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Twitter Users Ponder the Most Harmful Ideas of Capitalism

By Petr Knava | Social Media | October 22, 2020 |

By Petr Knava | Social Media | October 22, 2020 |


I’m just finishing up a book called ‘A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things’ by Raj Patel and Jason W Moore. Its subtitle is ‘A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet’. The title is an interesting, almost clickbait-style misrepresentation of what lies within. It hints at—or at least it did to me—a work that will zoom in on seven tangible things—by implication some capitalist products, like, let’s say, the car, the Barbie doll, or Crocs—in order to analyse them and their place in the grand scheme of things, and from there it will expand into some sort of unified thesis.

That might’ve been been an interesting through line, or it may have been a shallow lens. Who knows. What Patel and Moore do instead is use a different meaning of the word ‘thing’. Their seven ‘things’ are actually more like concepts, rather than tangible, physical products. So it’s not Crocs or the Barbie doll. It’s nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. The book is a light-weight, not particularly scholarly, 200-page jog through history that focuses on one era above all others in order to describe how capitalism has affected all of those things: The ‘long 16th century’ that lasted roughly from 1450 to 1640. Patel and Moore hone in on this period in an effort to paint it as the origins of not just modern capitalism, but also of capitalism’s inherent tendency towards environmental degradation.

There are differing scholarly opinions on when the economic system that we describe as capitalism arose. Some point to the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, with the world’s first stock market and public companies. Marx, though famously describing the creation of the ‘free’ working class as happening in England as a result of the series of land enclosure laws that started to be passed from the 16th century onwards, also viewed the industrial capitalism that arose in Britain in the 19th century as a distinct period of socioeconomic history that called for a specific type of analysis. For Patel and Moore and their book, the choice is to look further back, at the Portuguese empire and its occupation of the island of Madeira and the use of slave labour in the production of timber and sugar. There, they posit, were the roots of capitalism—and its extractive and destructive, colonial nature—first properly laid down. It’s not the most water tight model, but whatever, it’s fun to roll with.

What Patel and Moore do next is bring in a particularly odious historical character, and they make him a pivotal figure in the story of capitalism’s cancerous global spread. Columbus’ disastrous, genocidal arrival to the Americas happened while Europe was still finding its way out of feudalism. His journey would precipitate the formalisation of indigenous displacement, destruction, and the practice of industrial-scale human slavery—upon the back of which the capitalist empires of Europe would grow so obscenely, unjustly wealthy, accumulating power that would last until the modern day.

‘A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things’ uses the ‘long 16th century’ and Columbus’ legacy to weave a tapestry out of the aforementioned seven concepts in order to tell the story of how capitalism devalues all aspects of not just human life, but of the natural world too. It’s not the most rigorous analysis—it plays fast and loose with terminology, often relying on apparently multiple different definitions of the word ‘ecology’—but it’s a good enough, propulsive read for the 200 odd pages that it lasts.

One of the most compelling parts of Patel and Moore’s model is Moore’s idea of the ‘commodity frontier’: The continued, violent incorporation of things that initially exist outside the capitalist ‘ecology’ into its sphere of influence. It is this parasitic property of capitalism that makes it perpetually seek out new frontiers in order to find more resources to exploit and novel ways for the capitalist class to enrich itself. Now, in the year 2020, as we stand on the brink of climate collapse brought on by an economic model that relentlessly and with no mind paid to ‘externalities’ like the survival of the species, it is abundantly clear what the logical endpoint of capitalism’s endless quest for new frontiers was always going to be: An exhaustion of the planet’s finite resources, and the triggering of violent ecological feedback as a result.

And, uh.

Oh, um.


Think I went off on one a little bit there. That was just meant to be a quick preamble to a Twitter roundup of people listing their biggest beef with capitalism. Oops. Well I guess my answer is ‘that whole frontiers business’. Anywho here’s the Twitter stuff:

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.

Header Image Source: Paramount Vantage