Book review: A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things
Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore
Verso 2018
ISBN-13: 978-1-78873-213-0
Review by John Fullerton

Welcome to the Capitalocene. Humans, at least some of them, are killing everything, from megafauna to microbiota, at speeds one hundred times faster than the background rate. The scale of destruction can’t be simply extrapolated from the excesses of our knuckle-dragging forebears. What has really changed since the 1400s is capitalism – and this is what the book is about: showing how the modern world has been made through seven cheap things – nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives.

Take the humble chicken, Gallus gallus domesticus, product of post WW2 freely-sourced genetic manipulation to produce the most profitable fowl. It reaches maturity in six weeks, can barely walk, has an oversized breast, and is slaughtered en masse, at the rate of sixty billion a year. Cheap Nature. In the United States two cents for every dollar spent on fast-food chicken goes to the poultry workers. Cheap Work. Eighty-six percent of workers are in pain because of repetitive hacking and twisting on the production line. Denial of injury claims is common. The result is a fifteen percent decline in income for ten years after injury, so recovering workers depend on family for support – outside the production circuit but central to maintaining the workforce. Cheap Care. So chickens don’t fart methane like cows, but they are bred in huge barns that need fuel to keep them warm. Low-cost chickens require loads of propane. Cheap Energy. Franchising and public subsidies for private profit mitigate the financial risks of commercial sales, right through to the land on which soy is grown to feed the chickens, in China, Brazil and the United States. Cheap Money. Last, persistent acts of chauvinism against animal and human lives – women, the colonized, the poor, people of colour and immigrants, make these six cheap things possible.

Of course there’s resistance, from indigenous peoples whose flocks provide the genetic material for breeding to care workers demanding recognition. ‘The social struggles over nature, money, work, care, food, energy and lives that attend the Capitalocene’s poultry bones amount to a case for why the most iconic symbol of the modern era isn’t the automobile or the smartphone but the Chicken McNugget.’

The Medieval Warm Period ran from around 950 to 1250 across the North Atlantic. Populations swelled, towns multiplied. Europeans nearly tripled in number to 70 million. Agricultural surpluses soared. Relative prosperity fuelled expansionism. Beginning in 1095, the Crusades were commercialised military operations targeting the wealth of the eastern Mediterranean. Conquest was made to pay by imposing tribute; the forerunner of colonial capitalism. The greatest conqueror of all, however, was cultivation; by the fourteenth century, agriculture took up a third of all European land use, a sixfold increase in 500 years, much of it at the expense of forests.

Then famine returned with colder, wetter weather. Massive rains struck Europe in May 1315 and did not ease up until August, ending with a cold snap. Europe’s population shrank by twenty percent in five years and the so-called Great Famine continued until 1322. This was the Little Ice Age that lasted until the 19th century. Feudalism crashed, not least because feudal lords wanted cash or grain, and they consumed any surpluses rather than reinvesting in agriculture. Left to their own devices, peasants would probably have shifted to crop mixes, including garden produce. Peasant autonomy would have allowed medieval Europe to feed up to three times as many people. But the transition never happened. In 1347 the Black Death struck an already weakened population. Almost overnight, peasant revolts became large-scale threats to the feudal order.

Repressive legislation to keep labour cheap, through wage controls or outright re-enserfment, was the response, for example England’s Ordinance and Statute of Labourers. ‘The equivalent today would be to respond to an Ebola epidemic by making unionisation harder’, the authors write.

Capitalism was born out of this mayhem. Ruling classes didn’t just seek to restore the surplus but to expand it, and it was the Iberian aristocracy that stumbled on a solution, especially in Portugal and Castile. To make war with the Moslem powers on the peninsula – the Reconquista – they depended on financiers. War and debt remade society and spurred the earliest invasions of the Canary Islands and Madeira. ‘The solution to war debt was more war, with the payoff being colonial profit on new, great frontiers.’

Madeira was a case in point. In the 1460s a new way for producing food took shape. One traveller reported in 1455 there was not a foot of ground on the island not covered in great trees. By the 1550s it was hard to find any wood at all. The reason: sugar production. It had arrived in Ibera by the 14th century and by 1420 it was being grown commercially, funded by German banks and cultivated near Valencia by a mix of slaves and free workers. In the 1460s and 1470s farmers on Madeira gave up wheat and grew sugar exclusively. The sugar frontier spread to other islands in the Atlantic, then on a massive scale to the New World. And like palm and soy monocultures today, it rapidly exhausted soils, cleared forests and encouraged pests. As for the workers, they were indigenous people from the Canary Islands in the case of Madeira, North African salves and in some cases paid plantation labourers from Europe.

When Madeira’s trees were all consumed, sugar production crashed. Capitalism reinvented itself. After sugar came wine, the casks being imported from the ‘cheap’ forests of the New World. Commodities flowed the other way: Madeira was a conduit for the African slave trade, and in a more recent reinvention, today that grim history is exploited and marketed in the form of tourism.

Here then, is the central theme of this highly readable, heavily-sourced book: ‘Capitalism not only has frontiers; it exists only through frontiers, expanding from one place to the next, transforming socioecological relations, producing more and more kinds of goods and services…For capitalism, what matters is that the figures entered into ledgers – to pay workers, to supply adequate food for workers, to purchase energy and raw materials – are as low as possible. Capitalism only values what it can count and it can count only dollars…this means that the whole system thrivers when powerful states and capitalists can reorganise global nature, invest as little as they can, and receive as much food, work, energy and raw materials with as little disruption as possible.’