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Book Review The life-threatening cost of ‘cheap’ capitalist commodities

History of the World in Seven Cheap Things:
A Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet
by Raj Patel and Jason W Moore
(Verso, £16.99)

ANY book comparing capitalism to a flesh-eating disease that sells your bones as a fertiliser, invests its profit to grow a crop and then sells the harvest to tourists who come to visit your headstone, is not talking cheap.

This history of the world pulls few punches in describing how capitalism has transformed and devastated our planet since the 1400s by making nature, money, work, care, food, lives and energy “cheap.”

This is not cheap as in low-cost, although that is part of it. This is the cheapness that undervalues resources and wrecks the environment while paying as little “compensation” as possible, a cheapness caused by capitalism’s strategies to survive and manage crises and control all areas of our lives.

This cheapness is clearly not the type of bargain for the 99 per cent to enjoy.

Making the persuasive argument that capitalism is more than just an economic system, Patel and Moore illustrate how it has succeeded in creating an overwhelming planetary ecology, separating humans from the rest of nature, organising every relationship between them and exploiting all available resource to work for it as cheaply as possible.

And, because businesses and markets are largely ineffective at doing most of what keeps the system going, culture, science and nation states have also been reined in to keep humans obedient to the norms of gender, race and class that capitalism requires.

Five centuries of this capitalist ecology have defined which work matters and who does it, creating the cheap lives and labour necessary for its success. Patriarchy, colonialism and imperialism clearly aren’t mere by-products of capitalism. They are fundamental to its success.

But, while the omens are not good, capitalism’s continued cheapening of everything is not inevitable. Humans can and do fight back. Class struggles remain a vital engine of change within the capitalist ecology and a possible escape route from it.

This interesting and thought-provoking book encourages us to plan for a more radical change than most contemporary politics offers in order to fully loosen capitalism’s grasp. If people are to ever fully contribute to improving their own lives and the society around them, we must demand and work for nothing else.

It won’t happen under capitalism.



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