- A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet eds. by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore
Not long ago, global histories commonly began with an explanation as to why a history of such scope might be possible and how any author could claim to address so much while omitting so much more (including a great deal that other historians emphasized). Nowadays, the case for global perspectives is familiar, along with recognition that history seen from the West, with its assumptions of progress, tends to slight the costs and miss the global connections that reveal how human history has actually worked. Patel and Moore do not feel the need to justify a global perspective in this concise, stimulating work, which is well suited to the American classroom, where the concept of global history has already won a place. Yet their introduction is this book's longest chapter, since the book's carefully contrived framework requires explanation.
This History of the World in Seven Cheap Things seeks to explain how capitalism has shaped modern history rather than to present a chronological narrative. Each chapter centers around one of the "cheap things" on which capitalism in effect insists—cheap nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives—and each chapter begins with Spain's fifteenth-century intrusion into the American hemisphere, quickly finding in each of capitalism's inexecrable demands the seeds of twenty-first-century crises. This is very much a work of our time, with its troubled attention to environmental disaster, subjugation of women, concentration of wealth, and [End Page 489] reliance on war. For a history of the world, it is also surprisingly present-oriented and Eurocentric. Each of the seven cheap things gets a chapter. Written in lively prose, these engaging chapters use well-chosen instances and striking data to illustrate their broader and sometimes tendentious points. The essay about cheap nature emphasizes the drive to strip forests, overwork the land, and pollute the atmosphere. Cheap money is about the priority given to profit. Cheap labor rests on systems that compel work and regiment workers. Cheap care is possible because society requires women to provide it without pay. Monoculture and unhealthful nurture underlie cheap food. The need for vast amounts of cheap energy creates pollution and harms the environment. Because human beings in every era resist these practices, laws and governments are required to enforce them and provide cheap lives.
The work's passion is one of its strengths, leading the authors to draw upon studies in a wide range of fields (the bibliography is one-sixth of a relatively short book and unusual in the large proportion of its citations to articles in less well-known and specialized journals). Consistently critical of the evils of capitalism, Patel and Moore's elaborately contrived framework aspires toward becoming a theory while also being consistently provocative. Even readers not convinced by the interpretation set forth in it (probably most of them) will find a lot to reflect on, including how much of world history is omitted. The authors have little to say about the millennia before 1500 or histories of the worlds not shaped by European imperialism. They include none of the optimism that marks Steven Pinker's widely acclaimed, The Better Angels of Our Nature:Why Violence HasDeclined (New York, 2011). Depredations in the past seem instead to forecast an apocalyptic end in the not too-distant future. Nor do achievements in the arts or sciences matter much in this world history; it pays scant attention to philosophy or religion or to claims of progress in civic life, standards of living, or conceptions of human rights. Nevertheless, readers are likely to emerge from this book with a fresh outlook on, and deeper interest in, the history of the world, as well as with a firmer idea of how to vote in the next election.