René Descartes, Christopher Columbus and Jeff Bezos walk into a bar and the bartender asks, “What can I get for you thirsty gentlemen?”

“We’ll take everything you’ve got,” they answer, “just make it cheap!”

That’s a somewhat shorter version of the story served up by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore. Their new book, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, illuminates many aspects of our present moment. While Jeff Bezos doesn’t make it into the index, René Descartes and Christopher Columbus both play prominent roles.

In just over 200 pages plus notes, the book promises “A Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet.”

Patel and Moore present a provocative and highly readable guide to the early centuries of capitalism, showing how its then radically new way of relating to Nature remains at the root of world political economy today. As for a guide to the future, however, the authors do little beyond posing a few big questions.

The long shadow of the Enlightenment

Philosopher René Descartes, known in Western intellectual history as one of the fathers of the Enlightenment, helped codify a key idea for capitalism: separation between Society and Nature. In 1641,

“Descartes distinguished between mind and body, using the Latin res cogitans and res extensa to refer to them. Reality, in this view, is composed of discrete “thinking things” and “extended things.” Humans (but not all humans) were thinking things, Nature was full of extended things. The era’s ruling classes saw most human beings – women, peoples of color, Indigenous Peoples – as extended, not thinking, beings. This means that Descartes’s philosophical abstractions were practical instruments of domination ….”

From the time that Portuguese proto-capitalists were converting the inhabitants of Madeira into slaves on sugar plantations, and Spanish colonialists first turned New World natives into cogs in their brutal silver mines, there had been pushback against the idea of some humans owning and using others. But one current in Western thought was particularly attractive to the profit-takers.

In this view, Nature was there for the use and profit of thinking beings, which meant white male property owners. Patel and Moore quote English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon, who expressed the new ethos with ugly simplicity: “science should as it were torture nature’s secrets out of her,” and the “empire of man” should penetrate and dominate the “womb of nature.”

The patriarchal character of capitalism, then, is centuries old:

“The invention of Nature and Society was gendered at every turn. The binaries of Man and Woman, Nature and Society, drank from the same cup. … Through this radically new mode of organizing life and thought, Nature became not a thing but a strategy that allowed for the ethical and economic cheapening of life.”

Armored with this convenient set of blinders, a colonialist could gaze at a new (to him) landscape filled with wondrous plants, animals, and complex societies, and without being hindered by awe, respect or humility he could see mere Resources. Commodities. Labour Power. A Work Force. In short, he could see Cheap Things which could be taken, used, and sold for a profit.

Patel and Moore’s framework is most convincing in their chapters on Cheap Nature, Cheap Work, and Cheap Care. Their narrative begins with the enclosure movement, in which land previously respected as Commons for the use of – and care by – all, was turned into private property which could be exploited for short-term gain.

Enclosure in turn led to proletarianization, resulting in landless populations whose only method of fending off starvation was to sell their labour for a pittance. The gendered nature of capitalism, meanwhile, meant that the essential role of bringing new generations of workers into life, and caring for them until they could be marched into the fields or factories, was typically not entered into the economic ledger at all. The worldwide legacy remains to this day, with care work most often done by women either egregiously under-paid or not paid at all.

Yet as the book goes on, the notion of “cheap” grows ever fuzzier. First of all, what’s cheap to one party in a transaction might be very dear to the other. While a capitalist gains cheap labour, others lose their cultures, their dignity, often their very lives.

Other essential components in the system often don’t come cheap even for capitalists. In their chapter on Cheap Money, Patel and Moore note that the European powers sunk tremendous resources into the military budgets needed to extend colonial domination around the world. The chapter “Cheap Lives” notes that “Keeping things cheap is expensive. The forces of law and order, domestic and international, are a costly part of the management of capitalism’s ecology.” The vaunted Free Market, in other words, has never come free.

A strategic definition

How can the single word “cheap” be made a meaningful characterization of Nature, Money, Work, Care, Food, Energy and Lives? The authors promise at the outset to tell us “precisely” what they mean by “cheap.” When the definition arrives, it is this:

“We come, then, to what we mean by cheapness: it’s a set of strategies to manage relations between capitalism and the web of life by  temporarily fixing capitalism’s crises. Cheap is not the same as low cost – though that’s part of it. Cheap is a strategy, a practice, a violence that mobilizes all kinds of work – human and animal, botanical and geological – with as little compensation as possible. … Cheapening marks the transition from uncounted relations of life making to the lowest possible dollar value. It’s always a short-term strategy.”

Circular reasoning, perhaps. Capitalism means the Strategies of getting things Cheap. And Cheap means those Strategies used by Capitalism. Yet Moore and Patel use this rhetorical flexibility, for the most part, to great effect.

Their historical narrative sticks mostly to the early centuries of capitalism, but their portrayals of sugar plantations, peasant evictions and the pre-petroleum frenzies of charcoal-making in England and peat extraction in the Netherlands are vivid and closely linked.

Particularly helpful is their concept of frontiers, which extends beyond the merely geographic to include any new sphere of exploitation – and capitalism is an incessant search for such new frontiers. As a result, it’s easy to see the strategies of “cheapening” in the latest business stories.

Jeff Bezos, for example, has become the world’s richest man through a new model of industrial organization – thousands of minimum-wage workers frantically running through massive windowless warehouses to package orders, with the latest electronic monitoring equipment used to speed up the treadmill at regular intervals. Life-destroying stress for employees, but Cheap Work for Bezos. Or take the frontier of the “sharing economy”, in which clever capitalists find a way to profit from legions of drivers and hotel-keepers, without the expense of investment in taxis or real estate.

Patel and Moore note that periods of financialization have occurred before, when there was a temporary surplus of capital looking for returns and a temporary shortage of frontiers. But

“there’s something very different about the era of financialization that began in the 1980s. Previous financial expansions could all count on imperialism to extend profit-making opportunities into significant new frontiers of cheap nature. … Today, those frontiers are smaller than ever before, and the volume of capital looking for new investment is greater than ever before.”

Thus the latest episode of financialization is just one of many indicators of a turbulent future. And that leads us to perhaps the most glaring weakness of Seven Cheap Things.

The subtitle makes a promise of a guide to “the future of the planet”. (In fairness, it’s possible that the subtitle was chosen not by the authors but the publishers.) The Conclusion offers suggestions of “a way to think beyond a world of cheap things ….” But in spite of the potentially intriguing headings Recognition, Reparation, Redistribution, Reimagination, and Recreation, their suggestions are so sketchy that they end a solid story on a very thin note.


Top photo: “The boiling house”, from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua, 1823, by William Clark, illustrates a step in the production of sugar. Image from the British Library via Wikimedia Commons.