Saturday, March 10, 2007
Michael Parenti Speaks on “The Culture Struggle”
Professor Exposes the Breadth of the Owning Class’s Control
By MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Michael Parenti, Berkeley-based historian and political scientist, came to San Diego in early March for several speaking engagements including one at the Malcolm X Library March 7 to promote his current book, The Culture Struggle. Despite its title, Parenti explained at the start of his talk, the book isn’t about the so-called “culture wars” — the duels between Right and Left over issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, government funding of art and the like. Rather, Parenti said, “It’s about how to think about culture, especially with regard to gender, class and race.”
Parenti made it clear early on that he was coming from a classically Marxist perspective that sees the conflict between the handful of people in society who own its means of production and the vast majority that support them by their labor as the central issue in any class-divided society. In his lecture and in his book, he used the word “culture” in the Marxist sense, not merely to mean a society’s art or entertainment but the entire complex of beliefs an owning class wants the working class to have about society and their role in it, and the institutions that train people from an early age to think about things the way their rulers want them to think.
“Most establishment literature about culture treats it as neutral,” Parenti said, “but culture is really a highly charged political thing. Cultures are manipulated and anything but neutral. Most of what we call ‘culture’ is formed by the dominant class. A slave society develops a culture that supports it. The ante-bellum South was a slave culture that created a lot of ‘research’ to ‘prove’ that African-Americans were inferior.”
While culture is not an abstraction divorced from the economic realities of the society that produces it, “it seems that way because we pick up so much of our culture subliminally,” Parenti added. In fact, he argued that culture wouldn’t be as effective a means of indoctrination if it weren’t picked up subliminally. “It’s mediated through a social structure, a network of relationships from peers, families, social groups and, increasingly, corporations, schools, media and the military,” he said. “These institutions are regarded as ‘neutral,’ but they’re endowed with specific agendas.”
Parenti conceded that enculturation — the process by which people are conditioned through culture to accept the economic and social order they’re born into as the best of all possible worlds — isn’t perfect. If it were, he noted ruefully in his book, he’d have never been able to write it and no one reading it would have been able to understand it. But he stressed the importance of culture in a class society as the owning class’s and the ruling class’s (which he defined as “the politically active part of the owning class”) primary tool for getting the vast majority of the working class to accept their subservient position as the natural order of things.
“Culture is linked to class power,” Parenti said. “Class is a neglected concept, and when the term ‘class power’ is dismissed as itself ideological, it’s easier to dispose of other inconvenient concepts like ‘class struggle’ and ‘class war.’ A lot of academic research on class exists, but it deals with it simply as a matter of income level. Social scientists and media pundits have perfected the art of looking at class without looking at capitalism. There isn’t any analysis of the most important class, the owning class.”
Parenti cited the heirs of Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, as the richest and most influential family in the worldwide capitalist owning class. “They invented and developed nothing,” he said. “They’ve made their money by working people to death. Of the 50 richest people in America, five are Waltons. Their total fortune is $78 to $91 billion. Not only that, but not much is said about their class power, about how this enormous wealth is translated into political power. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and TV won’t talk about class the way I am now. They never talk about social power. They give attention to every class except the owning class, and to every power except corporate power.”
One commonplace Left idea Parenti particularly scorns is the one about how oppression based on race, gender, sexual identity or any other factor can somehow replace class in explaining how an hierarchical society functions. In his speech, he particularly ridiculed the “identity politics” that ruled much of the American Left in the 1970’s and 1980’s, by which people picked up ideological brownie points based on how many oppressed groups they were members of — which led to the joke at the time that the perfect identity-politics Leftist was a blind Native American Lesbian (female, person of color, disabled, Queer). Parenti’s position on identity politics is classically Marxist: racism, sexism and other similar prejudices are important, but mainly as ways the owning class keeps the working class internally divided so groups within the working class fight each other instead of coming together to challenge the owning class.
Another point Parenti made was that culture is increasingly becoming a commodity in its own right, something to be bought and sold in the marketplace rather than created by individuals outside the market economy. “In America and much of the world we’re seeing the death of popular culture and the rise of mass culture,” he explained. “America’s working-class culture couldn’t survive the twin blows of the 1950’s: television and McCarthyism. You still have folk culture in the world, but the very term ‘folk culture’ is an admission that we buy most of our culture today. We don’t sing anymore; we buy CD’s and pay $40 apiece for tickets to sit with 20,000 other people and hear someone else sing. We have high-school kids forming rock bands, but they’re not doing that to create their own culture; they’re looking for a big break in the culture industry. Most culture has become commodified.”
More recent developments in the culture industry both bear out Parenti’s analysis and call for some modification. On one level, the Internet has spawned a revival of amateur culture through sites like MySpace and YouTube — both of which began as entrepreneurial enterprises and were later sold to mega-corporations. Enough ordinary people are creating content for these sites without getting permission from the corporate gatekeepers of the culture industry that the Los Angeles Times, the hometown paper of a significant portion of the American culture industry, keeps running articles about how dangerous this is for the bottom lines of the giant corporations that control our commercial culture and raising the possibility that soon it may no longer be profitable for a media company to spend millions on a new movie or band because much of the young audience is more interested in the do-it-yourself culture they and their peers create.
At the same time, Thomas Frank and other Left-leaning culture critics have noted that the speed and efficiency with which giant corporations co-opt grass-roots culture is increasing. Rap/hip-hop music is a clear-cut recent example of how, within a decade, an alternative “street” form of cultural expression was turned into a corporate product — and for the most part the rappers themselves (unlike the rock ’n’ rollers of a previous generation, who felt a need to pretend that they were still edgy, countercultural, grass-roots artists even while recording for major companies and doing corporate-sponsored tours) have joyously gone along with the process and celebrated the values of capitalism and conspicuous consumption in their songs, videos and personal appearances. Various articles have described an entire new industry devoted to hiring people to trawl the emerging grass-roots culture of young people looking for new popular expressions that can be commodified.
What’s more, though sites like MySpace and YouTube may provide an outlet for grass-roots DIY media content, the very names of the enterprises reveal that they are not generating a “working-class culture” in the sense Parenti meant when he used the term. Rather, the young people who post to those sites are seeking exposure and recognition strictly as individuals, in an era in which the corporate owning class is deliberately seeking to wipe out any vestige of class solidarity. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher summed up this attitude when she famously said, “There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals” — and it’s clear that one of the most important cultural strategies of today’s owning class is to make sure that people see themselves exclusively as individuals, responsible for their own material success or failure.
In The Culture Struggle, Parenti expresses this primarily in a withering chapter on the so-called “New Age” movement, which arose out of the progressive counterculture of the 1960’s but moved defiantly away from any attempt to build class solidarity and challenge the existing political, social or economic order and instead adopted an attitude Parenti calls “hyper-individualism.” As he explains in his book, “Instead of looking critically at the society around us and involving ourselves in activities that might help put the world — and ourselves — on a better road, hyper-individualism invites us to plunge into self-absorption, to find a universe of empowerment entirely within ourselves. It is solipsism writ large.”
As Parenti is well aware, the New Age movement may have carried the cult of individualism to extreme levels, but as a cultural strategy capitalism, especially American capitalism, has always relied on it to persuade people that their economic success or failure is entirely their own responsibility. “Under capitalism, individuated self-reliance is glorified — often by corporate interests that themselves depend on the government for multi-billion dollar subsidies and supports,” he writes. “The myth of rugged individualism features people who pursue their personal gratification free from the needs of others, almost apart from any larger social context. The movies and television dramas produced by the corporate media regularly portray fearless protagonists who single-handedly vanquish evil forces and set things aright, usually with generous applications of violence: individualized culture heroes for an individualized culture.”
Another development Parenti scorns is so-called “cultural relativism,” the belief that individuals raised in one culture can’t judge the rules, laws and mores of a society whose culture is different. While he said that multiculturalism — which he defined as “respect for other cultures” — is positive, he argued that it can be carried to extremes and used to defend highly offensive practices that maintain societies even more stratified and class-bound than our own.
“You can’t say that one culture is never better than another,” Parenti explained. “In Saudi Arabia, they used that argument to defend the stoning of women for adultery. The idea of Black inferiority was a central part of American Southern culture during both slavery and segregation. In Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism and worshiping the military were essential parts of the culture. Most evils can be justified by cultural relativism. We must challenge the repressive features of all cultures, including our own.”
Parenti cited the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in 1948 and signed by over 150 countries, as a set of cultural values he considers absolute. Among these are “life, liberty and security of person,” regardless of race, gender, religion, national or social origin, political beliefs or other status; freedom of speech and assembly, affordable education and equal pay for equal work; freedom from fear or want, slavery or servitude, torture or degrading treatment; a standard of living adequate for the well-being of one’s family and a right to food, clothing, housing, medical care, social services and security. He pointed out that the United States signed on to the parts of the Universal Declaration that guaranteed political and religious rights similar to those in our own constitution but not the guarantees of economic rights, on the ground that they would require an undue level of government interference in the private economy.
“Most of the countries [that signed the Universal Declaration] honor it more in the breach than the observance, but they recognize it as important,” Parenti said. “Regardless of the culture, a starving child is a starving child, a raped woman is a raped woman, and an enslaved worker is an enslaved worker. There are these human experiences that transcend culture.”