Mohsen Abdelmoumen: In your remarkable book The Freedom: Shadows And hallucinations in Occupied Iraq, you are talking about the investigations you have done on the ground in Iraq. Do not you think that the intervention of the United States marks a historic turning point not only in the Middle East but also in the USA with the unpunished crimes of the Bush administration?
Dr. Christian Parenti: Thank you for the kind words about The Freedom. While the US role in Iraq has been a humanitarian catastrophe for Iraq and the entire region, and has badly damaged US standing in global public opinion, there is nonetheless a sick imperial logic by which some of the invasion’s outcomes advance a US imperial agenda. Call it rule by chaos, state failure as imperial strategy. Russia, China and Iran all feel threatened by the chaos. Members of the far-right Israeli security establishment appreciate the fact that the collapse of Arab states means those states are now incapable of attacking Israel. And let us recall that coalitions of Arab states attacked Israel three times in the twentieth century.
Viewed from the perspective of the global oil industry, the Middle East crisis is a boon. As Timothy Mitchel shows in his excellent book Carbon Democracy, the central economic problem for the global oil industry has always been the threat of oversupply and collapsing prices, and thus reduced profits. The destruction of Iraq, and now Libya, has helped keep oil off the market, and that has increased prices and profits at a time of global oversupply, due in part to the US fracking revolution.
But from any larger humane perspective the US engineered collapse of Iraq has been a disaster. Even from a more rational yet still US imperialist perspective the invasion was bad. The Iraq crisis — while it indirectly threatens China, which buys lots of energy from the region — has not hindered China’s rise. The Iraq invasion has not re-launched or renewed US global leadership. Instead it has undermined US credibility. US hegemony is slowly but surely in relative decline and the production of failed and semi-failed states in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and now Yemen are violent symptoms of its decline.
Implicit in your question is the specter of state failure and its connection to US foreign policy. In thinking about this, it is important to understand how the end of the Cold War has shaped the wider crisis of the region.
During the Cold War, political and economic vacuums – spaces of state failure – were destabilizing because there was always the threat of communist and left nationalist state building projects filling those voids. Thus American empire was certainly very violent during the Cold War, but it also involved a commitment to “development” and “stability.” The US attacked left movements and states, but it also cultivated successful client states. The threat of “actually existing socialism” in the form of the USSR and its allies meant the US was committed to actual capitalist development. One has to recall that at the end of the WWII the USSR looked pretty good if you were a poor person in Latin America or Africa. The Soviets beat the Nazis, went to space, had subways, universities, factories, scientists, globally renowned arts. The threat of this example compelled the US to invest in making capitalism work, at least a little bit, for the masses of the Global South. All over the world the US embraced rather statist forms of capitalist development. Often its client states in the Global South, though fundamentally repressive, right-wing projects, nonetheless engaged in limited land reform, for example Marcos in the Philippines, Diem in South Vietnam, Duarte in El Salvador. Many US allies imposed capital controls that hindered the free movement of speculative “hot money”; there were numerous international agreements that sought to ensure price stability in primary commodity markets, for example the International Coffee Agreement of 1962. These mild intrusions upon the logic of the market were designed to limit the misery of the global peasantry and thus keep them from rebelling. Orthodox laissez-faire economics was not yet hegemonic. Allied states in Europe and East Asia were given aid and preferential trade agreements that helped their economies achieve rapid industrialization – think, South Korea. The whole point was to make global capitalism, with the US as the lead state and economy, look like a better choice than socialism.
This strategy is illustrated in the way the US treated Germany after World War II. The Roosevelt Administration actually contemplated the forced deindustrialization of occupied West Germany. A weak industrial sector would mean a weak military. But it would also mean a poor and disgruntled Germany that might look to the east with more interest than would a prosperous industrial Germany.
However, beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the developmentalist logic of the US Empire eroded due to the rise of neoliberalism, which was itself partly a reaction to the over accumulation and profit crisis of the 1970s. American deindustrialization and the right-wing assault on the welfare state accelerated during the 1980s. As American capitalism deindustrialized and became increasing financialized, so too did its foreign policy shift. Austerity became the name of the game, at home and abroad. Developmentalist states everywhere were attacked in the name of free trade and this radically decreased stability and social cohesion. Then the collapse of the USSR in 1991 removed the threat of an alternative example of development.
So, by the 1990s US foreign policy was less concerned with creating stable client states, and it is in 1991 with the collapse of Somalia that the first modern failed state emerges. With socialism defeated and Keynesian developmentalism banished from the universities and replaced by a fanatical Hayekian fixation with the market, there was no reason to prevent this sort of state collapse. In fact, failed states meshed well with the Clinton era logic of “humanitarian intervention.” In the minds of many Americans, the horrible spectacle of anarchy far away seemed to prove that the world was dangerous place that very much needed the US military to play global cop. Good bye post-Cold War “peace dividend.” Hello to the so-called “forever war.”
You called the reconstruction of Iraq a racket. Can you explain how this racket works?
I have not reported on this topic for many years, but when I was in Iraq and Afghanistan American firms like Halliburton and Bechtel were given huge, very lucrative, reconstruction contracts, often without competitive bidding. What I saw on the ground was that very often the contractors failed to do the promised work or did an extremely poor job of it.
Do you not believe that the destabilization of the Middle East is only the consequence of the American intervention in Iraq?
The US invasion of 1991, the decade of sanctions that followed, then the second invasion of 2003, and the subsequent occupation are extremely important causes of the region’s wider crisis. But I would not reduce everything to the role of the U.S. France took the lead in the invasion of Libya. Saudi Arabia is in the lead in Yemen. There are other important actors in the region.
If they are condemned by the court of history, should George Bush and the neocons not be judged by the men’s court for their crimes in Iraq, just like Sarkozy who destroyed Libya?
That would be just. However, power and justice rarely coincide. International law is only as strong as the sovereign states that enforce it. I very much doubt that Bush and his neo-con pals will be punished.
You made reports in war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. What were the things that marked you during your stay in these conflict zones?
The murder of my friend and colleague Ajmal Naqshbandi was tragic and deeply sad. Ajmal was kidnapped and decapitated by the Taliban in 2007. The filmmaker Ian Olds and I made a documentary about Ajmal’s death. It is called “Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi” and explains what happened. Also, seeing state failure up close made me politically pessimistic. But I should say, that pessimism has started to fade. In subsequent years I spent more time in Latin America and the victories of the left there heartened me. Now, the resurgence of the socialist left in the US is also very inspiring.
I find your book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence very useful and even essential for understanding the damage caused by global warming in the world. Is not ultra liberalism the matrix that has generated all the phenomena you describe in your book?
If by ultra liberalism you mean free market zealotry, yes that is a large part of what I analyzed in Tropic of Chaos. However, fossil fuel use is what drives climate change. Burning coal and oil is environmentally destructive regardless of the relations of production. Greenhouse gas emissions do the same damage regardless of who produces those emissions. Unfortunately, a coal-fired power plant emits the same pollution whether that plant is owned by a greedy investor or by a socialist government that redistributes the income and invests it in public goods like education.
Socialism does not automatically lead to a decarbonized energy sector. Look at Bolivia, where over the last decade the Evo Morales government has made tremendous strides, reducing moderate and extreme poverty rates from 66 and 45 percent, to 39 and 17 percent, respectively. But it has not made much progress breaking its economic dependence of selling natural gas.
Neoliberal orthodoxy, which hinges on the dangerous utopian belief in the possibility of a “self-regulating market,” is opposed to state planning. However, both climate adaptation and climate mitigation require state planning. The free market economic restructuring and austerity that are pushed by rich creditor states upon debtors systematically undermines the organizational and planning capacity of those governments. Countries with weak, inept, corrupt, governments are unprepared for climate change. Problems like rising sea levels require state coordination and planning.
For me, this book Tropic of Chaos shows how much capitalism and its highest stage the imperialism ravage the world. Don’t you think that capitalism is the negation of life?
It is easy to condemn capitalism but we also need to understand it. I would begin by drawing a distinction between capital and capitalism. In classical Marxist terms, capital is a social relation. It exists when the means of subsistence, the means of production, are privately owned and used to command labor power with the goal of producing evermore exchange value, i.e. money. Capitalism, on the other hand, is the whole ensemble of institutions that make up global society. Though dominated by capital, capitalism (or capitalist society) is not reducible only to the logic of capital. Interestingly, in Capital Vol.1 Marx refers only to “the bourgeoisie” and “capital,” never to “capitalism.”
Society as a whole includes important countervailing forces, such as the state and public sector, social movements, pre-capitalist social formations and norms such as religions. Capital (the social relationship of commodification and labor power exploitation though wage labor) requires pre-capitalist and non-capitalist practices, institutions, and social formations to sustain it. Capital always depends on an “outside” as it were.
That said, capital as a social relation of domination and infinite expansion, involves something of a negation of life. It is, as Marx put it, the domination of “living labor,” that is actual people, by “dead labor,” the product of human labor power crystalized in the form of money.
The Soft Cage: Surveillance In America From Slavery To The War On Terror. What you describe in this book: phoning on a cell phone, withdrawing money in an ATM, visiting a shopping center and making a purchase with a credit card, etc… are daily actions that allow a surveillance of every moment. Do not we live today in a fascist society?
No, I do not think we live under fascism. A better description, at least of the US, is authoritarian neoliberalism. Do we live in a surveillance state? Yes.
Does not empire need fascist societies for its multiple profits? Are not concepts like democracy, human rights, freedom of expression just decoys?
No, these terms are sites of struggle. Historically organized elements of the people have struggled to make the promise of such phrases into realities, while economic elites have sought to empty such phrases of their progressive possibilities. In the United States, democratic action by people mobilized in social movements has won significant victories. Although American capitalism is undergoing a period of reaction and retrenchment in which the rich have the upper hand, there have also been periods when the rich were forced by society as a whole, acting through social movements and the state, to surrender some of their privileges. The labor movement in the 1930s, the civil rights movement, and the environmental movement of the late 1960s all these won significant victories. Victories that are now being eroded, but real victories nonetheless.
What do you think of the Facebook scandal where the personal data of millions of subscribers have been sold?
It is what it appears to be. Facebook is a giant surveillance firm. It is a disgusting thing. That’s why I do not use it. In fact, all of the so-called “tech bros” of Silicon Valley are such sinister yet self-deluded, loud-mouthed, adolescent brats that I must confess they have caused me to develop a certain grudging respect for the old industrial robber barons of the Gilded Age. At least Andrew Carnegie made steel. These tech clowns use primarily government development technology – computers and the Internet—to put shopping catalogs and photo albums online. And in their free time, when not leeching off generations of public investment in technology or begging for tax breaks, they pontificate about how they plan to cure diseases in cities on Mars. They are, to put it bluntly, total bullshit artists. Speaking of the tech bros reminds me of the British anarchist, Ian Bone, the son of a socialist butler. Under Thatcher, Bone started a group called Class War. Part of their line was to hate the rich not just as a class, but also as individuals. That’s how I feel about the tech bros: I not only despise what they are, I despise who they are.
Do not you think that the alternative press offers perspectives that not exist in the mainstream media characterized by systematic misinformation?
Yes, but more is needed.
During his campaign, Donald Trump posed as a man in the service of the American people with his slogan « America first ». Do not you think that this president, like all his predecessors, serves only the 1% minority? Did not his real slogan become « The 1% first »?
Just after the election, I wrote an essay called “Listening to Trump,” for which I watched lots of Trump’s stump speeches. What really struck me was that his campaign rhetoric was full of faux economic populism. He promised to save Social Security and Medicare, and to bring back good working class jobs. It was all lies, but many people believed it. Now, what we have is a hard-right, pro-business government, which as Steve Bannon said, seeks to “dismantle the regulatory state.” Trump’s massive tax cut was essentially welfare for the 1%. He is shifting more of the costs of reproducing society – paving roads, educating children – on to the working class. He is helping the rich loot the public sector by running up our already large federal debt. Instead of taxing the rich, we increasingly just borrow money from them and pay them interest on it. Thus Trump’s massive debt, created in part buy the tax cuts, is federal government welfare for ultra-rich, asset-owning rentiers.
Do you have a book in preparation? Can you tell us about it?
I have a book on the origins of American economic development coming out from Verso sometime next year. It looks particularly at the essential role of government in the creation of American capitalism or rather ‘early American economic development’.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Dr. Christian Parenti?
Christian Parenti has a PhD in sociology (co-supervised in geography) from the London School of Economics and is a professor in the Global Liberal Studies Program at New York University. His latest book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011), explores how climate change is already causing violence as it interacts with the legacies of economic neoliberalism and cold-war militarism. The book involved several years of travel and research in conflict zones of the Global South.
Christian Parenti’s three earlier books are The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (2005), a work of analytic and ethnographic reportage on the first years of US military occupation in Iraq; The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror (2002), a history of routine, everyday surveillance that traces the development of political technologies, like fingerprinting and photographic identification, from their origins in the antebellum South to the present; and Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (2000/2008). Considered a social science classic, Lockdown explores the history of the US prison and policing buildup since the 1960s and argues that the buildup is rooted in both global-scale economy shifts and national discursive projects of racialized class control and political theater.
Dr. Parenti completed a series of post-doctoral research fellowships at the City University of New York Graduate Center where he worked closely with the geographers Neil Smith and David Harvey; and has held fellowships from the Open Society Institute, the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation.
Christian Parenti’s current research focuses on the environmental history of state involvement in American economic development, from the earliest days of the republic onward.
As a journalist, he has reported extensively from Afghanistan, Iraq, and various parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. His articles have appeared in Fortune, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Middle East Report, London Review of Books, Mother Jones, and The Nation (where he is a contributing editor). He has also helped make several documentaries and has won numerous journalistic awards, including the 2009 Lange-Tailor Prize and “Best Magazine Writing 2008” from the Society for Professional Journalists. He also received a 2009 Emmy nomination for the documentary Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi.
Published in American Herald Tribune August 03, 2018: https://ahtribune.com/interview/2409-christian-parenti.html