Interviewing Michael Parenti about The Culture Struggle

1) Can you tell ZNet, please, what your new book, THE CULTURE STRUGGLE is about? What is it trying to communicate?

Parenti: “Culture” refers to the entire panorama of conventional beliefs and practices within any society. But it has long occurred to me that what we call “culture” is not just a set of practices, mores, and beliefs, the “innocent accretion of past solutions,” as an anthropologist once said. Much of culture is certainly that, but culture is also a politically charged component of the social order, mediated through institutions and groups that have quite privileged vested interests.

Culture should be thought of as a changing process, the product of a dynamic interplay-even serious struggle–between a wide range of social and political interests. To understand a society we need to understand the problem of culture as well as that of power. And, conversely, to understand culture we also need to take note of how power is used in society, toward what end and for whose benefit and at whose cost.

I draw from cultures from around the world in the hope of demonstrating how beliefs and practices are subjected to manipulation by dominant interests, and how cultures are instruments of social power.

Many parts of modern culture are being commodified, that is, packaged and sold to those who can pay. Folk culture is giving way to a corporate market culture. Art, science, medicine, psychiatry, and even marriage have been used as instruments of cultural control across the centuries. I deal with all this in the book.

Powerful interests also employ racism, sexism, and class supremacy to maintain their existing politico-economic rule. These too I treat. Culture is both something to be controlled by ruling interests, and is itself an instrument of domination.

In THE CULTURE STRUGGLE I also give attention to the question of how do we judge cultures. Given the prevalence of western ethnocentrism and the awful history of cultural imperialism (a ready adjunct to economic imperialism and colonialism), can we ever dare to judge the cultures of  the Third World, for instance? Are not the standards by which we judge also culturally determined? I say, yes we can judge all cultures including our own, and I try to show how.

2) Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?
I explore aspects of culture manifested in social conflict, gender, race, science, sexual identity, and New Age notions such as “hyperindividuality.”  I also treat the question of human perceptions and various other subjects ranging from the everyday to the esoteric. I have long studied the social sciences and the political scene. The book does not spin theories out of thin air but is filled with lots of illustrative examples.

I didn’t try to write a tome. The book is only 140 pages (am I confessing or bragging?). Rather than constructing a rigorous and complex theory of culture, as in a social science monograph, I present a set of discursive commentaries linked by underlying themes, filled with materials drawn from history and contemporary cultures of this day, making it all quite readable I hope.

3) What are your hopes for THE CULTURE STRUGGLE?  What do you hope it will contribute or achieve, politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?

One of the persistent ideological teachings in the United States is that our society is notably free of ideological teachings. Ideology is something imported from alien lands or brewed at home by allegedly sinister groups, as in “Communist ideology.” But in fact, we Americans are ideologically indoctrinated into certain precepts about patriotism, elections, world leadership, the self-made rich, and all that garbage about the free market. We also entertain notions about class, race, and gender relations and about the democratic distribution of power in our pluralistic society.  Well, most of these kinds of  beliefs are themselves ideological. Yet they’re widely circulated and remain largely free of critical examination, being seen as representing the natural order of things. These ideologies don’t just emerge spontaneously and full blown, they’re disseminated through the dominant institutions of society. They serve as instruments of social control. In contrast, iconoclastic views such as those often found in ZNet and Z Magazine are given only limited exposure and are usually relegated to a place beyond the pale, beyond the mainstream.

As for your question, “What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking [of writing this book]?” Robert McChesney and Cornel West wrote wonderful endorsement blurbs for the book. And David Occhiuto interviewing me on WBAI and Larry Bensky interviewing me on KPFA said they found much in it that was eye-opening and worth thinking about– despite its brevity. Well, that’s what makes me happy: the book is designed to get readers to think critically about things that either have been unduly obscured or are so obvious as to be easily overlooked. When even exceptionally well-informed and well-read people like McChesney, West, Occhiuto, and Bensky can benefit from it, I start thinking that other people will also. So far that seems to be the case. And critical thinking is what spurs us to action, protest, resistance, and charting a new and better course.

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