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A book review of Raj Patel's "The Value of Nothing"

Unlike many people, I find numbers more than a little frightening. I mean, I have trouble telling time on non-digital clocks (are non-digital clocks just called clocks???) and if I actually get the time right I still won’t be able to tell you how much time we have left until break time, lunch time, home time or any other type of time that people look forwards to. That, and the fact that I am strictly a fiction lover, explains why I have avoided any of those non-fiction book about economics.

What has my avoidance done to me? Well, I still have not read Naomi Klein’s No Logo or Shock Doctrine. I understand next to nothing about the economy and/or the market except that sometimes I like to buy stuff that I usually don’t need. And that I am unable to mount any meaningful criticism about capitalism and consumerism except that both of these things are turning into more of a curse than a blessing. Even this criticism generally comes out as “UgggggHHH blluroorrrrgh…what time is it?”

In his latest examination of global economics called The Value of Nothing, Raj Patel is able to achieve what my high school math teacher might call “the unachievable”. He has made me, a math-illiterate bum, interested in numbers, statistics, the economy, and the so-called free market.

In this book, Patel illustrates how the free market is not only the opposite of free but is also not capable of governing itself. For example, Raj Patel quotes one the United States’ most important economic minds, Alan Greenspan, when Greenspan acknowledges that his long beloved free market economy is collapsing under the weight of speculators, compounded mistakes, and irrational human behavior. In fact, Patel uses Greenspan to show how the free market has never fulfilled the promises that thinkers like Ayn Rand have placed upon it.If free market was Raj Patel’s employee, he would probably fire it and replace it with a better, more government regulated version of itself.

As Patel illustrates the shortcomings of free market economy, he also links capitalist/consumerist practices with environmental and societal degradation. For Patel, the unhinged jaw of consumerist culture means that our entire earth is being devoured merely to help us ‘keep up with Joneses’—a frightening thought, indeed.

While Patel has enough bad news about the environment to give us all nightmares for a week, he is not merely a Negative-Nelly. Oh no! Unlike many environmentalists, scientists, and ecologists, Patel has a lot of hope. He believes that the environment, free market economy and capitalist/consumerist culture can be fixed by exactly that: culture. Not only does Patel have hope that change can come, but he also gives examples of change happening in some of the most disenfranchised communities in the world. His ideas about communally owned spaces and true democracies run by actual people (as opposed to experts) are really interesting and somewhat achievable.

While I have avoided many books on economics, Raj Patel’s The Value of Nothing is a book that can help all of us to think more critically about the consequences of our actions, our culture, and our need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’.