Raj Patel on The Value of Nothing

TreeHugger: This is a big question, but it is the subtitle of the book. How do you propose to "Reshape market society and redefine democracy?"

Patel: We sometimes forget that markets are human constructions. There is nothing natural about markets. Markets are the sorts of things that society decides to allow or not allow. So to give you an example, slavery is the market in people. It's something that society once allowed, but then through activism, through protest, through uprising, through compassion, through a range of things, society moved to a position where now we think that the slavery as appalling.

Sadly, of course, slavery is still alive and well even here in the United States. In Southern Florida, among the Immokalee workers who are tomato pickers in Southern Florida, there have been 1,000 instances of people being freed from modern-day slavery. But in general, this idea of what it is that society decides is okay to buy and sell in a market, well, that's something that is fought over. That's something that changes over time.

And it changes as a result of people's activism. It's not the sort of thing that people shop for. It's not the sort of thing that we can consume our way towards. But the way that market society changes, the way that we can move towards a more sustainable society and more sustainable markets, is through action, through activism, and through engaged citizenship. And, of course, that sounds a little weird. Here in California, we're about to go into an election. And we're told, "Well, if we just vote for the right people, surely that's engaged citizenship."

And one of the things I talk about in the book is actually how citizenship, the kind of citizenship we have now, is a very denatured, watered-down version of real democracy. If you're interested in real democracy it's worth going back to Athens, the origins of our modern concept of democracy. Athens had all kinds of problems, and I think I wouldn't want to live in Athens 2,000 years ago. But there is an interesting idea that comes from Athens in the running of that city and what it meant to be a citizen.

There were no elections. The way the city was run and the way the people looked after themselves and one another was by lottery. So at the beginning of every year, 6,000 people were chosen at random through a lottery to run the city for a year, and then at the end of that year another 6,000 were chosen to run the city. Now, that's a very different model of democracy from the one that we have at the moment. That's a very different kind of engaged citizenship from the one that we have at the moment.

In many ways, we're discouraged from being active and taking political responsibility for ourselves. The only way we're allowed to be responsible is by what we put in our shopping carts. But actually, we're way more powerful than that. We are way more powerful than mere consumers, and engaging with the possibilities of citizenship and of taking our economy and society back from corporations is something that I think is not just a pipe dream. I think it's happening right now, and I'm really excited to be a part of that.

TreeHugger: Give us some examples of what you've seen out there that you find inspiring.

Patel: If we're thinking about democracy and citizens at work, you may think, well, this Athenian model of democracy, what happened in Athens 2,000 years ago, has nothing to teach us. But in fact, around the world there is, for example, the spread of an idea called participatory budgeting. And it doesn't sound very exciting, but actually it's the sort of thing that gets citizens really engaged and really connected to one another.

Participatory budgeting is an idea that started, oddly enough, in Brazil. From the poorest slums to the richest neighborhoods there was a decision made to take back some of the power from City Hall and put it in the hands of citizens to decide where the annual city budget would be spent.

People would meet together, first in their very local communities and then city-wide, to debate, to argue, to confront one another and then come to a compromise about, if there was money for a hospital, where the first hospital would open, where a school would open, and who would get supplies first and how the resources of the city could be equitably, fairly, and democratically distributed.

Now, this is the sort of thing where you might think, "Well, who has time to go to these meetings? Who has time to engage in this kind of politics?" And of course, if you're not interested in politics, that's fine. But one should be clear that politics is interested in you. And what's interesting, I think, in the Brazilian example is that engaging in the community is something that people make time for. It's not a perfect system but it's something I think we can learn from.

It's very inspiring to see that across a city, it's possible to make democracy work in a really radical way. And that's important because we already live on an urban planet. In 2050 when there are nine billion people on earth, most of us will be living in cities, and most of us will need to figure out ways to manage and share our resources so that everyone can eat and everyone can have a place to sleep.

These small efflorescences of democracy, not just in Brazil but around the world, are examples of citizens actually taking action. And if you're interested in seeing that work in the United States, then you can see these at work in what is called Food Policy Councils. There are about 100 of these in North America right now. They're sort of democratic venues where people who are interested in school meals, for example, will get together with people who are interested in urban farming who will get together with local small businesses who care about fair wages and sustainable products, who will get together with city officials. And in this democratic space, people will get together to figure out how it is that hunger can be banished from our cities.

It's a vision of community organizing and mobilizing. It's designed to reclaim our power as citizens. It's something that's very necessary. As I say, there are 60 million Americans who went hungry over Christmas. It's a very urgent problem to make hunger go away in this country. It's something that's actually working and I think we can be inspired by it.

TreeHugger: You mentioned this concept of seeing climate change as catastrophic market failure. What does all this mean for the planetary ecosystem?

Patel: We're in a very dark time at the moment. It's clear that as the historian Mike Davis has observed, we are in the anthropocene era. If any civilization exists after ours, in millions of year's time they will see our trace of destruction of planetary change, of extinctions written into the fossil records. We are responsible already for massive levels of extinctions. And that's something that's accelerating through the spread of these profit driven markets.

We've seen the seas been emptied, for example. We're already heading for a future, in a few decade's time, when there will be no commercially available fish at all. This is driven not because fisher people have suddenly become more avaricious. In fact, fishing communities have for a long time have managed their reserves and understand how to maintain fishing supplies and fish stocks. But unfortunately, the rise of the fishing mega trawler and the rise of capitalism in fishing has really been responsible for emptying the seas.

But there are ways of governing resources without resorting to markets. But we carry on pretending that we can resolve climate change by merely pricing the environment-- which is something that's been tried in Europe and has already failed. Europeans have a carbon trading system that already, by their own admission, has been a bit of a massive failure.

Instead of relying on markets to fix the problem, there are other ways in which we can work together to fix environmental problems. One of the ideas that I think is very exciting and which won a Nobel Prize last year is to be found in the work of Elinor Ostrom. Her's is in fact a very old idea--it's the idea of the commons.

The commons isn't a word that many people aren't familiar with, and if they are, they're familiar with the idea of the "tragedy of the commons," which is what happens when a group of people (who are considered to be sort of selfish and greedy) gets together and they consume a resource that nobody owns.

So you have these twin assumptions: A) everyone is greedy, and B) if a resource is not owned by someone, if it is not private property, then invariably greedy people will destroy it. So having these sort of twin assumptions leads to the idea of the tragedy of the commons. If no one owns the forest then greedy people will go in and consume that forest and there'll be nothing left and the tragedy is, with eyes wide open, they know that they're destroying the very resource that they need to survive.

The thing is, of course, the commons is not like that. Historically the idea of the commons worked very well. People are very good at not only identifying a resource, but figuring out ways of sharing that resource, figuring out ways to common together. Commoning is a verb as well as a noun. Commoning is a way in which we can negotiate together, to create rules, to share resources.

And human beings are not merely selfish. I mean, of course we are selfish, but we're other things too. We're generous, we're altruistic, and we can work well together. Even if no one owns a resource, we can figure out ways to share it. That's a lesson not just for the history books. It's alive and well and people are doing it right now. I think that's something we can be inspired by if we think about how we are going to manage resources in the future.

TreeHugger: In The Value of Nothing you talk about this idea of rights and freedoms and how this relates to wealth. What's your view on freedom in the context of western market capitalism?

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