Dirty Truths: Interview with Michael Parenti
By Husayn Al-Kurdi, 15 Nov 1999
Michael Parenti is one of the most prominent educators, authors and speakers on the Left today. He has recently published Dirty Truths (City Lights San Francisco 1996, ISBN 0-87286-317-4, 282 pages, $14.95) and Against Empire (City Lights 1995, ISBN 0-87286-298-4, 224 pages, $12.95). Many of his books, audio and video tapes are available from People's Video/Audio, PO Box 99514, Seattle WA 98199. I interviewed the personable, plain speaking Italian-American activist in his Berkeley, California home. Parenti, who was born in 1933, was both expansive and hospitable as we discussed themes in his recent writings and speeches.
We hear over and over that "Marxism died in the 80s". I have a different view, as I am sure you do too on that subject ...
Marxism has been pronounced dead since the turn of the century. In the American academy, it was repeatedly pronounced dead. In 1915, Lenin pointed out that there are all sorts of scribes and publicists who have announced that Marxism was dead. It was pronounced dead in the 30s, and again after World War II.20
In the forty years of my experience in the social sciences, there has been a constant polemic against Marxism in the academic and professional journals, even in a lot of the so-called "leftist" publications. There are constant sideswipes and references to the "obsolete", "incorrect", "simplistic", "reductionist", "economistic" nature of Marxism. They have taken the term "economistic" and applied it to mean any concern with economic questions, any idea that economic and class questions are central or crucial. If you believe that, you supposedly are "economistic". In the 60s through the 80s, many on the left were bashing communism and Marxism: Chomsky, Stanley Aronowitz, the little crowd that gathered around Paul Piccone and Telos and resurrected Gramsci (they had no interest in Gramsci but saw him as a possibly suitable foil to "de-class" Marx), Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau and others too numerous to mention.
In a book I recently finished writing, entitled Blackshirts and Reds, I call them the "ABC" theorists, "Anything But Class". They'll tell you that culture is important, group identity politics is important, personal psychology is important-- anything but class. They have no idea that class is not just another social characteristic but an interrelationship between the few who own the means of production and the many who have to work for the few.20
It's ironic that they announce that Marxism and class issues are dead at the very time when class power is augmenting itself, intensifying and showing a greater brutality than ever. In fact, in Dirty Truths I have an article on that ("Rollback") which links the present global capitalist offensive with the collapse of existing socialist and communist countries. For years, the ruling bourgeoisie was in competition with existing socialism. Capitalists often made concessions to the working class out of fear that they would lose the allegiance of workers, out of fear that conflicts would move from incremental bread-and-butter issues to ones in which the legitimacy of the system itself was at stake. One of the specters that haunted the capitalist world was communism. With the Soviet Union and the other communist countries overthrown, with the other great communist power (China) moving toward a comprador business class state, global capital has much less to worry about.20
I don't believe I'm a Marxist. I'm a reality person. I see these things not because I have been initiated into some kind of cult or priesthood. People say "That's Marxist" when they read or hear me. I don't know if it's Marxist, it's reality. Reality is "Marxist". There are these powerful forces collecting wealth and power at the expense of the rest of the world. This is not to have a "Marxist" view, it is to see reality.
After the overthrow of communism, you could detect a querulous note arising in conservative publications. It went like this: if we get the free market moving all through eastern Europe, why must we still put up with collectivistic human services and liberalistic regulations here in the West? Well, they don't have to put up with it, so they're pulling out all the stops now. They're saying "This is it. You got nowhere else to go. You better be grateful for what we're giving you and just take it." Their goal is to go back to 1893, to an unregulated capitalism that allows them to do whatever they want to the work force, to consumers, to the environmen t and to the general public in order to maximize their profits at the highest possible rate, to plunder the public treasury for their own enrichment.
It was after the Russian Revolution that the working class in this country began to win some gains, in the 1920s a little bit and in the 1930s, much more--when there was a communist movement that played a crucial role in organizing labor. There are no competing communist countries out there to worry about anymore, and so they're clamping down. That's why so many of us got so excited by the Zapatistas, maybe totally out of proportion. We were of the opinion that liberation struggles were a thing of the past. With the collapse of communism, they could get no more funds or guns. There now was no East Germany or Bulgaria or the Soviet Union. To see a movement like the Zapatistas emerge is heartening. Though poorly armed and very small, they give us hope. There's such an enthusiasm for the Zapatistas because there is a feeling that liberation movements are still possible.
What's your attitude to the so-called "overpopulation crisis"?
I don't think that population is an irrelevant question to the problem of hunger and ecological disaster, but I don't think it's the central question. The presumption of capitalism is that social capital is infinitely expendable, that the air, water, and land are things which they can use any way they want. Oil, minerals, forests, the fish of the sea-- it's all out there to be grabbed without limit.
People used to be concerned that we didn't have enough food to feed all the people in the world. In fact, we could probably feed about twice as many. Energy and fuel scarcity aren't the problem either. The problem is that the earth has a limited capacity to absorb the heat, effluent, and waste that come from energy consumption. Long before we run out of oil or coal or solar energy (which we'd never run out of if it was ever developed) , we will run out of fresh air, clean water and a survivable environment. Engels wrote that you can do what you want to nature, but nature will have her revenge.20
Population is a factor. The poor have a lot of children because they are poor and children become a source of social security and all that. In East Germany and Russia, the birth rate is dropping below the death rate for the first time since World War II and that's because of the raw free market "paradise" that has been inflicted upon those countries.
What actual accomplishments have led Boris Yeltsin to be hailed as a "savior of democracy"?
His accomplishments are formidable. He has destroyed the public economy. He is loyal to the concept of total privatization and corporate investment.
He used force and violence in 1993 to kill over a thousand people who were defending parliament. He jailed thousands of dissidents. He's outlawed about 14 different left-wing newspapers. He's crippled the labor unions and suppressed much of the left. He wiped out the popularly elected provincial councils. He's re-written the constitution to give the President practically dictatorial powers. So he is loved by the White House and the U.S. corporate media and hailed as a "great democrat".20
How does debt and financing fit into the imperialist assault on a nation's capacity for self-determination?
Ultimately, the capitalist doesn't really want to control the worker, he just wants to control the wealth the worker produces. The capitalist doesn't even want to own everything, he just wants to hold a note on things and extract the money from it. Finance capital's ultimate goal is not to go into a country to build or develop it; it's goal is to make money. The essence of capitalism is to transform nature into commodities and commodities into capital. In regard to the third world and eastern Europe, capital investment in fact thwarts the development of these countries. Many third world nations have become much poorer in the last thirty years because of the western investment that's gone into them.
The western investors go in and control the land, labor, resources and markets of a country. You have countries in Africa that have more trade with western countries than with each other. In the last five years, the same thing has happened in eastern Europe. In eastern Europe and Russia, they've destroyed the industrial base. They've turned them into third world countries in just five years. It's really maldevelopment, forced underdevelopment.
What is "low-intensity imperialism"?
It's a low-profile imperialism. You don't go in with Colonel Blimp and your flag and your armies anymore. It combines "low-intensity warfare" with imperialism. You arm the locals and have them do all the dirty work and the killing. You keep it at a low level but prolong it and make it clear to the people who are resisting that you will never stop because there's no public opinion in the U.S. opposing it, at least no mass opinion as there was with Vietnam. And there's no opinion because there's no visibility. The media and government can bury the story because U.S. lives are not being lost.
The imperialists have reversed the "war of the flea". The guerrilla war was based on the ability to hold out, never beating the opponent militarily but wearing him out, making him give up politically, as happened to France in Algeria and the U.S. in Vietnam. The Salvadoran guerrillas, for example, just wore out. They fought for twenty years. Now it is the interventionist nation that can hold out indefinitely, wearing out the rebels and the population that supports them.20
How do the Peace Corps and similar organizations fit into the imperialist picture?
There are all sorts of "aid" agencies--the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID and so on. They go into countries not to encourage development of the common people, not to support their political organizati on or their ability to resist capitalist penetration. The Peace Corps is the ultimate ethnocentric arrogance. It says "You people don't know how to live. We'll show you how to cook your food and build your roads." These people could build their own roads, but they don't have their own capital. They could fish but they don't have the boats. They could farm but they don't have their own land.20
The poor aren't the problem--they're just the symptom. The problem are the rich who get rich off other people's poverty. I get rich when I crowd you off the best land and make you poor. I get rich when I get you to come back on this land and work for a few pennies a day. The problem with poverty is wealth. The poor are created by those who expropriate their land and their labor.20
Who and what are GATT and NAFTA good for and who are they not good for?
GATT and NAFTA are hailed as international free trade agreements when in fact they have very little to do with trade. They are free investment agreements. What they do is break down any defenses that sovereign democratic powers of various countries have built up in response to demands of their respective publics, defenses against the abuses of capital. Standards protecting workers, consumers and the environment are declared to be in restraint of trade or "unfair competition". They're trying to undo Canada's health program, saying it's "unfair competition" because employers in the United States have to pay for worker's healthcare and Canadian employers don't because they have public healthcare. Therefore, they have to get rid of it. I wouldn't mind an equalization of standards if it was UP. Why not say that you, Guatemala, have unfair competition because you pay your workers 20 cents an hour while we have to pay our workers $10 an hour. Therefore you have to raise your wages. However, it doesn't work that way. It doesn't ratchet upward, only downward--in favor of capital and against labor and the environment.
You have long contended that Fascism is not necessarily the clowns in the suits with the swastikas...
Fascism can take many forms. People think of "extremists" as Klansmen, skinheads and the militia, but I argue that the "extremists" are already in power, and ready to use state power in very fascistic ways. Even within the construct of democratic institutions, you can have unaccountable fascistic forces operating. The CIA alone could provide many examples of that.
You say that TAXPAYERS are victimized by imperialism.
Yes, for instance U.S. interests in countries like the Philippines, have an investment of several billion dollars but the U.S. has spent twice that amount in aid, military bases, military campaigns, and building up infrastructure in the Philippines. If you spend $6 billion to protect a $3 billion investment, this causes some confused people who don't have a class analysis to say that this is irrational and stupid, that the empire costs more than it's worth. But it doesn't, because the people who enjoy the $3 billion investment aren't the same ones who pay the $6 billion. The $6 billion is paid by taxpayers and we get nothing for it except the exportation of our jobs and the loss of our tax dollars.
What are some of the few Hollywood films worth watching?
They're so few. These people won't deal with real life. They're gimmicky films, "the boy who could fly", Robin Williams as a 12-year old boy in a 40-year old man's body. Stupid, contrived themes. Lots of films that are fascist in spirit, with the willingness to kill and the glorification of a kind of total macho brutality. Il Postino and Dead Man Walking are good recent films, maybe one or two others. Matewan, Salt of the Earth, some others from the past. But Matewan played in only about a hundred theaters while Rambo played in thousands.20
We hear people use the word "we" rather indiscriminately in political talk. "We" bombed Iraq, "we" did this and that to Vietnam and Central America...
Just about everybody on the left is in that bad habit of saying "we" do these things. I'm urging people to stop saying "we" because it presumes a community of interests that isn't there. I don't even say the United States did this or that. It's a particular narrow ruling interest in the country. I say "U.S. policymakers" or "ruling class interests". "We" aren't doing anything, "we" aren't bombing Iraq. You don't see the American people out there demanding a war, saying "Let's invade Panama" or "Let's attack Iraq". "We" didn't demand those things.20
(Husayn Al-Kurdi is a widely published writer, speaker and video producer. He is currently chief editor of the Portland Free Press, president of News International and Senior Editor for News International Press Service, and executive director of the Ace R. Hayes Memorial Foundation. Al-Kurdi is active in the Kurdish national liberation movement and in anti-Imperialist causes generally. He considers his focus to be "the liberation of the oppressed".)