Book Review “A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things”
In their book “A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things,” Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore confront the past, present and future of capitalism in a world that is faced with crisis each necessitating the development of a new strategy to make capitalism work. The authors’ mind is penned tracing the development of, and interaction of capitalism and the seven main pillars that have made life possible and impossible for some. Energy, lives, money, work, food, nature, and care are presented as the seven core drivers of capitalism, which have been exploited globally. The book presents the existence of capitalism through the seven frontiers. It is not autonomous and can only exist with the manifestation and exploitation of the seven pillars with cheapness presented as a near possibility. Through its exploitative nature, capitalism will exhaust the all that sustains it and humanity will be at another crisis.
The introduction presents the reader with the devastating results of the work of humanity. In a brief analysis, the introduction takes the reader from the innocent nature of the world to its devastating point from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. They write, “Future intelligent life will know that we were here because some human s have filled the fossil record with such marvels from atomic bombs…and chicken bones” (Patel & Moore, 2017). This presents a future of destruction resulting from human activities and the dawn of new intelligence, which will only learn of the present humans not from any good things they have done but from the destruction left behind in the form of fossils and atomic bomb elements.
The first chapter addresses the subject of cheap nature arguing the distinction between cheap and weak natures. It begins with the case of the Chichimec woman who faced accusations, prosecutions, and murder for her practicing witchcraft (Patel & Moore, 2017). The controversy was between the native dwellers of New Spain and Spanish counterparts. The term nature would mean several things based on the present understanding of the term. However, the term is also used to distinguish people who were considered weak from the strong. Capitalism could not have thrived without the existence of nature and people to exploit it. The chapter uses the murder of the Chichimec woman as a case to introduce Spain versus the native Indians, weak and strong nature respectively, to explain the success and force. As a result, weak nature was turned into machinery, a tool, and a wheel to turn around capitalism on its onward growth. The Spaniards and the Portuguese are recorded as having constructed “new world production systems, worked by coerced indigenous and African labor…nature’s bloody contradictions found their greatest expressions on capitalism’s frontiers, forged in violence and rebellion –as the witch killing demonstrates ” (Patel & Moore, 2017, p.46-47). Thus, technology blended with the exploitation of nature to sustain capitalism. The exploited nature was deemed cheap regarding its level of ignorance and monetary exploitation.
The second chapter presents money as the medium through which capitalism operates. The history of the development of money to create stability is outlined. More importantly is the history of the mining industry that saw the depletion of forests to provide wood for minting money. In turn, the ecosystem was depleted, food became scarce, and water was polluted by wastes released from the mints (Patel & Moore, 2017). Money became a force to reckon within binding itself with nature as seen from the connection between money and oil barrels. The effects of money are presented as depending upon those who hold them; the rich become powerful by controlling money and two classes are building up of the poor and rich whereby the rich have the power to exploit the poor. The banking system is discussed a central point in controlling the money. The Spaniards made use of this institution when they turned “their colonies into a stream of wealth –predominantly in the form of silver-and then turn it into money, with the help of the Genoese and other bankers” (Patel & Moore, 2017, p.82). Thus, for the capitalist system to exist, there must be a source of money, the banking system, and the existence of two classes where one exploits the other. The source has to be cheap, and the workers paid cheaply.
Madeira was a working laboratory where men were exploited, and the soil upon which they drew their livelihood is introduced in the chapter on work. Madeira slavery is not the first instance that slavery is recorded. It introduces a new form of modern slavery where companies of workers are subjected to work in industrial processes. The prayer of Columbus addressing her majesty, Ferdinand and Isabella, in the name of Trinity requesting for the importation of the Native Americans as slaves further reflect the concept of cheap labor (Patel & Moore, 2017). The slaves were treated brutally, which result in death from labor and punishment. Incapable of bearing their burden, the slaves rebelled leading to another genius by capitalism to fix their concern with cheap measures such as the prohibition of slaves to dwell alone or in restricted areas under supervision.
Crisis upon crisis has led to further fixes and still the need to do more. Here, capitalism is further expanded, and the connection between nature, money, and work demonstrated. The labor system was obtained by exploitation of the lower nature, at lower prices. Forced labor did not stop with the sugar plantation. It has been continued through the ages in silent fashions such as the establishment of industries in nations with cheap labor where workers work under poor conditions (Patel & Moore, 2017). The various crises are presented as the turning wheels to modify capitalism and refine it to a state that it can be exported throughout the globe.
Capitalism is associated with the concept of gender matrix, which is as old as the Madeira experimentations. The chapter on care discusses the social production system as covered in the distinction of gender and gender roles. With the accumulation of large groups of workers as social beings, capitalism system was yet faced with another crisis of reproduction besides the need to take care for the young ones, old, sick, and recovering. The division of labor among men and women is an invention of this system where men were priced higher than women (women labor coasted 20% lower than that of men), and consequently, the wages for men have always been considered higher than that of the woman.
At one point, women had to receive a third of the already “reduced male wage” (Patel & Moore, 2017, p.31). This arrangement is the core of capitalism in determining salaries and areas of responsibilities. Women have been paid lower by virtue that they have a domain in the home set up that they should concentrate on. The burning of witches, payment of low wages to women has been a process to the classification of women labor as “non-work” to help in cheapening their labor (Patel & Moore, 2017, p.32). Thus, through chronological reckonings, the authors address the continuous, unquenchable desire, to reduce the cost of care systems. With the emergent of urban settlement, the need to have cheap care system was and is still recommended and pursued so that workers can manage to obtain enough food for today, healthy lives today and other cares to be able to contribute to the growth of capitalism tomorrow.
So far, capitalism owns its workforce as a commodity or property to be exploited and maintained at low esteem, pay, care, and equally cheap food. Cheap food is necessary for capitalism to thrive. Historical records recount rebellions that have resulted from higher costs of obtaining food or absence of food itself (Patel & Moore, 2017). With the desire to prevent such occurrences, capitalism has strived to afford lower costs of food while the earned salary is consumed on other expenses such as housing, transport and so on. A cheaper food price overrides interest in other commodities that waste the labor and salary earned from tiresome work.
The final pillars of capitalism, energy, and lives, obtain a considerable debate in the book. The case of Madeira is used as a significant representation of the role of energy in driving capitalism. The wood at Madeira was consumed upon the furnace of the sugar industry. Through their use, the production system became efficient as a means of harnessing the usefulness of cheap labor. Thus, the growth and continuity of the industry, to its fall, was attributed to the cheap energy that was in abundance and later on became extinct due to constant exploitation. Capitalism is demonstrated to thrive on cheap energy and where cheap energy which has consequential environmental consequences and climate changes as has been evident in recent global warming crisis. The “Valladolid controversy” Creates an impression of how capitalism values human lives (Patel & Moore, 2017, p.98). The crisis established a separating line between the savages and the European origins. The controversy convulsed Spain into a debate on how humans across the Atlantic should be treated. Further, the line was to enhance the exploitation of labor, which was readily offered by the savages, which were cheap just as their lives were considered worthless.
Overall, “A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things” is very extensive and exploits the strength of capitalism by revealing them as its great weaknesses. By attempting to make everything cheap, human lives have come to be treated as a cheap item with only the strong and the rich being beneficiaries of the exploitative system. Incapable of competing, one cannot thrive in such a system as demonstrated by the labor force often subjected to cheap payments, care, and food. It is only through the exploitation of money, nature, food, lives, care, energy and works that capitalism has been able to thrive. In case the system will be exhausted and succumb to the building pressure then the entire system will come down crashing through the destruction of humanity as predicted in the introduction of the book.
Patel, R., & Moore, J. W. (2017). A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. Univ of California Press.