Raj Patel on The Value of Nothing

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Raj Patel is one of the few people who has both worked at the World Bank, and been tear gassed protesting against it. An activist scholar, and author of Stuffed and Starved, Patel argues that markets are a beautiful thing, but that modern capitalism has gotten it all wrong. Patel's new book, The Value of Nothing, aims to explain why Wall Street salaries rocket ever-skyward while 60 million Americans went hungry over Christmas. Patel also reflects on why climate change can't be fixed by putting a price on pollution, and how the perks of becoming an American citizen include the freedom to get arrested for what you believe in.

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: In The Value of Nothing you argue that seeing the world through markets has gotten us in quite a bit of trouble. How so?

Patel: We're living, as Lord Nicholas Stern just put it, in the middle of the greatest externality and the greatest example of market failure in human history. The fact that we are causing climate change, and that it is already killing 300,000 people a year, is an example of how our markets' inability to price the environment and price society correctly is actually causing loss of human life.

But it's not just in terms of climate change that markets are failing. They're failing everywhere, including the way we distribute the most vital of goods (for example, food) and today there are over a billion people going hungry around the world. 60 million Americans went hungry over Christmas.

And on top of that there are systematic failures in the way the market works. It destroys the environment. It underpays the work of caring and building community, and that means it systematically underpays women. And it is a mechanism through which we have come to fail to understand the world around us and the relationships that make us flourish, that make us thrive in this world. And so what I'm arguing in The Value of Nothing is that we've been trained to become consumers rather than to understand our connections with the world, and other ways in which we can value the world that don't rely on a very faulty market system.

TreeHugger: So if this is a market failure, does this mean that markets are bad and that capitalism is bad, or is there a sweet spot somewhere?

Patel: I think actually markets themselves are terrific. And if you look at societies around the world that have markets, you see that those societies are ones where there's more generosity, where there's more altruism. These markets exist where the buyer and the seller are more or less of a piece: no one is more powerful than anyone else and the buying and selling is really a transaction among equals. In that world, markets work very well. And markets are terrific because they're a wonderful way of decentralizing decision-making. No one really wants to be told what to wear, what to eat, etc., and markets are good ways of decentralizing that decision making.

The trouble is that if you like markets, you shouldn't like the world we live in today. Because what we live in at the moment is the anti-market. In many ways, if you look at the how the modern profit-driven markets work, what we're seeing is an accumulation of power, a few corporations running the world in such a way that they are able to shape what is bought and sold in markets, and set the terms in which those markets work.

In other words, everything that is good about markets--in terms of freedom, in terms of altruism, generosity, cosmopolitanism--all of that has been driven into the ground by the concentration of market power in the hands of just a few corporations. And so I think if you like markets, and I think most people do, we ought to be skeptical of the kind of capitalism that we have today, and we need to be thinking about its failures and also thinking about ways in which we need to be circumscribing markets so that we can all be a little bit more free.

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