- A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, and: The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past by Timothy J. Lecain
I grew up at the end of the Cold War. The President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, sent a card to my parents congratulating them on the occasion of my birth. At public school, one of my teachers called me a "communist" when I refused to stand for the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. As a teenager in the 1990s, I thought these experiences were evidence of American ideology. The card, my teacher: symbols of [End Page 459] the long reach of state propaganda. Now, decades later, the lyrics to a song that I frequently sang along with in the 1980s make so much more sense: "We are living in a material world, and I'm a material girl." The world of my childhood was a material one: heterosexual reproduction and biopolitics; competing modes of production; mass consumerism. My childhood was part of an epic worldwide battle over how humans relate to the material world, the world of nature. And despite Reagan's insistence that my parents had given birth to a beautiful baby boy, perhaps I really was Madonna's material girl.
Two new books frame the history of our modern world as a material world. Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore's A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things plumbs six centuries of world historical change through the stories of seven interconnected things: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. Timothy J. LeCain explores a more narrow slice of world history—a comparative study of Japan and the United States over the past one hundred and fifty years—told through three interconnected things: cattle, silkworms, and copper. In both books, the authors call for a materialist approach to the past. Things, they argue, should be placed at the center of how we understand processes of world historical change. Patel, Moore, and LeCain are all materialists, but not quite like Madonna. Rather, they weave together disparate threads of materialist historiographies—Marxism, the Annales school, world-systems theory, environmental history, the history of technology, feminist theory—to tell stories that center human relationships with nature. While I may call them materialists, significant differences in theory, method, and even ideology lead these authors to different conclusions about the past, as well as prognostications about the future.
A key thesis of Patel and Moore's A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things is that the history of the modern world is implicated with capitalism, a unique mode of production that is structured upon the "cheapening" of both nature and workers' bodies. "Cheap," the authors explain, is "a strategy, a practice, a violence that mobilizes all kinds of work—human and animal, botanical and geological—with as little compensation as possible" (p. 22). The authors contend that the circulation of capital depends on the creation of ever-new frontiers: arenas in which capitalists can re-invest profits in order to secure new gains. This explains the rise of empires and even today's neo-colonial relationships between twenty-first-century cores and peripheries. Patel and Moore's attention to the past six centuries is not panoptic; rather, they focus most often on the fifteenth century, and Spanish and Portuguese overseas expansion, as one key origin story of capitalism. Nearly every chapter begins with a vignette about Christopher Columbus's [End Page 460] world, a world in which islands and archipelagoes such as Madeira and the Caribbean were proving grounds for primal capitalist processes. Particularly interesting chapters are those on the origins of capitalist banking, and the connections among colonial...