Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Layer 296 . . . John Gray, A False Dawn, Raj Patel and the Value of Nothing

John Gray's book, "False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism", first published in 1998, has been reissued with a new introduction by Granta Books.


Below is Gray's critique of Raj Patel's latest book. It's interesting that in it he refers to 'ancient European Stoic and Epicurean philosophies' and Buddhism. It's highly likely, it seems to me, that these philosophies will have an important role to play in bringing about a more enlightened age in which people finally understand that wellbeing and happiness do not stem from materialism and the satisfaction of cravings for status, luxury, excitement, novelty and stimulation.


The Value of Nothing by Raj Patel

Raj Patel is right that we need to rethink our notions of value, but his solutions for a better world do not convince John Gray

Economists are taken seriously by governments because they claim to be practising a type of science that can predict the future and help manage our lives. Yet very few economists forecast the current crisis and it is hard to think of any economist who has come up with compelling ideas about how to deal with it. Underpinning all the stimulus programmes is the faith that if only we can restart growth of the sort that was suddenly curtailed two years ago, all will be well. But growth of that kind – debt-fuelled expansion that inflates the value of financial assets while depleting the material environment – is what got us into the present mess. If this is the best economists can do, it is hard to avoid concluding that there is something basically wrong with their discipline.

Much of what passes as economics is ideology and ideology only works if those who produce it also believe in it. The difficulty of the present situation comes from the fact that while few any longer believe in the free market, no one has an alternative to it that is able to command widespread support. Predictably, the financial storm has jolted moribund Marxist theories back into a semblance of life, but there is no popular interest in overthrowing capitalism. The idea of a post-market economy is today what it has been for decades: an intellectual toy rather than a serious political project.

For all his forensic dissection of free market thinking, this is a predicament that Patel cannot escape. The first half of The Value of Nothing, showing the unreality of efficient markets and Homo economicus, continues the demolition of market fundamentalism that events have set in train. The second section, where Patel discusses options to the hegemony of the market, is markedly less convincing. He gives examples of local resistance – shack-dwellers in Durban demanding the right legally to settle on public land, participatory budgeting by popular assemblies in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and numerous other cases where he believes new forms of common life are emerging. But when oppressed minorities have improved their lot, will they not want to live as most people in affluent societies do?

Patel fails to confront the most fundamental contemporary fact, which is that the majority of people in every country clearly want a type of economy – the sort that rich countries have enjoyed in the recent past – that the planet cannot sustain. A passionate activist, he believes problems of resource scarcity are man-made and can always be solved by fairer distribution. However, the growth-oriented lifestyle of rich countries is not unsustainable because it is unjust; it is unsustainable because the Earth's resources are unalterably finite. It may be true that the imbalance between human demands and the environment could be diminished if enough people rejected material affluence as their main goal in life. But this is an extremely nebulous possibility and one that highlights the deepest difficulty for Patel's analysis.

Oscar Wilde may have been right that people know the price of everything and the value of nothing, a remark Patel cites at the start of his book, and which gives him its title. But what is value if it is not price? It is telling that when trying to flesh out a non-market account, Patel turns to religion, in this case Buddhism. The Buddhist tradition gives him what he needs – an understanding of human wellbeing that does not centre round the satisfaction of wants. Like the ancient European Stoic and Epicurean philosophies, Buddhism proposes that happiness lies in shrinking the self – in giving up our wants, rather than forever chasing after them. It is a thought that occurs to many well-off people from time to time, but it is hard to imagine large numbers of people ever acting on it.

Theories of value that focus on curbing desire run up against the demand for self-realisation, which is one of the strongest impulses in modern life. To be sure, the pursuit of self-realisation does not often result in happiness. But is it happiness that most people are pursuing? Or is it stimulus and excitement? In the Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, Patel informs the reader, the introduction of satellite television has been followed by a crime wave. He seems to think this fact somehow strengthens his argument. But what it tells us is that no culture can now resist the dangerous charms of a life spent in insatiable desire.
This is an incredibly negative outlook about the prospects for changes in the ways that people think and behave. If we can see something needs to happen, and then just say, "Oh, that'll never happen - people are far too selfish", then this is just cynicism, and there really is no hope for the world.

As for his closing sentence - let's consider that Cuba has at least attempted to resist capitalist consumerism and exploitation. And if it hadn't been for the American blockade of Cuba then who knows what the country might have been able to achieve in terms of both prosperity and healthy lifestyles. As things stand, Cuba has done far more per capita than any other country in terms of literacy, and in sending doctors to work for free in third world countries.

We then need to consider the role of education, which currently does little or nothing to help children grow up with a thorough understanding of philosophy and ethics, let alone train them in unselfish lovingkindness. John Gray ought to at least consider that we could establish an education system that enables young people to see through the lies and deceptions of our society, and equips them properly for living a productive and creative life, with all their intelligences fully functioning - intellectual, social, emotional, instinctive, spiritual and physical.

"It may be true that the imbalance between human demands and the environment could be diminished if enough people rejected material affluence as their main goal in life."

Of course it's true. What we need is a critical mass of people who actually care about the planet, with enough effort to create a proper system of education and a better understanding of what's needed for a good life. We also need governments that have a clear vision of the tasks that must be tackled, beginning with "How to reshape market society and redefine democracy".


The Value of Nothing

How to reshape market society and redefine democracy

“This is a deeply thought-provoking book about the dramatic changes we must make to save the planet from financial madness” — Naomi Klein.

Both the corporate capture of government and our current financial crisis, Patel argues, are a result of our democratically bankrupt political system.

If part one asks how we can rebalance society and limit markets, part two answers by showing how social organizations, in America and around the globe, are finding new ways to describe the world’s worth. If we don’t want the market to price every aspect of our lives, we need to learn how such organizations have discovered democratic ways in which people, and not simply governments, can play a crucial role in deciding how we might share our world and its resources in common.

This short, timely and inspiring book reveals that our current crisis is not simply the result of too much of the wrong kind of economics. While we need to rethink our economic model, Patel argues that the larger failure beneath the food, climate and economic crises is a political one. If economics is about choices, Patel writes, it isn’t often said who gets to make them. The Value of Nothing offers a fresh and accessible way to think about economics and the choices we will all need to make in order to create a sustainable economy and society.

Read Chapter One here:




John Cleese on PR:


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