Reflections on Politics and Academia: An Interview with Michael Parenti
Source: Michael Parenti Blog, July 17, 2012
An Interview with Michael Parenti (Part I)
Noted political scientist Michael Parenti was recently interviewed by another noted political scientist, Carl Boggs. The interview originally appeared in the academic journal New Political Science, June 2012. Here is the first of its two parts.
Carl Boggs (CB): Your scholarly work has won extraordinary acclaim, both nationally and internationally, over a period of several decades. All this, despite having been driven out of the political science discipline in the early seventies and, for the most part, having been denied the institutional supports, rewards, and income that most academics – including those on the left – take for granted. Now well into your seventies, you remain as productive as ever. What has been the key to your success?
Michael Parenti (MP): I want to say “clean living” but no one would believe me. Seriously, the only things I knew how to do in life were write and speak, so I continued doing them. What impelled me onward was the urge to seek truth amidst the lies and obfuscation of ruling interests. My efforts repeatedly drew me into forbidden terrain of a kind that does not lead to tenure. Deprived of a regular university position because of my activism and iconoclastic writings, I dedicated myself to trying to become a public intellectual. At the same time I still maintained links with academia: some of my books are used in courses; I do guest lectures at various schools and have had a few guest teaching invitations over the decades. And believe it or not, I still on rare occasions cobble together an article for books of collected scholarly essays or for academic journals. Financially it has been difficult at times but I have survived so far.
CB: Speaking for myself and most other progressives and leftists I have known, the radicalizing process we underwent usually came in our adult years. What was the source of your departure from established norms and conventional politics? And when in your life did it happen?
MP: No instant red diaper blooming for me. As a schoolboy I occasionally read about political events in the New York Daily News and other such rags. For a brief spell as a teenager in high school, I considered myself a Republican (don’t ask). By college I was an activist for the Liberal Party in New York City. At that time the civil rights struggle really gripped me. The injustice of Jim Crow racism was so compellingly clear. I think I moved leftward because I love justice more than anything else, more than beauty or love or happiness itself. Still there were lapses. The most apolitical period of my adult life was the three years or so at Yale University getting my Ph.D. in political science, or as it might be better called “apolitical science.” Finally it was the Vietnam War that took me from a pale liberalism to a real radicalism. I began questioning the war, then I questioned the leaders who produced the war, and then the system that produced the leaders. At first I thought the war was an irrational venture, a tragic mistake. Eventually I concluded that the war was quite rational, a tragic success (or at least partial success) serving global corporate interests. At that point I started moving from a liberal complaint about how bad things are to a radical analysis about why they are the way they are.
CB: You were one of the founders of the Caucus for a New Political Science during the late 1960s. At the height of New-Left radicalism, the Caucus was motivated by the hope that the discipline could be strongly influenced by a building wave of progressive scholarship and activism – and pushed significantly leftward. Viewing the trajectory of the discipline, what is your present reflection on those original Caucus goals?
MP: The Caucus goals are still as worthy as ever, and still not completely fulfilled: venturing into forbidden areas, research that is critical, comprehensible, and relevant to political struggle and history. It was unimaginable back in 1967 that almost a half-century later things in the profession would be pretty much the same. Today we have the same suffocating centrist ideology making false claim to objectivity. Today mainstream political scientists still debate the same tired questions about methodological rigor and paradigmatic shifts. How come? Well, the centrists and conservatives still control the boards of trustees; they still control the administrations, research funds, think tanks and scholarly journals, along with recruitment, promotion and tenure; in short, all the means to reproduce the conditions of their own hegemony—in the continued pursuit of apolitical science.
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s I recall case after case of radical scholars and teachers being let go. Generally speaking, politically safe mainstream academics had—and still have—smoother and more prestigious career paths than those who work from a critical perspective, although it’s good to know that numbers of radicals have survived the cut.
CB: When we were graduate students a good many years ago debates raged between the “pluralist” school convinced of an exemplary American democracy and “power
structure” advocates influenced by the Marxist tradition and the work of such radicals as C. Wright Mills. In a strange paradox, while oligarchic tendencies within American society have intensified across the decades, mainstream political science has embraced pluralism as a nearly sacred, taken-for-granted ideology while critical perspectives remain essentially marginalized. How do we explain this remarkable contradiction?
MP: The same has happened in economics. In economics departments around the country, Marxism has disappeared—not that it ever had much of a foothold—but so has Keynesianism! Almost all academic economists are now free-marketeers. The ideological right has been seriously active this past half-century, recruiting conservatives for journalism and radio, law school and judgeships, public policy and public office, scholarship and college teaching. The reactionaries understand that people are moved and controlled by words and ideas. Meanwhile the liberals have done little in the way of ideological education except to suppress those to the left of themselves. To this day, liberals and even many “leftist progressives” continue to make war against imaginary hordes of Marxist ideologues while themselves getting regularly whipped by the reactionary right. The Republicans beat the hell out of them and they just keep reaching out, dreaming of bi-partisanship. The liberals and the Democratic Party in general (with some exceptions) resemble the battered spouse in an abusive relationship.
CB: Speaking of oligarchy, the recent Occupy movement has been erected on the premise that corporate and banking elites (the 1%) now rule the country with increasing power and ruthlessness and have scandalously undermined whatever remained of democratic institutions and practices. Looking at this “new populism,” to what extent do you see it as an important political breakthrough – a potentially sustained, radical challenge to the power structure?
MP: The Occupy movement emerged as a massive and spontaneous political force in hundreds of locales, very heartening for the many who thought they were alone and powerless. The movement propagated a clever shorthand for the class war going on in the United States and elsewhere: the 1% vs. the 99% For decades some of us have been trying to get people to recognize the great (financial) class divide in this society and for that effort we were treated as “extremists” and “Marxist ideologues” by those who wanted no part of class analysis and class conflict (as if they can escape it by declaring it passé). And now suddenly hundreds of thousands of protestors have recognized the great class divide, vividly and succinctly. Even some news commentators now make gingerly references to the 1%. As we speak, however, the Occupy movement is being systematically suppressed by militarized police forces. When popular sentiment rises up, it is maligned, misrepresented, and treated to police violence.
CB: Many political observers – including some on the left – see parallels between the Occupy movement and the “populism” of the Tea Party movement. What is your assessment?
MP: The Tea Party consists of people who take their otherwise legitimate grievances about taxes and services and misdirect them against irrelevant foes. The tea baggers have internalized much of the reactionary Republican ideological scenario—relentlessly fed to them by Fox News and radio talk show propagandists. Their “sacred values” include: boundless support for the military, superpatriotism, an untrammeled corporate capitalism, the right to bomb other countries at will, no separation of church and state, patriarchal family, compulsory pregnancy, drastic cuts in government services, and a lustily applied death penalty. They believe that these “precious values” are under attack by the “cultural elites,” the “hate-America” crowd, the snobby liberals, socialists, egg-head intellectuals, trade unionists, atheists, gays, feminists, minorities, immigrants, and other shadowy demons. The Tea Party is a purveyor of reactionary populism and rightist libertarianism.
In sum, the Tea Party bears little resemblance to the Occupy movement other than that they are both protest movements (even then, only one of them gets beaten up by the cops). Maybe someday we will be able to reach the tea baggers and show them how indeed they really are being victimized. But meanwhile we must not reduce essence to form nor succumb to wishful thinking.
CB: You have written quite extensively on questions of American global power and the dynamics of U.S. imperialism going back to World War II and earlier. It has been fashionable, even on the left, to dismiss classical theories of imperialism (such as those, for example, derived from Lenin, Luxemburg, and Hobson or later from Williams and Baran/Sweezy) as outmoded, as dwelling too much on economic factors. How do you view the main sources of U.S. military interventions?
MP: To say that U.S. global intervention is motivated by economic factors does not mean that resource acquisition is the prime or only factor in the empire’s aggrandizement. The goal of imperialism remains what it has always been, the striving for dominance over others in order to expropriate their land, labor, natural resources, markets, and capital. The complimentary goal is to uproot and destroy any leader, government, or movement that seeks an alternate route (usually a more communitarian or collectivist one) outside the global imperial system. Such people have to learn that their country does not belong to them; it belongs to the imperium and its transnational corporations.
The U.S. empire sees only two kinds of nations beyond its shores: (1) satellites (also called “client states”) that are politically obedient and completely open to foreign expropriation, including our allies who are economically wedded to the western corporate world and who cooperate with Washington on most things; and (2) enemies or potential enemies, countries that pursue independent self-development outside the global free market system, “troublesome” countries like Yugoslavia, Iraq, Cuba, Panama (under Noriega), Haiti (under Aristide), Nicaragua (under the Sandinistas), Libya (under Gaddafi), Venezuela (under Chavez); one could on.
Instead of educating themselves about the economic imperatives of empire, most present-day writers, such as Chalmers Johnson, claim imperialism is all about aggrandizement, power for power’s sake, military bases, and messianic hegemony—as if these things were mutually exclusive of economic imperialism. One central goal of these writers is to avoid any informed discussion of the underlying imperatives of class power in service to class interests. Relatively little is offered on how power (in the hands of the few) is used to accumulate wealth, and how wealth is used to secure power. In one of my books I call them the “ABC theorists,” (Anything But Class).
CB: Many contemporary critics of U.S. foreign policy – the work of Chris Hedges and Andrew Bacevich comes quickly to mind – have written that U.S. global power is now in serious decline, that the capacity of Washington to intervene around the globe has been compromised by growing economic weaknesses and a too-ambitious international reach. We have the specter of an increasingly debilitated imperial giant no longer able to pursue its superpower ambitions. What is your response to these critics?
MP: I would like to think they are correct but there really isn’t all that much evidence that the U.S. empire is tottering. The empire has more numerous and more elaborate bases around the globe than ever before. It has more deliverable destructive power and more reserves of “soft imperialism” than ever before. It has penetrated more markets and resource areas than ever before. It has successfully destroyed leaders and organized movements in scores of countries that have tried to chart a more egalitarian and independent course. The empire has extended its reach around the globe, going from one success to another—along with one or two stalemates as in Afghanistan. Even when the empire suffers defeats, it still might then continue to wax more powerful. Consider the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. Since then the U.S. empire has only grown in power. And every year it is granted a still more gargantuan military budget, now courtesy of President Obama who stands at attention saluting the Pentagon, always ready to serve.
Of course, it’s also true that the empire feeds off the republic. All its expenses are paid by the republic. It feasts from the public trough at great cost to the civilian sector. It’s the republic that is in drastic decline not the empire. But like any parasite, if the empire is too successful and unrestrained in its parasitic feed, it will eventually kill its host and itself. Right now it enjoys a military Keynesianism, a public spending that bolsters (in a warped way) the republic’s economy and Corporate America’s profits.
Read part 2 at source: Michael Parenti Blog: An Interview with Michael Parenti (Part I & II)