IT'S SAFE TO ASSUME that with his new book, The Value of Nothing, writer and activist Raj Patel is angling for the kind of mainstream nonfiction audience snagged by authors like Michael Pollan and Naomi Klein. Those writers successfully examined a range of social and economic issues through a tightly focused lens—food in Pollan's case, corporations in Klein's. In Patel's The Value of Nothing, he makes a similar attempt to upset the way people think about a single, crucial aspect of their worlds: the free market system. The Value of Nothing, though, lacks the organizational fortitude necessary to bear its readers through such a wide-reaching topic—in his efforts to cover any ground that could potentially be relevant, Patel's subject gets away from him.
Patel's most important assertion in The Value of Nothing is a simple one: Our economic system doesn't have to be the way it is. He compares the average American in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse to the protagonist of Kafka's The Metamorphosis, who, upon waking to find he's been transformed into a cockroach, worries first about how he's going to keep his job—not realizing that the fundamental underpinnings of his world have just been shaken. The economic collapse highlighted a fundamental flaw in the system, as Patel sees it: Under capitalism, there's "a discrepancy between the price of something and its value, one that economists cannot fix, because it's a problem inherent to the very idea of profit-driven prices." When the market determines prices—a market that doesn't take into consideration externalities like pollution—you end up with, to borrow Patel's example, a hamburger with a true cost that's closer to $200 rather than $2 (after the environmental effects of industrial agriculture have been factored in).
Patel spends the first half of The Value of Nothing arguing that "[the idea that] markets should know best is a relatively recent article of faith, and it took a great deal of ideological and political work to make it part of governments' conventional wisdom." He takes his reader on a whirlwind tour of Western economic thought, namechecking Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill and calling into question certain underlying assumptions (that humans are fundamentally driven by self-interest, for example). Unless, though, you've recently spent some intimate time with your college econ textbook, Patel's overview will probably feel too cursory—he devotes a few sentences at best to most of the economists cited, forgoing depth of analysis for a dizzying range of examples.
In the second half of the book, Patel dispenses entirely with the lecturing, instead providing real-life examples of social movements that challenge the free market ethos. His chatty, referential writing style is far more suited to these rousing case studies than to the stuffy theorizing of the book's first half, and many of his examples are downright inspiring. A chapter on Florida tomato growers describes how workers organized to demand—and win—better wages, while the open-source software movement serves as a sort of digital corollary to the physical commons described in the book's first half. Patel is clearly deeply invested in the idea of participatory democracy, and of citizens taking action to change the circumstances of their lives. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that the umbrella here is just too big. As Patel freewheels from example to example, the book unfurls to encompass just about every aspect of modern life—but it feels less ambitious than overachieving.