On the Cheap: ‘A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things’ (2017)

Posted by on Nov 15, 2017
On the Cheap: ‘A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things’ (2017)

Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore. A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet
Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017. 311 pages. ISBN 9780520293137 (hardback). US $24.95.

“Keeping things cheap is expensive,” write Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore in A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet (University of California Press, 2017).[i] Patel and Moore’s compelling and capacious project explores “capitalism’s ecology” in light of seven structural logics, or what Foucault might call “discursive formations,” technologies that effect social and epistemological ordering.[ii] The seven categories of cheap things analyzed here are Nature, Money, Work, Care, Food, Energy, and Lives. Continuing Moore’s earlier effort to revise the Anthropocene discourse by instead proposing a “Capitalocene” within the “web of life,” Seven Cheap Things imagines how capitalism extends itself through the colonizing and exhausting of ecological “frontiers” that involve each and every one of its seven key terms.[iii] “Capitalism not only has frontiers,” they argue, “it exists only through frontiers” (19). They go on:

Through frontiers, states and empires use violence, culture, and knowledge to mobilize natures at low cost. It’s this cheapening that makes frontiers so central to modern history and that makes possible capitalism’s expanding markets … capitalism has thrived not because it is violent and destructive (it is) but because it is productive in a particular way. Capitalism thrives not by destroying natures but by putting natures to work—as cheaply as possible (Ibid.).

For Patel and Moore, the processes of “cheapening”—and the end result of “cheapness”—are technologies of violence that ensure human society’s ongoing reliance upon capitalist systems and markets. To confront capitalism, in other words, is to confront the expenses undergirding these modes of “cheapening.”

Each chapter provides case studies and histories meant to demonstrate how practices of cheapening came to dominate both discursive and economic understandings of global ecology—of this “web of life.” The metaphor of the “web” is particularly apt given its attention to the way in which such systems operate through imbrication and entrapment (albeit in a different vein, this “web” is akin to what Timothy Morton has called the “Mesh”).[iv] In fact, Seven Cheap Things lives up to the challenge of documenting this “web” by recurrently underscoring how concepts such as Cheap Nature, Cheap Lives, and Cheap Work intersect and inform the boundaries of one another. For instance, the redefinition and “Invention of Nature” explored in the initial chapter is brought to bare on how resources from these natures enable “Cheap Money,” which in turn require “Cheap Work” to guarantee the productivity of the capitalist model (51–8). Elsewhere, in their trenchant survey of “Cheap Energy,” Patel and Moore note, “Cheap energy is a way of amplifying—and in some cases substituting for—cheap work and care. If cheap food is capitalism’s major way of reducing the wage bill, cheap energy is the crucial lever to advance labor productivity” (164). Or, in their discussion of how money can become cheap: “Cheap lives turned into cheap workers dependent on cheap care and cheap food in home communities, requiring cheap fuel to collect and process cheap nature to produce cheap money—and quite a lot of it” (84). From these quotes it is clear why a word like “web” is so germane for discussing these global systems, chief among them capitalism, which inspire devastating mutual dependencies among the cheapening agents of modernity.

At seemingly every turn, Seven Cheap Things gestures to a potentially broader discourse that should embolden readers and scholars to view networks of exchange in new—and even “revolutionary”—ways. Patel and Moore’s work participates in a recent critical legacy, whose major voices include John Bellamy Foster, Elmar Altvater, and Donna Haraway, that seeks to redescribe Marx and historical critiques of capitalism in light of modern renderings of ecosystemic precarity and climatic alteration.[v] One wonders, in light of the book’s agile movement among these topics, what the authors could do with a concept like “Cheap Climate,” a notion that is certainly on the periphery of their “Cheap Energy” chapter but nevertheless could warrant additional attention in the coming days and years. This comment is by no means a critique, but rather an example of how the critical apparatus presents itself not as exhaustive or comprehensive, but rather as a model with which to work, a template readymade for expanding scholarly writing and research. “What else is cheap?” the study will ask each and every reader. Or, perhaps more powerfully, “What else is cheapening?”

Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore’s Seven Cheap Things ultimately emphasizes an undoing of the binary code at work within capitalism; to trouble and interrogate “capitalism’s ecology” is to expose how histories of value and affordability are supported by globally-networked, colonial projects that continue to subjugate the other, exhaust their natural resources, and cheapen their food, work, care, and being. The analysis arrives, finally, at the idea of a “reparation ecology,” which “asks not ‘Who gets what?’ but ‘Who got what, and who should pay for that?’” (210). (For more on this subject, I highly recommend CENHS’ recent podcast interview with Jason W. Moore). In other words, the question shifts from present tense claims of value and acquisition to historical examinations of commodity and capital that reorient our views of value. This “reparation ecology” requires a series of gestures that Patel and Moore outline in their conclusion, but above all, I think, it involves “reimagination” (210–1)—a term that resonates with ecological thinkers in the Humanities, such as Lawrence Buell and Ursula K. Heise, who understand “imagination” as a vital philosophical groundwork with which to approach the environment.[vi] “Reparation ecology” means, Patel and Moore imply, to “dream seditiously” (211), to dream beyond capitalism and its insistent cheapening of the systems of relation upon which it is built. This dream, this creative act of reimagining and reordering the web of life, is a way of reaching past, and indeed without, binary coding. Capitalism, on the other hand, is a firm binary, write Patel and Moore, working “not just as description but as normative program for ordering—and cheapening—humans and the rest of nature” (208). Projecting beyond that code, dreaming seditiously of a world that is constituted by attention to justice and quality rather than single-minded fixation on the cheap, is a project both embodied and empowered by A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things.


[i]. Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017), p. 182. All subsequent references to Seven Cheap Things will be from this edition with the page number noted using parenthetical, in-text citations

[ii]. See Michel Foucault, “Discursive Formations,” in The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 34–43.

[iii]. See Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (New York: Verso, 2015).

[iv]. See Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 15.

[v]. See John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000); Elmar Altvater “The Capitalocene; or, Geoengineering against Capitalism’s Planetary Boundaries,” in Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Natures, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, ed. Jason W. Moore (Oakland: PM Press, 2016), pp.138–53; and Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

[vi]. See Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1995); and Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).


Clint Wilson III is a CENHS predoctoral fellow, a Diana Hobby editorial fellow for Studies in English Literature: 1500–1900, and a PhD student in the English department at Rice University. His research explores the intersections of race, politics, and toxicity in the modernist imaginary, as well as the larger study of contamination in the environmental humanities.