evidence, logic, scope, inferring ‘ought’ from ‘is’, and so on. Save to say that the result means little. It’s the flippancy with which it is presented that is significant, though, when any fool can see from a moment’s thought that a higher degree of cooperation is achieved between two people when they are, um, cooperating in something, collaborating in some joint project, than when they engage in the relatively external and brief act of exchange.

Or – Patel disavows attempts to abandon markets, because, “markets are good ways to decentralize decision making, and it’s hard to imagine a functioning democracy where people are free without also having markets” (188). Regarding the first half of this sentence, markets are not the only way to get decentralized decision-making. This fact is one of the starting points of systems like Angel Economics, and other such constructions (although you see such decentralization manifest every day, in all sorts of institutions, once you start looking). The second half of the sentence, equating democracy with markets, is beneath comment.

But Patel doesn’t really believe. True, there are lots of points when he seems to plonk a Reform-shaped stick in the sand: there are calls to “rebalance market society” (173), for “reclaiming the ability to engage market society” (176, no, I’m not sure either), or for “reembedded markets” (189). But these remarks co-exist with statements of which the most strident communist would be proud: “By choosing to value the world through markets, we choose the principle of “The more money you have, the more you can get”” (146); “In order for sustainable policies to take off, the artificial people – public and private – that we have allowed to dominate our world will need to be remade, as will our ideas about what constitutes property” (165); or we have a whole chapter (chapter 6) on how the market was the result of the enclosure of the commons, and how this theft continues to this day; and so on.

Predictably, the combination of these perspectives leads to outright confusion. As one illustration, near the end of the book, when Patel is rounding things up and summarizing his vision, he says:

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. That’s exactly what the free software movement has been practicing – the hacking of market society, putting its power in everyone’s hand” (189).

I submit this is not coherent, because, 1. Markets and ill-defined property rights (“a more plastic idea of property”) cannot co-exist. Well-defined property rights are an absolute precondition for functioning markets. There is a reason why statements about the recognition and defence of property rights are always among the first articles in every modern constitution. 2. Insofar as you have markets, you do not have equity, other than in a mealy-mouthed, doublespeak manner. Markets have competition, winners and loosers, big players against little ones, labour markets where the labourer holds few cards and the employer many, and so on and on. While, on the other side, if you regulate for equity in a meaningful way, you will kill the market. 3. The free software movement is not “putting [market society’s] power in everyone’s hand”. What would that even mean? It is in direct contradiction to the market, because it is giving away software for free, whereas the market just is people selling stuff. 4. And by the same token, whatever the free software movement therefore illustrates, it is not a practice of subordinating the market’s natural tendencies to other values. There is no market there. The values it embodies are non-market, not restrained-market.

Or take this example:

Rather than hoping for a cure to prices getting it wrong, we’ll need to appreciate that prices can at best, only give a blurry sense of priorities and possibilities. We’ll never be able to see the world clearly through the glass of the market. And that’s no bad thing. Armed with this knowledge, we can train ourselves to use our other senses, to know the world in different ways. The same thing needs to happen with the way we approach our economy and society... We need to admit that prices don’t signal what we believe – only after we’ve stopped confabulating about prices will we be on the road to recovery” (192).

It is a curious exhortation, this. Fundamentally, Patel is talking to modern economists, when he recommends that we need to stop “confabulating about prices”, i.e. thinking that the price of something specifies its value exhaustively. And yet clearly, by “we” he means us ordinary bods, the common man and woman. But no sane individual does think the price of something specifies its value exhaustively. People sometimes do things which indicate judging-by-price, but not often, and it is really just an indication of the knots that modern economics has gotten itself into, under the pressure to mathematize, that it holds to this proposition.

On the other hand, people certainly do conduct exchanges on the basis of the price of their goods. In a market society, you have to do that, insofar as you are acting in accordance with the market. The idea that we “train ourselves to use our other senses, to know the world in different ways” – with the vague suggestion that, somehow, this is going to make the market operate according to a larger number of dimensions of value - is exactly the kind of excuse-my-French shibboleth you get when you are twisting yourself around something which makes no sense. (‘Getting all epistemological’ should be recognized as a sign that you have gone wrong somewhere).

You can of course build more factors into a price, so that it is recognizing things you want to value. There are different ways of doing this. Carbon-markets, Fair Trade, or the heavily regulated markets like in some healthcare systems, illustrate three approaches. This may ultimately be what Patel means, but I doubt it, because as a well-read economist he will be too aware of the way the logic of the market always seems to corrupt these attempts.


There are many other illustrations that could be displayed, but general lesson is that we must consider whether ‘the market’ is in fact not compatible at all with practices and values we want to see. Patel provides so much evidence throughout his book, of the pathologies to which the market has given rise in the world, that any reasonable person would think this is the natural inference.

I would suggest that it is merely the apparent lack of an alternative that explains why such a deduction is not made (the mind always shrinks from what seems to be a counsel of despair). For although Patel does survey alternatives in the second half of his book – participatory budgeting, wiki-style mass participation, grassroots democratic organizing (as in popular political movements), the Zapatistas, forms of commons management, relocalized agriculture – these are at most hints of what is possible, rather than fully fledged alternative means of social organization that one could imagine replacing the market in a modern society.

Hence Angel Economics. But that is just one structure, no doubt carrying traces of the peculiarities of one individual. It importance (in my view) is in showing that you can have decentralization without the market, that you can have participatory democratic planning with decentralization, and that you can have non-monetary coordination without complete chaos or long hair and rainbow t-shirts (no offence).

But what we really need is a new academic discipline whose purpose is to examine non-market forms of ‘macro-coordination’, i.e. economic coordination operating over large scales. The models would need to be investigated from all angles. How good are they at transmitting information? How well do they organize people? What effects do they have on people’s motivation? What values do they instantiate?

This would firmly puncture the automatic assent that is given to ‘markets’ in economics departments. It would be seen that ‘the market’ is just one organizational form among many (or, actually, a cluster, one cluster), not the best, and certainly not some sort of Natural Form, sub specie aeternitas. (Especially in Anglophone countries, it is construed as some kind of organic extension of evolutionary principles, an instance of complexity theory, and, you know, just anything new and shiny).


Once you have struggled free of the idée fixe of the market, and found this new land of alternative organizational forms, then you can begin to address the question of value in a serious way, because you can start to see how values might actually be concretely embodied in such forms. It is a measure of the liveliness of the book and the productiveness of Patel’s intellectual imagination, that in spite of sometimes swaddling himself in his ‘markets’ blanket, elsewhere he actually discusses such completely revolutionized conceptions.

‘Value’ means ‘what people value’ , and the true alternative to markets as a way of building this into a workable structure is participatory democracy. In his discussion of the outstanding participatory budgeting project in Porto Allegre, Patel writes that,

...[It] is through this active local politics that Brazil’s citizen’s have been able to be a part of the process in deciding what is valuable and what is not. In doing so, they have changed the political geography of the city” (149).

Imagine for a second that a similar process was undertaken in a modern developed country. One would soon discover the real relative values of F16 jets, versus improved healthcare services, or (extending the process) of menial workers relative to football stars. ‘Value’ means ‘what people find valuable’. Participatory democratic forms provide the means for this to find expression, and participatory budgeting proves that it works.

Patel is capable of going further, and putting some real meat on the bones. Slightly earlier in the book, he had turned his attention to the issue of opportunity cost (roughly the value of what you do, in light of the value of what you don’t do) - that critical, beguiling, and not necessarily coherent foundation stone of contemporary economics. Patel brings it up in his discussion of a particularly infamous example of the autism of today’s economic reasoning, when Larry Summers concluded that disposing of toxic waste in Africa rather than in Europe was more efficient, because “poor people value environmental harm less than rich people”. Patel writes that this,

[Shows] how the idea of opportunity cost might help. Choosing how to use resources has consequences with which we all live, and in which we all have a stake. There is no single opportunity cost – the examples taught in classrooms assume a common economic language of money, but Larry Summers’ opinion as to how to handle the toxic waste is going to be very different to that of a woman in a Somali fishing village who has to live with the consequences... Opportunity cost when it comes to public policy is something that needs to be defined and debated collectively...[The] assessment is not a technical exercise, but a political one that requires democracy, not experts” (145/6).

Bang on. The further extension of this would be to see what the procedures might be in order to institute this among large numbers of people in a stable and rational way. Angel Economics uses the principle that the degree of your say in any such discussion is determined by the degree to which you are affected by the outcome. The whole process would be underlain by a solid base of predictive modelling, based on the statistics of probability distributions. But anyway, the chief point is that you substitute social participation for faux-objective maths puzzles.

But further, Patel sees one of the consequences of this viewpoint, and advocates it. If people are going to be participants in valuing their world, and making decisions, they need to not be idiots. There’s a great passage where he runs the full way through the argument:

There are some things that can’t be captured by a single number, but still need management, and the only way that can happen fairly is through democratic politics. The answer to the market’s valuing of the world at naught is not a democracy run by experts, but the democratization of expertise and resources” (171).

To my eyes that reads like a little Prolegomenon to Angel Economics, but then I’m biased. The point is the direction in which you are naturally led, once you really start thinking critically about the deficiencies of the market, what might be necessary to correct these, and what might be necessary to provide the foundations for these corrections. As said, it is testament to the integrity of Patel’s thinking that, whilst still paying deference to the ‘markets’ of his academic colleagues , he follows also where the road of reality leads. The open question now, is how many other people are going to follow.


  1. One of the troubles I've had with your descriptions of Angel Economics in general, which comes up in this post, is the notion of "the degree of your say... is determined by the degree to which you are affected by the outcome." It seems like the degree to which you are affected by the outcome is not an easy thing to measure, and there's no agreed-upon way to put a number on it -- so translating it into a number of votes (which it seems like you're talking about) is a tricky proposition.

    Who's more affected by the outcome of a decision on whether to close a farm: the person who works on the farm, the person who lives where the farm's waste is dumped, or the person who eats the food grown? The best I could say is, "They're all affected a lot, and all of their voices should count more than, say, the person who lives down the road but likes to go for walks sometimes." But how much more? Twice as much? Five times as much? Among them, should some voices count more than others?

    Included in the category of decisions that are political rather than technical, and should therefore be left up to democracy rather than experts/"statistical models," is the question of how to weight the effects of decisions on different people.

    So then in that decision (the decision of how to assign votes to different people), the people who are most affected by the results should get to decide -- but the people who are most affected by vote allocation are precisely the people who are most affected by the final vote. It seems to me like it's elephants all the way down.

    The only way to get past this that I've seen is to reject the very notion that you can compare values by quantifying them -- which, I think, implies rejecting the idea of voting, since the allocation of votes is based precisely on the numerical valuation of people's interests.

    There is something that can replace voting -- deliberation and consensus. It's more difficult, and takes longer, but I worry that the "quick fix" of voting risks replicating some of the evils of capitalism by implying that values can be compared numerically, and there's some pseudo-objective way of comparing those values.

  2. Great comments. I've replied in the 'Objections' section, since this has come up before.