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Raj Patel Discusses Our Broken Market Society and Ways to Reshape It

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Raj Patel is an academic and activist whose book, The Value of Nothing: How to reshape market society and redefine democracy, was just published by Picador. Welcome to OpEdNews, Raj. Readers who aren't familiar with your work will want to know what qualifies you to write such an ambitious book. Can you tell us a little about your background?

I was born in London from parents born in Kenya and Fiji and with ancestors in India. My family have been living globalisation from way back when it was called imperialism. I've studied mathematics, philosophy, economics, and sociology, with some of the best teachers in the UK and United States but actually none of this qualified me to write a book about how we might value our world differently. I've learned most of the ideas and insights that propelled this book forward from being an activist, and being lucky enough to meet and learn from ordinary people in social movements in South Africa, Mexico, India, Brazil and right here in North America. And even then, I don't think I've got all the answers. What I've managed to do is pick up more good questions, though, and seen how people in different democratic experiments have created ways to learn from their mistakes.

After decades of study, I've found that knowing the right questions to ask is the key to mostly everything. And, all modesty aside, you didn't just study economics, you have a degree from the London School of Economics. So, you're plenty qualified to write this book. I was fascinated by the factoid of your having first worked for the World Bank and WTO but then having been teargassed on four continents by them. Can you explain that rather dramatic transformation? And does having been inside but now an activist further qualify you to understand the inner workings of our economic institutions?

It's true - I interned at the WTO and even got a paycheck from the World Bank for participating in a project that came to be known as 'Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us?' I signed up because I was already a critic of the World Bank, and because I was promised the chance to look at the Bank's confidential and classified literature. I thought that the point would be to scrutinize how the Bank was representing poverty to itself. In the end, I was hired to find 'experiences of poverty' from consultant reports, and then edit these nuggets into what it represented as a raw set of data about what poverty is *really* like.

The trouble, of course, is that all the consultant reports and other literature were already highly processed kinds of knowledge, tailored to what the Bank wanted to hear in the first place, having very little to do with the real world outside the merry-go-round of the international development industry. The exercise of producing "pure poor peoples' responses" from this morass was impossible from the start - like trying to make milk out of Cheez Whiz. I resigned soon after the professor who'd got me the job, Ravi Kanbur, quit from the Bank himself.

The experience was useful, though. I learned how "knowledge" works to create the world. At the Bank, in the main, people aren't evil - they're trying to do the best for the poor - the trouble is that when they screw up, they never have to suffer the consequences. And there are a range of things that can't fit into the thinking at these institutions - that, for instance, the poor can think for themselves and have very good ideas about what they want; that the environment matters; that women's right to property is only one among many rights demanded by women; that the rich owe the poor for centuries of exploitation, slavery and colonialism; and so on.

Having worked there helps remind me that we're dealing with ordinary people doing extraordinary damage with the best of intentions - and that the world of modern economic policy comes with its own rituals, culture, histories and media that systematically builds a wall against the worlds in which poor people live and struggle.

Would your point here about ordinary people in institutions like the World Bank doing extraordinary damage also apply to what you term the "free market fundamentalists" who have driven America's economic policies for the last several decades?

I think so. Most of the functionaries of everyday free market fundamentalism are just following the rules, and in the main, are able to figure out ways to rationalise their behaviour, even as the evidence of their malfeasance mounts around them. Invariably, of course, the bankers who brought us low had no incentives to read the writing on the wall. As Upton Sinclair put it, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it." But the rules of this system had authors - invariably men in positions of power whose free market dogma overrode decades of common sense, and who succeeded in turning the world into their economic laboratory by smashing the alternatives, and suckering us along for the ride. And now we're paying the price for their failed social experiment.

And how! What bearing does the recent Supreme Court decision about overturning limits on campaign donations by corporations have on future corporate behavior and its effect on our elections?

The Supreme Court decision is, of course, mindblowingly bad for democracy. To agree that corporate personhood be extended to interfering in the democratic process is absurd. The trouble is that it merely compounds an already existing flaw in the democratic process in the United States - that money should be allowed in democracy in any form whatsoever.

Imagine if the decision were overturned. Great. But we'd still suffer a democracy where the richest had the loudest voices. In Britain where I grew up, every party was given a crack at airing its views on national television by force of law, not by size of purse. Campaign finance reform is the first step, but only the first step, to a more robust democracy. What we have at the moment is pantomime democracy where audience participation is limited to occasional shouting from the sidelines - but that's not real democracy.

Agreed. Once the keystone of democracy, the media have themselves become part of the corporatization of America. What can we do about this very serious situation since control of knowledge and access to news is just one more way we are at the mercy of Big Business?

There are already laws against concentration of power - anti-trust laws need more forcefully to be applied. At the end of the day, though, deconcentrated media means that we, each of us, needs to become more media-savvy, not just by switching away from mainstream media, but by becoming the media ourselves. It is through a multi-level opposition -of prosecuting abusive market-power (Comcast, anyone?), making mainstream-media less mainstream, and realising that we're capable of digesting information without large corporations doing it for us - that we'll reclaim control of our knowledge.

Providing an alternative news source is where we in the non-corporate media come in. Your book is divided up into two parts. The first details where this broken economy came from and how it happened. Almost all of us have personally experienced the effects of the drastic economic downturn, so for the most part, you're preaching to the choir. The second part of your book is more hopeful. Can you tell our readers about that?

After showing how badly wrong conventional economics has been, we're faced with a question - just how ought we to value the world, and how ought we to manage resources if not by sticking them into a market. The second half of the book shows quite how that might happen by looking at different cultures, struggles and communities' attempts to change the world. It's true that some of these communities seem a million miles away, in the jungles of Mexico, fields of southern India, streets of South Africa - but they're also very close to home.

Around the world, there are ideas about how to use and share resources that are already tremendously successful. The Nobel prize in Economics was recently awarded for work on 'the commons', looking at ways that communities both exploit and take care of resources that they govern together. When communities are given the chance, they do much much better than when big government or when big business is allowed in. That, to me, is tremendously hopeful - it offers a way out of the miasma of left-right politics, showing that there are ways in which we can govern ourselves successfully, manage our resources sustainably, and live together equitably.

These are not systems of government we're encouraged to believe in while watching the tirades that pass for debates in US politics. But they're inspirations for those of us who care about the world we live in, and the world we'll leave to our children. The only way we'll bring this world about is through politics and action -- sometimes direct action-- but that's something to be embraced. For too long, we've been encouraged to sit on the sidelines and suffer the consequences of other peoples' mistakes. What I show in the second part of the book is how we can take political responsibility for ourselves and, when we make our *own* mistakes, learn from them and do things better. Surely, that's a better scenario than the one we've endured until now?

Well, you've raised many interesting questions in the course of our interview. With your busy schedule and the baby coming any minute, I'm so glad that we were able to do this. Sleep while you can, Raj. And good luck with your new book!


For a taste of Raj, read "Cheaponomics : A top ten list of things that aren't as cheap as you think."

Get The Value of Nothing: How to reshape market society and redefine democracy

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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