“History of the World in Seven Cheap Things - a Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet,” by Raj Patel and Jason Moore, 2017
This is a short history of “capitalist ecology’ that combines all its effects on society and nature, starting from the very beginnings of commodity production for the sugar markets in Madiera in the 1400s. It is a polemic against false intellectual dualisms that were developed to justify alienation within society, between society and nature and between labor and human beings. It is an analysis of the ‘frontier’ as the essence of capitalist expansion and profit. It is written by two academics who, because of the broad sweep of their analysis, sometimes substitute verbal grandiosity for a clearer presentation.
According to Patel/Moore, the 7 cheap things are: Cheap nature, cheap money, cheap labor, cheap caretaking, cheap food, cheap energy, cheap people. These cheaps all intersect. The authors note that every one of these ‘cheaps’ is becoming more dear, which is why the future of capital is becoming dimmer on a planetary scale. Whether their identification of various singular progressive ‘movements’ will turn the tide is debatable, even to themselves. They seem to have abandoned references to the working class as the ultimate power that can intimidate the bourgeoisie into history.
I’m going to bullet-point this short history, which is a good primer for someone who wants an anti-capitalist, Marxist-based history of the earliest beginnings of capital formation. This is the period of ‘primitive accumulation’ so to speak, which in many places in the world is still going on in the same way.
- Cartesian ‘dualism’ – dividing the world intellectually into mind/body, nature/society, man/woman, civilized/primitive, religious/pagan, etc. Capital cultivated one side of each dualism in order to dominate the other, when in reality they are all intimately connected. Rene Descartes, John Locke and Francis Bacon were some of the first to push this method. Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.”
- The Portuguese island of Madiera off the Iberian coast served as one of the first examples of mono-culture mass production – in this case, sugar. Slaves, wage laborers and indebted workers were used in a mass way to produce sugar, a commodity valued by the rich. In the process, the forests of Madiera were used for ship-building, then for burning for boiling sugar in production, until the trees were all gone.
- The idea of the ‘frontier’ is where most cheap things are found. As frontiers disappear, profits become cramped or disappear. Which is why indigenous peoples were and are repeatedly impacted by colonial and capitalist expansion which is looking for cheap labor, nature, people and energy.
- The first European bankers were in Genoa, Italy, which took the silver from the Spanish mines in Potosi, Peru (a colonial frontier) as payment for their loans to pay for war and empire expansion in Spain and other countries. Without their loans, colonial expansion was impossible. Even the ‘Holy Grail’ was used as collateral by Genoese bankers. Give me money!
- Without the ‘mita’ extraction of forced labor from the indigenous people in Potosi, the Spanish royal house and European bankers would have been kaput.
- For this second colonial power, the Dutch Republic’s first power source was peat from bogs. It produced less carbon than British coal, but became more expensive to produce and helped sink the Dutch landscape below sea level. Windmills ultimately replaced peat (600 industrial windmills in 1730), until coal displaced the windmills. Now coal is on the way out, but not fast enough.
- Cheap ‘care’ refers to the free services provided mostly by women, who were/are relegated to the home for childcare, tending the sick and elderly and feeding the workers. These services make the reproduction and maintenance of the workforce almost free. This reduced the status of women to second-hand – still true throughout the world – even after getting a paid job.
- Cheap food is needed so that wages can be kept low. Provision of cheap – and many times low quality food – to the urban working class is essential to prevent rebellions. See Russian or French revolutions for proof of this.
- Nature is not ‘costed’ on the books of corporations, so it is ‘free’ in that sense. Marx said labor and nature were the two components of production, but capital only sees one. It is an ‘externality’ in the jargon, one capital has had to combat constantly without admitting it.
- Chattel slavery, forced labor, debt servitude and wage labor are all intimately combined – then and now. There are more slaves in our ‘modern’ world than at the height of the slave trade. This is the ultimate in cheap labor. As the joke goes, ‘not every job has dental.’
- The enclosure of the forests and lands in early England – as noted by Engels – is still going on, now in India, Africa and Latin America. The public becomes private, and this becomes another of capital’s frontiers.
- The invention of chemical fertilizers made cheap food possible, even while depleting the land of its real fertility.
- Christopher Columbus was more than an ‘explorer.’ His real purpose was to estimate and realize the valuable foods, plants, ores and people of the ‘new’ world for the Spanish. He appears in the book like some kind of Waldo. Slaves were his first find. He was really an accountant.
- Money, government and capital are all part of a single ecology, now a ‘world-ecology’ according to the authors. Libertarians who think ‘government’ is part of some restraint of trade are dreaming. By the way, the word ‘ecology’ seems to be trending in academe.
- Jews were blamed for the Black Death and killed en mass – even though the Pope at the time tried to limit the damage to them. Part of the birth of the capitalist ethos.
- The authors endorse the concept of the ‘capitalocene’ – as the expansion of commodity production has now marked nature forever.
- The authors think replacing this complex system of corporate relations will not be easy, or pleasant. Or perhaps even possible.
- The ‘Green Revolution” has devolved into a an ‘industrial grain-oil seed-livestock complex’ that is now increasing world-wide prices for everything but chicken, dried rice, sweets and processed food, breeding nutrition OUT of foods. Meat production is central to the devaluation of land and food.
- The Catholic 1513 “Requeriemiento’ gave religious endorsement to the slavery of indigenous people.
- The first U.S. strike was by women in 1824, when they walked away from a cotton mill in Rhode Island.
- The authors contend that the oppression of women is directly connected to societies in which agriculture used the plow.
Bullet points never do justice to a book, but only provide a flavor or emphasis. Overall this history shows that capitalism is not a ‘new’ system, but one that slowly grew from ‘seeds’ in the 1400s to what it is today. They track the European impact of the Black Death, the Little Ice Age and the Great Famine. It’s birth was attended by the proletarianization of farmers, the private enclosure of common property, colonial exploitation and genocide, slavery, the ravaging of animals and nature, with money and commodities coming to rule, all backed by a powerful new ideology. These are the tricks of primitive accumulation. None of this is a secret, but this history allows us to track the beginnings of ‘cheap.’ Though perhaps an 8th ‘cheap’ can be added – ‘cheap fixes’ to deal with the impact of the other 7. Or as they say, “a dozen eggs for 79 cents – what is wrong with this picture?”
Some quotes from Patel/Moore to close:
a. “To maintain hegemony is, as Antonio Gramsci observed, to recruit and maintain forces from across society in a block that is able to continually outmaneuver its rivals.”
b. “Capitalism not only has frontiers, it exists only through frontiers…”
c. “Money binds the ecosystem…”
d. “What’s new about capitalism is not the pursuit of profit but rather the relations among the pursuit, its financing and governments.”
e. “Capitalism’s story isn’t a euro-centric one…from Potosi to Manila, from Goa to Amsterdam.”
f. “Every global factory needs a global farm.”
g. “Thoughts on bodies and hierarchies are old.” (i.e. physical characteristics define class status.)
Other related reviews below. Use these terms or phrases: “Capitalocene,” “Seventeen Contradictions,” “Zombie Capitalism,” “The Enigma of Capital,” “Collapse,” “This Changes Everything,” “Open Veins of Latin America,” “The Race for What’s Lef,””Salt, Fat, Sugar,” “Slavery by Another Name.” Use blog search box, upper left.
And I bought it at May Day Books!
July 21, 2018