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Christian Parenti on Climate Change, Militarism, Neoliberalism and the State

The author talks about environmental crises and neoliberal economic policies sparking violence in a landscape littered with guns.

(Image: Soldier backlit via Shutterstock)

On April 19, 2014, I sat down with author, journalist and professor Christian Parenti in Chicago. His work, which is wide-ranging and essential, explores some of the most powerful and brutal forces in our society: war, capitalism, prisons, policing and climate change. In this interview, we discussed ideology, climate change, Marxism, activism, the state, militarism, violence and the future. This is the first of a two-part interview.

Vincent Emanuele for Truthout: I’d like to begin by revisiting your 2011 book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Right around the time Tropic of Chaos was published, Syria was experiencing record drought and massive livestock and crop losses. The connections between neoliberalism, climate change and Cold War-era militarism, for you, were on full display. However, you’re clear in noting that climate change exacerbates pre-existing crises. In other words, climate change is not necessarily the driver of crises in Syria, or Afghanistan, for example. You call this process the “catastrophic convergence.” Can you talk about these various themes in the context of the last four years since Tropic of Chaos was published?

Christian Parenti: Syria is a prime example. There has been a terrible drought there, which coincided with austerity measures imposed by the Assad government cutting aid to Sunni farmers. Many of them were forced to leave the land, partly due to drought, partly due to the lack of support to properly deal with the drought. Then, they arrive in cities, and there’s more austerity taking place. This is experienced as oppression by the Alawite elite against an increasingly impoverished Sunni proletariat who’ve been thrown off their land.

This situation then explodes as religious conflict, which is really the fusion of environmental crises with neoliberal economic policies. Of course, the violent spark to all of this is the fact that the entire region is flooded with weapons. Some of these weapons are from the Cold War, and some of those guns are from recent US militarism in the region. There were a lot of vets of the anti-US struggle in Iraq who are Syrian – Mujahideen veterans who went to Iraq and came back to Syria and started to fight. There were Syrians who were selling guns to Iraqi underground groups. These groups were buying their guns back, and re-importing them to Syria. My friend David Enders has reported on this really well.

So, it’s a perfect example of this catastrophic convergence: The landscape is littered with guns, hammered socially by increasingly market-fundamentalist politics, and at the same time, natural systems are beginning to buckle and break as climate change starts to accelerate. Part of what’s fueling the sectarian conflict in Iraq has to do with this convergence. There’s a very serious lack of water in southern Iraq, partly because Turkey has been taking more water than they should, but there’s also a decline in precipitation, misuse of water resources, etc. In the Shia heartland, life is tough. These young farmers get pulled into the struggle against the Sunni, with militias or within the Iraqi Army. That’s a better deal than trying to struggle on an increasingly decimated farm. But it’s hard to research a lot of this. The violence is so intense that it makes reporting on these issues virtually impossible. Those are some examples that immediately come to mind.

As you’re responding, I’m thinking of Yemen. Really, your book has forced me to constantly examine the underlying environmental context when thinking about conflicts, wars and violence. Yet, this dynamic is left out of the narrative in the mainstream media, and even in many alternative outlets.

People have been reporting on Sanaa’s water crisis for several years. Yemen’s environmental crises is partly fueling the current conflict. Similarly, Boko Haram is capitalizing on and partly produced by environmental crises in northern Nigeria. Large parts of the West African Sahel – meaning the wide arid belt at the bottom edge of the Sahara desert – have been experiencing all sorts of natural precipitation fluctuations; too much rain, too little, at the wrong times. This, plus rising temperatures, has led to increased climate migration, urbanization, poverty, and – surprise, surprise! – political desperation. These chaotic weather patterns are linked to climate change.

Along with environmental crisis, Boko Haram is the byproduct of the brutality of the Nigerian security forces, which have targeted Northern Nigerian Muslims with wide, undisciplined, sometimes almost indiscriminate terror campaigns. Add to that the total corruption of the Nigerian oil state and its inability and unwillingness to redistribute wealth and resources to marginalized populations, and it’s a perfect storm. And out of this drama comes that nightmare we call Boko Haram.

To answer your initial question, what’s new since publishing the book? Seems like more of the same is spreading. But, to be perfectly honest, I find it profoundly depressing to think about this stuff all the time. My research has moved on to other questions.

You focus a lot on the Global South in Tropic of Chaos, but you briefly mention the Global North as well. However, you mention that this catastrophic convergence is experienced in a much different way depending on where one is located. Can you explain these differences?

Climate violence in the Global North looks like counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations abroad, and xenophobic border policing and anti-immigrant repression at home. As we’re speaking, the US has battleships off the coast of Yemen, supporting the Saudi air offensive. Climate violence looks like the special operations base that was in Yemen before US forces were run out a few weeks ago. That base was there partly because of the instability caused by the growing climate crisis that is fueled by US militarism and neoliberalism. The media might not call counter-terror operations climate wars, but that’s certainly part of what drives them.

Similarly, anti-immigrant detention and policing increasingly have a climate angle. Migration is rarely described in terms of its root causes. What is it that drives people off the land and forces them to migrate north? War, environmental crisis, and neoliberal economic restructuring that, by opening markets and removing state supports to popular classes, have destroyed rural economies, peasant livelihoods, all over the world. Much of Latin America, particular Mexico and Central America, have been experiencing the chaotic weather associated with climate change, extreme droughts punctuated by flooding. People are forced by all these factors to seek a better life abroad.

The media might not call counter-terror operations climate wars, but that’s certainly part of what drives them.

Greeting them upon arrival in the Global North – be that Texas or Sicily – are the ideology and infrastructure of xenophobia and militarized policing. The right, both in Europe and the US, uses racist, fear-mongering, anti-immigrant rhetoric to great effect in mobilizing their constituencies. Remember, the right needs emotionally charged electoral spectacle, because their real agenda is the upward redistribution of wealth from the working classes to the rich. But right-wing politicians cannot run on that platform: there aren’t enough rich people. So, the right must appeal to the real fears of regular people, but they pander to these fears using fake issues. Thus in the right-wing imaginary, it’s not the erosion of social democracy and the rise of deregulated, deindustrialized, hyper-privatized, financialized, boom and bust, neoliberal capitalism that has fucked the common person. No, it is foreigners and immigrants. Unfortunately, this rhetoric works with many.

People in the US are having a tough time, no doubt about it. Their economic security has deteriorated badly since the late ’70s. They are working more for less. All of that is true. But who does the right want them to blame? Immigrants, of course. If people don’t hear another explanation; they will go for it. For some people, there’s a cathartic element in projecting their anger towards the Other. There’s also the corporate interests who are making tons of money. These private prison firms actually don’t control that much of state prisons. It’s less than 10 percent. It’s very hard for them to manage medium- and maximum-security prisons. However, they dominate the immigrant detention facilities. On any given night, there’s over 30,000 people sitting in US detention facilities run by firms like Geo Group and Corrections Corporations of America.

These detainees are by and large, are just normal people. They don’t need to be managed in the expensive fashion required to run a medium- or maximum-security prison where, along with nonviolent offenders, there are lots of well organized, violent gangs and sociopathic criminals. It’s expensive to run prisons. That is why profit-driven prison companies shy away from them and prefer to prey on immigrants. Plus, immigrants don’t have many civil rights, so these security firms can do as they please. They have lobbied for legislation like SB 10-70 in Arizona.

At first glance the militarized border – by which I mean not only the fence, but the entire infrastructure of surveillance, policing, detention, judicial processing and all the inland ant-immigrant policing – doesn’t look like environmental violence, but that is part of it. Border militarization is taking place everywhere: the tragedies happening in the Mediterranean. I mean, a couple days ago, 800 people drowned.

The central point is this: Immigration and the militarized response to it is driven by the catastrophic convergence; that is, the combination of environmental crisis, neoliberalism and Cold War-era militarism. Many economies in the Global South cannot develop properly because they’ve had market reforms imposed on them by the EU, US, IMF and World Bank. People are forced to move north. These actions by the US and NATO have created a series of failed states: Yemen, Syria, parts of Egypt, Libya and so on.

Europe’s already militarizing its borders and detention processes. There’s also an insufficient response insofar as people are allowed to die. This is a choice European nations make. They decide whether they allocate resources to deal with these matters, and the decision has been made: Let the refugees die. Remember, Italy’s Mare Nostrum policy wasn’t simply a humanitarian mission.

It was also a program of intense policing and squalid detention usually followed up with summary deportation. It became too expensive, and the Italians ended it. Now even more migrants are drowning. The crisis on the Mediterranean is really horrific. It’s a nightmare. And it is important to remember that it was triggered in no small part by NATO’s destruction of Libya. Those are some examples of these dynamics intensifying since my book first came out.

Recently, you’ve been writing about the role of the state in the context of this catastrophic convergence. For instance, you mention the state’s response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: helicopters, weapons, armored vehicles, violence, etc. This is an example of how the US state has responded to climate change domestically. How have other states responded to environmental crises? What role do you see the state playing in the future?

You’re referring to some reporting I did right after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. It was an article I wrote for The Nation. What struck me was the fact that these local towns and states around the region were sending the only resources they had to New Orleans: weapons and militarized gear. After 30 years of the War on Drugs and a neoliberal restructuring of the state at the local level, which is not a reduction of the public sector but a transformation of the public sector, the only thing local governments had were weapons. So, less money for public housing, more money for private prisons. It’s a literal transfer of resources to different institutions, from a flawed social democratic institution like public housing, to an inherently evil, but still very expensive and publicly funded institution, like prison.

Since the late 1960s, the police forces of towns, counties, cities and states have been receiving a steady flow of federal resources in the form of money, training and hand-me-down military equipment. That means even fairly small towns now have SWAT teams. It’s utterly ridiculous. So at first glance, in New Orleans, all one saw were cops with guns and armored vehicles. Many people, mostly white males, loved the whole idea that this was the coming race war. But in reality, most of the violence came from New Orleans cops, not the volunteers who came to help. Basically, after speaking with many of the volunteers, it became clear that most of them had come with the best of intentions, but their efforts were, you could say, limited by their equipment and training.

They didn’t have search-and-rescue, or volunteer civil defense squads at the ready. They had extra machine guns and body armor. They brought what they had, and what they had were the accoutrements of war. The key decisions about that response had been made inadvertently long ago by the federal government when it started militarizing our criminal justice system. Anyone interested in the history of SWAT teams should check out the work of Peter Kraska. And for the whole history of the criminal justice buildup from the late ’60s to the present, readers can consult my first book, Lockdown America.

Does climate change ever have the effect of assisting progressive politics?

Sometimes disasters can bring out the best in governments. I was surprised that the Pakistani government really did a much better job than you would expect during the floods of 2011. The Pakistani government is a brutal and utterly corrupt entity. But the Pakistani military did a great job of using its helicopters to distribute food and water.

But more interestingly, the floods unleashed some latent democratic possibilities. In Pakistan, I interviewed displaced people in IDP camps. These were tent-camps on the edge of cities, not particularly nice places. I expected to find peasant farmers desperate to get back to the land. Instead people were telling me that they didn’t want to return home because many of these internal refugees were trying to escape their landlords. In much of Pakistan the zamindar, the feudal landlords, rule the villages with an iron fist. The peasants, the hari, are worked like slaves, intimidated by armed guards.

The floods momentarily broke the power of these landlords. These landlords keep many Pakistani peasants in debt peonage. You’re not supposed to do this in Pakistan. It’s actually against the law. But that doesn’t matter because the state is completely corrupt. The zamindar is law. They’ll use public school buildings as stables for their cattle. They’ll steal. It doesn’t matter. They have their local thugs who keep the peasants intimidated.

So, the shock of the flood actually allowed people to escape a very terrible situation, a situation that was even worse than the actual floods. Some of these people started to organize themselves into camps on the edge of the Karachi. How bad must it be in the countryside for people to want to live on the edge of Karachi? That’s a measure of how horrible it was. Some of these people started Survival Committees to fight against the landlords who would track down the peasants at refugee camps. These Survival Committees became very politicized. In some ways, this created the context for a real class struggle.

In short, climate shocks can shatter oppressive relationships and open possibilities for progressive organizing and resistance. To be clear, this is not a romanticization of these crises, but a recognition of the spaces they might create.

You mention mutual aid and how it was overhyped by the left in the aftermath of Katrina. I’m thinking of the same thing in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. You’ve been critical of the left in the US for not approaching and using the state apparatus when dealing with climate change and other ecological issues. Can you talk about your critique of the US left and why you think the state can, and should, be used in a positive manner?

Just to be clear, I think it is absolutely heroic and noble what activists have done. My critique is not of peoples’ actions, or of people; it’s of a lack of sophistication, and I hold myself partly accountable, as part of the US left, for our deficiencies. With Hurricane Sandy, the Occupy folks did some amazing stuff. Yet, at a certain level, their actions became charity. People were talking about how many meals they distributed. That’s charity. That is, in many ways, a neoliberal solution. That’s exactly what the capitalist system in the US would like: US citizens not demanding their government redistribute wealth from the 1% to the 99%. The capitalists love to see people turn to each other for money and aid. Unwittingly, that’s what the anarcho-liberal left fell into.

This is partly due a very American style of anti-state rhetoric that transcends left and right. The state is not just prisons or the military. It’s also Head Start, quality public education, the library, clean water, the EPA, the City University of New York system – a superb, affordable set of schools that turns out top-notch, working-class students with the lowest debt burdens in the country.

Instead of a robust program of government-subsidized and public housing, we have the prison system. Instead of well-funded public hospitals, we have profiteering private hospitals, funded by enormous amounts of public money.

There’s a reason the right is attacking these institutions. Why does the right hate the EPA and public education? Because they don’t want to pay to educate the working class, and they don’t want the working class educated. They don’t want to pay to clean up industry, and that’s what the EPA forces them to do. When the left embraces anarcho-liberal notions of self-help and fantasies of being outside of both government and the market, it cuts itself off from important democratic resources. The state should be seen as an arena of class struggle.

When the left turns its back on the social democratic features of government, stops making demands of the state, and fails to reshape government by using the government for progressive ends, it risks playing into the hands of the right. The central message of the American right is that government is bad and must be limited. This message is used to justify austerity. However, in most cases, neoliberal austerity does not actually involve a reduction of government. Typically, restructuring in the name of austerity is really just a transformation of government, not a reduction of it.

Over the last 35 years, the state has been profoundly transformed, but it has not been reduced. The size of the government in the economy has not gone down. The state has become less redistributive, more punitive. Instead of a robust program of government-subsidized and public housing, we have the prison system. Instead of well-funded public hospitals, we have profiteering private hospitals funded by enormous amounts of public money. Instead of large numbers of well-paid public workers, we have large budgets for private firms that now subcontract tasks formerly conducted by the government.

We need to defend the progressive work of government, which, for me, means immediately defending public education. To be clear, I do not mean merely vote or ask nicely, I mean movements should attack government and government officials, target them with protests, make their lives impossible until they comply. This was done very well with the FCC. And my hat goes off to the activists who saved the internet for us. The left should be thinking about the ways in which it can leverage government.

The utility of government was very apparent in Vermont during the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. The rains from that storm destroyed or damaged over a hundred bridges, many miles of road and rail, and swept away houses. Thirteen towns were totally stranded. There was a lot of incredible mutual aid; people just started clearing debris and helping each other out. But within all this, town government was a crucial connective tissue.

Due to the tradition of New England town meeting, people are quite involved with their local government. Anarchists should love town meetings. It is no coincidence that Murray Bookchin spent much of his life in Vermont. Town meetings are a form of participatory budgeting without the lefty rigmarole.

As we enter the crisis of climate change, it’s important to be aware of the actually existing legal and institutional mechanisms with which we can contain and control capital.

More importantly, the state government managed to get a huge amount of support from the federal government. The state in turn pushed this down to the town level. Without that federal aid, Vermont would still be in ruins. Vermont is not a big enough political entity to shake down General Electric, a huge employer in Vermont. The Vermont government can’t pressure GE to pay for the rebuilding of local infrastructure, but the federal government can.

Vermont would still be a disaster if it didn’t get a transfer of funds and materials from the federal government. Similarly in New York City, the public sector does not get enough praise for the many things it did well after super storm Sandy. Huge parts of the subway system were flooded, yet it was all up and running within the month.

As an aside, one of the dirty little secrets about the Vermont economy is that it’s heavily tied-up with the military industrial complex. People think Vermont is all about farming and boutique food processing. Vermont has a pretty diverse economy, but agriculture plays a much smaller role than you might think, about 2 percent of employment. Meanwhile, the state’s industrial sector, along with the government, is one of the top employers, at about 13 percent of all employment. Most of this work is in what’s called precision manufacturing, making stuff like: high performance nozzles, switches, calibrators, and stuff like the lenses used in satellites, or handcrafting the blades that go in GE jet engines. But I digress … As we enter the crisis of climate change, it’s important to be aware of the actually existing legal and institutional mechanisms with which we can contain and control capital.

I often joke with my anarchist and libertarian friends and ask if their mutual-aid collectives can run Chicago’s sanitation system or operate satellites. Of course, on one level, I’m joking, but on another level, I’m being quite serious. I don’t think activists on the left properly understand the complexity of modern society. A simple example would be how much sewage is produced in a single day in a country with 330 million people. How do people expect to manage these day-to-day issues? In your opinion, is there a lack of sophistication on the left in terms of what, exactly, the state does and how it functions in our day-to-day lives?

It’s sobering to reflect on just how complex the physical systems of modern society are. And though it is very unpopular to say among most American activists, it is important to think about the hierarchies and bureaucracies that are necessarily part of technologically complex systems.

The EPA has the power to actually de-carbonize the economy.

A friend of mine is a water engineer in Detroit, and he was talking to me about exactly what you’re mentioning. The sewer system in Detroit is mind-bogglingly enormous and also very dilapidated and very expensive. To not have infrastructure publicly maintained, even though the capitalist class might not admit this, would ultimately undermine capital accumulation.

You asked if there is a lack of sophistication. Look, I’m trying to make helpful criticisms to my comrades on the left, particularly to activists who work so hard and valiantly. I’ve criticized divestment as a strategy, yet I support it. I criticized the false claims that divesting fossil fuels stocks would hurt fossil fuel companies. The fossil fuel divestment movement started out making that claim. To its credit, the movement has stopped making such claims. Now, they say that it will remove the industries “social license,” which is a problematic concept that comes from the odious world of “corporate social responsibility.” However, now, students are becoming politicized, and that’s always great news.

For several years, some of us have been trying to get climate activists, the climate left, to take the EPA and the Clean Air Act seriously. The EPA has the power to actually de-carbonize the economy. The divestment logic is: Schools will divest, then fossil fuel companies will be held in greater contempt than they are now? Honestly, they’re already hated by everybody. That does what? That creates the political pressure to stop polluting? We already have those regulations: the Clean Air Act. There was a Supreme Court Case, Massachusetts v. EPA, that was ruled on in 2007. It said the EPA must regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Lots of professional activists in the climate movement, at least up until very recently, have been totally unaware of this.

Consequently, they are not making demands of the EPA. They are not making demands of their various local, state and federal environmental agencies. These entities should be enforcing the laws. They have the power. It’s not because the people in the climate movement are bad people or unintelligent. They’re dedicated and extremely smart. It’s because there’s an anti-state ethos within the environmental movement and a romanticization of the local.

Nixon-era laws can be used to sue developers, polluters, etc. You might not be able to stop them, but you can slow them down.

On a side note, I don’t think all of this stuff about local economies is helpful. Sometimes I think this sort of thinking doesn’t recognize how the global political economy works. The comrades at Jacobin magazine have called this anarcho-liberalism. I think that is a great way to describe the dominant ideology of US left, which is both anarchist and liberal in its sensibilities. This ideology is fundamentally about ignoring government, and instead, being obsessed with scale, size, and, by extension, authenticity. Big things are bad. Small things are good. Planning is bad. Spontaneity is good. It is as insidious as it is ridiculous. But it is the dominant worldview among the US left.

Do you really think that this is the best way to approach the industry, through mobilizing state resources?

Look, the fossil fuel industry is the most powerful force the world has ever seen. Be honest, what institution could possibly stand up to them? The state. That doesn’t mean it will. Right now, government is captured by these corporate entities. But, it has, at least in theory, an obligation to the people. And it also has the laws that we need to wipe out the fossil fuel industrial complex. This sounds fantastical and nuts, but I don’t think it is. I’ve been harping on this in articles and a little bit at the end of Tropic of Chaos. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, Nixon-era laws can be used to sue developers, polluters, etc. You might not be able to stop them, but you can slow them down. The Clean Air Act basically says that if science can show that smoke-stack pollution is harmful to human health, it has to be regulated.

If there was a movement really pushing the government, and making the argument that the only safe level of CO2 emissions is essentially zero … We have the laws in place. We have the enabling legislation to shut down the fossil fuel industry. We should use the government to levy astronomical fines on the fossil fuel companies for pollution. And we should impose them at such a level that it would undermine their ability to remain competitive and profitable.

Christian Parenti is an investigative fellow at the Nation Institute, an award-winning journalist and author. He currently teaches liberal studies at NYU and is a contributing editor at the Nation Magazine. He has reported extensively from Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. His latest book is Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.