President's Report Masthead
September 30, 2018
Book critiques capitalism’s emphasis on ‘cheap’

Jonathan Cohen
Binghamton scholar Jason Moore, associate professor of sociology, has authored a new book: A History of the World in 7 Cheap Things.

Book critiques capitalism’s emphasis on ‘cheap’

How did problems such as poverty, racism, gender inequality and increasing climate instability come to plague humankind? Binghamton scholar Jason Moore has an answer in his new book, A History of the World in 7 Cheap Things.

Moore, an associate professor of sociology, is an environmental historian and historical geographer. His book, published in 2017 by University of California Press, argues that capitalism is one of the most flawed and inefficient systems of organizing humans and nature.

To understand his perspective, first look at what he means by “cheap.”

Moore argues that cheapening is the method used by capitalism to extract the most profit with the least cost. “There are two motives of cheapness,” he says. “One is cheap in price, but the other is cheapening in an ethical political sense, as in to treat with less respect, to degrade the value of work.”

For example, companies sometimes use prison labor to manufacture products. Prisoners don’t need to be paid, and corporations only incur a small cost when working with the prison. This would be an example of cheap labor, one of Moore’s seven cheap things.

Cheapening also means externalizing costs, which include toxic waste, carbon emissions and other negative environmental byproducts. Environmental consequences are a cost capitalism has historically ignored.

A reason for this lies in one of the central tenets of Moore’s book: the mythical divide between nature and civilization. Capitalism promoted a Cartesian view of nature, which states that human society is above nature, and is actually meant to control nature and reap its benefits.

This made it possible to lessen the value of anything — even humans — by placing it under the category of nature. Slavery, the taking of indigenous land, racism and sexism all have their roots in this concept, Moore writes.

Capitalism is more than just a socioeconomic construct — it is an ideology that permeates human society, Moore writes in A History of the World in 7 Cheap Things. “This is a book that encourages 21st-century thinking to deal with 21st-century problems,” he says. “We need to have a way of making sense of the biosphere and relationships between humans and the environment as fundamentally interconnected at every turn.”

Moore wrote this book in collaboration with Raj Patel, an award-winning writer, activist and academic. Patel, a research professor at the University of Texas at Austin, regularly writes for The Guardian and is an advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

“This book is a set of ideas with a sense of urgency to it,” Patel says. “It’s exciting that there’s already a great deal of attention being paid to it.”

Moore’s research agenda spans topics such as agriculture and energy, environmental history and the origins of planetary crisis and world ecology.

“His work is groundbreaking,” says Richard Walker, retired professor of geography at the University of California, Berkeley, and Moore’s doctoral advisor. “There are people working on many of the topics he covers, but the way he pulls it all together is unique, and it’s very accessible.”