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.
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:
what's the most harmful idea of capitalism?— Bes (@besf0rt) October 16, 2020
That's it's not a crime against humanity to hoard resources.— Plain Ol' Johnny Graz (@jvgraz) October 16, 2020
Executives hoarding their wealth because “they earned it” while their workers, who ACTUALLY earned their wealth for them, struggle to just get by.— No Revolution, No Peace ✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿 (@yeahok_whatever) October 16, 2020
helping other people doesn't help you.— Jackie (@Jackie__Valley) October 16, 2020
people aren't born selfish to the level they try to say, but do have an inherent need for self preservation. if they've been convinced they have to choose between themselves and others (which they don't but that's propaganda for ya) 1/
I like, and agree with, the Zapatistas' analysis of Capitalism. pic.twitter.com/6mUMhvebC2— jsanch (@jsanch2s) October 16, 2020
The overarching structure of competition used to judge & alter the fate of every human. It ensures that the worst people thrive, as cheating, lying, hobbling or whacking others essentially leaves the top tier-the most "successful" as the most egregious & dangerous cheaters.— Dangergirlonfire 🍀🍞 🍀🍞 #MarkCharles2020 🍞 (@DangergirlHope) October 16, 2020
That a person's value to society can be measured by their monetary worth.— drlearnalot's obelisk of sincerity 🌹🚩🏴 (@DrLearnALot) October 16, 2020
Human nature is individualistic and greed is the norm— Sana (@jammasterten) October 16, 2020
Maybe not the worst, but one- is that a CEO is worth more than a teacher, social worker, janitor, food-server, day-care worker etc based on pay scales. That money gives them power and respect is such a slap in the face to the heart and backbone of society.— Gen-XOXO (@Maggie_Menane) October 19, 2020
That through hard work, you too can be as rich as Bezos! Bullshit. It’s the eternally unreachable dangling carrot designed to make you work harder without reward. The fact is in capitalism you’re lining others’ pockets, not your own. The harder you work, the harder you lose.— Dany✊🏾🌹 (@danygayle) October 16, 2020
That we have to "earn a living." Capitalism holds that we don't deserve to be alive.— ⌛ (@make_it_better0) October 16, 2020
People have to earn the "privilege" of being treated as human beings who deserve to have their basic needs met (healthcare, housing, food, etc.) & if they don't have their basic needs met they must not be working hard enough😑— CruBella de Vil (@Taco_Be11a) October 16, 2020
Belief in "great men."— Jon Eóin Saoradh🌹🍞🌹 (@EoinJon) October 16, 2020
The entire concept behind Capitalism,& indeed behind fascism as well,that history is defined by the unique greatness of individual men, who by definition DESERVE their right to exploit & dominate others.
That this behavior IS what constitutes "greatness"
The pretense that every economic transaction is a free agreement between equals. That may be just my perspective as a lawyer, but the dishonesty of it frightens and disgusts me every time I think about it— If I Were King 🌹 (@IfIWasDaKing) October 16, 2020
That consumerism=freedom. There are so many people who believe their freedom couldnt possibly be threatened as long as there are 12 varieties of pickles at the grocery store.— Ry Leigh (@GallusMage) October 20, 2020
“Enlightened Self-Interest” A.K.A That you can solve greed and self interest with more greed and self interest— SurgeOnEarthSince85 (@surgeonearth) October 16, 2020
All of the things capitalism cannot "value" (with a £ figure) are the things that make life actually worth living. Time with friends, your family, love, nature / green space, one's health and wellbeing, clean air etc.— Honza *Ex-Labour* SOCIALIST #BLM (@ilovecfood) October 16, 2020
the belief that the highest net utility of a system is achieved when each actor works to maximize their individual utility— Michael Eichler (@PlanItMichael) October 20, 2020
Capitalism convincing people to feel ashamed of their poverty is one of the most powerful ways capitalism prevents lower class solidarity.— 🌹 Spicy White Clark (@Clarknt67) October 16, 2020
The idea that we have to extract and use all of our resources as fast as possible to make the economy boom despite heading toward eventual societal collapse due to lack of resources.— Joseph🌹 (@CatJoeK5) October 16, 2020
Belief in a meritocracy.— 🔥🏴 Rabble Arouser 🥖🌹 (@BrianDeCesare) October 16, 2020
the idea that you might "make it." the illusion of being able to escape one's circumstances and getting a piece of the pie is the biggest hindrance to achieving widespread class consciousness.— tls (@tls_567) October 16, 2020
That people at the top work harder or have more value than people at the bottom— Emily🌹 (@emilytorbs) October 16, 2020
Infinite growth on a finite planet.— Corn Pop's Grandson 🌹🚩🏴 🎃 👻 (@EvolvingManLBV) October 16, 2020
All of these are good points! I would add the belief that it's a natural culmination of human development. Or that it is natural, in the same way some believe that selfishness is natural and the only inherent quality in human beings.— Tomas, Spooky Comrade & Friend (@snapeyytom) October 16, 2020
That there’s no alternative https://t.co/BtMPI7ni53— #EndSARS (@bitterarab) October 16, 2020
So many great responses! I would add that it pushes the idea of "more" on a material level. More money, more stuff, more artificiality than substance. Consume, consume, consume. Meanwhile, we could be doing "more more more" *for each other* on a truly human level. pic.twitter.com/tl2wwh5172— Rhi (@Resisterella) October 16, 2020
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