Raj Patel: The value of nothing and the need for a different business model

30 Nov 2015

An award winning writer, Raj Patel began his speech at the Alliance’s Global Conference in Antalya by referring to how the Rochdale Pioneers had founded the modern day co-operative movement because they could not gain access to cheap food.

His latest work, The Value of Nothing encourages people to rethink the notions of value by placing a stronger emphasis on resources needed to survive, as opposed to inflating the cost of things one can live without. Raj Patel is an advocate of decentralised models of economic democracy, such as co-operatives.

“I’m touched by the co-operative movement. I buy from co-op stores, travel with co-op cabs, a co-op owns my house and I drink co-op beer,” said Raj Patel.

One of the most common products sold by the pioneers was tea. The sugar needed for tea was obtained as a result of colonialism, exploitation and slavery. The commerce in tea was also paid for with Indian opium that was sold to China, pointed out Raj Patel.

“This is the ecology in which the co-op movement was born, formed to help workers survive and to think big. Food was at the heart of the original co-op.”

According to Mr Patel, cheap food needs six ingredients: cheap fuel, cheap nature, cheap care, cheap lives, cheap workers and cheap debt. 

“We need cheap fuel to have cheap food, 10 calories of fossil fuel produces one calorie of food,” he said. Another contributing factor is cheap care. “The work of cleaning, fetching fuel, carrying water, all is unpaid by the current economic system, that work has a huge value,” explained the professor.

Cheap debt is also affecting to the price of food. “The countries that are able to create debt, they are also the most powerful”, he said. “Cheap debt has a crippling effect on economic activity.”

When it comes to cheap lives, the problem consists in not only treating individuals as disposables commodities but treating cultures as disposable as well, he said. “Crops are the results of thousands of years of development by indigenous people and cultures, these are destroyed. You can’t have a world of McDonalds burgers unless you think it’s good to eat,” he added.

Cheap labour is influencing the price of food as well. “The original co-ops helped workers survive”, said Raj Patel. Providing a decent wage for fast food or care workers would recognise the dignity of work, he said.

“What do we do with these seven cheap things? You have the Blueprint for Co-operative Decade about how we can move forward. What co-ops offer is a space to dream bigger, discover things about ourselves. Co-ops are a space for learning how to govern one another.

“We need to be producing many more militants; there are so many groups that are producing militants,” he said. “Pushing back against cheap lives, let’s look at indigenous movements stopping fuel extraction and mining.”

He thinks co-ops can also help secure a transition to renewables. “It’s possible for us to move away from fossil fuel, not just from BP and Shell selling fossil fuels to them selling solar panels. A much more decentralised model is needed, and who does it better than co-ops?”

“I look forward to your leadership in transforming the world so that we don’t live with the seven cheap things,” concluded Prof Patel.