The Face of Imperialism: An interview with Michael Parenti

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Photo: Courtesy of Michael Parenti

This fall, Michael Parenti's timing as a writer could not have been better. The independent scholar and lecturer has produced 22 books on political and cultural subjects. But his latest, The Face of Imperialism, jives completely with the current Occupy movement in cities around the world. 

Parenti spoke to this week while on a three-city tour of Ontario university campuses. Parenti's short Canadian tour took him to Toronto (Tuesday), Guelph (Wednesday) and Hamilton (Thursday).

The problem of inequality and privilege, he wrote in The Face of Imperialism, is rooted in a U.S.-dominated global system of free untrammelled markets and structural adjustment. He adds that any state that dares to step outside is demonized and its government eventually overthrown through war or economically undermined by boycotts.

In the interview took this further and described the impact:

"Once you convince the American public there are demons, you have the license to bomb their people."

An example he uses in the book is Washington's tolerance until recently for a corrupt and brutal dictator like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and a willingness to stigmatize unco-operative leaders like Hugo Chavez, or overthrow them. This was what happened in the case of Saddam Hussein, who, although a substantial tyrant, ran a more socially progressive and prosperous state than what exists today in Iraq.

More recently, Berkeley-based Parenti visited Occupy encampments in California, where he has observed signs alluding to "capitalism," and "socialism." Both are potent words that in recent years seemed to have disappeared from the lexicon, he says.

"What I find hopeful about them is the level of political sophistication of their protests and signs... [Compared with the notion that] capitalism is a sacred system and you don't criticize it [and] socialism is a wicked word."

In person, Parenti focused on a range of weighty subjects, and talked about his life in activism, despite being obviously exhausted from a night of little sleep after flying the redeye to Toronto. And in a real Toronto welcome, while staying in a guest house on Spadina, he was kept awake by the north-south subway trains running and rumbling underneath the street.

Parenti says he "barely makes a living" as an independent commentator working outside academics for the past 25 years.

He calls himself, "a recovering academic" after graduating with a PhD at Yale University and teaching for a period of time at various universities until he was forced out. "I have been kicked out of the best universities for my political activism. Now, I devote myself full-time to writing."

Many, if not all of his books, including The Face of Imperialism, are generally short and can be read quickly. Parenti says this is a deliberate strategy with the serious reader in mind. "Most books I feel are too long."

The major change since the days of George Bush's U.S. presidency, he reports, is the general acceptance by the American elites and policymakers that their country is in charge of a worldwide empire that includes more than half a million soldiers in over 700 known bases. The number is not exact because there are also the uncounted secret bases in places like Columbia, Iraq, Central Asia and Kosovo.

In The Face of Imperialism, Parenti states he has difficulty with those liberals who suggest that U.S. imperialism is a well-meaning force that blunders into quagmires sometimes like Afghanistan. "Rather, it is impressively consistent and cohesive, a deadly success for the interests it represents. Those who see the U.S. imperium as chronically befuddled are themselves revealing their own befuddlement."

He demonstrates how the U.S. has economically and militarily supported countries around the world, including the former Communist nations of Eastern Europe which have instituted "free market" reforms." The ultimate goal is the "Third Worldization of the entire world including Europe and North America."

This means, says Parenti, capital is given free rein without labour unions or government programs such as free medical care, environment protection acting as barriers.

He cites for instance what happened to Indonesia after the brutal 1965 military takeover that include the killing of upwards of a million of people by General Suharto -- the pro-American general and a former ally of the invading Japanese fascists in the Second World War.

"One tragic consequence of Indonesia's unregulated laissez-faire economy is that people live unprotected lives; many die prematurely, the society's infrastructure (such as it is) is collapsing, and poverty grows even more severe."

Is it overkill when Parenti writes in The Face of Imperialism that the U.S. reactionary leaders don't want "a prosperous, literate, effectively organized working class or highly educated middle class with rising expectations and a strong sense of entitlement," in these client states?

In the interview, Parenti makes allusions to ancient Rome -- which he has written about in the past -- saying that the current American republic at the local level in cities like Oakland is experiencing "decline," as a result of serious cuts to social and human services. But his country's empire is still very much alive and continues to wreak major damage. "The empire feeds off the republic. Like any parasite, the empire could kill the host."

The danger is that the American empire has been so destructive in terms of the environment that it might take down the entire globe if we are not careful, he says.

Parenti says what gives him hope are countries like Cuba that continue at a considerable cost to itself in face of the U.S. economic boycott to resist the immense pressure to adopt the free market in the post Cold War period.

And he says that Havana's decision to allow small scale private businesses on the island is entirely consistent with maintaining all of the worthwhile socialistic measures like free health care that have substantially improved the lives of ordinary Cubans since the coming to power in 1959 of Fidel Castro and the revolutionaries.

Parenti says the experience of the centralized bureaucratic regimes like the old Soviet Union and Cuba shows it makes no sense for government to control small services like plumbing, auto repair, coffee shops and restaurants that benefit people daily and are better delivered by individuals to their neighbours in a community.

"Do you want the national government to control plumbing? You would have to wait for days..."

Some services like hairstyling which are already administered by local women were never taken over by the state, even after all of the nationalization in Cuba under Fidel Castro. "The Cubans learned you don't mess with women's hair."

In his book, Parenti has difficulty with certain academics, especially some Marxists that globalization of capital is not a new phenomenon (it dates back to the 19th century when Karl Marx wrote about it in Das Capital) and that national governments are still sovereign.

What they are missing, he says, is that the world has reached "a new stage of expropriation," where the intent is to "undermine whatever democratic right exists to protect the social wage and restrain the power of transnational corporations."

In Greece and other European countries which are being pressured to adopt austerity related pressures to maintain the euro, the European Union and the continent's irresponsible bank lenders, this must ring a bell.

Paul Weinberg is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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