Transcript published on the George Mason University Cultural Studies website. Audio downloadable from the Internet Archive. Original interview on 14 February 2019.
Christian Parenti: If the state is going to be summoned by these disasters and crises, what will its reaction be? And that is I think up for grabs. There is this precedent of trying to make people whole, giving aid to people, but there’s also a militarized response. And we see both of these happening.
Richard Todd Stafford: That was the voice of Christian Parenti, who was interviewed in February 2019 by me, Richard Todd Stafford, in conjunction with the Cultural Studies Colloquium at George Mason University. The Cultural Studies department at George Mason University focuses on interdisciplinary research and doctoral training. This year’s colloquium series examines capitalism, climate change, and culture.
The fall colloquium posed the question: “how did we get into this mess?” While the spring 2019 colloquium poses the question: “where do we go from here?”
Christian Parenti is an Associate Professor at the John Jay College of the City University of New York. He developed an influential argument concerning the relationship between climate change, social instability, and violence across the globe in Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.
His provocative writings concerning climate change have appeared in Jacobin, Dissent, The Nation, a collected volume edited by past podcast guest Jason W Moore and elsewhere. As part of the spring 2019 Cultural Studies Colloquium series on capitalism climate and culture, we’re asking the question: “Where do we go from here?” Christian will be giving a talk entitled “The Storm State: The Political Economy of Government in the Age of Climate Crisis.”
Welcome to the podcast, Christian.
Christian Parenti: Thank you very much for having me.
Richard Todd Stafford: We’re very glad to have you. So, I would like to start out with a phrase you coined in the Tropic of Chaos book. This book has proven much more insightful than perhaps we would have liked, given the subsequent trajectory of politics, especially in the United States and Europe.
In it you describe the “politics of the armed life boat” — an evocative phrase, but also one that I think describes a lot of what we’re seeing. So, what did you mean by this? And, specifically, when you describe it you tell us that it’s bound to fail. So why is the “politics of the armed lifeboat” bound to fail?
Christian Parenti: Well, the politics of the armed lifeboat is just a kind of right-wing politics that acknowledges the environmental crisis, but doesn’t seek to deal with the fundamental causes of that. It just tries to adapt through exclusion and violence and authoritarian government. We see that along the US border.
And it’s bound to fail in the long run because if we don’t deal with the fundamental driving cause, if we don’t mitigate the causes of climate change, it will become self-compounding and run away.
What we do know is that right now human-caused emissions are the main source of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But as we hit tipping points ecological systems, like the permafrost in the Arctic will breakdown and increasingly the main cause or source of emissions will be the dying of forests, the burning of forests. the emission of methane from underneath the Arctic permafrost.
And once that happens, then a whole kind of self-fueling feedback loop will kick in and then it doesn’t matter how rich you are or how well fortified you are: the jig is up.
So that’s how it’ll fail in the long run.
But the problem is it’ll work and does work — I mean it’s happening now — and it does work, in the short run, If you don’t mind living in a gated community, or if you get a thrill out of that, if you like looking from San Diego over into Tijuana and there’s some sort of thrill of the security of being rich and surrounded by guards and looking out on total misery. Then it works, unfortunately, very well.
Richard Todd Stafford: One of the things that I think is particularly striking about the book is that in the background is this threat of truly catastrophic future outcomes, but you really bring it to the present: you’re telling us that in many ways, the catastrophe is lived by a lot of people right now, in the present.
So I’d like you to speak to that a little bit. Particularly. I think that one of the areas that you connect it with is the U.S. foreign policy establishment leaning on counterinsurgency strategies, whether that be in Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria. And so, what’s the connection between the catastrophe that’s happening now for a lot of people in the globe, and this mode of militarism that’s increasingly becoming the dominant form of intervention?
Christian Parenti: Well the way to enter this is through the question of adaptation. Adaptation can take physical and economic forms, but it also it requires a certain kind of social solidarity for there to be any adaptation. What the legacy of counterinsurgency has done is attack the social fabric of society.
In counterinsurgency warfare, the government forces control the territory, unlike in conventional Warfare. So, the fight is not over territory, because the government controls its territory, more or less, but it just can’t suppress the guerrillas and it can’t get the population to fully support it. So, the methods of warfare attack the social bonds, which the insurgent groups have used and built to create their movement and their armed struggles. That involves torture, destroying and relocating villages, re-education, all of these tactics that may or may not work in a short-term military sense, but definitely rip to pieces the social fabric and create anomie and really set the stage for further desperation and fanaticism.
So that is part of what I was talking about in terms of the “catastrophic convergence” that adaptation through counterinsurgency is going to only increase violence because that’s what we see: the legacy of counterinsurgency. Sometimes it brings victory. Sometimes it doesn’t. But always, it leaves the social fabric of the society in which the war has taken place ripped to pieces and transformed for the worse.
That’s why Central America is gripped by horrendous levels of violence. I mean the murder rate in places like El Salvador and Guatemala is almost as high as the casualty rate during the war. But now it’s just the kind of war of all against all in these highly unequal, increasingly desperate, increasingly climate crisis-racked societies that were subject to neoliberal economic restructuring, after a long history of U. S. informal domination and U.S. imperialism. Then came more direct involvement, starting in the 70s and 80s and that has left many places in the world, but particularly in Central America, Afghanistan really deeply battered and scarred in a way that’s going to make it a lot harder for those societies to cope with the onset of climate change.
In the global South, the primary task for most developing economies is adaptation, rather than mitigation because it’s just, there’s just not that much of an energy infrastructure. It’s like there aren’t that many power plants in a place like Afghanistan. Mitigation there is really kind of like choosing a course of development rather than getting off a highly developed fossil fuel economy. So, the real struggle is adaptation. When the monsoons fail, when there’s floods, when the crops failed, how does the society respond? And if the place is profoundly traumatized by decades of torture and creation of auxiliary forces and this is turning family members against family members, all sorts of this stuff, a kind of sane form of adaptation becomes very difficult. And people start adapting by just picking up the gun, banditry, returning to some sort of fanatical cause that may or may not have some grip on reality.
Richard Todd Stafford: So what I’m hearing you say about this catastrophic convergence is that, on one hand, we have the histories of colonialism and neocolonialism in the form of structural adjustment. It intersects with societies that are often destabilized by counterinsurgency interventions — the social fabric is torn apart.
And then climate change is acting as an intensifier of the crisis by creating disruption.
Christian Parenti: Well, it’s so in this idea of the catastrophic convergence, I was looking at the interaction of bad economic policies — neoliberal free-market fundamentalism — the interaction of that with the legacy of Cold War military intervention, and these two forces set the stage for crisis in the global South. And now, increasingly the extreme weather associated with climate change is kicking in and the three of these forces together are the catastrophic convergence.
Richard Todd Stafford: So I want to invite you to use the Mexican case study since we’ve already talked about the border wall and we’ve talked about the drivers of migration from Central America through Mexico, but I’d like to invite you to talk about how climate change fits into the picture in this catastrophic convergence.
Christian Parenti: The catastrophic convergence doesn’t play out the same in every place not like, you know, on third military one third economic, one third climate in each place. In some places, the military dynamic is more important. In other places, the economic dynamic is more important. In Mexico, the economic dynamics were more important for setting the stage into which climate change comes.
There was some guerrilla action in the 70s and some counter insurgency, but mostly the trauma that Mexico suffered was a trauma of economic restructuring which, long story short, comes out of the debt crisis of the the early 1980s, which forces the Mexican economy — which was a very statist, heavily regulated kind of mixed economy that had lots of problems, lots of corruption, but it also had mechanisms for ensuring a decent livelihood for the people. For example, the ejido system, which was a form of land tenureship, which prevented peasant farmers from losing their land. So the debt crisis happens and in exchange for survival loans, Mexico is forced to start restructuring. And the key thing that it does, is it has to remove from its constitution Article 27, which was a very socialistic article that, down to the rock salt enumerates how everything in Mexico is the property of the state and that private property only gets to exist at the pleasure of the state.
So that’s removed. State-owned companies are privatized. Capital controls are removed, etc. etc. And in the process about two million people lose their land, hit the roads, move to cities. From cities, they move to the US, if they can. And so, in Tropic of Chaos, I went to Juarez to see well, you know, is there an angle in the drug violence here that has some climate connection?
And sure enough there was. One of the first people I talked to is this former fisherman from Michoacán, who had been driven out of his livelihood by a red tide, which is the result of warming waters, plus fertilizer runoff. The fertilizer runoff is partly due to the neoliberal policies, which cleared the way for turning every piece of coastline into luxury resorts or export-oriented fruit plantations. So the fertilizer runs off into the sea, the sea gets warm, there’s a red tide, the fish go away, he’s in debt. All the old kind of para-state institutions that used to support small fishermen, they’re all gone.
So, he’s like trying to borrow money in the open market. He loses everything, he moves eventually to Las Cruces, New Mexico. He’s working as a roofer there and then he’s deported. I meet him [when] he’s sitting in Juarez, saying that he’s got a phone call from his former boss . The guy is like “if you come back, you know, I can give you a job back.” And the dude I’m talking to you is saying like, “you know, there’s no way I can get the money to get across the border” because the board is totally militarized, you need like about $3,000 to cross it. And he says, “the only way I could get that money is to get involved in the drug trade here, you know?” And and he was absolutely distraught and didn’t know what to do.
And there were examples like that all over Juarez: a neighborhood of Tarahumara indians, who had been driven out of their land by drought which caused their crops to fail, which that plus lack of state support meant that they had to immediately turn to quick cash. They start cutting down the forests. That increases erosion, affects the water table in negative ways. They have to move to Juarez, etc.
So in Mexico, that’s the sort of encapsulation of it. And, it’s not to say that “oh the drug violence in Mexico is about climate change.” No, the drug violence in Mexico is primarily driven by the drug trade in the history of the suppression of Colombian cartels using a Caribbean route by the U.S. in the 80s. They shift to Mexican routes. Their Mexican intermediaries, who are at first paid by the Colombian cartels in cocaine, become increasingly powerful and they’re fighting with each other and thus the violence begins.
And one thing that’s actually not in the book that I learned only later, and it’s a kind of a limit to my argument about Mexico, is that another very important destabilizing element in this was that the PRI, which was in power for — whatever was — 75 years when it loses power to the PAN there is not only a change of guard in the official government, but within the channels of the underworld, there’s a change of guard. And that sets off a new round of war between these various criminal networks.
And so that’s the larger context. But who are these foot soldiers who are involved in all this stuff? It’s poor people who have been driven off the land and into cities and can’t make a living because of this combination of right-wing economic policies that venerate the free-market above all else and a climate system that’s increasingly falling apart in the form of red tides, sudden floods, droughts, etc.
Richard Todd Stafford: Great. Thank you. I think with this concrete case study in mind — and thinking also very much about what you said earlier about the instantiation of armed lifeboat politics in the form of “Build That Wall” and rampant xenophobia, rising nationalism, and the like — I’d like to invite you to talk about what you imagine the positive role of the state can be in addressing the sort of coming catastrophe of climate change, and the ongoing catastrophe of climate change.
And if I could add to that, in your article in Dissent, you’re very critical of the sort of utopian current that says, “well, if only we just changed the entire political economic system, then you know, all these problems will be resolved.” And so somewhere between “armed lifeboat” politics and the utopian left, you’re proposing an alternative and I’d like you to sketch that out.
Christian Parenti: There is a surprisingly old, kind of hidden in plain sight tradition and legal precedent of the federal government responding to the needs of victims of natural disasters in a fashion that is very generous and is totally opposite to the way most government in the U.S. has treated poor people in general. And I think that is a very slippery slope that as climate — as extreme weather of climate change becomes more intense, the state is going to be summoned and called forth. Then the question is if the state is going to be summoned by these disasters and crises, what will its reaction be? And that is I think up for grabs there is this precedent of trying to make people whole, giving aid to people, but there’s also a militarized response and we see both of these happening. So there’s that larger dynamic.
In terms of you know, this middle ground: a problem with climate change is the compressed time frame, you know? We don’t have the time to wait a generation or two generations until we have a socialist economy to then decarbonize that economy, right? That has to happen now. We have to start decarbonizing this economy: capitalism, with these institutions.
And I mean if there is to be some sort of socialist transformation eventually it’s going to inherit an infrastructure from capitalism. So, it’s imperative that we engage reformist politics to try and decarbonize the economy as much as possible: one, because that’s what the compressed time frame of climate change necessitates and also because, if you’re serious about socialism rather than just talking about it and invoking it to be righteous, then you should think seriously about what kind of infrastructure and technology it’s going to inherit.
And I do think that even as there is the tremendous threat of a kind of authoritarian, fascist creep in the face of the climate crisis, there are very real openings for the left. Just this question of the deserving victims of natural disasters. This is a slippery slope, right? And you see it all the time: when there’s hurricanes, recent hurricanes in Texas —Irma and Harvey that came back to back, there practically the same hurricane in most people’s minds through there so quick — the Cajun Navy’s out there and it’s like suddenly you realize all the rhetoric of neoliberalism goes out the window, right? Selfishness, everything should, you know — competition gets everything done. Everything should have a price on it, everything to have a meter on it. All that stuff goes out the window. And generosity, solidarity are celebrated and the governments are like “we’re going to provide housing for people who’ve been displaced.”
This is a very important opening, you know? Under political pressure like Rite Aid or Walgreens or maybe both of them were giving people like two weeks worth of free drugs, you know? Like “we’ll worry about the payment later” so that people don’t die on them, right? I mean this is potentially very destabilizing. It is like, well if victims of natural disasters are worthy of economic redistribution, and if this justifies the state stepping into the economy, then for how long? How many people? How wide is this disaster?
How do we define this disaster? What is a disaster? And you can see we could push the boundaries of this and build off actually a very American tradition of responding to the deserving victims of natural disasters to push for the decommodification and socialization of more and more of the economy.
Richard Todd Stafford: So, I think that this is a very interesting idea that there’s a way of taking the logic of the emergency event and sort of pressing against it and pushing it out broader and broader, seeing it as an opportunity even as it is also a manifestation of a threat — and indeed of some of the fundamental contradictions in our existing political economic system that are generating these kinds of catastrophes.
In some of your work though, you’ve emphasized another side of state action where the function of the state needs to be taken much more seriously, not just is papering over the contradictions or addressing the crisis or catastrophe when it arises, but actually of creating the conditions of possibility of replicating the society into the future or having a productive society.
So, I’m thinking particularly of when you write about the Erie Canal, I’d invite you to talk a little bit about that role of the state as a creator of the infrastructures that we need to be able to react to and prevent climate change.
Christian Parenti: Yeah. What your question is getting at is this argument, that is at the heart of my next book, which Verso will be publishing in about a year from now. And it’s called The Means Proper: Alexander Hamilton on the State and Economic Development. But it really goes from the Revolution through the 1820s. I look at the hidden history of American developmentalism. And the argument is that the state has always been at the heart of American capitalism.
And this is true with most industrialization projects, right? The US begins its existence as a predominately agrarian society and there are the richest people and the most powerful people The Virginian planters are wedded to this vision and Hamilton embodies an element that’s pushing back against that.
And Hamilton is — I have not seen the musical, I don’t like musicals, and I don’t like the cult of Hamilton, but I I stumbled into this by mistake — Hamilton is not some sort of egalitarian, but he’s a kind of pragmatic nationalist and he’s connected to the law and the military and he’s concerned about being reinvaded and recolonized. He says that the only way that we can defend ourselves is to industrialize, because then then we’ll be rich and then we can afford an Army and Navy. And the only way we can industrialize is to ignore Adam Smith and start planning for industrialization.
So his Report on Manufactures, which is at the heart of that next book of mine — part of why it’s named checked frequently and never really discussed and frequently totally misunderstood it because it opens with these direct attacks on Adam Smith and free market economics.
He’s like, no that’s not going to work. That works if you’re Great Britain, you pushed that on other people, but what we have to do is have tariffs, we’ve got to have subsidies, we got to have a plan and that is in fact what happens. And that is how the US industrializes.
And it exists to this day at this at the heart of American capitalism, underneath the mythology about the entrepreneurs are government programs and teams of people working to develop these technologies, right? Behind Bill Gates stands, basically billions and billions of dollars of U.S. tax money that were invested in a form of industrial planning that was like politically laundered as military technology. That’s the only way we can kind of engage this in the U. S. is a wrap it up as like, you know, patriotic and militaristic.
I mean even the highway system right? Like Eisenhower’s highway system was the National Defense blah blah blah blah blah highway system. Never mind that most of the overpasses are too low for most weapons systems to get through, right? They couldn’t say “we want to build a modern road system here.”
So, the point being that the idea that now there’s climate change, which requires that the state come in, step into the economy, plan, drive a transformation. This is not as strange or exotic or novel as it might seem. That is the story of how the U. S. Industrialized. And if mitigating the problem, getting off of fossil fuels, is a form of reindustrialization, which it is, right? It means euthanizing the fossil fuel industry and building out a new and clean industrial base. We could do a lot worse than looking at, well what how did it happen first time?
So that what I’m trying to do is say is make a kind of argument — it wouldn’t be that America is already socialist, but like there’s a there’s a lot of socialistic elements at the heart of American capitalism.
And so, if we are to deal with climate change, we have to embrace those tools.
At a more abstract level, this has to do with the idea of the state as an environment-making institution. And you know, I mean the state is an environment-making institution in that the state is territory, right? The state is a geographic entity. And where is “nature” — non-human “nature” — if not on the surface of the earth? What institutions fundamentally control, in the modern era, the surface of the Earth? States, right? And property regimes always refer back to States for their legitimacy and their continued existence.
So, the state is from the beginning, in that it is an economic agent, also an environment maker. So, you asked about the Erie Canal. The Erie Canal is a major government project that is built by the state of New York with large gifts of federal land and water. And it completely transforms the economy of the region the Northeast. It connects the old Northwest, i.e. the Midwest, with the Northeast. It kind of delivers New York into its current position in the global economy and also, transforms the environmental regime in unfortunately very negative ways, but it’s an environment making project.
So it’s with the Erie Canal that out goes the Native American regime of burning the landscape twice a year, in comes the settlers: deforestation, mono cropping grain, etc. etc. So it’s not that the state as an environment maker is always doing the right thing. If the idea of. government acting to transform the environment, to guide and create a more sustainable environment seems far-fetched, then just look at that history. You realize that’s what it does. That’s inherently what this geographic institution — the state — does, whether it knows it or not.
And I mean this gets into also this larger question that you probably discuss with Jason W. Moore, who has been very influential in my thinking about these things. Jason says the capitalism doesn’t have a relationship to Nature, it is a relationship to Nature. And similarly, you know human being — I mean at the heart of this is this human/nature distinction or society/nature distinction. I think it can seem a little abstract, but it is important to realize that that is a reification and that we are, like every other organism, environment-makers right? All organisms interact with their environment and in the process help produce that environment. Our oxygen-rich atmosphere is itself the product of an earlier ecosystem where there were methane breathing bacteria that exhaled oxygen and created their own form of catastrophic climate change and set the stage for this version of life that we know. That gets at the question what are what are we to do in the face of environmental crisis? Retreat? Go away? Or engage even more robustly, but do so consciously and with justice and sustainability at the forefront of our thinking and action?
Richard Todd Stafford: Fantastic. And I had been hoping to close by talking about your next book. And so, in this sort of more Hamiltonian American tradition of seeing the state as a necessary planner — and in fact acknowledging its role, whether that be through DOD projects or the building of the Erie Canal, or what have you — you have this implicit contrast with the Jeffersonian smallholder, who by virtue of his virtue, or maybe the translation of that is something like “social responsibility” or something like that in the present-day, nudges us forward towards the future we want. I think that’s a very vivid contrast that draws on a very — a much more alive set of questions and traditions for a lot of people. But I think that although you might be able to sort of reach people with the distinction between Hamilton and Jefferson, I think that it might be useful to hear from you, what are the concrete conscious environmental transformations that we ought to be working to make right now in the present. Quite literally, what has to be done right now?
Christian Parenti: Yeah, I mean, obviously, the first thing is we have to end all subsidies to fossil fuels, we have to close access to public land to fossil fuels, and then we have to start taxing them and regulating them out of business. Institutions need to use their purchasing power to drive the energy transformation. Government is incredibly important in driving technological transformation and adaptation, not just through subsidizing R&D, but also by acting as the first generation consumer, so this is something in various articles, I have called the “Big Green Buy.” Aircraft, medicine, vehicles, computers, all saw this — that the federal government and state governments purchasing these products provided the market that allowed these firms to achieve economies of scale, lower the price of their products, so that then everyone the private sector individuals start using these technologies.
So like IBM for example, its first 20 years, more than half of all of its sales was to the federal government. Not even state governments. I mean that kind of subsidy is part of how we end up with laptop computers, etc. So focus on purchasing, increased subsidies to clean energy — that’s the basic thing. I mean you drive towards in terms of mitigation, adaptation.
We have to be disabusing the urban middle classes who live in these coastal cities — New York City — disabusing them of this fantasy that everything is going to remain the same for the next 20 or 30 years. Sea levels are rising very quickly and in places like New York City, they are doing almost nothing about it. I had lunch with the — Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York’s climate czar — a guy named Dan Zarrilli, he looked me up. And you know, I asked him what was what was going on. This guy was — he didn’t he didn’t take climate change seriously, he was the city’s engineer on several key projects and then they all flooded during Sandy and he, he kind of like found religion. He’s takes climate change very, very seriously.
And I asked him, so what do you guys think in terms of sea level rise, what are you planning for? And I forget what the number was, it was sort of like, you know, like one or one and a half feet, and I was like, but of course, you know, the IPCC is saying it’s going to be like three minimum, maybe up to nine feet, you know? And it’s like was like, what about that?
What if it’s three feet and when do you guys all think it’s going to be three feet and it’s like you, his face dropped. I realized it was like he couldn’t really go there. That was like too much, not for him individually, but just like clearly that was not allowable conversation within the city bureaucracy, because to start talking like that is to acknowledge that all these subsidies that are being given Amazon and the building of this like ridiculous two billion dollar tram that de Blasio is doing, all of this is just a short term waste of public money to boost the profits of a real estate industry, that is ultimately going to lose the value, that is currently New York City.
I mean unless they shift courses radically and make enormous investments in saving that city. But right now, they are they are not on schedule to save a city that the property of New York City is worth a trillion dollars
And so anyway, I guess that’s an illustration of the short-termism and the irrationality and ultimately the suicidal nature of the capitalist class.
Richard Todd Stafford: Thanks again for listening to this interview with Christian Parenti, which is a production of the Cultural Studies Colloquium hosted by the George Mason University Cultural Studies Department with support from the Department of Communications, Global Affairs program, the Department of History and Art History, the Interdisciplinary Curriculum Collaborative, the Department of Philosophy, the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, the Schar School of Policy and Government, the Women and Gender Studies program and University Life. We thank WGMU for the use of their studios.
This interview is produced and conducted by me, Richard Todd Stafford, a candidate for the PHD in Cultural Studies. The colloquium Series has been organized by Professor Roger Lancaster.
References in this podcast
Parenti, Christian. “The Big Green Buy How Obama can use the government’s purchasing power to spark the clean-energy revolution.” The Nation, July 2010
Parenti, Christian. Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. The Nation Books, 2011.
Parenti, Christian. “Why Climate Change Will Make You Love Big Government: The coming big storms facing our planet can only be tackled by strong governments.” The Nation, January 2012
Parenti, Christian. “A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisis.” Dissent Magazine Summer 2013
Parenti, Christian. “Reading Hamilton from the Left” Jacobin August 2014
Parenti, Christian. “Environment-making in the Capitalocene: Political Ecology of the State.” Anthropocene or Capitalocene: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Ed. Jason W. Moore, Kairos Books, 2016.
Parenti, Christian. “The Coming Refugee Crisis” Jacobin January 2016
Parenti, Christian. “If We Fail” Jacobin August 2017
Parenti, Christian. “Make Corporations Pay for the Green New Deal” Jacobin March 2019
Music: Kevin MacLeod “Acid Trumpet,” used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
Interview, Audio Production, and Transcription: Richard Todd Stafford
Promotions and marketing: Severin Mueller
Colloquium Organizer: Roger Lancaster