Capitalism has been the world’s dominant economic system for more than 700 years. And as it brings the planet to new crises, author Raj Patel believes it’s important to imagine what might replace it.
But reform won’t happen unless we understand capitalism’s appeal and historical rise, says Patel, a food justice activist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s remarkably resilient and can be traced to a process he calls “cheapness.”
Together with Binghamton University professor Jason W. Moore, he has written The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things (University of California Press, 2017), which aims to put it all together for us. The seven “things” of the title aren’t physical objects as much as they are a hidden social, ecological and economic infrastructure: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. The point being that cheapness is a process of responding to economic crises by devaluing each of those forces so that capitalism can continue to concentrate wealth in the hands of the already-wealthy. In that sense, “cheap nature” refers to the way in which land and its resources are systematically given away to businesses for exploitation, “cheap work” refers to slavery and other anti-worker tactics that keep wages low, and so on.
Capitalism values cheapness above all else. And through this lens, Patel and Moore explore the evolution of capitalism from its roots in the late medieval period with the collapse of feudalism in Western Europe caused by climate change and the Black Death to—now.
Raj Patel spoke with YES! Magazine senior editor Chris Winters in Seattle. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Winters: If I were to take a single important concept away from this book, what should it be?
Patel: The idea would be that we are made by capitalism, and that capitalism can’t last forever. The reason we wrote the book is so we could help broker conversations between the different areas of social movement activism and social transformation. We’re hoping that these ideas of seven cheap things can help social movements identify their shared points of solidarity with other movements. When movements begin, they always start with living politics and real struggles.
Obviously, people start the work of change and resistance where they are. You always start with the politics the way you find them, you can’t start from any ideal position. But understanding that, for example, the struggles of activism in Black Lives Matter are linked to the struggles of activism in 350.org, which is linked in turn to the struggles of activism in certain parts of Slow Food, is I think the contribution that we wanted to make.
And if you think systemically, we can figure out ways of fighting them all at once, which is what we have to do.
Winters: You identify toward the end of the book some promising signs where organizations are in fact taking on causes transcending their traditional political boundaries: the Movement for Black Lives taking on fossil fuels, for example. La Via Campesina talking about disability rights. Are you seeing the future of activism moving in that direction, toward taking that broader view?
Patel: I do. I know that there are still parts of, for example, the environmental movement that don’t particularly care about people as much as they care about pandas, and that their environmentalists can sometimes be misanthropic. But in general, even the Sierra Club has started to melt its traditional antipathy towards immigration and is taking race more seriously than it has in the past. The Sierra Club is a fairly large environmental movement, and its transformations have been made possible by the ceaseless activism of people who are in the environmental justice community. La Via Campesina starts off as an organization that’s about fighting the World Trade Organization and ends up as an organization that is transforming human relationships with nature, that takes feminism incredibly seriously, that tackles issues of gender violence. And that’s because they have to. It’s not because someone in a Politburo meeting decides, “Oh, this is probably what we ought to tackle next.” It’s because the way that La Via Campesina has built their politics around food sovereignty encourages and demands this kind of spread of mission, because actually in order to be food sovereign as La Via Campesina wants to be, they have to attend to issues of gender equality.
Winters: I read this book as an upending of the traditional historical narrative in the sense that you’re taking a look at the significant events of the past 700 years and looking at them not as what they meant at the time, but how they laid the groundwork for what we are experiencing in right now. When you were researching the book, were you intending to look at the historical underpinnings of our current system and how it got there, or were you working backwards from the present?
Patel: I think, in a sense, it was a bit of both. And that’s because we knew that the sorts of intervention we wanted to make, and in particular we wanted to bring history to some of the debate and some of the activism. But we also discovered new historical connections based on the kinds of questions we’re asking of our present moment.
Early on that we knew that Christopher Columbus was going to be an interesting figure, for example, in the stories that we were telling. So we dug deeper and deeper and deeper and found much more about him than either of us had known. For instance, since we’re interested in how finance works today, we wanted to find out more about what Columbus did. The structure of the finance that made Christopher Columbus’ journeys possible, I think, is very interesting, based on a web of promises of future colonization, and financiers made rich through war looking for a high return. It’s very modern. His attitudes toward women and his attitudes toward work … and what he thought of nature. What we found was that by coming at the history of capitalism with a clear analytical agenda and then doing the deep sort of archival work, we were then able to sort of spin it back to the present.
For instance: here we are in Seattle. Jeff Bezos is one of the kings of the hill in this town. And in many ways, the things that Columbus says and the way he talks investors into giving him money, through which he always manages to get paid and his investors have to wait a long time for their money to come, the ways that he offers new frontiers in which entrepreneurship and civilization will be brought back—that’s almost exactly the kind of language that Jeff Bezos is using right now to talk about going into space and colonizing the moon.
If you look at the finances, the kinds of promises that (Columbus) offers his bankers, the structure of financing through which that money comes, the way that he swindles his workers out of full payment and relies on slaves, it all looks very contemporary. This is not to say Jeff Bezos is a slaver, but it certainly does say that the kinds of minerals that allow Alexa to order things for you in the shower come from the systems that require modern day slavery in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
There are 40 million slaves in the world today. The persistence of slavery and its compatibility with high finance and with people being paid wage labor, that’s old. You don’t need to be conspiratorial, and one doesn’t need to bend history at all to observe that slaves, alongside wage workers, alongside entrepreneurs, alongside bankers, alongside people offering new things from the frontier, is happening in the 21st century as much as it was in Columbus’ day.
Winters: You define cheapness as a system that the capitalist system has used to overcome its periodic crises. There’s a quote in here: “We’re arguing that the modern world emerged from systematic attempts to fix crises at the frontier, crises that resulted from human and extrahuman life inserting itself into the calculus. The modern world happened because externalities struck back.” Is there a lower limit to cheapness within the capitalist world structure, or a finite number of frontiers that we’re going to run up against?
Patel: One oughtn’t bet against the imagination of capitalism to be able to open up new frontiers. The frontier of genetic material is one that continues to be profitably mined. The fact that (Tesla founder Elon) Musk and Bezos are off into space, that The Financial Times recently had a supplement on space mining, is, I think, very telling.
At the end of the day, when we talk about externalities striking back, it’s not just about a climatic or geological shift. This is also about the ways that humans have rebelled against certain kinds of order being put on them, whether it’s about slavery or about domestic work or it’s about racism. … Whether it’s about workers going on strike or about slave rebellions, or about certain ideas of a nation coming back to bite the colonists on the ass, that’s what we’re getting at with the idea of externalities striking back. There always comes a point at which societies undergo a state shift. Now looks like one of those times.
The reason we look to the plague, the Black Death, and the end of the Medieval Warming Period is because, they may be augurs of change. It’s a sad commonplace to hear a lament that, in order for things to get better, they need to get worse. “Oh we just have to get to a point when so many people are suffering, and then there’ll be a change.” But how bad does it have to be? We’ve already had a billion people going hungry. Systems change happens when business as usual can no longer continue. Business as usual is entirely compatible with a billion people going hungry on the Earth today.
So you have to ask, “Well, what is it that’s going to create that phase shift?” Historically in Europe, the answer lay in a mixture of disease, climate (change), and a strong hand being given for the peasantry and the exploited. And the number of exploited in the world today is fairly large. We are in a time of particular climate tumult, and the possibility of old orders being transformed or resurrected or remixed is one that a lot of groups are interested in looking at.
Winters: The concept of capitalism as something to name and define and study, it only goes back to the 19th century or so. What we’re describing here is, especially in the medieval period, is human greed as the driving force. Is there a point where it became meta-capitalism, the capitalists became capitalistic about the capitalist system, and it wasn’t just about trying to line their own bank accounts?
Patel: Banking and the modern banking system that emerges from Italian city-states, I think, constitute a very important moment in how that greed gets facilitated and channeled. … That’s why again Christopher Columbus gets to be such an important figure. What he embodies is not just a greed for money, but an attitude that can look on the world and automatically appraise its value—the retail profit in slaves, nature, and so on.
So is there a moment where capitalists become meta-capitalists? No, but I think that when you see the confluence of seven cheap things coming together, I do think the “long 15th century,” to use Fernand Braudel’s term, is sort of the beginning of capitalism. If you want to give it a birthdate, the first Columbus Day is as good as any.
Winters: When we start talking about the solutions at the end of the book, the broader steps to build or at least lay the groundwork for something that would come after capitalism, one of them is the idea of re-imagination. You’ve made this abstract distinction between nature and society as these two things that were separated arbitrarily in the beginning, and that this abstraction has allowed this classification system that we call capitalism today. Re-imagination, as you define it, is a psychological shift, presumably that would allow us to go back to this original abstraction and repair that split, or would allow something to be created that would be something other than just yet another thing that is embedded within the capitalist worldview.
Patel: Well, I’m glad you seized on that. The bumper sticker problem that a number of people notice is that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. When you ask folks to imagine what they want instead of this world? Blank stares all around.
Yet, not far from here, you have Coast Salish communities that have profoundly interesting relationships with nature, relationships that can point the way to what a different world might be like. So let’s look at the salmon festival. It begins with the celebration of the first salmon caught swimming upstream. The festival runs for 10 days, during which no fishing is allowed. While the first salmon is prepared and eaten, all the other salmon go upstream and they spawns. And then you start fishing for salmon. But for 10 days, you don’t, and instead you celebrate the treaty that your people have with the salmon people.
It’s not open season. It’s the result of a treaty. To enter into a treaty with extra-human life rather than simply possess it involves a deep psychological reorientation. It’s an individual transformation of a relationship in the world and with nature, but also it’s a social one. If an individual asserted, “I’ve signed a treaty with salmon,” that’d be bonkers. … These transformations have to be collective and social.
Winters: Can you fight capital without capital?
Patel: That’s the only way it’s ever been fought. There’s a very good book called The Revolution Will Not Be Funded (Duke University Press, 2017). And particularly in a town like Seattle, the home of the Gates Foundation, that’s important to bear in mind.
Obviously movements need money for buses and childcare and organizing materials and salaries. But the idea that it’s only through having vast scads of cash that the big transformation’s going to happen—I think that’s misguided. I mean, look at the white supremacists who seem to have something of a foothold in this town. Their ideology is spreading without having massive infusions of money, it’s spreading through viral means and through getting people to do things and turning up at events and participating in what they understand to be a movement. And they’re doing that for free.
So I don’t think that you need money in order to be able to make social change happen. I mean, it helps, but it shouldn’t substitute for the hard grassroots organizing. … The movements that I’ve seen around the world that have been able to organize successfully, they’ve done it on a shoestring.