The Emperor’s New Clothes: an Interview with Michael Parenti
Interview by Dennis Soron
For well over thirty years, Michael Parenti has been a leading figure on the U.S. Left, providing incisive commentary on many of the very issues that now loom largest in the contemporary political landscape – including American imperialism, terrorism, the ideological distortions of the corporate media, and the corrosive influence of wealth and elite power upon popular democracy. A prolific author, a charismatic speaker, and a regular guest on radio and television talk shows, Parenti communicates his message in an accessible, provocative, and historically informed style that is unrivalled among fellow progressive activists and thinkers. He is the author of 17 books, including Democracy for the Few, 7th edition, 2001, To Kill a Nation, 2001, Blackshirts and Reds, 1997, and Against Empire, 1995. His most recent book, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: a People’s History of Ancient Rome, 2003, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in October of 2003.
In November 2003, Parenti delivered an extremely well-received keynote address to a packed house at the Parkland Institute’s seventh annual fall conference, Challenging Empire: Citizenship, Sovereignties and Self-Determination.
Michael Parenti: U.S. CAPITALISM OR DIE
Aurora: In the past couple of years, especially since the invasion of Iraq, we’ve heard a lot of heated discussion about what neo-conservative intellectual Irving Kristol has called the “emerging American imperium.” Hasn’t American foreign policy always been imperialistic in nature? If so, what is new about the present moment?
Parenti: If we define imperialism as that relationship in which the dominant political economic interests in one country expropriate the land, labour, natural resources, and markets of another country, then the U.S. has been a premier imperialist power for well over a century. From at least 1890 or so, when it succeeded in becoming the world’s leading manufacturing power, the U.S. has been actively extending its economic and military authority around the globe.
While U.S. imperialism per se is not a new thing, the specific forms it has taken have shifted over time. What we used to call “neo-imperialism” refers to situations in which one country controls much of another country’s markets, trade, investments and labour, but does not outright colonize and rule it. Today, we are witnessing a qualitative change in imperial strategy, in the sense that the U.S. is increasingly returning to old-fashioned forms of direct occupation and colonization. Aside from Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. now has troops planted in around 20 countries, with about 3,000 bases all around the world – and this number continues to grow.
Aurora: There seems to be a real disconnect in U.S. public consciousness between the country’s actual history as a self-serving imperial power and its virtuous national self-image. In the wake of 9/11, for instance, many Americans seemed genuinely dumbfounded as to why their beloved country would arouse the “hatred” of people abroad. How do you explain this phenomenon?
Parenti: I would say that “disconnect” is an enormous understatement. Most Americans have a view of their country’s role on the world stage which is diametrically opposed to the one I have just described. They see the U.S. as selflessly going forth to protect weaker countries and to make the world a more just, secure, and democratic place. Given their total lack of awareness as to the imperialist interests of the U.S. ruling elite, they tend to see any attacks against them as being motivated by simple malevolence or envy.
September 11th powerfully confirmed the image of a world of external menace and “evil” that is waiting at every turn to pounce upon an innocent America. It also furnished the hawks in the Bush administration with empirical proof that the country’s security was being directly imperilled by foreign enemies, lending legitimacy to the argument that “pre-emptive” military intervention abroad was the only way to defend ordinary Americans from further threats to their peace, freedom, and prosperity.
Of course, if you actually listen to what opponents of the U.S. themselves are saying, you get a very different story. Even extremists such as Osama bin Laden and the people tried and convicted for the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 don’t typically argue that they hate the U.S. in principle because of its wealth, freedom and liberal-democratic values. Instead, they point to a number of concrete things that the U.S. has done and continues to do – interfere with their countries, wage wars of deprivation against them, steal their resources, destroy their culture, and undermine their historical efforts towards autonomy and self-sufficiency.
Justifying Military Aggression: Iraq and Yugoslavia
Aurora: Leaving aside the official justifications for war that have been offered by the Bush administration, what is the invasion and occupation of Iraq really about in your opinion?
Parenti: Clearly, it is not about the alleged threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, or its supposed links to al Qaeda and bin Laden, or about bringing democracy and freedom to the Iraqi people. Rather, it is fundamentally about reinforcing the United States’ dominant global position by destroying a self-defining and self-directing country.
Saddam Hussein truly was a horrible butcher, of course, but one that the U.S. had strongly supported years earlier in order to destroy the Iraqi revolution. This cozy relationship only went sour when Hussein began getting too independent from Washington’s own strategic imperatives–nationalizing the oil industry, pursuing economic self-development, extending government ownership, expanding the public sector, and so on. In this sense, the U.S.’s aggression against Iraq reflects its unwillingness to tolerate a relatively prosperous country pursuing a self-directed course outside of the global network that it dominates. To the extent that Iraq has about 113 billion barrels of oil – about four or five trillion dollars worth. – U.S. aggression also represents a plain old colonial resource grab, the largest oil grab in world history.
Aurora: In a similar vein, in your book To Kill a Nation, 2001, you’ve made a powerful argument against the “hypocritical humanitarianism” that served to bolster public support for the U.S.-led bombing of Yugoslavia. Explain the gulf between the official justification for war and the real political motives in that case.
Parenti: As with Iraq, the professed goal of military intervention in Yugoslavia was to fight tyranny and to liberate an oppressed people living under a brutal dictatorship. The key goal articulated by the U.S. and NATO aggressors was supposedly to stop Milosevic, one in a long list of demonized foreign dictators, from committing genocide.
This rationale falls short on a couple of counts. First of all, there is little solid evidence that Milosevic actually committed any kind of genocide. In Srebrenica, for instance, they have found 2,000 bodies, but without any indication of the way they died or their nationality. And no mention is ever made of the scores of Serbian towns in the Srebrenica that had been massacred earlier. Second, Yugoslavia was not really a dictatorship. Milosevic had been democratically elected several times, and ruled with a four-party coalition. I was in Yugoslavia in July of 1999, right after the bombing, and there were opposition party posters everywhere, along with a wide range and variety of newspapers and television stations that openly opposed the Milosevic government. The idea that Yugoslavia was a pure dictatorship was simply a lie told to the American people and the rest of the world, and it was one that was swallowed uncritically by many people on the Left.
The real goal in Yugoslavia was the forced privatization and free-marketization of a large and relatively prosperous, independent and democratic country. Before the current wave of foreign-led privatization and deregulation, 80% of the Yugoslavian economy was publicly owned, the country enjoyed relatively high levels of equality and employment, and it had highly competitive national auto and construction industries. As the West has destroyed these achievements with sanctions and bombs, Yugoslavia saw dramatically increased levels of poverty, unemployment, crime, suicide, and economic dependence. In fact, it has become suspiciously similar to other Eastern European countries which have been re-engineered and put through “shock therapy” by the West.
The Politics of History
Aurora: As the contemporary cases of Iraq and Yugoslavia suggest, the powerful are often capable not only of exerting their will upon the weak, but of ideologically framing and defining their actions and motives in ways which are self-ennobling and self-serving. In a related vein, in books such as History as Mystery, 1999 and elsewhere, you’ve written quite extensively on the ways in which dominant groups shape and control our understanding of history for their own political ends. Tell us more about your views on the politics of historic memory.
Parenti: History’s victors have always striven to alter our understanding of the past in order to support and extend their own power and privilege in the present. In the most practical and immediate sense, they have often accomplished this by establishing control over the historical evidence itself – by controlling the archives, the supply of books, and so on. When West Germany took over East Germany in what was laughably called a process of “reunification”, when actually it was an annexation, one of the first things it did was destroy the historical archives that East German communists had built up regarding business collaboration with the crimes of Nazism.
There is nothing unique in this particular case – indeed, the basic pattern is all too familiar. When the Christians became the supreme religion in the 5th Century AD, for example, they destroyed the Roman libraries and almost all the rich reserves of pagan culture. This type of willful destruction not only permanently erased a great deal of our inherited historical memory, it set Western art, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine back almost a thousand years.
The victors are always engaged in a struggle to define what kind of history will be taught and what kind won’t – and they are still at it today. Forty years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, for instance, we’re still being inundated with the story that he was shot by a “lone gunman” – a supposedly deranged individual whose marksmanship by most reliable accounts was actually awful. There would likely be serious political consequences if it were widely revealed that there are people in high places who can actually assassinate other people in high places, or that U.S. leaders are engaged in all sorts of nefarious acts that are exclusively in the interest of a particular elite class and not that of ordinary people. In this sense, the struggle to control and sanitize history is really about maintaining the legitimacy of the current system over which elites preside.
Aurora: Your most recent book, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: a People’s History of Ancient Rome, 2003, offers a compelling challenge to our conventional understanding of Roman history. In your view, what are some of the ways in which the historical realities of Rome have been misrepresented?
Parenti: Roman history, as written by the ancient historians, who were all rich slave-holders, and as written throughout the ages by dons, amateur historians and professors right down to the present day, is heavily slanted against the Roman people, who are usually portrayed as a rabble or mob interested only in bread and circuses. In pursuing my own historical research, I found this version of history to be a gross distortion – not least, because it effectively ignored many of the brave and important political struggles that the Roman people took part in for hundreds of years.
In contrast to the prevailing elite view, I found the Roman people to be fiercely dedicated to the struggle against the monarchy and inherited privilege, a people who rebelled against the forced privatization of communal land, who fought for over 200 years to get a republic of sorts and then continually strove to improve its standards of fairness, equality, and democracy. This whole tradition of struggle has, for the most part, been ignored in the history books. Instead, what these books have traditionally offered us is a constant retreading of the view of Rome and Roman society that was propagated by aristocratic commentators such as Cicero – along with an ongoing perpetuation of the elite political prejudices of that time.
Democracy in Crisis
Aurora: One of your most consistent themes over the years has been the huge gap between the promise of American democratic ideals and the actual performance of the U.S. democratic system. What, in your view, are some of the chief barriers to the realization of meaningful democracy in the contemporary United States?
Parenti: There is certainly no shortage of obstacles of this kind, but I would say that some of the more immediate and practical ones today have to do with the nature of the U.S. electoral system. We have an electoral system that is overwhelmingly driven by money and corporate influence, one that structurally interferes with people’s ability to exercise their voting rights in any meaningful way.
For instance, today in the U.S. we have only one day for voting – typically a working day – and the polls close at around 8 o’clock in many communities. This means that many working people simply do not have the time or opportunity to even get to the polls. We also have an electoral college system that is rigged to disproportionately favour the more numerous, small, conservative states – so that the vote for U.S. senator in Montana is valued at 500 times more than the vote for U.S. senator in California. A voting system based on proportional representation would go some distance towards correcting the flaws of the current single-member, winner-take-all system which ensures that a large percentage of the population effectively goes without any political representation.
Beyond pointing to the deficiencies of the U.S. voting system, I would also mention the anti-democratic influence of the U.S. media, which is also controlled and, indeed, owned outright by the same moneyed interests that dominate the electoral process. Although we now hear a lot about the alleged political biases of the “liberal media”, American media today is overwhelmingly corporate controlled and tilted towards the Right. The great majority of the commentators on TV and most radio stations today are either rabidly reactionary hyper-conservatives or, at best, pale centrists. And so, the range of permissible democratic debate in mainstream media now stretches from right of centre to far right, with a few rare and marginal exceptions. Beyond the media devoted specifically to news and political commentary, there are the U.S. entertainment media, which seem to be dedicated mostly to depoliticizing and dumbing down the American public by distracting them with celebrity gossip and other trivialities.
Aurora: In many people’s minds today, the terms “capitalism” and “democracy” are virtually indistinguishable. In your opinion, are these two terms compatible or antagonistic?
Parenti: In my view, they are antagonistic. As the events in Eastern Europe have shown in the past decade, for instance, capitalists are more than willing to use the rhetoric of democracy, choice, and freedom to legitimate certain economic and market arrangements which further their own private interests. When you look at this situation from a broader historical perspective, however, it is clear that the democratic commitments of the capitalist class don’t run very deep. In Canada, the U.S., and many other places, capitalists were not on the side of the people agitating to expand the franchise, to have freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, and so on. They consistently took the side of those people who wanted to suppress all of these things, and they continue to adopt such positions to this day.
Indeed, for the most part, capitalist classes have continued to be a key pillar of support for autocracies in country after country around the world. In Indonesia, for example, the capitalists didn’t fight for democratic rights alongside students and workers, but were in bed with the Indonesian military dictatorship. Similar things could be said about South Korea, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria, Turkey, and many other places.
To the extent that any of these countries achieved even a modicum of democracy, it hasn’t been because of capitalism but despite it. Those who simply conflate the terms capitalism and democracy fail to take note of an obvious fact: that most of the world is now capitalist, and yet most of the world is also very wanting in democratic rights.
Aurora: The flip side of the conflation of capitalism and democracy is the automatic association between socialism and totalitarianism. It seems to me that you have swum against the fashionable intellectual currents which now dismiss the relevance of socialist analysis. Does socialism still have a role to play in the struggle to make today’s world a more democratic place?
Parenti: If socialism – and I’m talking about democratic socialism here – is less of a political force today than it was in the past, this is precisely because it has been systematically destroyed every place where it has been tried. If contemporary history teaches us anything, it is that we can’t leave the fate of society in the hands of a class that thinks it has the right to claim ownership over the entire planet, to pay people starvation wages, and to plunder whatever natural resources are still left to enhance its own private profit. In this sense, the historical ideal of socialism – as a more rational, democratic and humane way of marshalling and using the collective resources and labour of society – remains not only very relevant, but essential.
Publications (most recent)
The Assassination of Julius Caesar: a People’s History of Ancient Rome, The New Press, 2003
The Terrosim Trap City Lights Books, 2002
Democracy for the Few, Wadsworth, 7th edition, 2002
To Kill a Nation, Verso Books, 2001
History as a Mystery, City Lights Books, 1999
America Besieged, City Lights Books, 1998
A comprehensive listing of books written by Michael Parenti can be found at michaelparenti.org/books
Dennis Soron was a researcher with the Neoliberal Globalism and its Challengers Project at the University of Alberta. He was also, among other things, a sessional lecturer with the Sociology Department at the University of Alberta, a faculty member of Athabasca University’s Master of Arts in Integrated Studies, and the editor of the Parkland Post. He has since moved on and is now working at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario.