How Cheap Things Expose the Root Causes of Our Biggest Problems

The pandemic has me watching a lot of Star Wars with my kids. Defeating Trump feels a lot like blowing up the Death Star at the end of the original movie. But as the rebel alliance found out, evil is always ready to rebound: in the next episode, and in the next franchise, there’s a new Death Star AND a Starkiller Base. So the resistance needs to rebound, too.

The pandemic has me watching a lot of Star Wars with my kids. Defeating Trump feels a lot like blowing up the Death Star at the end of the original movie. But as the rebel alliance found out, evil is always ready to rebound: in the next episode, and in the next franchise, there’s a new Death Star AND a Starkiller Base.

So the resistance needs to rebound, too. It matters little what the forces of racial capitalism and corporate power call themselves from era to era. What does matter is understanding how we got here, so that we can dismantle it and build something new.

In A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet,” Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore explore the rise of modern capitalism through the lens of cheap nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. This is a slim but gripping volume, which zeroes in on the heart of the matter. Rather than crushing us under the weight of 600 years of history, the authors’ clear understanding about how we got here offers insight into how to get out of the intertwined global crises of inequality, climate change, and racial injustice.

Let’s start at the beginning then. Patel and Moore cut to the bone as they explain how capitalism came to rule the Earth. “If profit was to govern life, a significant intellectual state shift had to occur: a conceptual split between Nature and Society. This was a momentous shift but usually pales alongside the birth of the world market, the conquest of the Americas, and the dispossession of peasants.”

Today’s best campaigns and movements — the Movement for Black Lives and the immigrant rights movement, the fights for a homes guarantee and Medicare for All, and demands for a just and managed transition from fossil fuels — all have a demand for inclusion and justice in their beating hearts.

Today’s most urgent question — who is in, and who is out of America’s democracy and economy — is a contested idea, one we must fight to win. The supremacy of the nation-state and division of life into Society and Nature are also ideas we can contest, not immortal truths.

Most crucially, Patel and Moore note that “the self-serving separation does not end with “Society and Nature,” it continues with:

Colonizer and colonized, man and women, the West and the Rest, white and not-white, capitalist and worker. Each of these dualisms has not merely worked to describe and categorize the world but served practically to dominate and cheapen the lives of nearly all humans and the rest of nature. Understanding capitalism as a world-ecology of power, capital, and nature helps us see how deeply each half of these is embedded in the other, how mightily the powerful have worked to police the sharp boundaries between them, and how forcefully those boundaries have been contested.

Patel and Moore place the transition from feudalism to modern capitalism during the “long” century from 1450 to 1640. During this period, barons enclosed the commons, lands shared for the benefit of all, which created a dispossessed working class.

The wars waged by Castile and Portugal against North African Muslims during this period also created cycles of violence, debt, colonization, and slavery that continue to this day. The authors explain how “the mix of war debt and the promise of wealth through conquest spurred the earliest invasions of the Atlantic — in the Canary Islands and Madeira. The solution to war debt was more war, with the payoff being colonial profit on new, great frontiers.”

This is the crux of capitalism for Patel and Moore. They assert that:

Capitalism not only has frontiers; it exists only through frontiers, expanding them from one place to the next, transforming socioecological relations, producing more and more kinds of goods and services that circulate through an expanding series of exchanges. But more important, frontiers are sites where power is exercised — and not just economic power.

What we now understand as racial capitalism, thanks to the works of Cedric J. Robinson and other Black scholars, began in the sugar plantations of Madeira where the cheapening of all seven of these things — nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives — came together. Cheap lives and work came from the forced labor of Indigenous People from the Canary Islands, North African slaves, and — in some cases — paid plantation laborers from mainland Europe.

Patel and Moore explain, “Slavery didn’t begin in Madeira, but modern slavery did. The modern difference lies in slaves’ being put to work in agricultural mass production and in their expulsion from the mythic domain of Society.”

Yet slavery and forced labor also generated an equal and opposite reaction: resistance and rebellion. Patel and Moore are careful to say that: “The story of cheap things and the crises that follow their cheapening is not one of inevitability. Humans can and do fight back. Capitalists then try to address that resistance with a range of cheap fixes. These inevitably generate their own crises and, in turn, more and more sophisticated mechanisms of control and order. This class struggle is a vital engine of change in capitalist ecology.”

These authors describe how slaves, Indigenous People, women, and workers (often with overlapping identities) have throughout history resisted the binaries imposed on them, and fought back — and still today fight back, refusing to bend to capitalism’s ecology.

This long arc of oppression and false dualism is rooted in patriarchy, which did not begin in the 1400s, but was renewed by capitalism’s imperative toward cheapening lives and work. Patel and Moore are clear that:

Patriarchy isn’t a mere by-product of capitalism’s ecology — it’s fundamental to it…The appropriation — really, a kind of ongoing theft — of the unpaid work of ‘women, nature and colonies’ is the fundamental condition of the exploitation of labor power in the commodity system.

Reproductive labor — the work of caring for, nurturing, and raising human communities — is also essential to racial capitalism. You can’t have cheap nature and cheap work without a whole lot of people doing unpaid work. Patel and Moore note that, “Without unpaid work, especially care work, wage work would simply be too expensive.” They go on to say that “to imagine a world of justice in care work is to imagine a world after capitalism.”

This insight is also critical for today’s organizers and campaigners. Challenging society to actually value reproductive labor is a disruption that will also disrupt racial capitalism, as the courageous organizers and caregivers in the National Domestic Workers Alliance know very well.

Patel and Moore explain how:

Transforming women’s bodies into compliant machines of reproduction took force and fear and social policing.” It takes a village, or more accurately, a nation-state, to maintain structural sexism and oppression. They continue, “The institutions of this policing included the prison, the school, the clinic, the madhouse, and the management of public and private sex and sexuality through violence and shaming.

Enforcing systems that maintain reproductive labor and dualisms that benefit the wealthiest few is costly, even today. In other words, “keeping things cheap is expensive.” Patel and Moore explain, “The forces of law and order, domestic and international, are a costly part of the management of modern-day capitalism’s ecology. Thoughts on hierarchy and bodies are old. It takes special kinds of institutions to circulate and weaponize them. The nation-state is just such an institution, one that emerged through capitalism and contingency.”

What’s new about modern-day capitalism, Patel and Moore explain, “isn’t the pursuit of profit but rather the relations among the pursuit, its financing, and governments.” It’s the Madeira model on Wall Street steroids.

As George Goehl of People’s Action said more than a decade ago — government is the prize, not the problem. That trophy is currently on display in the corporate boardrooms of Big Ag, Big Oil, Big Pharma, as well as on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley.

We can claim the trophy and change the rules that govern our society. But Patel and Moore have a warning for those of us who have fallen into the trap of believing that we can reform our way out of this mess. For organizers on the frontlines, it’s hard enough to imagine winning a couple of milestones that would demonstrate progress in the current system. For many organizers, winning Medicare for All or a Green New Deal would be monumental, lifetime achievements. But even these noble aspirations fall short if we measure our efforts against the arc of history over the past 600 years, and the depth of the damage racial capitalism has done.

Patel and Moore assert:

To imagine that white supremacy might be ended by a redefined nation is to misunderstand the series of power operations that have led to the modern form of the nation within capitalism’s ecology and to underestimate the historical inertia of the nation-state. Revolutionary politics requires an expansive, postcapitalist vision of governance and reckoning, and it is to the horizon of such a politics that our analysis drives us in our conclusion.

The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things offers us a powerful, if short, critical analysis and a glimpse of what the world might become. What it lacks is something outside of its scope: strategy. This is where organizers and campaigners must fill in the gaps.

A precondition for a revolutionary movement is certainly a shared political analysis of how we got here and a vision of a postcapitalist future. But we still need a plan to get from here to there.

Organizers would be wise to start with strategies that disrupt racial capitalism and elitist governance, and shift power from corporations to communities and profiteers to the public. Let’s uncheapen Patel and Moore’s things by properly valuing all seven. Every time we stop corporations from externalizing the cost of climate change or care, we make racial capitalism more expensive, and deepen the cracks in this system.

The second strategy we must adopt is to challenge the even deeper separation of Society and Nature, rejecting this conception in favor of a radical inclusion. The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things isn’t just a history book that admires the source of today’s problems. Patel and Moore illuminate today’s divisions as a step toward addressing them in a more holistic way:

We take for granted that some parts of the world are social and others are natural. Racialized violence, mass unemployment and incarceration, consumer cultures — these are the stuff of social problems and social injustice. Climate, biodiversity, resource depletion — these are the stuff of natural problems, of ecological crisis. But it’s not just that we think about the world in this way. It’s also that we make it so, acting as if the Social and the Natural were autonomous domains, as if relations of human power were somehow untouched by the web of life.

So let’s not just Build Back Better, let’s Build It Right — on a firm foundation of social justice in harmony, not at war, with the natural world. We can reforge what was broken as we weave movements and communities together to take on the root causes rather than the symptoms of racial capitalism and corporate power.

Patel and Moore describe how “the past two centuries have witnessed a very different kind of frontier movement: the enclosure of the atmospheric commons as a dumping ground for greenhouse gas emissions.” If we want to attack the underpinning of racial capitalism, then run campaigns that meet at the intersection of labor power, unpaid care work, and the work of nature. This is where the Green New Deal meets the end of fossil fuels.

Time has run out for all of us. The false separation of Nature from Society has brought the entire planet to the brink of catastrophe. Uniting what racial capitalism has spent incredible amounts of money and energy to break into binaries is in itself a revolutionary act.

Patel and Moore land in a similar place as Edgar Villanueva, the author of Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, does but with a twist. “Redistributing care, land, and work so that everyone has a chance to contribute to the improvement of their lives and to that of the ecology around them can undo the violence of abstraction that capitalism makes us perform every day,” they say. Their twist? “We term this vision ‘reparation ecology’ and offer it as a way to see history as well as the future, a practice and commitment to equality and reimagined relations for humans in the web of life.”

Reparation ecology “asks not “Who gets what?” but rather “Who got what, and who should pay for that?”” This is power analysis. This is the core work of every organizer, campaigner, and activist.

They push further, asking us to engage in “permanent reimagination” that can rethink the nation-state and its relationship to racial capitalism without resorting to the binaries that have trapped us for centuries. Echoing Villanueva again, Patel and Moore conclude by saying that “If we are made by capitalism’s ecology, then we can be remade only as we turn in practice new ways of producing and caring for one another together, a praxis of redoing, rethinking, reliving our most basic relations.”

They note that “never under capitalism have the majority been asked about the world we’d like to live in.” This surely needs to happen, but it won’t be enough. Asking for this insight will be critical to advancing together, but we also need a long-term agenda if we want to truly transform our societies and this moment of planetary crisis.

As Lawrence Goodwyn wrote in The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Movement in America, radical change doesn’t happen just because times are hard. Hell, they’ve been hard for the vast majority of humans for tens of thousands of years. Goodwyn’s three ingredients complement the deep analysis and vision for a post-capitalist world that Patel and Moore delivered in A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: individual self-respect, collective self-confidence, and an agenda.

A legacy of resistance from Madeira to Minneapolis fuels the first two. Now we need an agenda — a plan — to take us from here to the world of our dreams. Let’s get to it.

Book discussed:

Patel, Raj, and Jason W. Moore. A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. University of California Press, 2017.

Published in Social Policy Magazine Winter 2020. Volume 50, #4.


More Posts

If You Can’t Change the People, Change the People

If You Can’t Change the People, Then Change the People Transforming the Democratic Party (for its own good) Ever feel like you’re always late to the party? I feel that way about the Democratic Party. As a kid growing up in Chicago, I knocked on doors for Harold Washington and

Interdependence and Self-Interest

I wrote this in 2008 for the Center for Community Change (now Community Change) Convening on Community Values in Washington, D.C. but it felt like a good time to bring this out to a wider audience. On the day after September 11th, 2001 a bulldozer drove up Chicago’s Argyle Street

Send Us A Message