The Value of Nothing
There has always been unease about modernity, both on the left and the right. The sickness, the rebels have always said, is mistaking artifice for authenticity, and the solution, they have always said, is to get back to what is stoically essential. Marcus Aurelius would have recognized the ills outlined in Patel’s The Value of Nothing, because the alienation from the land was eroding the character of his empire, so too would Emerson and Muir, the transcendentalist ideal being rooted in very earthy realities. This unease, is not new.
Famously in 1848 Marx and Engels opened their Communist Manifesto with this description of the modern world of 1848:
The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.
Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.
From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie were developed.
The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.
The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets. The manufacturing system took its place. The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class; division of labour between the different corporate guilds vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop.
Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising. Even manufacturer no longer sufficed. Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry; the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires, the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.
The right however, is home, however, to equally vociferous critics of modernity, consider Leo Strauss, one of the founders of the post-Liberal neo-conservative movement, and we must remember that virtually all conservatives fell from grace in the first half of the 20th century:
But even if we were forced to grant that Machiavelli was essentially a patriot or a scientist, we could not be forced to deny that he was a teacher of evil. Patriotism as Machiavelli understood it is collective selfishness. The indifference to the distinction between right and wrong which springs from to devotion to one’s country is less repulsive than the indifference to that distinction which springs from exclusive preoccupation with one’s own ease or glory.
Thoughts on Machiavelli page 11.
From there he damns the “moderns” for their instrumentalist view of everything, and the disruption of morality, which led, in Strauss’ view, to the destruction of Naziism.
Contrast the first with the love of growth and instrumentality found in John Dewey, John Rawls, and Amartya Sen. Contrast the second with the worship of selfishness found in philosophers who are identified with the right, and with the popularization of them by Ayn Rand. The fundamental conflict here, is that there is a body of people who believe one should alone oneself to be absorbed into the machine of society, market, and industry, to be a “modern” person, and another that recoils and asks if there is any core of judgment outside winning the week, and numbers in a bank account. If there is soul that cannot be bought and sold. For the rebels against joining, there is such an intrinsic truth, but the left and the right part ways over the source of it. To be a member of the right is to be a metaphysical materialist: that the eternal truths and problems have a physical presence that is connected with a single cause as our hand is slapping on the table. To be a member of the left is to believe that the self is in relation with other selves, and that human perception is not linearly connected with the ultimate realities.
If I have taken some time to get to Raj Patel’s newest contribution to this on going debate, now centuries old, it is to put forward that it is not an issue of left against right. Instead, the disruption from production, what Marx would call alienation, and Strauss instrumentality, is an issue of deep philosophical differences which erupts across the political spectrum, from Ben and Jerry’s to Teabaggers, the American political spectrum is filled with people who follow a very different sense of the connection between people and what Scott London called “Organic Democracy.”
We should not see this book as a topical comment on particulars of the ills of neo-liberal globalism backed by neo-conservative militarism, though it touches on how socialist countries like Finland rely on the revenues of Nokia, which rest, in turn on the blood conflict in the Congo – but instead as the dilemma of civilization, and in particular liberal civilization. Liberal civilization, as Dewey and Rawls argued, rooted deeply in Aristotle, is the freedom to become a full being in relation to society. However, becoming a self-actualizing socially complete person leads to questioning the very mechanism which allowed it. In Patel’s case, he also cuts the argument in the other direction – the illusion of a market must be created to keep people locked in the illusion of prosperity. However, without the market being real and working, there must be constant, often military, interventions in the flow of prices and property. The new system, is false to its own principles, and must spend much of its time patching the cracking plaster, for example, in health care, where a fake market needs to be fixed by government, to keep fake prices and the profits calculated from them flowing.
In short, being in a developed country gives one the ability to realize just how much suffering one’s own ease rests upon. This has led to a growing body of thought that derives from the realization that a rational, enlightened, and prosperous first world, is attached directly to the results of misery in the second.
That prosperity rests on two pillars: corporate capitalism, which is at least the third or fourth version of capitalism, and media democracy. Corporate capitalism provides commodities which are called prosperity, and media democracy guides the distribution of the spoils of that system. It is this pair of constructions, the modified version of both capitalism and democracy, which America has sought to export – not any kind of Democracy, but one rooted in publicity, marketing and campaigning, not any kind of capitalism, but one friendly to international markets, and global supply chains, with a world financial system.
In the last 30 years a growing critique of the twin neo- movements, neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism has taken on the structure of corporate markets and media democracy on its own principles. Prominently Sen and Stiglitz have taken on it’s way of measuring its own progress. Raj Patel lays rhetorical explosives to another fundamental pillar: the language of the market itself.
The language of the market demands that all judgments be reduced to price: does a buyer want the money, or the good, more? Does the seller want the money the buyer offers now, or is there another buyer who will offer a higher price. Patel, in an argument that echoes John Kenneth Galbraith, argues that the system has so much ability to manipulate price, and sources of supply and creation of demand, that price no longer communicates. He touches on global warming as perhaps the best example: the evil flies far away, perhaps to the future, while the good is here and now.
This, in turn, undermines property, since property is an abstraction which is defined by it’s ability to be priced. Both in law and market, it is the value of the use of a thing, that can be compensated. From here the relationship between natural people, and artificial persons, such as corporations and governments, is in view.
If these are not sharply fleshed out, it is because Raj Patel drives at a very specific important goal, and his book is a drive to connect an almost hidden evil with the crumbling of the connection between price and value, namely, food. Food is kept artificially cheap by hiring immigrants at near serf wages to pick our tomatoes and vegetables. For the anti-immigration zealot, a simple test: would you pay a dollar more for a Whopper, so an American could be enticed to pick the produce?
Food sovereignty ties directly to the pain of the second world: it is disrupted by forces they cannot control, and dependent on capital that they cannot produce. It is priced by factors that they do not set, and it causes malnutrition and other miseries that they cannot avoid. If you want to know where the costs of global warming land, it is on top of the people who cannot feed themselves. If you want to know who is exploited, realized, we haven’t just out sourced much of the production, we’ve outsourced the misery as well, a fact that Patel describes carefully.
For Patel, democracy grows out of the ability to pull the cord of food out from the globalized socket. People have a right to determine their own food supply, and this right is not given them, but intrinsic. If this sounds like a radical notion, realize that Lincoln preached that the right to eat bread, was the most fundamental right of all human beings. It is in this direct and dramatic connection: that a democracy is what it eats, that he sees the most direct road to cutting alienation both in the developed world, and in the undeveloped and developing world. This is because while it is possible to deceive ones self about the value of a free book, or a tribal animosity turned into colonialist racism, or an artificial fabric handbag sold at 2000 US Dollars, it is much harder to deceive oneself about the quality of food. It is the fear of starvation that drives the poor, and the disconnection of false satiation which deludes the prosperous.
Paradoxically, Adam Smith might well have agreed, since he pointed out that the minimum use of land is what can be grown on it for subsistence. If subsistence no longer bares any relationship to cost, then there is no unit to measure the value of land itself, and with it, the value of anything else. Without the ability to go back to subsistence, the market is free to push wages below that of survival, an observation of Malthus that earned political economy the title of “the dismal science.”
And that is Patel’s contribution: that organic democracy starts, from something you can sink your teeth into, and that the eternal reality that stands between a human being, and being absorbed into the system, is that the human being is still flesh and blood. A point that Minsky, Johnson, and Lakoff attempted to impress upon the world starting four decades ago, and which is only now reaching the mainstream of political discourse. If I haven’t spent a great deal of time on all of the intellectual apparatus, it is because Patel wears his erudition lightly – it is all there, but it is not a brick that sinks the argument into the mud. He knows the background, you know it, and he knows you know it.
As a result, while there is a great deal of ground covered, there is never a place where the book stops and lecturing starts. It is a sketch, a conversation in a coffee house, where the need to impress is left at the seminar door, and the basic issues can be laid out without having to create ornate indirection. As a result, this is a good first book to give people who want to know why if the world economy has done so well over the last 30 years, so many people in it feel so bad. It is not a new problem, as even ancient empires went in quest of wheat, and found that their own landed population became unrooted from the culture, and it faces us again in the form of global capitalism, but it is not so different as the previous incarnations. This is because transportation, as Krugman’s New Economic Geography observes, quadruples the profitable radius, for a simple halving of costs, and this overwhelms local centers of production, but it can just as easily slip back if transport is disrupted. For the 20th century the drive was to re-establish a balance that had precariously existed in the late 19th century, and reap the benefits, for the 21st century, it is to realize that the Second Era of Globalization, was built on the same shifting sand as the first.