Michael Parenti was born and raised in an Italian-American working-class family and neighborhood in New York City. received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. Like Noam Chomsky , he is an incisive critic of American domestic and foreign policy. He is an avowed Marxist who possesses a penetrating analytical mind and has been called “Chomsky for grownups”.
For many years Parenti taught political and social science at various institutions of higher learning. During his earlier teaching career he received grants or fellowships from the Louis Rabinowitz Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Brown University, Yale University, State University of New York, and the University of Illinois. For several years he was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.
Eventually he devoted himself full-time to writing, public speaking, and political activism. Since then he has won awards from Project Censored, the city of Santa Cruz, New Jersey Peace Action, the Social Science Research Council, the Society for Religion in Higher Education, and other organizations. In 2003, the Caucus for a New Political Science gave him a Career Achievement Award. In 2007 he received a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition from U.S. Representative Barbara Lee. For several years in the 1980s, he was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.
He is the author of twenty books and many more articles. His works have been translated into at least eighteen languages. He lectures frequently throughout the United States and abroad. His book, The Assassination of Julius Caesar, A People's History of Ancient Rome, (2003) was selected as a Book of the Year for 2004 by Online Review of Books and Current Affairs.
He now serves on the board of judges for Project Censored, and on the advisory boards of Independent Progressive Politics Network, Education Without Borders, and the Jasenovic Foundation; as well as the advisory editorial boards of New Political Science and Nature, Society and Thought.
Parenti’s writings cover a wide range of subjects: U.S. politics, culture, ideology, political economy, imperialism, fascism, communism, democratic socialism, free-market orthodoxies, conservative judicial activism, religion, ancient history, modern history, historiography, repression in academia, news and entertainment media, technology, environmentalism, sexism, racism, homophobia, Venezuela, the wars in Iraq and Yugoslavia, ethnicity, and his own early life. Perhaps his most influential book is Democracy for the Few (1974) now in its eighth edition, a critical analysis of U.S. society, economy, and political institutions and a college-level political science textbook.
The list of his books is impressive and the titles alone give some idea of the breadth of his critique:
- The Anti-Communist Impulse (1970).
- Trends and Tragedies in American Foreign Policy (1971).
- Ethnic and Political Attitudes (1975).
- Democracy for the Few (1974.)
- Power and the Powerless (1978).
- Inventing Reality: the Politics of News Media (1986).
- The Sword and the Dollar: Imperialism, Revolution and the Arms Race (1989).
- Make-Believe Media: the Politics of Entertainment (1992).
- Land of Idols: Political Mythology in America (1993).
- Against Empire (1995).
- Dirty Truths (1996)
- Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism (1997).
- America Besieged (1998).
- History as Mystery (1999).
- To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia (2000).
- The Terrorism Trap: September 11 and Beyond (2002).
- The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome (2003)
- Superpatriotism (2004).
- The Culture Struggle (2006).
- Contrary Notions (2007).
In addition to his books (which appeal to both lay and academic readers) he has also produced some 275 articles in scholarly journals, political periodicals and various magazines and newspapers. He appears on radio and television talk shows to discuss current issues and ideas from his published works. Dr. Parenti’s talks and commentaries are played on radio stations and cable community access stations to enthusiastic audiences in the United States, Canada, and abroad. He lectures on college campuses and before a wide range of community audiences, peace groups, labour organizations, scholarly conferences, and various other venues. Many of his presentations have been filmed and a list of downloadable Youtube videos is downloadable here.
Below is a comprehensive Wikipedia breakdown of Parenti’s points of critique:
Parenti argues that western[verification needed] racism is systematic and historical in nature and should be regarded as more than just an attitudinal problem. He claims western racism has its origins in imperialism and slavery: To justify the colonial plunder of another nation or entire continent (as in the case of Africa) as well as the enslavement of conquered populations, imperialists and/or slave traffickers dehumanise their victims and define them as moral inferiors and subhuman.
He maintains that racism serves several functions for ruling interests in the United States
- It divides the working class against each other.
- It creates a "super-exploited" group of people who are forced to work at below scale wages thereby depressing wage levels for the entire workforce.
- It distracts the (United States) white population from its own legitimate grievances by providing an irrelevant scapegoat in the form of minority populations
Culture and social structure
In the late 1960s and early 70s, becoming increasingly critical of the existing socio-economic system, Parenti argued that images of the United States as a pluralistic, democratic society were more ideological than accurate. He did not deny the existence of a vast plurality of social, ethnic, and regional groups in America, but he felt that this group pluralism did not translate into a democratic pluralism in political life. Only limited portions of the political process are accessed by the general populace. Power in America is not broadly distributed, according to Parenti, but is highly concentrated in a social structure dominated by corporate moneyed interests, whose influence predominates in most mainstream institutions and major policy areas. Parenti maintains that the resources of power are lodged in the social structure itself, the culture, institutions, and established social roles, and that ruling elements maintain their dominant positions not only by raw economic power but by attaining “cultural hegemony,” a concept formulated earlier by Antonio Gramsci
Role of US Media
With respect to the US media Parenti, like Chomsky, has maintained that, while news coverage can be marred by problems of deadlines, space, and ordinary human error, much of the misleading coverage is the result of carefully honed ideological production. Reporters, he says, often exercise much skill to avoid the more important points of a story or news analysis so as not to offend anyone who wields substantial political and economic power, including their own bosses and corporate advertisers. Parenti concludes that their goal is to avoid fishing too deeply into troubled waters thereby maintaining an appearance of objectivity and moderation. Their careers, he suggests, depend in part upon their ability to equate centrist views with “objectivity,” and to stay within the prevailing ideological orthodoxy.
His treatment of entertainment media (movies and television) continues the argument that the media are not neutral and favor elitist interests. Exploring a wide range of films and programs, he has attempted to demonstrate that the entertainment media do more than entertain; they indoctrinate by propagating values in keeping with their corporate ownership and corporate advertisers.
He often attacks specific examples of the misleading coverage provided by the US media. In Blackshirts and Reds he cites historian J. Arch Getty's figures to demonstrate the exaggeration elsewhere in the US media of the executions effected by Joseph Stalin in the Great Purge. He critically reviews Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia in "The Demonization of Slobodan Milosevic" and To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia finding similar exaggeration of war crimes in the breakup of the second Yugoslavia. In "Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth"[video] he observes, "western news media, travel books, novels, and Hollywood films have portrayed the Tibetan theocracy as a veritable Shangri-La" then goes on to show that it was anything but.
Culture across the globe
Parenti maintains that, far from being neutral, culture is often ideologically driven in a highly skewed system of social power, benefiting some groups at the expense of others. “Growing portions of our culture are increasingly commodified and mass marketed.” “So we buy more and more of our culture and create less and less of it.” Rather than being accepted at face value, He says that all cultures should be subjected to critical investigation to be judged by “universal human rights standards” and by the criticisms voiced by those who are victimized within the various cultures of the world. He gives extensive attention to those who are regularly victimized by their own cultures, providing examples in chapters entitled “Custom Against Women,” “The Global Rape Culture,” and “Racist Myths.”
Role of voting fraud in US elections
Parenti is among those who have cited a variety of studies claiming that the 2004 presidential election was fraudulent. In an essay entitled "The Stolen Election of 2004" he argued that modern voting technology allowed powerful corporations to manipulate the electoral results. He concluded the article by observing, about the forthcoming US election, "Given this situation, it is not likely that the GOP will lose control of Congress come November 2006. The two-party monopoly threatens to become an even worse one-party tyranny." In an updated analysis of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, he adds a postscript explaining why---despite the massive crossover reported in the polls away from the GOP—the Democrats won only a slim victory in the Congressional 2006 elections.”
Parenti stresses the role of class in all societies, particularly the purportedly classless US one. He extends the definition of class as a demographic trait relating to status, education, lifestyle, and income level to include the effects of social interrelationships. He observes that there can be no rich slaveholders without poor slaves, no powerful feudal lords without serfs, no corporate bosses without workers. The interrelationship is highly asymmetrical. It centers on the organized wealth of the society.
He also believes that there is a third factor involved in class relationships, specifically the productive resources (land, agriculture, herds, natural resources, factories, technology, etc.). The dominant group in class relationships owns or controls these economic resources. The weaker class historically has had only its labor to sell. Hence the “dominant money classes” exercise a preponderant influence over workforces, markets, major investments, consumption patterns, media, and public policies. Parenti concludes that when discussing class, class power, how it is used, for whose interests, and at whose expense must also be discussed.
US downplay of class
Parenti has repeatedly criticized the tendency among many who profess to be progressive to downplay the importance of class and class power as a formative force as compared to race, gender, and culture. He allows that each of these other categories of social experience have imperatives that are distinctly their own, sometimes of a life-and-death urgency. Still they should not be seen as being mutually exclusive of, or in competition with, considerations of class power in society, he argues, and should not be used as a means of evading class analysis.
Democracy and capitalism
From the late 60s well into the 80s, Parenti was one of many radicals and socialists who questioned the validity and value of what they called “bourgeois democracy,” seeing it more as a charade to mislead the people into thinking that they were free and self-governing. By the late 80s, however, he noticeably modified his position, arguing that democracy should not be thought of as merely a subterfuge or cloak created by ruling elites, although it certainly can serve that purpose. More often, Parenti claimed, whatever modicum of democracy the people attain in any society is usually the outcome of genuine struggle for a more equitable politico-economic order. Why credit the corporate class with giving people a “bourgeois democracy,” he asks, when in fact the ruling plutocrats furiously opposed most democratic advances in U.S. history, be it the extension of the franchise or the struggle for ethnic and gender equality, more direct forms of representation, more room for dissent and free speech, greater accountability of elected officials, and more equitable socio-economic domestic programs.
According to Parenti, reacting to mainstream commentators who turn every systemic vice and deficiency into a virtue, left critics of the status quo, seeing no real victories or progress in the centuries of popular struggle, have felt compelled to turn every virtue into a vice. To counter this trend, he says, people should recognize that real gains have been made, that democracy refuses to die, and both at home and abroad popular forces continue the democratic struggle, even against great odds.
For Parenti, democracy has two basic dimensions, the procedural and the substantive, both of which are equally important. Procedural democracy consists of the basic political forms: free speech and assembly, the right to dissent, accountability of officeholders, the right to vote in regular and honest elections, etc. Substantive democracy consists of egalitarian socio-economic outputs that advance the well-being of the populace, protect the environment, and curb the abuses and often untrammelled powers of great wealth. He quotes the German sociologist Max Weber who remarked almost a century earlier that it remains to be seen whether democracy and freedom can exist under the dominion of a highly developed capitalism.
He concludes that “there is no one grand, secret, power elite governing this country, but numerous coteries of corporate and governmental elites that communicate and coordinate across various policy realms. Behind their special interests are the common overall interests of the moneyed class,” which is not to say that differences never arise among these elites.
Technology, money, and deficit spending
Parenti believes that people's thinking about past and present developments needs to be contextualized, that is, seen in a social context of power and ideology. He gives the examples of technology and money. Both are seen as neutral entities that are inherently neither good nor bad. This may be true hypothetically, he writes, but in reality both technology and money have been developed within specific historical contexts by powerful interests that gained great advantage from their development. Almost all technology, he argues, is devoted to advancing the interests of higher circles, maximizing profits and corporate production, or in the case of government, maximizing surveillance, communication, and military striking power. New advances in technology are not neutral things. They impact upon us and our environment in ways that can advantage some and hurt others, according to Parenti. He writes similarly about money: “Like technology, money has a feedback effect of its own, advantaging the already advantaged,” liquefying wealth, making it easier to mobilize and accumulate. And with the growth of moneyed wealth comes a greater concentration and command over technology by the moneyed class.
Few phenomena in the social order can operate with neutral effect even if supposedly pursued with neutral intent, according to Parenti. The national debt is a good example. Considered merely as a “problem” of excessive government spending, the national debt in fact works well for certain interests, specifically the moneyed class, he claims. By 1977 he noted how the national debt brought a transfer of income from the taxpayers to the wealthy creditors, the holders of government bonds. The greater the debt, the greater the upward transfer, as the government continues to borrow money from those they should be taxing (the big money interests). He concludes it is no accident that the biggest deficit spenders have been conservative presidents like Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes. The national debt is in effect a way of privatising public spending and defunding the federal budget, he argues. The bigger the debt, the less money available for domestic programs, and the more money that goes from the pockets of ordinary taxpayers to rich creditors.
Parenti’s treatment of fascism differs from that of the many writers who stress the irrational features of fascism: its state idolatry, nationalistic atavism, and leadership cult. While not denying that these are key components in the propagation of fascism’s appeal, he invites us not to overlook the “rational politico economic functions” that fascism performed. “Much of politics is the rational manipulation of irrational symbols,” he claims. The emotive appeals of fascist ideology have served a class-control function, “distracting the populace from their legitimate grievances and directing their frustrations at various scapegoats.”
Most of the immense literature on the subject of fascism and Nazism focuses on who supported Hitler’s rise to power. Relatively little, he writes, is said about whom the Nazis supported when they came to power. In both fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, he points out, wages were cut drastically, domestic programs were rolled back, huge subsidies were given to heavy industry, labor unions were broken, taxes on the very rich were greatly reduced or eliminated altogether, and workplace safety regulations were ignored or abolished. Fascism, he concludes, has a much overlooked politico- economic agenda; it involves something more than just goose stepping.
U.S. foreign policy is neither confused nor bungling, according to Parenti. It is quite consistently directed toward certain goals, and is largely successful. For the most part, U.S. leaders have maintained friendly relations with those governments that have opened up their countries to Western corporate investors, and have shown hostility toward those countries that have tried to use their land, labor, natural resources, and markets for their own self-development, Parenti believes. Iraq was targeted for “having committed economic nationalism,” with a state-run economy that pretty much shut out Western investors. The same holds true for Yugoslavia, he claims. Both countries were bombed and invaded, and their public economies were shattered. Parenti believes that Yugoslavia was transformed from a viable social democracy to a cluster of little right-wing mini-republics.
His beliefs led him to become head of the United States chapter of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milošević in which capacity he added to the criticisms of bias in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
He also maintains that the U.S. empire feeds off the U.S. republic. The empire’s expansion abroad entails increasing costs for the republic. Ventures that are profitable for military contractors and overseas investors have to be paid in blood and taxes by the American populace. The many third world countries that are the targets of colonial intervention pay the highest price, he writes. They suffer not just from “underdevelopment”, but from “maldevelopment,” a result of generations of overexploitation.
Many on the left continue to deliver impassioned and blanket condemnations of deceased communist countries, Parenti notes. “Those of us who refused to join in the Soviet bashing were branded by left anti-communists as ‘Soviet apologists’ and ‘Stalinists,’ even if we disliked Stalin and his autocratic system of rule and believed there were things seriously wrong with existing Soviet society.”
He did in fact make a number of criticisms of the Soviet Union. In 1986 he wrote: "In the USSR there exist serious problems of labour productivity, industrialization, urbanization, bureaucracy, corruption, and alcoholism. There are production and distribution bottlenecks, plan failures, consumer scarcities, criminal abuses of power, suppression of dissidents, and expressions of alienation among some of the population."
More recently he wrote that the state owned economies of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union suffered “fatal distortions in their development” because of the years of “embargo, invasion, devastating wars, and costly arms build-up; excessive bureaucratisation and poor incentive systems; lack of administrative initiative and technological innovation; and a repressive political rule that allowed little critical expression and feedback while fostering stagnation and elitism.”
He argues that “despite the well-publicized deficiencies, crimes, and injustices, there were positive features about existing communist systems that were worth preserving, such as the free medical care and human services; affordable food, fuel, transportation, and housing; universal literacy; gains in women’s rights; free education to the highest level of one’s ability; a guaranteed right to a job; free cultural and sporting events, and the like.” He supported Gorbachev’s campaign of perestroika and glasnost until 1990 when it became evident to him that the Gorbachev reforms were leading to the implantation of free-market capitalism and were bringing hardships to the common people.
Parenti maintains that the structural problems of free-market trans-national capitalism will only worsen the living standards of people in the United States and abroad, while deepening the environmental crises. He advocates a greater measure of public ownership in the USA. He asks “can socialism work? ... Is it not just a dream in theory and a nightmare in practice? Can the government produce anything of worth?” He goes on to point out that it already does citing publicly owned transportation systems, utilities, banking, education, and health services that are run efficiently by the governments of the USA and various social democracies and at far less cost than their private counterparts.
Parenti points to the increasingly catastrophic droughts, storms, floods, and abnormally high temperatures in many parts of the world to justify a hypothesis that the widely discussed ecological crisis of global warming will not be upon us “by the end of the century” or “in the lives of our grandchildren,” but is already happening today. He builds on this in an essay, "Why the Corporate Rich Oppose Environmentalism, to argue that immediate and immense profits that come at a cost to the environment are of more concern to corporate investors than the diffuse and long-run damage done to the global ecology.
History and historiography
Much of Parenti’s work draws upon history. In his History as Mystery he takes the old adage that history is written by the victors and flushes it out with examples drawn from ancient and modern times. In regard to early Christianity, for instance, he maintains that, contrary to popular notions, the “Jesus worshipers” did not gather most of their followers from the poor and downtrodden but from the more affluent strata. Some Christian leaders discouraged slaves from converting to Christianity. Slaves were prohibited from becoming church deacons or priests, he maintains. Contrary to conventional US notions, he argues that the Christians were not the keepers of learning and scholarship during the Dark Ages but played a relentless role in destroying all the advanced learning and all the libraries of antiquity that were in their reach.
In The Assassination of Julius Caesar he states that many historians, both ancient and modern, have treated popular insurgencies and the common people with fear and loathing, depicting them as mindless rootless mobs of ne’er-do-wells. He also argues that Caesar and other popular reformers of the Roman Republic before him were assassinated not because they were violating the Roman constitution but because they were advocating reforms that benefited the commoners at a cost to the aristocracy.
Michael Parenti is a National Treasure. Even more than Noam Chomsky, he is the voice of informed dissent in America. And unlike Chomsky he has, for many years, abandoned the safety of academia to pursue his vision of a just society in the realm of everyday life.
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