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Christian Parenti on the State, Humanity as Part of Nature and the Malleability of Capitalism

The author, journalist and professor discusses how human society has and can be a positive force to protect the environment.

Christian Parenti. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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. We discussed the state, nature, climate change, Marxism, capitalism, regulation, activism and the future. This is the second part of a two-part interview. Read the first part here.

Vincent Emanuele: Much of the green washing, or capitalism’s attempt to brand itself as green, focuses on localism and anti-government, market-driven programs. Do you think this phobia of the state among the US left is a result of previous failed political experiments? How much of this ideology is imposed from outside forces?

Christian Parenti: Some state phobia comes from the American political mythology of rugged individualism; some comes from the fundamentally Southern, Jeffersonian tradition of states’ rights. Fear of the federal government by Southern elites goes back to the founding of the country. The Hamiltonian versus Jeffersonian positions on government are fundamental to understanding American politics. I wrote about this for Jacobin magazine in a piece called “Reading Hamilton from the Left.”

Lurking just beneath the surface of states’ rights is, of course, plantation rights. Those plantations, places like Monticello, were America’s equivalent of feudal manors where, in a de facto sense, economic, legal and military power were all bound up together and located in the private household of the planter. Those Virginian planters were the original localistas.

Nor did that project end with the fall of slavery, or the end of de jure segregation in the 1960s. Southern elites didn’t want Yankees telling them what to do; how to treat their slaves, how to organize their towns, how to run their elections, how to treat the environment – none of that! The South is a resource colony and its regional elites, some of them now running multinational corporations and holding important posts in the US government, believe they have a right to do what they wish with the people and landscape. Historically, that’s a large part of what localism and local democracy meant in the South. It meant that White local elites were “free” – free to push Black people around, free to feed racist fantasies to the White working class. They didn’t want interference from the outside. So, some of that anti-statist ideology comes from that plantation tradition.

The great, unmentioned contradiction in this self-fantasy is the fact that US capitalism has always been heavily dependent on the state.

Another part of it comes from the real failures and crimes of state socialism, though state socialism also had, and in Cuba still has, many successes. The social welfare record of what we used to call “actually existing socialism” was pretty impressive. But there were also the problems of repression, surveillance and bureaucratization, which were partly the result of capitalist encirclement, partly the result of the ideological hubris rooted in ideological overconfidence in the allegedly scientific power of Marxism, partly the result of simple corruption among socialism’s political class. These real problems were central themes in the Cold War West’s educational and ideological apparatus of (generally right-wing) messaging from the press and the political class. In this discourse, communism was the state, while freedom was the private sector. Thus, the United States and freedom became embodied in popular notions of the private sector and individualism.

Of course, the great, unmentioned contradiction in this self-fantasy is the fact that American capitalism has always been heavily, heavily dependent on the state. Modern society, despite its fantasies about itself, is intensely cooperative and collective. Look at how complex its physical systems are; that cannot be achieved without massive levels of coordination and collective cooperation, much of it provided by the rules and regulations of government. The knee-jerk anti-statism, what the folks at Jacobin call “anarcho-liberalism,” is also rooted in experience. The less social power you have, the more the state is experienced as an invasive, demeaning, oppressive and potentially, very violent bureaucracy. Neoliberalism would not have gotten this far if there wasn’t an element of truth to this critique of its bureaucracy and regulation. It has also used ideas that have old cultural tractions, like freedom.

Such are the contradictions of the modern democratic state in capitalist society. Government is rational, supportive, humane, [and offers] redistribution in the form of Social Security, high-quality public schools, environmental regulation, the Voting Rights Act and other federal civil rights laws that have helped break hegemonic power of local and regional bigots. But government is also militarized policing, the bloated prison system, spying on a vast scale; it is child protective services taking children from loving mothers on the basis of bureaucratic traps, corrupt corporate welfare at every level from town government to federal military contracting. The racist, sexist, plutocratic and techno-bureaucratic features of the state create fertile ground for people to turn their backs on the whole idea of government.

What has been the impact of the right’s ability to effectively propagandize the White working class in the US?

Rightist intellectuals, academics, journalists, media tycoons, university presidents and loudmouth politicians work diligently to capture and form the raw experience of everyday oppression into an ideological common sense. To be clear, I use that term in the Gramscian sense, in which common sense refers to ruling class ideology that is so hegemonic as to be absorbed and naturalized by the people. The constant libertarian assault on the radio, in newspapers, on the television, this drumbeat of anti-government discourse is an old story – but still very important for understanding the anarcho-liberal sensibility. Just tune in to AM radio late on a weekday evening and listen to the anti-government vitriol. It’s sort of wild.

Someone could do an interesting study, Ph.D., in unpacking the cultural history of all this. It is tempting to speculate that deindustrialization, having disempowered and made anxious many huge sections of the working class, opens the way for fantasies of empowerment. The anti-statist, rugged individualist common sense is also always simultaneously a fantasy of empowerment. White men are particularly vulnerable to these fantasies. The classic guy who calls into the batshit crazy, late night, right-wing talk radio show is a middle-aged White man. Listen closely to the rage and you hear fantasies of independence. In this rhetoric, guns and gun rights become an obviously phallic symbol of individual empowerment, agency, self worth, responsibility etc.

We need to drastically restructure the state. We need it mobilized and able to transform the economy.

But most importantly, we have to think about how all of this anti-state ideology is being stirred up with investments from elites. The neoliberal project is to transform the state through anti-statist rhetoric and narratives. They sell the idea that people need to be liberated from the state. But then push policies that imprison people while liberating and pampering capital. It is hard for the left to see itself in this sketch – the angry, beaten-down, middle-aged White guy calling in from his basement or garage. But I think these much-documented corporate efforts to build neoliberal consent permeate the entire culture and infect us all, if even just a little bit.

This is the intellectually toxic environment in which young activists are approaching the question of the climate emergency. Young activists should be approaching the climate crisis the way the left approached the economic crisis during the Great Depression. We need to drastically restructure the state. We need it mobilized and able to transform the economy. The New Deal was imperfect, of course. It left domestic workers and farm workers out of the Fair Labor Standards Act. It was inherently racist. It dammed rivers and was environmentally destructive. However, the New Deal was radical in its general empowerment of labor; its distributional outcomes were progressive and it achieved a modernizing transformation of American capitalism. Not to overstate the case, but the New Deal could be a reference point for thinking about the beginning of a green transformation that seeks to euthanize the fossil fuel industry. We have to precipitously reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build a new power sector. That much is very clear.

However, let me be clear: Shutting down the fossil fuel industry – mitigating the climate crisis – is not a solution for the environmental crisis. Climate change is only one part of the multifaceted environmental crisis. Shutting down the fossil fuel industry would not automatically end overfishing, deforestation, soil erosion, habitat loss, toxification of the environment etc. But carbon mitigation is the most immediately pressing issue we face. The science is very clear on this. Climate change is the portion of the overall crisis that must be solved immediately so as to buy time to deal with all the other aspects of the crisis. Because I take the political implications of climate science very seriously, I am something of a carbon fundamentalist.

As you mention, it’s not just climate change. We’re not just talking about a warming planet; we’re also referring to deforestation, toxification, overfishing and so on. What you’re saying about the state reminds me of John Bellamy Foster’s work. I know you’re influenced by him and people like Jason Moore, Neil Smith and David Harvey, among others who are examining Marxism within the context of ecological devastation. Can you talk about these influences?

All of those people have had a profound impact on my work; I worked closely with Neil and David Harvey during several years of post-docs at CUNY [the City University of New York]. Though many scholars have contributed to the new green Marxism, John Bellamy Foster most clearly crystalized all the insights that have been developing throughout Marxism for a very long time. Relying on the work of all sorts of people and his own amazing research, Foster made the convincing case that ecology is not merely one part of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, but rather it is the central point.

Ecology is not merely one part of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, but rather it is the central point.

Think about it: What is the economy? What is a critique of political economy, if not a critique of human-environment interactions? It was Foster who drew attention to Marx’s concern with “the universal metabolism of nature” and the “rift” within it that is the capitalist mode of production. Essential for understanding all of this is to make a distinction between the amount of ink Marx and Engels spent on the question of metabolism – it was not a lot – and to focus instead on kind of intellectual work rendered by those comments upon the coherence of Marx’s writing as a whole. In other words, they didn’t write about metabolism all the time, but the things they did write about it made everything else vastly more profound and coherent.

Apparent throwaway comments actually become critical for deciphering the totality of Marx’s critique. In Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program, he famously says labor is not the only source of value; nature is as well because it produces utilities, use values, that when captured in production become wealth, exchange values. Marx only says this in passing, but it’s a significant point. It’s not a fully developed idea, but it is absolutely crucial to understand Marx’s thinking. Or let me argue by analogy (a practice that Marx openly disdained), just because a car key is small and simple relative to an automobile, doesn’t mean it is an unimportant part of the machinery.

What are the limitations to using Marx’s work when thinking about ecology?

The tradition requires more elaboration. Marxism as ecology has a bright future ahead of it, if not politically, then at least intellectually. We’re seeing a renaissance in Marxist thought. This is just the beginning, regardless of what you wish to call it: eco-socialism, political ecology, ecological Marxism or world ecology, as Jason Moore calls it. I am a bit agnostic on the labeling. However, the idea of rethinking our place in nature through the Marxist tradition is very important.

One of the key things to overcome is this dichotomy between human beings and external nature. There is a disagreement between Foster and Moore on the importance of this conceptual dichotomy. In some Monthly Review articles, nature can appear as distinct, as standing in opposition to the social. Moore critiques this nature versus society thinking, calling it “the Cartesian-dualism,” and he wants to transcend or blast through it. And Moore is critical of Foster, who edits MR, for falling back into the nature versus society distinction.

Let’s be clear about this: It’s very dangerous to see human beings as outside of something called nature.

Foster has responded that when his language appears to slip into this distinction, it is, as it was for Marx, merely a rhetorical concession for the sake of clarity. Foster’s argument is that it is impossible to analyze reality without resorting to abstractions that “temporarily isolate” distinct parts of the whole. In other words, critique requires abstract – the artificial separation of the whole into component pieces for the sake of analysis and critique. But in reality these parts are always already dialectically bound up together in the whole. In other words, Foster said though he writes of nature on the one hand, and society on the other, these are merely strategic, temporary formulations and not the real essence of his theory. That is a fair defense on Foster’s part and he does not actually think through the Cartesian dualism. Foster is not a closet conservationist – horror of horrors that would be!

But at the same time, Jason Moore’s insistence on a different language is really important. The temporary abstraction of the nature/society distinction is insidious and has a way of pushing us back into the Cartesian dualism. Actually getting beyond it, rather than just problematizing and complicating it, is a very real and important challenge. Let’s be clear about this: It’s very, very dangerous to see human beings as outside of something called nature. If that’s the basis from which one begins, then the conclusion is almost automatically Malthusian. If nature is this pristine Other being victimized by Man, then the solution is for humans to leave. Sadly, that notion is at the heart of most American environmentalism. Just look at the misanthropic politics of deep ecology. That sort of politics is not appealing to most people. The average person on the planet is not going to get behind a political movement that tells people, “You are the problem!”

Also, that position isn’t fair to the entire historical record. There are many examples of people increasing biological diversity rather than decreasing it. Native American burning of the landscape is a perfect example. Anthropogenic fire in North America increased biological diversity. World history is full of such examples. Actually, for more on this, check out the new book The Social Lives of Forests edited by Kathleen Morrison and Susan Hecht. Of course, we know lots more about the many infamously destructive, life-limiting impacts of humans upon the environment. Even before the Industrial Revolution, human beings drove extinction processes. Under capitalism, all of that accelerates. But that is not our only record. And we can choose as a species to emulate the better parts of human history.

We can play a life-creating role or the opposite.

In this regard, Jason Moore insists on talking about the Capitalocene rather than the Anthropocene. I am down with that, but following from David R. Montgomery’s book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, I think there’s a strong case to be made for the Anthropocene, measured by its geological, stratigraphic markers starting 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. The key point in all this is human beings are not intruders upon a distinct, separate thing called nature. As constituent parts of the universal metabolism of nature we, like other species, actively create our environment and have done so throughout the entire history of our species. We can play a life-creating role or the opposite. Back in the late 1980s, Susan Hecht showed how indigenous people in the Amazon created biodiversity. They moved plants around. Hunter and gatherer societies have done this throughout the world.

Anthropogenic fire has long played an important role in the universal metabolism of nature. It was our ancestor Homo erectus that tamed fire, used it to cook, and most likely to shape the landscape either intentionally or by mistake. Homo sapiens have used fire on a vast scale. Native Americans and pastoralist societies in southern Africa used fire to create fecund, hunt easier, open forests and grazeable grasslands. A lot of this goes back to William Cronon’s first book Changes in the Land in which he examined the environmental history of New England before and just after White settlement. Pre-contact New England was not some sort of pristine, natural place. Native Americans didn’t necessarily tread lightly in the region. No, in fact, indigenous people throughout North America had a robust and quite aggressive role in shaping the ecosystem. Some communities would burn the landscape twice a year. This created edge habitat meadows amidst forests, the ideal environment for deer.

This wasn’t a mild intervention. It was aggressive and transformative, but it was also productive in the sense that it created more biodiversity and more life. Even if there are more examples of humans diminishing biodiversity, it’s important to acknowledge that is not the only role we have played as a species. Neil Smith called the human contribution, social nature. Jason Moore calls it the oikeios. The deep ecology, left-conservationist version of environmentalism is fundamentally defeatist. If nature is the pristine other and we humans are intruders, then the implied solution is get rid of human beings. If that’s the case, then “be the change you want to see” and kill yourself.

Can you talk more about the role of humans in undoing ecological devastation?

Let’s look at the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, and all those very important Nixon-era laws. I’m from New England, and when I was a kid, any stream or river near human settlement in that region was usually filthy, full of gray viscous scum from the nutrients and soap scum from farms, factories and septic systems. The stream running through Westminster West, Vermont, where I mostly grew up, was completely disgusting.

The human undoing of human-made problems isn’t super inspiring. But it illustrates our better potential as a species.

But, shortly after I was born, strict federal rules on water quality went into effect, and within 10 to 15 years, one could see the improvement. Now those same streams are much cleaner. There are even bald eagles on the Connecticut River hunting for fish. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. When I was a kid, there were no bald eagles or hawks in New England. That was because of DDT. But DDT was banned, and now the water is cleaner, the fish populations have rebounded and thus the ecosystem is rebuilding. This rebound is because of human activity.

Specifically, it was human activity in the form of government regulation: The Clean Water Act forced industry to develop and deliver new technologies. That said, let me acknowledge the counterargument: The human undoing of human-made problems isn’t super inspiring. But it illustrates our better potential as a species. And these anecdotes illustrate Neil Smith’s idea of social nature. The return of those eagles on the river is the product of human environment making, if you will, or remaking.

Do you think humans require alternative narratives to combat this ideology that human beings are the enemy of the environment?

We have to see ourselves as protagonists within bio-physical reality, protagonists who do not just destroy. We are not just the disease agent within bio-physical reality; we can also be part of the immune system.

Here is another example of humans as life supporting, sustainable, agents within the biosphere. In parts of Yunnan, China, people have been terrace farming paddy rice in the same place for up to 1,300 years straight without environmental crisis. That’s a long time. This isn’t just an ideological point to score or a rhetorical argument to make. People actually feel relieved when they have this argument explained to them. Generally, people don’t want to destroy the planet. We rely on it. Fundamentally, the misanthropic stuff doesn’t make sense to people.

We are not bad, as an animal species. The society that has been created is bad. Humans create all sorts of societies. Read anthropology and history. Humans create all kinds of weird, complex and interesting systems and cultures. There’s an unlimited potential for human beings in terms of constructing society. There is nothing that says we have to endure hierarchical forms of government, economies, cultures and so forth. You can find plenty of examples to show this. The problem is that we’re living in what could be considered the worst possible set of social relations. And that makes all of this extremely difficult to navigate at times.

Many natural scientists are actually confirming a lot of left thought. For example, look at Stanford University primatologist Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s work. He’s essentially arguing that if baboons can drastically alter their social relations in short periods of time, humans don’t have any legitimate excuses for not doing so. What’s realistic to accomplish in the short-term, while understanding that capitalism must be eventually abolished in order to ensure the survival of the species and planet?

Let’s be clear about short-term versus long-term. Capitalism is unsustainable. That much we understand. The science is very clear: We have to make drastic reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions. That could be done by creating a whole new social system, but I don’t think that the left has the capacity to totally transform the economy into some socialist economy in time to avoid climate catastrophe. Capitalism does have a record of achieving environmental reforms at the local level. I would also draw a distinction between capital and capitalism. Capitalism is a social system that involves society, government, culture and capital. Capital does not have this capacity, but capitalism does. It’s been reformed throughout history. We’ve cleaned up our cities. They used to be completely filthy places where people and industries were polluting and dumping everywhere.

Ultimately, capitalist society is unsustainable. You cannot have systems that just grow and grow forever on a finite planet. It’s that simple, really. We do not have a century or two centuries to deal with this. We have to deal with climate change, that is to say, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, immediately, if we are to buy ourselves some time to adapt. So, when I make the case for a kind of green developmentalist state that could force a reform of capitalism, I don’t say that because it’s my ideal version of society. But I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that we must change absolutely everything in order to change how humans get our energy. However, I do think it’s realistic to force the existing system to change where it gets energy from, so we can buy time and deal with all the other ecological and political problems.

Changing class relations within society does not necessarily mean changing technologies and fuel sources.

Even the best-case scenario tells us that certain aspects of climate change are already locked in place. We need to achieve very deep emissions reductions immediately. We have to be honest about the bad track record of socialism. This is another legacy of the Cold War. People have been taught not to identify with the history of actually existing socialism, so it’s easy to discard it. During the Cold War, the US left mostly condemned the record of existing socialism, and invoked some other form of anarchism or socialism. But this distancing and condemnation meant we haven’t admitted to the fact that changing class relations within society does not necessarily mean changing technologies and fuel sources.

Look at our comrades in Latin America right now, in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador: They are making real, if incremental, progress on the class front, but not at all in their relationship to fossil fuels. In other words, decarbonization is distinct and does not follow automatically, or naturally, from socialist political experiments.

Back to my point about mitigation: Capitalist society can be forced to do things that capital doesn’t like. Really, that’s the entire history of capitalism: reforms and drastic leaps. Capital needs barriers to innovate. It needs regulations in order to create and be innovative. It needs political crises like war in order to innovate and create new infrastructures and technologies. Capital innovates beyond the barriers, but it requires limits to provoke that innovation. Regulation helps to ensure this process of innovation by containing capital and forcing it, like the flow of water, in different directions. We have the means to force capitalism to build a new energy sector. I don’t think that’s utopian, and I don’t think it’s the solution to our many problems. It’s simply something that can be done. And, it’s a realistic way to slow down ecological collapse and buy time to keep struggling on all fronts.

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