Sixty Billion Chickens a Year

Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet

Verso, 336pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781788732130

reviewed by Peter Mitchell

I recently re-read Moby-Dick, because I know how to have fun, and found myself coming down a with a moderate case of metaphor envy. How convenient for Melville, I thought, that he just so happened to have been hunting the the perfect vehicle for his grand mad investigation into capitalism, murder and the cosmos. And how convenient that both that vehicle and the means of hunting it – an enormous floating cow full of magical oils that wrestles giant squid to the death in the most crushing and lightless regions of the ocean, the living embodiment of Big Dick Energy, that you catch by sailing around the world in a three-master and stabbing it with a massive spear while howling Old Testament imprecations – should be, frankly, cool as shit.

But it isn’t 1850 any more, and most of the whales are dead. So what would a Moby-Dick for the 21st century look like? If someone were to write an epic of resource capitalism’s illimitable greed, its savage inventiveness, its relentless creation and penetration of frontiers – frontiers of global space and ecology, of technology and knowledge, of the body, of endurance, of subjective experience and the unconscious – what would replace the White Whale?

According to Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, it’s the chicken nugget. In the first few pages of A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, they undertake a brilliant reading of fast-food chicken which affords a whole itinerary of what they call the Capitalocene. This isn’t just because of the quantity of chicken humanity currently gets through, although the figures are startling. At the rate of approximately 60 billion chickens a year, the detritus of the bodies thus produced and consumed – the bones, the cast-off meat and feathers – will form, in the far future, a measurable part of the geological record. Patel and Moore’s implicit contention is that geologists of that future would be wrong to read these deposits as evidence of a mere anthropocene, since they won’t be the inevitable result of a depoliticised humanity (‘hey, I guess people just liked chicken’), but the trace of a particular structure and its specific ways of working.

In Patel and Moore’s schema, the chicken nugget illustrates how that structure relies on maintaining a supply of ‘cheap things’: cheap nature, cheap work, cheap care, cheap money, cheap energy, cheap food and cheap lives. Cheap nature, in the post-World War Two genetic manipulation that developed the domestic chicken into a quick-breeding, almost immobile meat-pod, fed by soy feed grown cheaply and intensively on land cleared, often, from forest. Cheap work, in that the poultry industry relies on vast pools of poorly-paid, dangerous and precarious labour. Cheap care, in that that labour pool depends upon the support of family units which perform the duties of care, recovery, reproduction and education that capitalism and the state will not. Cheap money, in that the industry is capitalised and securitised, much of the time, by public money for private profit. Cheap energy, in that raising chickens depends upon large supplies of inexpensive fossil fuels for heating. Cheap food, because the end of this process is an inexpensive, protein-rich food that keeps hungry bellies filled and working populations more or less fed. And finally, undergirding the whole process, cheap lives: a structure of violence, not least against the chickens themselves, but also including the suppression of trade unions, the clearing of forests and expropriation of land to farm soya, the privatised and state violence that clears the way for cheap energy, the use of borders to police workforces, and the ideologies of race, gender and class that legitimate that violence and reify it as part of a natural order.

It’s a snappy and convincing formulation, which Patel and Moore lay out over seven chapters, one for each cheapness. Some of these chapters are longer than others, and some better argued than others. When they’re good, they’re very good indeed: the chapter on food is a particularly strong example of what a properly ecological Marxist analysis can do in a short space, given the right hands and a certain facility – harder than it looks, trust me – in shuttling between the systemic and the particular, the longue durée and the single inflexion point. There are repeated returns to the history of the island of Madeira as a proving ground and microcosm of capital’s ecological and human asset-stripping that would clearly, if expanded, make a great book in their own right, and perhaps a more focused one. There are some good short explanations of the commodity form and Marx’s conception of nature.

There are also, though, some bits that make you wonder where the editor was. Part of the problem is tone: there’s a persistent sense that the authors aren’t totally sure who they’re writing for, and they’ll let loose with a sentence like ‘[b]ut the official story about the Green Revolution didn’t have it quite right about Mexico’, making the reader briefly wonder, in the midst of an otherwise beautifully condensed breakdown of the complexities of global food geography, whether they’ve stumbled into the pages of the Canary. In the rush to shore up the case for an ecological marxism – which hardly needs to be flawless, in a book this slim – there are some embarrassing fudges, often around the intertwined histories of capital and colony. One particular section suggests that the Columbian conquest marked the point at which a universal, essentially holistic understanding of man’s relation to nature was supplanted by an expropriative dualism: the point is quickly clarified by a rather more textured analysis of land use in late feudal Europe, but one can assume that that would come too late for many medieval and early modern historians, who would by this point have flung the book across the room.

The problem – and again, this is something that lies at Verso’s door, rather than Patel and Moore’s – is that the book as a whole falls between stools. The organising conceit is brilliant, and could form the structure of the kind of history that gets called ‘magisterial’, given enough research commitment and a decade’s worth or more of writing. Conversely, as a snappy primer on understanding the world through through an ecological rendering of Marxian commodity theory, it could do with more explication of that tradition in order to orientate the reader within the wider body of work it draws on. Then again, in its relative brevity, in its concentrated explication of complex histories and its astonishing sense of urgency, it reads like a manifesto; but manifestos require prescriptions, and Seven Cheap Things is disappointingly short on solid ideas. Again, it’s hard to think this is the authors’ fault: Patel in particular is a globe-trotting activist and organiser, and no stranger to praxis. Seven Cheap Things makes regular noises about how things might be revalued – often with tantalisingly vague references to Indigenous Peoples’ worldmaking and knowledges – and commits all too briefly, in its closing pages, to a politics of reparation ecology, without specifying quite what reparations would look like or how the work of revaluation is to be done. While due is paid to important social movements – the international peasant movement Via Campesina, Black Lives Matter, Pan y Rosas and Standing Rock, amongst others – Patel and Moore, though adroit in explaining the world as a single unified system, are remarkably coy about claiming a single unifying politics with which to reorder it.

The activisms the authors most admire are those which are rooted in circumstance and context and identity, whose specificity does not prevent them from apprehending the intersecting global dimensions of their struggle, and organising accordingly. Those activisms are rooted in long histories of labour, Indigenous, and gender resistance and organising, and in movements which have, on occasion and in certain places, gained a fragile and usually short-lived power; they come attached to words like socialism, communism, anarchism and internationalism which are plentifully problematic, but which do at least indicate a hegemonic vision and an idea of how power might be restructured in a way more amenable to individual, communal and planetary survival. In a way that will be dully familiar to those who lived through the age of anti-globalism politics from Seattle to Occupy, the language of Seven Cheap Things sometimes seems machine-tooled to evade proposing anything so vulgar as a systemic solution to a systemic problem.

At its best, this language is finely sensitive to the difference and uniqueness of separate but interlinked struggles, and in parsing the complex interplay of the local and the global. Similarly, its way of registering the contextual specificity of forms of resistance, and the complex ways they fit together across different scales, does full honour to their complexity and uniqueness. At its worst, though, this language can reduce resistance itself to an aesthetic category, to the purely gestural, in a way which only concedes and reaffirms the hegemony of capital. This is a shame, but Seven Cheap Things is a still a good and important book. In its best moments it explains our global predicament with an eloquence and penetration built on the authors’ twin commitments to scholarly rigour and activist praxis. Where it fails, it fails because – not unlike Moby-Dick – there’s too much world to go into a book this size.