Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, April 15, 2005

Empire versus Democracy

Interview with Michael Parenti

by Joel Wendland (December 2004)

Editor's Note: Michael Parenti is a widely acclaimed author and activist. His work includes Against Empire, Blackshirts and Reds, History as Mystery, To Kill a Nation, and most recently, Superpatriotism. Here Parenti begins by discussing his history of Rome and the life of Julius Caesar, The Assassination of Julius Caesar.

PA: Is The Assassination of Julius Caesar a departure from your other work?

MP: I have used history in a number of other books: Democracy for the Few, Blackshirts and Reds and Inventing Reality. I wrote a full-length history book called History as Mystery dealing with how history is written by the victors. So I've always had a strong interest in history. My discovery was that ancient history is not all that ancient. It's very fascinating. The class struggle is evident. The personalities are interesting. I wrote it not only as a parallel to modern times, of course, but because it was fascinating in itself.

PA: What do you mean by "ancient history is not all that ancient?"

MP: In ancient Rome the ruling class used some of the same rationales as today's ruling class. They defined their narrow interests as really representative of everyone's interests. They talked about how persons of their upper crust social status were more qualified to rule than were the ordinary people. They looked at popular agitation and the democratic forces that were mobilizing for a better life as rabble, as a mob and as beyond the pale of the law. Rome for 500 years was a republic. At the same time it was an empire. The republic was in many instances money-driven. The elections were money-driven. The candidates were almost always from aristocratic backgrounds. Democratic forces were often subjected to coercion, buyout or outright political murder. Does any of that ring a bell?

PA: How did it occur to you to write this people's history of Rome?

MP: It was my editor who insisted that I subtitle it "A People's History of Ancient Rome". But a people's history of ancient times is not an easy affair. One of the things that is hard to get in ancient history is the evidence. Historians faithfully repeat each other's class perspective and class mythologies. All the historians who deal with the Roman Republic, whether it's St Augustine or Mommsen or Gibbon, or modern-day Americans or Europeans, all of them from different societies, nationalities, and different eras and cultures, yet they all mouth the same view of the assassination of Caesar: he was a usurper and was out to destroy the Republic. Supposedly the aristocrats so loved the Republic that they felt compelled to assassinate him; they acted only from the highest motives. In other words, except for a few rare exceptions, almost all of the historians view the assassination through the eyes of the assassins.

One of the things I try to do is find out what leaders actually do when they're in power. That's one of the great hidden questions in history. You can read about six or seven different biographies of Stalin, and they never tell you what he actually did in terms of the programs of the country. You read about his purges of Bukharin and Zinoviev and his fight with Trotsky and this and that. But what were the socio-economic policies he actually pursued? The same with Hitler. I've read numerous biographies of Hitler. What did Hitler actually do? What was his political economic program? You find out it was a program in which he cut the taxes for the rich, he cut back wages, he destroyed unions and privatized everything.

So, it's hard to get bourgeois historians interested in history. Instead, they're interested in the little stories and repeating each other's mythologies. The reason that historians as diverse as Augustine, Cicero, Sallus, Gibbon, Mommsen and others can come to the same conclusion as do Caesar's assassins, even though they are of different eras, nationalities, cultures, languages, is because they all share the same common class ideology, which is that the people of history are not to be trusted. The people are rabble; they're lowlifes. Anyone who takes the side of the people - as did Julius Caesar - is just an opportunistic demagogue. These are the same kinds of things you hear today about Aristide, Hugo Chavez, Milosevic, about Torrijos in Panama, Noriega and others.

PA: What were Caesar's policies?

MP: Caesar is described by all of these historians as driven by ambition and love for power. But he was born of a family that had a reformist genealogy. His father-in-law Cinna was a reformist. His uncle by marriage, the great Marius, was another reformer. When the conservative dictatorship took over in 80 BC, Sulla offered him a place in his government which would have catapulted him up to the top at a young age. Instead, he ran the risk of turning down Sulla, knowing that it meant the end of his patrimony. He lost his wife's dowry. He almost lost his life. So he already had views that were not just for opportunism and power, he had views about which side he was going to be on in the great class divide.

Later on when he did acquire power, he did things like land redistribution, rent cancellation - he cancelled all rents for low and middle income dwellings for a year. Rents were atrociously high. Families were doubled and tripled up in these big tenement houses in Rome. Debt easement: he must have cancelled about 25 percent of the debt. No interest payments were to be paid that exceeded the amount of the original debt; that excess amount was cancelled. He imposed luxury taxes on the rich. He passed requirements that one-third of the workforce on the plantations had to be free labor, rather than slave labor. In other words, he started limiting slave labor and increased the opportunities for free labor. He started work projects for jobs, what we would call "jobs programs" today. These things are what made the Senate aristocrats hate him. Not his ambition. Not his supposed arrogance. In fact, he wasn't arrogant. He reached out to these senators. He tried to get them to come in on his side. And as for his ambition and power, they all understood and lived by ambition and power. It was their common currency. It was not Caesar's power they disliked, it was the way he was using it.

PA: A lot of people make a comparison between the US today and Rome. Who suffers from this comparison?

MP: It's a comparison that has as many differences as similarities. The basic similarities are a ruling class that expropriates the wealth of the republic in order to expand the empire. The empire feeds off the republic. That was true in Rome; that's true in the US. The people are depleted of their funds, so that patricians can pursue their far-off plunder and enrich themselves. We see that today as we taxpayers put up $168 billion for Iraq so that Halliburton and the Pentagon and the oil companies can enjoy the "most lucrative investments available" as some business people put it. And not much in the corporate press about where all our money is going and who is laying claim to it. So there's a basic similarity. Another similarity, of course, is the basic class conflict.

There are differences also. The US has struggled and made quite a few democratic gains in the last century. Many of these are being rolled back. The level of social services today are much more advanced than in ancient Rome. Slavery has been abolished - not throughout the world but in the USA - but we still have an underclass against which the same themes are played. When Cicero and the other conservative writers made appeals to the people, they played on their fear or conjured up the fear that the slaves are going to rise up and cut their throats and kill them, and so they had to support the existing aristocratic system. You see the same thing today in regard to frightening the "Middle Americans" about the threat posed by ethnic minorities, immigrants, and those denizens of the netherworld.

PA: In a recent article for "Nature, Society and Thought", you outline both the global and domestic agenda behind Bush's war on Iraq. Can you describe that here?

MP: The agenda abroad is to make sure that no country gets out from under the global system of free-market neoliberal capitalism, no country develops in a self-defining, self-directing way, using its resources for its own development. Iraq, despite the fact that Saddam Hussein was a murderer - when he was working for the CIA he committed some of his worst atrocities - had an economy that was entirely publicly owned. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld actually described it as a "Stalinist economy". I thought that was an interesting and amusing choice of words. So you have to get rid of countries that are trying to use the land, the labor and their markets in alternative ways.

In addition to that, certain countries are targeted because they are richly endowed with enormous deposits of natural resources. In the case of Iraq, 113 billion barrels of high quality crude oil, which at $40 a barrel is over $4 trillion - the biggest oil grab in human history.

On the domestic agenda, the Iraq war, like all wars (which is why Bush describes himself as a war president - when he's not calling himself a peace president), is designed to get the people to rally around the flag, to suspend criticisms and to pursue undemocratic courses. By undemocratic I mean not wanting dissent, accountability, critical debate, but getting in lockstep behind the leader and doing what he wants. There is a large element in our country who immediately begin to back the leader in any violent, aggressive foreign venture he pursues once they're told there is an enemy out there who is going to get them. So once there's an "us" and a "them", they fall into step. They are convinced that every one of those innocent American soldiers that got killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, over a thousand all together so far, died protecting our liberties. They buy right into that. It is kind of scary how easily some people are manipulated by fear.

In the new book I wrote called Superpatriotism, which will be out in July, I have a whole chapter called "Patriotic Fear". Along with patriotic pride, one of the strongest motivations is patriotic fear.

PA: Is the global capitalism of today the same as it has always been?

MP: There are new developments in global capitalism. Globalism today is not what globalism was 100 years ago. The people who have fought against the FTAA and NAFTA and the various other free trade agreements have recognized this in ways that some of our Marxist economists and analysts haven't recognized, unfortunately. There are those who say, "There's nothing new in globalism; it's the same old stuff. Marx wrote about this, going into every corner of the world and redoing it in capitalism's own image, et cetera." That's not what the issue is today. Globalism is the elevation of the property value above all democratic values, above all other social values. So any kind of public service can be wiped out for interfering and creating lost market opportunities for the private market. The private market is elevated above the law.

It's not just that NAFTA will cost us jobs or weaken our consumer protections. It's that NAFTA is undermining democracy itself. It undermines our very right to question or to pass laws that can create public services. Today, under the new globalization, Canada has to pay millions of dollars to UPS because they have a public postal service that is taking away potential market opportunities from UPS. So here you have a country having to pay a private corporation for the right to deliver its own mail to its own people. Every single public service today is potentially targeted.

I wish that some of our good progressive economists would take themselves to school on this issue and understand that there is a qualitatively new development in globalism. Globalism does not just mean international capital investment and imperialism. It's the whole new subterfuge of so-called free trade, which is destroying substantive democracy rule itself.

PA: Does that change the mode of resistance that the world's working-class and democratic movements should undertake?

MP: Certainly. The demonstrations in Genoa, Quebec City, Seattle, Sydney, had a high degree of people of various nationalities and backgrounds protesting the free trade agreements as being undemocratic and dangerous. People started looking at what these free trade agreements really are. That's what the protesters today all around the world mean when they say globalization. They don't mean that capital is international and that capital is global. That's not news. We all know that. Certain left publications have repeatedly focused on whether NAFTA is creating jobs or losing jobs or improving services or not improving services. It's worse than that. It's taking away our right to have these public services or to have these jobs, with decisions being made by trade councils elected by no one, staffed by people who come directly from the corporate world.

PA: Within the anti-globalization movement, there is a tendency to reject political parties (especially Communist and socialist parties) in favor of social movements as the main vehicles for change. Is this a result of anti-Communism on the left? How do we deal with that?

MP: Social movements are built much more proficiently and durably when there's an organized political party helping out. Groups that want to eschew left-wing parties, especially Communist parties, are really pursuing the passion of the American left broadly defined. That passion, the thing that possesses them most, is not their opposition to capitalism, imperialism or war, it's their opposition to Communism. Oh sure, they're against those other things, but the thing that really gets them fired up is their opposition to Communism. It's as urgent today as it was when there was a Soviet Union. There are many on the left who are still obsessed. I can introduce you to Trotskyists, anarchists, and liberals who will start screaming about Stalin as if the purge trials just took place yesterday morning. This is really where their passion is. It's amazing.

They opposed a war against a feudal, viciously medieval, hurtful theocracy in Afghanistan called the Taliban. They opposed that war, as we all did because we knew it would accomplish nothing and Bush was up to no good and he would be just killing a lot of innocent men, women and children. They opposed a war against a brutal murderer and torturer and CIA operative, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, as we too opposed it, because the motives behind it had nothing to do with installing democracy or anything like that. But they supported the war in Yugoslavia against Slobodan Milosevic because he had "Stalinist" credentials - namely he was from a Communist background.

Here was a guy who was democratically elected president three times. He ran a four-party coalition within the parliament. I was in Yugoslavia and there was an open opposition to him, posters put up, demonstrations against him. He was trying to keep together a country that had a decent social democracy, where eighty percent of the economy was publicly owned, where people had decent housing, education, health care. People on the left - I'm talking about many liberals, feminists, anarcho-leftists like Cohen Bendit and Susan Sontag - supported that war. They stood shoulder to shoulder with NATO, the White House and the Pentagon - 78 days of bombing. Even some of the ones who opposed the bombing shared the NATO brief about Yugoslavia. They shared the brief of the White House aggressors right up to the point of the bombing. So they actually gave support. Then when they say, "Oh no, not the bombing. We don't want that." They don't see how they cleared the way for the acts they say they didn't want. So this is what you've got on the left.

When the Soviet Union was overthrown, I said, "Well, I guess that's going to stop all this propaganda we get all the time". It hasn't. It's gone down a bit, but the references, the documentary films, the books that come out, it still goes on. If you read their literature they're still talking about the hordes of Stalinists lurking here and there. That's where their passion really is. It's really not in fighting imperialism, building coalitions, or anything of that sort. They are more anti-Communist than the people on the right. The people on the right take it so utterly for granted that they don't have to be fulminating every minute. But many of the "anti-Communist left" are still fighting Kronstadt or Barcelona or the ghost of Stalin.

A whole group of progressive intellectuals signed a statement condemning Cuba for cracking down on people who were openly collaborating with the US Interest Section in Havana for regime change, who were paid agents of the United States. That's called subversion. If you had the Cuban Interest Section in Washington holding meetings with people, giving them money and telling them to go out and try to destabilize the US government, those people would be arrested and charged with treason and sedition. People who have done a lot less than that have been jailed. Eminent progressive writers and thinkers, economists, historians, linguists signed on to condemn Cuba. The US supported policies of total destabilization, of hijacking planes and not returning the planes, not returning the passengers, and not punishing the hijackers, and then expecting Cuba not to act against them. It's the same thing they did with Allende in Chile. One side had to scrupulously abide by every single democratic procedural nicety and not in any way fight back, while the other side was free to use every kind of violent and subversive measure available. That's the way the US media wants it, but you would expect people with a class perspective to have a different judgment. I think, those are the kind of problems you get into when you think without Marx and Lenin.

PA: Can you talk about the newest book Superpatriotism?

MP: It's a study of the arguments and the political attitudes behind the phenomenon of superpatriotism, which is a tendency to equate US militarism, US aggression and might with true patriotism and the tendency to treat anybody who's critical of these policies as lacking patriotism and being disloyal. It talks in effect about how the ruling class is using patriotism to manipulate the American people.

Bill Totten


Post a Comment

<< Home