Interview: Raj Patel

Borrow his book
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  December 30, 2009

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Unsubstantiated mark-up is the least of a consumer's problems. According to Raj Patel, author of the new The Value ofNothing: How To Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy (Picador), if McDonald's accounted for the health and environmental costs attached to a Big Mac, then that tasty treat would retail for about $200. I asked the progressive UC-Berkeley scholar about his radical-yet-sensible criticism of free-market capitalism.

Why is it so much easier to sell the idea of free-market capitalism than it is to convince us of its flaws?
The "free" in "free market" sounds spectacular. Who doesn't like free? It's associated not only with some sort of bounty but also with liberty. And given the historical trajectory of communism versus capitalism, the free market was always the number one weapon in that arsenal, while alternatives to the free market have been roundly crushed, under-reported, or sidelined in some way by the culture of corporate capitalism. But people are starting to wonder why — if this is all fine and dandy — they are without a job. And if people are so free, then why can't they pay their debts?

Does everything you're talking about come down to a need for revolutionary campaign finance reform?
The one thing that we have to do is realize that there's no one thing that we have to do. Campaign finance reform is absolutely vital, but in my book I talk about democracy, and what real democracy might actually look like. Some of that involves us taking way more responsibility for our government and our politics than we have until now. When we think about personal responsibility we think about putting in green light bulbs and buying fair trade, shade-grown, pro-locust whatever. But as far as the Greeks were concerned, being a citizen involved being ready to be governor of your city for a whole year if you were selected at random to be one. That kind of personal responsibility requires education, so I also think education reform is very high on the agenda, as are the right to health care and the right to food.

With the popularity of big box stores and online shopping growing — and with those avenues relying so much on distant resources — is society past the point of being able to move toward local economies?
I don't think so. It's true that online retailing is taking off, but at the same time you are seeing a resurgence of an interest in living within our means and living within our food shed. There is research that shows an increasing number of food policy councils that are moving to a locally oriented approach to consumption. And this is a new thing — it's happened of late and it's been driven by a new generation of activists and citizens who are much more engaged than people were in the past.

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