REVIEW by Alex Diggins

NWR Issue r29

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

by Jason W Moore and Raj Patel

Cover of A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things by Jason W Moore and Raj Patel

Capitalism has many relics. It is an ideology around which objects restlessly cohere. One such artefact is the smartphone on which you are perhaps reading this review. Beneath its smooth, familiar geometry, a turbulent history is concealed: the rare-earth metals in its circuit boards were hacked from the ground by indentured child labourers in the Congo, and it was assembled in a city-sized factory in China, where workers toil in twelve-hour shifts and anti-suicide nets are draped below the rooftops. A further artefact is the whip-scarred body of a west African slave, beaten and degraded, shuttled as chattel on the Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas; a single human moment in a vast nexus of conquest, commerce and misery that spanned the globe. If capitalism has a defining mind-set it is not greed, but forgetting: a deliberate eliding of the history of connections and exploitations that constitute its artefacts.

The project of Jason W Moore and Raj Patel’s bold and provocative new analysis, A History of the World in the Seven Cheap Things, is to recover that history. Its purpose is remembrance – and admonition. Capitalism, in the authors’ analysis, is not just ‘an economic system but a way of organising the relations between humans and the rest of nature.’ It proves a coruscating and potent argument.

The book’s central thesis is that success of capitalism lies in the way it re-wrote the interconnections between humankind and ‘nature’ – understood both as the natural world, but also the indigenous inhabitants of the lands European colonists ‘civilised’. By Moore and Patel’s reckoning, this process began in the period following the collapse of feudalism. That system, in which a tiny kleptocracy of lords profited from the labour of a vast, subservient serf class, was only possible during the 300-year period of freakishly balmy weather known as the Medieval Warm period. When the weather turned in the mid-1300s, and harvests failed as the Little Ice Age began to bite, labour was suddenly at a premium and the grotesque inequalities of the feudal system started a slow, bloody and irrevocable process of collapse. The result, as the authors lay out, was that ‘the old order was broken and could not be fixed.’

On the other hand, though, about this time, the ripe possibilities of the New World began to be realised. And thus was another central characteristic of capitalism revealed: its tenacious capacity for reinvention; its Terminator-like resurrection abilities. The authors illuminate this capacity through a colourful tour of the sad history of Madeira. First discovered by the Portuguese in the early 1400s, it was nicknamed Ilha da Madeira, ‘the Isle of Wood’ – a name which swiftly and ironically proved redundant. A mere thirty years later, the island was denuded. Its forests cleared for wheat crops and to feed the hungry furnaces of the Portuguese empire.

But a new frontier was quickly established: sugar cane. The island was clear-cut and riven with levadas, ‘water channels forged of trees, mud, sweat and blood’ to water the thirsty crop. Slave labour was imported to man the factories and construct the water courses – black bodies used up and discarded with as much ceremony as the trees which originally shaded the island. Eventually, of course, the sugar industry failed as the trees to fuel the furnaces were comprehensively stripped, and demand exceeded supply. ‘Europe’s wealthy ate sugar, and sugar ate the island,’ as the authors crisply put it. Was that the end of capitalism’s grasp on the island, though? Not a bit of it: ‘the island today uses [its] grim history as a source of revenue through tourism.’ Fresh frontiers open; capitalism’s ripples of exhaustion and exploitation move on.

The book’s story is a familiar one – but Moore and Patel tell it with gusto and an invigorating dose of righteous anger. In particular, their contention that capitalism ‘not only has frontiers; it only exists through frontiers’ is original. As is their insight that those frontiers ‘are always about reducing the cost of doing business’ – namely by always striving for, and seeing resources through, the lens of cheapness.

But as perceptive as their analysis often is, its tone can be grating. Stylistically, the text sits somewhat uneasily between academic monograph and full-throated blog post: rhetorical bon mots and knotty macro-economic argument jostle uncomfortably. It can make for a sometimes boggy and wince-inducing read. However, perhaps the book’s greatest weakness is its failure to provide ‘an intellectual state shift to accompany our new epoch’ – the high bar it sets itself in the introduction. Because as forceful as Moore and Patel’s polemic often is, there is a clear difference between diagnosing a problem and suggesting solutions. On the basis of this short history, the problem is well understood. It’s the solutions we currently lack. Now that would be an act of remembrance worth celebrating.

Alex Diggins was placed second in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2018 Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection for ‘Sea Change: An Argument in Six Parts’.


previous review: Floating: A Return to Waterlog
next review: A Simple Scale


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