Booked: The Ideology of Cheap Stuff

Booked: The Ideology of Cheap Stuff

(Carlos / Flickr)

Booked is Dissent’s monthly series of Q&As with authors. For this edition, editorial board member Sarah Jaffe spoke with Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel about their new book, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation, held at the 92nd Street Y on November 9.

Jaffe: I am going to start off with the chicken nugget question. What do chicken nuggets tell us about the history of capitalism?

Patel: If there is some civilization that comes after humans, they will find the traces of the residue of nuclear tests, and they will find plastic in the sea. But they’ll also find chicken bones. There are 12 billion chickens alive at the moment, though not for long, because we eat 50 billion of them a year. So there will be trillions of these chicken bones in the fossil record. And the interesting question is, how did they get there? How does this creature become the world’s most popular bird?

The bird is plucked from the jungles of Asia. Its genes are tinkered with by the USDA, by universities, by corporations do develop a broiler chicken with breasts so large that it can’t walk. It’s a symbol of cheap nature. But it can’t turn itself into a nugget on its own—for that, you need cheap work. Laborers are paid poorly, if at all, for grotesque and dangerous work. Their bodies get broken at vicious rates. Once their bodies are broken and spat out by their industry, it is up to “the community”—predominantly women, around the world—to resuscitate them for new cheap work. This is just one aspect of cheap care.

You wouldn’t be able to have this chicken without cheap feed for the chicken. That means $1.25 billion of subsidy every year to the chicken industry, just in the United States. But also, workers don’t survive on cheap wages without cheap food. You need cheap energy to keep the henhouse going. You need cheap money to be able to bankroll the franchises. And finally, you need cheap lives. You need a regime that makes certain kinds of lives and bodies cheaper. That means, in the chicken industry, it’s women and people of color who are most likely to be injured on the line, most likely to be mangled in the chicken processing.

So these are the seven cheap things embodied in the nugget: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. These things explain the trillions of chicken bones in the fossil record. The reason we wrote the book is because we want to move away from the idea that this is the Anthropocene—you know, humans being humans, in the way that boys will be boys, or sharks will be sharks. It’s not the Anthropocene—it’s the Capitalocene.

Moore: Central to the story that we’re telling in A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things is a story of power and especially of the illusion that we inhabit two different domains, Nature and Society. It’s mistaken to think that we inhabit a domain of buildings like this, of conversations like these, of finance and politics that is somehow social and separate from the rest of nature. The idea of nature in the modern world has never just been about the trees and the forests and the soils and the streams. It’s been about moving a whole chunk of human life and human work into the realm of Nature.

Jaffe: I want you to dig a little bit further into the society and nature divide, and why it’s wrong.

Moore: In part it’s incorrect because the divide in the modern world is never just about dividing. It is about hierarchies of power. It is about the ways of making invisible and cheapening the lives and work of the vast majority of humanity. While, yes, capitalism does terrible things to nature, that’s not why it works in the way that it does. It works in the ways that it does because it seeks to mobilize work—the work of human beings, but also the work of animals, of soils, of all the rest—as cheaply as possible, and that is a fundamentally violent process.

We have this view of capitalism as just an economic system, when in fact we should see it as a profound revolution in the ways of organizing humans and the rest of nature, through a series of powerful organizing myths that have to do with race, nature, and gender, and which ultimately relate to a fundamental divide opened by Columbus and in the era of Columbus, between the civilized and the savage.

Patel: The modern era is characterized by the axiom that the opposite of nature is society, that there’s art, and conversation, and science and that everything untamed and wild is  “beyond the pale,” the place where savages are. But just look at that construction. The Pale was a real place. In Ireland, the boundary between the civilized English, and their first colonial subjects, the Irish, was The Pale. Society on the one side, Nature on the other.

Moore: In the same way, environmentalists could only begin to celebrate the preservation of wilderness once the indigenous peoples have been expelled. The words “nature,” “society,” “European,” “civilization,” all emerge in this era, in the century after 1550. This is born of conquest, of extermination. We forget it today, but after Cromwell rips through Ireland in the middle of the seventeenth century, over half of Ireland’s population is dead. So this is not an argument merely about words. The power to name is fundamental to the long arc of power in the modern world. It accompanies the power to kill or to make life.

Jaffe: On the note of the power of naming things: early in the book, you mention one of my favorite lines, which is that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. For a long time, it was really hard to even mention capitalism. It was just sort of the air we breathed. I make an argument in my own book that we are getting closer to being able to imagine the end of capitalism. I wonder if you think that that’s true.

Patel: Well, the most recent U.S. election cycle has people thinking big-picture thoughts in a way they haven’t before. I remember being at Berkeley a decade ago and saying the word “capitalism” in some discussion about food, and it was as if I’d farted in a lift. Just to say the word was already kind of uncomfortable—people preferred if I used terms like “the free market” or “the economy” or something like that. But I think that for liberalism to find itself in the crisis that it is at the moment, is to offer the opportunity for people to be able to take that step back. We are in an interesting moment of liberalism cracking, and of other ideas being more visible, some better and some worse.

Moore: This is compounded by our current experiences of climate and civilization, which the books puts into a long historical context. If you look just at the experience of Western Europe over the past thousand years or so, you see that after 300, when the Roman Climate Optimum—that is, the favorable climate for the Roman Empire—came to an end, what happened? Well, Roman power collapses in Western Europe. By 500, the peasants are occupying the villas, repurposing them, re-establishing village life. Life expectancy rises. Gender equality increases. Fertility falls. It is a golden age for everyday people.

A similar story occurs about the later Middle Ages, around 1290, when the medieval warm period comes to an end. What happens? The Black Death. Once it hits in the 1350s, Europe’s ruling classes try to reimpose serfdom, but the peasants and workers won’t go for it. They say, hell no, we’re not going back.

So you have these two crucial moments of profound climate change in the past that are going to be dwarfed by an order of magnitude by the climate shifts now ongoing. We know very well from the work of earth-system scientists that we are witnessing not another cyclical movement, like we saw with the fall of Rome, like we saw with the fall of feudalism, but the end of 12,000 years of Holocene climate—a period that has been, in James Hansen’s words, unusually stable. Those 12,000 years of climate, guess what? They coincide with settled agriculture. So we are going to have to rethink this from the bottom up.

Jaffe: Why are frontiers important, for both your book and also for thinking about what capitalism actually is?

Moore: The short answer is that capitalism is an extraordinarily expensive way to do business. And its costs are always rising. The possibilities for investing all of this money that becomes capital, that’s looking for some profitable return—those opportunities are always diminishing. Workers and peasants resist. Capitalists fight among each other. There are a whole series of profound problems in how capitalism works, internally, on its own terms and according to the fantasies that we get from neoclassical economics. This notion that there’s a free market, that money just flows around and finds the supply and demand, isn’t it lovely?

Of course, capitalism never works that way. Capitalists always have to go outside the money system to find cheap work, cheap lives, cheap food, cheap energy, cheap raw materials, again and again and again. Every big economic transformation of the world, from the era of Columbus and the system of industrial food and mass murder that was sugar and slavery, all the way up to the revolutions of petrochemicals, oil, and even the internet in the twentieth century—these are all based on ways of finding and securing and mobilizing new sources of cheap work, including the work of nature as a whole. That’s key: that we can’t think of capitalism as a self-contained system. There’s no capitalism in itself. It is always devouring the rest of the world.

Jaffe: Some of the cheap things in the book sort of overlap. The one that I was interested in bringing up here is the question of cheap labor and cheap care—because, of course, the care that is so cheap is work, and yet it is undervalued. Raj, I’m sure you have that number off the top of your head, the undervalued amount of women’s work.

Patel: The total output of the world economy in 1995 was $33 trillion. Of that, the unpaid work in the economy was $16 trillion, of which $11 trillion was women’s work.

Jaffe: So much of the conversation about care and valuing care is that we have to recognize that it is work. Yet you separate it out in the book. Why are we still so resistant to viewing care as work? Especially when women do it?

Moore: Why is care separated out from work? I think it’s a protest against precisely the view that care work is not really work. And this is another example of how the sixteenth century never ended. We use the words, “Oh, that’s medieval,” to refer to something really backward. But in fact, we’re talking about gender relations and care work in a thoroughly modern sense. One of the greatest frontiers of early capitalism was not only in the Americas, it was in Europe, where a new and radically unequal notion of public and private spheres was taking shape: the redefinition of women’s work as non-work. That’s still very much with us, I think, in the contemporary politics around care work.

Jaffe: Witch hunts.

Moore: We’re indebted of course to the work of the great Silvia Federici on this.

Jaffe: At the end of this book, the framework that you come back to is a framework of reparations, which of course has been made politically relevant again by the Movement for Black Lives. Why reparations? What for? Because even many people on the left are very resistant to this idea.

Patel: Part of what we want to do in the book is show the long history that produces us. But once you know it what can you do? Under liberalism, the responses are invariably individualistic—buy this, shop for that, teach the other. Reparations are necessarily a collective process that demand revolutionary organizing, jolting the imagination with the historical memory of what happened, the challenge of accountability, and the invitation to dream a society that ceases the crimes on which capitalism is based.

Jaffe: I think that one of the things that people have a hard time grappling with is—okay, then you all go get a check like the Dave Chappelle sketch? But you make a case for all kinds of reparations.

Moore: Reparations—it’s not fundamentally about money. It’s about dealing with this historical amnesia. In the book, we reference the truth and reconciliation commissions (for all their problems) in South Africa, in Guatemala.

Patel: It’s not that you tally the lives and then you come up with a number and you write the check. It is about the way in which this is something that we live at the moment. So, what are reparations for patriarchy? How do you do that?

Jaffe: I have some ideas. . . . What are some things that we can take away from this conversation that will help us talk about these things better in our day-to-day political conversations?

Patel: I think the hardest thing to imagine is the idea of, what is it like to live in a world where we don’t have cheap nature? Where the boundary between society and nature is something that looks different from what we live today? For me, the example that I like a lot is the Coast Salish example, the salmon festival. The Coast Salish live in the Pacific northwest, in what is for now called the border between the United States and Canada.

The salmon festival is this: the first salmon of the season swims upstream and is caught by someone in the Coast Salish band. They take it and celebrate it for ten days. And in those ten days, no one else fishes. So the fish swim up and spawn, and then after ten days of celebrating the Coast Salish people’s treaty with the salmon people, then it’s open season. You take what you need. But already, you’ve been part of an ecological process where the salmon have been allowed to spawn and regenerate. And it’s not an individual process. It has to be a social process.

Moore: In some of my writing, I talk about what happened at Standing Rock. We saw a powerful split within the labor movement. One wing of the AFL-CIO went the way the AFL in the 1920s—anti-immigrant, pro-jobs, all the rest. But National Nurses United, maybe the best union in North America, led a split within the federation, and said, “New pipelines are a clear and present danger to the well-being of all the people in this society, and the patients that we care for.” So there you see a movement to connect indigenous peoples and their struggle for community, land, and well-being with labor, with environmentalist movements, who are now all recognizing that there are different forms of interconnected work. This is not just like, “Well, man, we’re all interconnected, let’s just”. . . we can all see that. This is really about practical politics.


Sarah Jaffe is a member of the Dissent editorial board, co-host of its Belabored podcast, and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (Nation Books, 2016).

Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. His books include Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.

Jason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology at Binghamton University, and is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, and numerous award-winning essays in environmental history, political economy, and social theory.