Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Nobel Peace Prize for War by Michael Parenti

Those who own the wealth of nations take care to downplay the immensity of their holdings while emphasizing the supposedly benign features of the socio-economic order over which they preside. With its regiments of lawmakers and opinion-makers, the ruling hierarchs produce a never-ending cavalcade of symbols, images, and narratives to disguise and legitimate the system of exploitative social relations existing between the 1% and the 99%.

The Nobel Peace Prize would seem to play an incidental role in all this. Given the avalanche of system-sustaining class propaganda and ideological scenarios dished out to us, the Nobel Peace Prize remains just a prize. But a most prestigious one it is, enjoying a celebrated status in its anointment of already notable personages.

In October 2012, in all apparent seriousness, the Norwegian Nobel Committee (appointed by the Norwegian Parliament) bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize upon the European Union (EU). Let me say that again: the European Union with its 28 member states and 500 million inhabitants was awarded for having "contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy, and human rights in Europe."  (Norway itself is not a member of the EU. The Norwegians had the good sense to vote against joining.)

Alfred Nobel's will (1895) explicitly states that the peace prize should go "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."  The EU is not a person and has not worked for the abolition or reduction of standing armies or promotion of any kind of peace agenda. If the EU award looked a bit awkward, the BBC and other mainstream news media came to the rescue, referring to the "six decades of peace" and "sixty years without war" that the EU supposedly has achieved.  The following day, somebody at the BBC did the numbers and started proclaiming that the EU had brought "seventy years of peace on the European continent."  What could these wise pundits possibly be thinking?  Originally called the European Economic Community and formed in 1958, the European Union was established under its current name in 1993, about twenty years ago.

The Nobel Committee, the EU recipients, and the western media all overlooked the 1999 full-scale air war launched on the European continent against Yugoslavia, a socialist democracy that for the most part had offered a good life to people of various Slavic nationalities—as many of them still testify today.

The EU did not oppose that aggression. In fact, a number of  EU member states, including Germany and France, joined in the 1999 war on European soil led largely by the United States. For 78 days, U.S. and other NATO forces bombed Yugoslavian factories, utilities, power stations, rail systems, bridges, hotels, apartment buildings, schools and hospitals, killing thousands of civilians, all in the name of a humanitarian rescue operation, all fueled by unsubstantiated stories of Serbian "genocide." All this warfare took place on European soil.

Yugoslavia was shattered, along with its uniquely designed participatory democracy with its self-management and social ownership system. In its place emerged a cluster of right-wing mini-republics wherein everything has been privatized and deregulated, and poverty has replaced amplitude. Meanwhile rich western corporations are doing quite well in what was once Yugoslavia.

Europe aside, EU member states have sent troops to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and additional locales in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, usually under the tutorship of the U.S. war machine.

But what was I to expect? For years I ironically asserted that the best way to win a Nobel Peace Prize was to wage war or support those who wage war instead of peace.  An overstatement perhaps, but take a look.

Let's start back in 1931 with an improbable Nobel winner:  Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University. During World War I, Butler explicitly forbade all faculty from criticizing the Allied war against the Central Powers. He equated anti-war sentiments with sedition and treason.  He also claimed that "an educated proletariat is a constant source of disturbance and danger to any nation." In the 1920s Butler became an outspoken supporter of Italy's fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Some years later he became an admirer of a heavily militarized Nazi Germany. In 1933, two years after receiving the Nobel prize, Butler invited the German ambassador to the U.S. to speak at Columbia in defense of Hitler. He rejected student appeals to cancel the invitation, claiming it would violate academic freedom.

Jump ahead to 1973, the year one of the most notorious of war criminals, Henry Kissinger, received the Nobel Peace Prize. For the better part of a decade, Kissinger served as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and as U.S. Secretary of State, presiding over the seemingly endless blood-letting in Indochina and ruthless U.S. interventions in Central America and elsewhere.  From carpet bombing to death squads, Kissinger was there beating down on those who dared resist U.S. power.  In his writings and pronouncements Kissinger continually talked about maintaining U.S. military and political influence throughout the world. If anyone fails to fit Alfred Nobel's description of a prize winner, it would be Henry Kissinger.

In 1975 we come to Nobel winner Andrei Sakharov, a darling of the U.S. press, a Soviet dissident who regularly sang praises to corporate capitalism. Sakharov lambasted the U.S. peace movement for its opposition to the Vietnam War. He accused the Soviets of being the sole culprits behind the arms race and he supported every U.S. armed intervention abroad as a defense of democracy. Hailed in the west as a "human rights advocate," Sakharov never had an unkind word for the horrific human rights violations perpetrated by the fascist regimes of faithful U.S. client states, including Pinochet's Chile and Suharto's Indonesia, and he aimed snide remarks at the "peaceniks" who did. He regularly attacked those in the West who opposed U.S. repressive military interventions abroad.

Let us not overlook Mother Teresa. All the western world's media hailed that crabby lady as a self-sacrificing saint. In fact she was a mean spirited reactionary who gladly welcomed the destruction of liberation theology and  other progressive developments in the world. Her "hospitals" and "clinics" were little more than warehouses for the dying and for those who suffered from curable diseases that went untreated---eventually leading to death. She waged campaigns against birth control, divorce, and abortion. She readily hobnobbed with the rich and reactionary but she was so heavily hyped as a heavenly heroine that the folks in Oslo just had to give her the big medal in 1979.

Then there was the Dalai Lama who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. For years the Dalai Lama was on the payroll of the CIA, an agency that has perpetrated killings against rebellious workers, peasants, students, and others in countries around the world. His eldest brother played an active role in a CIA-front group. Another brother established an intelligence operation with the CIA, which included a CIA-trained guerrilla unit whose recruits parachuted back into Tibet to foment insurgency. The Dalai Lama was no pacifist. He supported the U.S./NATO military intervention into Afghanistan, also the 78 days' bombing of Yugoslavia and the destruction of that country. As for the years of carnage and destruction wrought by U.S. forces in Iraq, the Dalai Lama was undecided: "it's too early to say, right or wrong," said he in 2005. Regarding the violence that members of his sect perpetrated against a rival sect, he concluded that "if the goal is good then the method, even if apparently of the violent kind, is permissible."  Spoken like a true Nobel recipient.

In 2009, in a fit of self parody, the folks in Oslo gave the Nobel Peace Prize  to President Barack Obama while he produced record military budgets and presided over three or four wars and a number of other attack operations, followed a couple of years later by additional wars in Yemen, West Pakistan, Libya, and Syria (with Iran pending). Nobel winner Obama also proudly hunted down and murdered Osama Bin Laden, having accused him—without a shred of evidence—of masterminding the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

You could see that Obama was somewhat surprised—and maybe even embarrassed—by the award. Here was this young drone commander trying to show what a tough-guy warrior he was,  saluting the flag-draped coffins one day and attacking other places and peoples the next—acts of violence in support of the New World Order, certainly every bit worthy of a Nobel peace medal.

There are probably other Nobel war hawks and reactionaries to inspect. I don't pretend to be informed about every prize winner. And there are a few worthy recipients who come to mind, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Linus Pauling, Nelson Mandela, and Dag Hammarskjöld.

Let us return to the opening point: does the European Union actually qualify for the prize? Vancouver artist Jennifer Brouse gave me the last (and best) word: "A Nobel Prize for the EU? That seems like a rather convenient and resounding endorsement for current cutthroat austerity measures. First, corporations are people, then money is free speech, now an organization of nation states designed to thwart national sovereignty on behalf of ruling class interests receives a prize for peace.  On the other hand, if the EU is a person then it should be prosecuted for imposing policies leading directly to the violent repression of peaceful protests, and to the misery and death of its suffering citizens."

In sum, the Nobel Peace Prize often has nothing to do with peace and too much to do with war. It frequently sees "peace" through the eyes of the western plutocracy. For that reason alone, we should not join in the applause.  - Michael Parenti

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Iran and Everything Else by Michael Parenti

Iran and Everything Else   by  Michael Parenti  

Occasionally individuals complain that I fail to address one subject or another. One Berkeley denizen got in my face and announced: “You leftists ought to become aware of the ecological crisis.” In fact, I had written a number of things about the ecological crisis, including one called “Eco-Apocalypse.” His lack of familiarity with my work did not get in the way of his presumption.
    Years ago when I spoke before the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in New York , the moderator announced that she could not understand why I had “remained silent” about the attempt to defund UNESCO. Whatever else I might have been struggling with, she was convinced I should have joined with her in trying to save UNESCO (which itself really was a worthy cause).
      People give me marching orders all the time. Among the most furiously insistent are those fixed on 9/11. Why haven’t I said anything about 9/11? Why am I “a 9/11 denier.” In fact, I have written about 9/11 and even spoke at two 9/11  conferences (Santa Cruz and New York), raising questions of my own.
     Other people have been “disappointed” or “astonished” or “puzzled” that I have failed to pronounce on whatever is the issue du jour. No attention is given by such complainers to my many books, articles, talks, and interviews that treat hundreds of subjects pertaining to political economy, culture, ideology, fascism, communism, capitalism, imperialism, ecology, political protest, history, religion, race, gender, homophobia, and other topics far too numerous to list. (For starters, visit my website: www.michaelparenti.org)
     But one’s own energy, no matter how substantial, is always finite. One must allow for a division of labor and cannot hope to fight every fight. 
    Recently someone asked when was I going to “pay some attention” to Iran. Actually I have spoken about Iran in a number of interviews and talks---not to satisfy demands made by others but because I myself was moved to do so. In the last decade, over a five year period, I was repeatedly interviewed by English Radio Tehran. My concern about Iran goes back many years. Just the other day, while clearing out some old files, I came across a letter I had published over 33 years ago in the New York Times (10 May 1979), reproduced here exactly as it appeared in the Times:

To the Editor of the New York Times:

For 25 years the Shah of Iran tortured and murdered many thousands of  dissident workers, students, peasants and intellectuals.  For the most part, the U.S. press ignored these dreadful happenings and portrayed the Shah as a citadel of stability and an enlightened modernizer.
       Thousands more were killed by the Shah’s police and military during the popular uprisings of this past year.  Yet these casualties received only passing mention even though Iran was front-page news for several months.  And from 1953 to 1978 millions of other Iranians suffered the silent oppression of poverty and malnutrition while the Shah, his family, and his generals grew ever richer.
       Now the furies of revolution have lashed back, thus far executing about 200 of the Shah’s henchmen—less than what the Savak would arrest and torture on a slow weekend.  And now the U.S. press has suddenly become acutely concerned, keeping a careful account of the “victims,” printing photos of firing squads and making repeated references to the “repulsion” and “outrage” felt by anonymous “middle-class” Iranians who apparently are endowed with finer sensibilities than the mass of ordinary people will bore the brunt of the Shah’s repression. At the same time, American commentators are quick to observe that the new regime is merely replacing one repression with another.  
       So it has always been with the recording of revolutions: the mass of nameless innocents victimized by the
ancien régime go uncounted and unnoticed, but when the not-so-innocent murderers are brought  to revolutionary justice, the business-owned press is suddenly filled with references to “brutality” and “cruelty.”  That anyone could equate the horrors of the Shah’s regime with the ferment, change and struggle that is going on in Iran today is a tribute to the biases of the U.S. press, a press that has learned to treat the atrocities of the U.S.-supported right-wing regimes with benign neglect while casting a stern self-righteous eye on the popular revolutions that challenge such regimes.
                    Michael Parenti
                    Washington, D.C.

There is one glaring omission in this missive: I focused only on the press without mentioning how the White House and leading members of Congress repeatedly had hailed the Shah as America’s  sturdy ally---while U.S. oil companies merrily plundered Iran’s oil (with a good slice of the spoils going to the Shah and his henchmen).
    A few years before the 1979 upheaval, I was teaching a graduate course at Cornell University. There I met several Iranian graduate students who spoke with utter rage about the Shah and his U.S.-supported Savak secret police. They told of friends being tortured and disappeared. They could not find enough damning words to vent their fury. These students came from the kind of well-off Persian families one would have expected to support the Shah. (You don’t make it from Tehran to Cornell graduate school without some money in the family.) All I knew about the Shah at that time came from the U.S. mainstream media. But after listening to these students I began to think that this Shah fellow was not the admirably benign leader and modernizer everyone was portraying in the news.
    The Shah’s subsequent overthrow in the 1979 revolution was something to  celebrate. Unfortunately the revolution soon was betrayed by the theocratic militants who took hold of events and created their Islamic Republic of Iran. These religious reactionaries set about to torture and eradicate thousands of young Iranian radicals. They made war upon secular leftists and “decadent” Western lifestyles, as they set about establishing a grim and corrupt theocracy.
    U.S. leaders and media had no critical words about the slaughter of leftist revolutionaries in Iran. If anything, they were quietly pleased. However, they remained hostile toward the Islamic regime. Why so? Regimes that kill revolutionaries and egalitarian reformists do not usually incite displeasure from the White House. If anything, the CIA and the Pentagon and the other imperial operatives who make the world safe for the Fortune 500 look most approvingly upon those who torture and murder Marxists and other leftists. Indeed, such counterrevolutionaries swiftly become the recipients of generous amounts of U.S. aid.
     Why then did U.S. leaders denounce and threaten Iran and continue to do so to this day? The answer is: Iran’s Islamic Republic has other features that did not sit well with the western imperialists. Iran was-—and still is---a “dangerously” independent nation, unwilling to become a satellite to the U.S. global empire, unlike more compliant countries. Like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Iran, with boundless audacity, gave every impression of wanting to use its land, labor, markets, and capital as it saw fit. Like Iraq---and Libya and Syria---Iran was committing the sin of economic nationalism. And like Iraq, Iran remained unwilling to establish cozy relations with Israel.
     But this isn’t what we ordinary Americans are told. When talking to us, a different tact is taken by U.S. opinion-makers and policymakers. To strike enough fear into the public, our leaders tell us that, like Iraq, Iran “might” develop weapons of mass destruction. And like Iraq, Iran is lead by people who hate America and want to destroy us and Israel. And like Iraq, Iran “might” develop into a regional power leading other nations in the Middle East down the “Hate America” path. So our leaders conclude for us: it might be necessary to destroy Iran in an all-out aerial war.
     It was President George W. Bush who in January 2002 cited Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” Iran exports terrorism and “pursues” weapons of mass destruction. Sooner or later this axis would have to be dealt with in the severest way, Bush insisted.
     These official threats and jeremiads are intended to leave us with the impression that Iran is not ruled by “good Muslims.”  The “good Muslims”---as defined by the White House and the State Department---are the reactionary extremists and feudal tyrants who ride high in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirate, Bahrain, and other countries that provide the United States with military bases, buy large shipments of U.S. arms, vote as Washington wants in the United Nations, enter free trade agreements with the Western capitalist nations, and propagate a wide-open deregulated free-market economy.      

     The “good Muslims” invite the IMF and the western corporations to come in and help themselves to the country’s land, labor, markets, industry, natural resources and anything else the international plutocracy might desire.
     Unlike the “good Muslims,” the “bad Muslims” of Iran take an anti-imperialist stance. They try to get out from under the clutches of the U.S. global imperium. For this, Iran may yet pay a heavy price. Think of what has been happening to Iraq, Libya, and now Syria. For its unwillingness to throw itself open to Western corporate pillage, Iran is already being subjected to heavy sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies. Sanctions hurt the ordinary population most of all. Unemployment and poverty increase. The government is unable to maintain human services. The public infrastructure begins to deteriorate and evaporate: privatization by attrition.
     Iran has pursued an enriched uranium program, same as any nation has the right to do. The enrichment has been low-level for peaceful use, not the kind necessary for nuclear bombs. Iranian leaders, both secular and theocratic have been explicit about the useless horrors of nuclear weaponry and nuclear war.
     Appearing on the Charlie Rose show when he was visiting the USA, Iranian president Ahmadinejad pointed out that nuclear weapons have never saved anyone. The Soviet Union had nuclear weapons; was it saved? he asked. India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons; have they found peace and security? Israel has nuclear weapons: has it found peace and security? And the United States itself has nuclear weapons and nuclear fleets patrolling the world and it seems obsessively preoccupied with being targeted by real or imagined enemies.       Ahmadinejad, the wicked one, sounded so much more rational and humane than Hillary Clinton snarling her tough-guy threats at this or that noncompliant nation.
      (Parenthetically, we should note that the Iranians possibly might try to develop a nuclear strike force---not to engage in a nuclear war that would destroy Iran but to develop a deterrent against aerial destruction from the west. The Iranians, like the North Koreans, know that the western nuclear powers have never attacked any country that is armed with nuclear weapons.) 
      I once heard some Russian commentators say that Iran is twice as large as Iraq, both in geography and in population; it would take hundreds of thousands of NATO troops and great cost in casualties and enormous sums of money to invade and try to subdue such a large country, an impossible task and certain disaster for the United States.
     But the plan is not to invade, just to destroy the country and its infrastructure through aerial warfare.  The U.S. Air Force eagerly announced that it has 10,000 targets in Iran pinpointed for attack and destruction. Yugoslavia is cited as an example of a nation that was destroyed by unanswerable aerial attacks, without the loss of a single U.S. soldier. I saw the destruction in Serbia shortly after the NATO bombings stopped: bridges, utilities, rail depots, factories, schools, television and radio stations, government-built hotels, hospitals, and housing projects---a destruction carried out with utter impunity, all this against a social democracy that refused to submit to a free-market capitalist takeover.
     The message is clear. It has already been delivered to Yugoslavia, Libya, Syria, and many other countries around the world: overthrow your reform-minded, independent, communitarian government; become a satellite to the global corporate free-market system, or we will pound you to death and reduce you to a severe level of privatization and poverty.
      Not all the U.S. military is of one mind regarding war with Iran. While the Air Force can hardly contain itself, the Army and Navy seem lukewarm. Former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,  Admiral Mike Mullen, actually denounced the idea of waging destruction upon “80 million Iranians, all different individuals.”
      The future does not look good for Iran. That country is slated for an attack of serious dimensions, supposedly in the name of democracy, “humanitarian war,” the struggle against terrorism, and the need to protect America and Israel from some future nuclear threat.
     Sometimes it seems as if  U.S. ruling interests perpetrate crimes and deceptions of all sorts with a frequency greater than we can document and expose. So if  I don’t write or speak about one or another issue, keep in mind, it may be because I am occupied with other things, or I simply have neither the energy nor the resources. Sometimes too, I think, it is because I get too heavy of heart.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

An Interview with Michael Parenti (Part I & II)

An Interview with Michael Parenti (Part I)

Noted political scientist Michael Parenti was recently interviewed by another noted political scientist, Carl Boggs. The interview originally appeared in the academic journal New Political Science, June 2012. Here is the first of its two parts.

Carl Boggs (CB):   Your scholarly work has won extraordinary acclaim, both nationally and internationally, over a period of several decades.  All this, despite having been driven out of the political science discipline in the early seventies and, for the most part, having been denied the institutional supports, rewards, and income that most academics – including those on the left – take for granted.  Now well into your seventies, you remain as productive as ever. What has been the key to your success?

Michael Parenti (MP):  I want to say “clean living” but no one would believe me. Seriously, the only things I knew how to do in life were write and speak, so I continued doing them. What impelled me onward was the urge to seek truth amidst the lies and obfuscation of ruling interests. My efforts repeatedly drew me into forbidden terrain of a kind that does not lead to tenure. Deprived of a regular university position because of my activism and iconoclastic writings, I dedicated myself to trying to become a public intellectual. At the same time I still maintained links with academia: some of my books are used in courses; I do guest lectures at various schools and have had a few guest teaching invitations over the decades. And believe it or not, I still on rare occasions cobble together an article for books of collected scholarly essays or for academic journals. Financially it has been difficult at times but I have survived so far.

CB: Speaking for myself and most other progressives and leftists I have known, the radicalizing process we underwent usually came in our adult years.  What was the source of your departure from established norms and conventional politics? And when in your life did it happen?

MP: No instant red diaper blooming for me. As a schoolboy I occasionally read about political events in the New York Daily News and other such rags. For a brief spell as a teenager in high school, I considered myself a Republican (don’t ask). By college I was an activist for the Liberal Party in New York City.  At that time the civil rights struggle really gripped me. The injustice of Jim Crow racism was so compellingly clear. I think I moved leftward because I love justice more than anything else, more than beauty or love or happiness itself.  Still there were lapses. The most apolitical period of my adult life was the three years or so at Yale University getting my Ph.D. in political science, or as it might be better called “apolitical science.” Finally it was the Vietnam War that took me from a pale liberalism to a real radicalism. I began questioning the war, then I questioned the leaders who produced the war, and then the system that produced the leaders. At first I thought the war was an irrational venture, a tragic mistake. Eventually I concluded that the war was quite rational, a tragic success (or at least partial success) serving global corporate interests. At that point I started moving from a liberal complaint about how bad things are to a radical analysis about why they are the way they are.

You were one of the founders of the Caucus for a New Political Science during the late 1960s.  At the height of New-Left radicalism, the Caucus was motivated by the hope that the discipline could be strongly influenced by a building wave of progressive scholarship and activism – and pushed significantly leftward.   Viewing the trajectory of the discipline, what is your present reflection on those original Caucus goals?

MP: The Caucus goals are still as worthy as ever, and still not completely fulfilled:  venturing into forbidden areas, research that is critical, comprehensible, and relevant to political struggle and history. It was unimaginable back in 1967 that almost a half-century later things in the profession would be pretty much the same. Today we have the same suffocating centrist ideology making false claim to objectivity. Today mainstream political scientists still debate the same tired questions about methodological rigor and paradigmatic shifts. How come? Well, the centrists and conservatives still control the boards of trustees; they still control the administrations, research funds, think tanks and scholarly journals, along with recruitment, promotion and tenure; in short, all the means to reproduce the conditions of their own hegemony---in the continued pursuit of apolitical science.
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s I recall case after case of radical scholars and teachers being let go. Generally speaking, politically safe mainstream academics had---and still have---smoother and more prestigious career paths than those who work from a critical perspective, although it’s good to know that numbers of radicals have survived the cut.

CBWhen we were graduate students a good many years ago debates raged between the “pluralist” school convinced of an exemplary American democracy and “power
structure” advocates influenced by the Marxist tradition and the work of such radicals as C. Wright Mills.  In a strange paradox, while oligarchic tendencies within American society have intensified across the decades, mainstream political science has embraced pluralism as a nearly sacred, taken-for-granted ideology while critical perspectives remain essentially marginalized.  How do we explain this remarkable contradiction?

MP: The same has happened in economics. In economics departments around the country, Marxism has disappeared---not that it ever had much of a foothold---but so has Keynesianism! Almost all academic economists are now free-marketeers. The ideological right has been seriously active this past half-century, recruiting conservatives for journalism and radio, law school and judgeships, public policy and public office, scholarship and college teaching. The reactionaries understand that people are moved and controlled by words and ideas. Meanwhile the liberals have done little in the way of ideological education except to suppress those to the left of themselves. To this day, liberals and even many “leftist progressives” continue to make war against imaginary hordes of Marxist ideologues while themselves getting regularly whipped by the reactionary right. The Republicans beat the hell out of them and they just keep reaching out, dreaming of bi-partisanship. The liberals and the Democratic Party in general (with some exceptions) resemble the battered spouse in an abusive relationship.

CB Speaking of oligarchy, the recent Occupy movement has been erected on the premise that corporate and banking elites (the 1%) now rule the country with increasing power and ruthlessness and have scandalously undermined whatever remained of democratic institutions and practices. Looking at this “new populism,” to what extent do you see it as an important political breakthrough – a potentially sustained, radical challenge to the power structure?

MP: The Occupy movement emerged as a massive and spontaneous political force in hundreds of locales, very heartening for the many who thought they were alone and powerless. The movement propagated a clever shorthand for the class war going on in the United States and elsewhere: the 1% vs. the 99% For decades some of us have been trying to get people to recognize the great (financial) class divide in this society and for that effort we were treated as “extremists” and “Marxist ideologues” by those who wanted no part of class analysis and class conflict (as if they can escape it by declaring it passé). And now suddenly hundreds of thousands of protestors have recognized the great class divide, vividly and succinctly. Even some news commentators now make gingerly references to the 1%. As we speak, however, the Occupy movement is being systematically suppressed by militarized police forces. When popular sentiment rises up, it is maligned, misrepresented, and treated to police violence. 

CBMany political observers – including some on the left – see parallels between the Occupy movement and the “populism” of the Tea Party movement.  What is your assessment?

MP: The Tea Party consists of people who take their otherwise legitimate grievances about taxes and services and misdirect them against irrelevant foes. The tea baggers have internalized much of the reactionary Republican ideological scenario---relentlessly fed to them by Fox News and radio talk show propagandists. Their “sacred values” include: boundless support for the military, superpatriotism, an untrammeled corporate capitalism, the right to bomb other countries at will, no separation of church and state, patriarchal family, compulsory pregnancy, drastic cuts in government services, and a lustily applied death penalty. They believe that these “precious values” are under attack by the “cultural elites,” the “hate-America” crowd, the snobby liberals, socialists, egg-head intellectuals, trade unionists, atheists, gays, feminists, minorities, immigrants, and other shadowy demons. The Tea Party is a purveyor of reactionary populism and rightist libertarianism.
      In sum, the Tea Party bears little resemblance to the Occupy movement other than that they are both protest movements (even then, only one of them gets beaten up by the cops). Maybe someday we will be able to reach the tea baggers and show them how indeed they really are being victimized. But meanwhile we must not reduce essence to form nor succumb to wishful thinking.

CBYou have written quite extensively on questions of American global power and the dynamics of U.S. imperialism going back to World War II and earlier.  It has been fashionable, even on the left, to dismiss classical theories of imperialism (such as those, for example, derived from Lenin, Luxemburg, and Hobson or later from Williams and Baran/Sweezy) as outmoded, as dwelling too much on economic factors.   How do you view the main sources of U.S. military interventions?

MP: To say that U.S. global intervention is motivated by economic factors does not mean that resource acquisition is the prime or only factor in the empire’s aggrandizement. The goal of imperialism remains what it has always been, the striving for dominance over others in order to expropriate their land, labor, natural resources, markets, and capital. The complimentary goal is to uproot and destroy any leader, government, or movement that seeks an alternate route (usually a more communitarian or collectivist one) outside the global imperial system. Such people have to learn that their country does not belong to them; it belongs to the imperium and its transnational corporations.
      The U.S. empire sees only two kinds of nations beyond its shores: (1) satellites (also called “client states”) that are politically obedient and completely open to foreign expropriation, including our allies who are economically wedded to the western corporate world and who cooperate with Washington on most things; and (2) enemies or potential enemies, countries that pursue independent self-development outside the global free market system, “troublesome” countries like Yugoslavia, Iraq, Cuba, Panama (under Noriega), Haiti (under Aristide), Nicaragua (under the Sandinistas), Libya (under Gaddafi), Venezuela (under Chavez); one could on. 
      Instead of educating themselves about the economic imperatives of empire, most present-day writers, such as Chalmers Johnson, claim imperialism is all about aggrandizement, power for power’s sake,  military bases, and messianic hegemony---as if these things were mutually exclusive of economic imperialism. One central goal of these writers is to avoid any informed discussion of the underlying imperatives of class power in service to class interests. Relatively little is offered on how power (in the hands of the few) is used to accumulate wealth, and how wealth is used to secure power. In one of my books I call them the “ABC theorists,” (Anything But Class).

CBMany contemporary critics of U.S. foreign policy – the work of Chris Hedges and Andrew Bacevich comes quickly to mind – have written that U.S. global power is now in serious decline, that the capacity of Washington to intervene around the globe has been compromised by growing economic weaknesses and a too-ambitious international reach.   We have the specter of an increasingly debilitated imperial giant no longer able to pursue its superpower ambitions.  What is your response to these critics?

MP: I would like to think they are correct but there really isn’t all that much evidence that the U.S. empire is tottering. The empire has more numerous and more elaborate bases around the globe than ever before. It has more deliverable destructive power and more reserves of “soft imperialism” than ever before. It has penetrated more markets and resource areas than ever before. It has successfully destroyed leaders and organized movements in scores of countries that have tried to chart a more egalitarian and independent course. The empire has extended its reach around the globe, going from one success to another---along with one or two stalemates as in Afghanistan. Even when the empire suffers defeats, it still might then continue to wax more powerful. Consider the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. Since then the U.S. empire has only grown in power. And every year it is granted a still more gargantuan military budget, now courtesy of President Obama who stands at attention saluting the Pentagon, always ready to serve.
       Of course, it’s also true that the empire feeds off the republic. All its expenses are paid by the republic. It feasts from the public trough at great cost to the civilian sector. It’s the republic that is in drastic decline not the empire. But like any parasite, if the empire is too successful and unrestrained in its parasitic feed, it will eventually kill its host and itself. Right now it enjoys a military Keynesianism, a public spending that bolsters (in a warped way) the republic’s economy and Corporate America’s profits. 

 An Interview with Michael Parenti  (Part 2)

  Michael Parenti interviewed by fellow political scientist Carl Boggs for the academic journal New Political Science. Part 2 of a two-part posting.

Carl Boggs (CB):  In your book To Kill a Nation, your focus on a multitude of crimes carried out by U.S. and NATO forces during nearly three months aerial bombardments – preceded by roughly a decade of economic, political, and military efforts to destroy Yugoslavia as a unified nation -- .brought widespread outrage from leftists as well as liberals who uncritically accepted the Western demonization of Serbs as the party singularly guilty of atrocities during the long and bloody civil war.  My own generally positive review of your book elicited similar harsh responses.  How, in your opinion, could American progressives normally critical of U.S. interventions abroad suddenly become so myopic in the case of Yugoslavia?

Michael Parenti (MP): Most U.S. leftists want to open toward those to the right of them and eschew those to their left. Their prime passion seems to be making war against communism or what they call “Stalinism,” a largely undefined and rather dated demon. I’m talking about people on the intellectual and sectarian left, not the Tea Party reactionaries. Many of the liberal-left saw Milosevic as the last Stalinist in Europe who had to be done in. So they readily swallowed the mass media’s fabricated  stories about genocidal atrocities allegedly committed by the Serbs. They stood shoulder to shoulder with NATO, the CIA, the Pentagon, the White House and mainstream media, the same usual suspects whom they say we should never trust. They believed every demonizing story fed to them about the Serbs. To give just one example: they believed that 100,000 people in Kosovo were slaughtered by the Serbs and that the Trepca mines were filled with corpses. No such mass graves were found and in the Trepca shafts not even a shoe or belt buckle was found.  Actually the Serbs were the ones who had the largest multi-ethnic populations in their republic, including Croats, Albanians, and Slovenians; the Serbs were not  indulging in ethnic cleansing and certainly not genocide. The Kosovars fleeing south during the war openly exclaimed that they were running from the NATO bombings not from a Serbian Juggernaut. I have all the sources and citations in To Kill a Nation, almost all of them western sources including ones from the United Nations and even NATO.
        But it is a familiar scenario: U.S. leaders demonize the targeted leader, in this case the democratically elected Milosevic, and this gives them license to bomb his people---with depleted uranium no less.  In my book The Face of Imperialism I call it “Privatization by Bombing.” I was in Serbia a few weeks after the 78 days of  bombing and noted that only government-owned and worker-owned factories, utilities, hotels and the like were bombed. The privately owned Hilton Hotel and other private companies had not a scratch.
         What is unusual is that so many lefties got suckered into this “humanitarian war” scenario. As I say, I think some of them are fighting the ghost of Stalin, possessed as they are by their knee-jerk anti-communism. The Serbs were targeted by the U.S. imperialists  because they were the biggest ethnic group, the one most against secession, and with a working class that was more socialist than in any other of the Yugoslav republics.

CBThe process of globalization is usually presented in mainstream (and standard political-science) discourse as something of a natural phenomenon – an inevitable tendency of the world economy toward heightened integration, transnational communication, prosperity, and (in some readings) democracy.   You have written, in contrast, that globalization is no inexorable process but rather a conscious, planned design by multinational corporate interests to expand the realm of capitalist markets and profits, making it anything but a development favoring economic prosperity and political democracy.  Can you elaborate on this argument?

MP:  In  The Face of Imperialism I have a chapter dealing with globalization; I take a couple of pages to criticize those Marxists who seemed unable to grasp what globalization is. As with the conservatives, many Marxists (but not all) missed the whole nature of the struggle. They saw globalization only as a process of expanding investment—which Marx and Engels described long ago, so why the fuss. But those of us who actually knew something about the free trade agenda---including farmers, workers, students, and intellectuals all over the world---understood that under globilization’s free trade agreements public services can be ruled out of existence because they cause “lost market opportunities.” Laws that try to protect the environment or labor and health standards already have been overturned in many countries for “creating barriers to free trade.” Globalization monopolizes production by removing protections for small producers and farmers who are then undersold and driven out by heavily subsidized corporations.
What is also overthrown is democracy itself, the right to have laws that are protective of the social wage, human services, and local economies. Globalization elevates investment rights above all other rights. Globalization also attempts to monopolize nature itself, allowing corporations to lay exclusive claim to basic resources of life, including farm seeds, rice, corn, and even rainwater. It is not free trade; it is monopoly investment. The results are disastrous for Third World nations and not good for any of us except the 1%.

CBThe severe economic crisis we have experienced in the U.S. – and the world – during the past few years is often understood as either a temporary downturn or a cyclical adjustment within an otherwise healthy, dynamic growth-oriented “market” system.  After all, previous crises have typically been followed by sustained phases of development.  Is there something qualitatively novel, more deeply structural and long-term, about the present crisis? 

MP: Recessions are difficult and painful for us but not such a bad thing for Corporate America. Recession allows giant firms to more easily swallow up smaller ones (or other giants) thereby increasing oligopolistic concentration and diminishing competition. Profits keep flowing in while corporate tax rates remain lighter than ever (as even the Wall St. Journal recently reported).  Recession also tames or totally defeats labor unions. And the general public learns humility too. The 1% does not want a public that is well educated and well informed, free of debt, able to organize and make demands, directed by a strong sense of entitlement and high expectations, advocating not-for-profit social programs and services. Recessions often teach the working public to stay in its lowly place and work harder and harder for less and less. Crisis, panic, recession, and poverty are the common conditions of free-market capitalism not the rare exception. Take a look around the world at (to name just a few) capitalist Nigeria, capitalist Indonesia, capitalist Hungary, capitalist Bosnia, capitalist Haiti, capitalist Honduras, and soon-to-be capitalist Libya.
But capitalism is also a self-devouring beast. One function of the capitalist state seldom mentioned, even by Marxists, is to protect capitalism from the capitalists. If the 1% become too successful in their frenzied pursuit of profits and their furious determination to roll back all regulations and restraints, they may well destroy their own system. The plutocrats will plunder everything and everyone in sight, including other capitalists. Toss the global ecological crisis into this witch’s brew and we may well be headed toward monumental disaster. In the middle of it all we have a president who keeps jacking up the military budget and is now spending billions to build the first new (and utterly dangerous) nuclear plant in decades, announcing proudly “I believe in nuclear power.”

CBYou have written, in your book Contrary Notions, that “the important legitimating symbols of our culture are mediated through a social structure that is largely controlled by centralized, moneyed organizations.  This is especially true of our information universe whose mass market is pretty much monopolized by corporate-owned media.”  This offers a rather monolithic view of media culture in the U.S.   Do you see any signs, or sources, of fissures in this system – of a break from the hegemonic order?

MP: The corporate owned mass media are not as perfectly reactionary as media owners might want. All sorts of information can be found buried in the back pages of the New York Times, Wall St. Journal, and other mainstream publications---or even stuck right in the headlines. Some of it can be quite revelatory, if you know how to connect the dots. Troublesome events peek through the haze: recession, poverty, enormous public debt, horrific military interventions, corrupt lawmakers, thieving financiers, renditions and torture, unprecedented natural disasters---but these are not things we lefties inventively pull out of our radical hats. They really exist. Reality is radical.  Often the media have to report something about these unpleasant realities, and when they do, this convinces the moneyed reactionaries that there exists a “biased liberal media” that tries to make capitalist society look bad.
       As for “fissures” in the communication universe, well, there do exist a few hundred non-profit community and campus radio stations that occasionally allow a dissident voice on the air. I do about 35 radio interviews a year on small stations all around the country that broadcast to very small listening audiences. There also are a few under-financed tiny circulation magazines that offer some leftist perspectives. And then there is the Internet which has the defects of its own virtues, with websites and blogs that extend across the entire political spectrum, and hundreds of self-appointed columnists and commentators of all political hues.
       Still the moneyed class and its acolytes control almost the entire communication universe. Getting heard by larger publics is an uphill battle if you have no access to major media. I speak from direct experience. I usually get over 100,000 hits a month on my website, while Glenn Beck gets millions of hits and has many millions of viewers and listeners (and makes millions of dollars). Can he really be that much more intelligent and informed than the rest of us? Or is he just more ideologically correct and therefore better marketed by superrich interests? So the Internet has provided an outlet but---given the way moneyed resources are distributed---it is difficult to create a level playing field.

CB:  In your book God and His Demons you write: “God’s wonders never work more mysteriously – and deleteriously – than in the propagation of religion itself.  Religion is widely credited with being the great progenitor of moral virtues, but looking at the actualities of history we cannot help noticing how frequently religions have served as instruments for promoting intolerance, autocracy, and atrocity.”    To what extent has this kind of religious dogmatism influenced the contemporary rightward shift in American politics, in which Christian fundamentalists (among others) seem fully possessed of a combination of righteous moralism, nationalist xenophobia, and political authoritarianism?

MP:  As I note in God and His Demons, many fundamentalist groups are completely hostile toward “godless” secular democracy; they are uncompromising totalitarian theocrats and openly say as much. They are dedicated to infiltrating the various institutions of this country.        

         About 25 years ago I was invited to speak at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The Academy’s political science department was using my textbook, Democracy for the Few. No kidding. I had an interesting time and made some nice friends. But today I would not be allowed through the gate. The Academy has been taken over by Protestant fundamentalists as has other military centers and bases throughout the armed forces.  More generally, the fundamentalist worshippers have played an active role injecting theocratic values into political discourse, especially with such receptive reactionary presidents as Reagan and George W.
       The clearest case of theocratic intrusion into secular politics was Pope John Paul II’s destruction of liberation theology throughout Latin America, a CIA sponsored suppression that needs more revelation than the few pages I gave it in my book. And of course there is a circular effect. The secular reactionaries fund the fundamentalists in whatever ways they can and even appoint some of them to public office. So church impacts upon state and state bolsters the church, all in a mutually reactionary direction, a marriage made in heaven---or more likely somewhere else.

 CBReturning to the Occupy movement and its many offshoots, can we find cause for optimism here at a time when our experience with other contemporary social movements has been somewhat less than positive.  Popular insurgencies rooted in global justice, antiwar politics (Iraq), and immigration rights, for example, have generally stalled and failed to achieve much political articulation or durability.  Might one identify something entirely different about this new insurgency – different enough to justify renewed optimism for the future?

MP: That’s a crystal ball question. Who can say?   I would qualify what I said earlier about the imperium. It is horribly powerful but neither invincible nor omnipotent. There have been victories and changes. In my lifetime I have seen Jim Crow driven off its pedestal. I have seen a peace movement that eventually almost paralyzed the U.S. war effort in Indochina and raised a ferment on the domestic front that shook up our institutions and our very lives. There have been dramatic gains by feminists and gays, and now a sudden explosion of class fightback by the Occupy movement. Uprisings are unpredictable things. Nobody expected the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt, not even the Egyptologists and Middle East specialists.  If they did, they certainly kept it to themselves. Everything may seem hopeless and then suddenly the people find something in themselves and each other and the democracy is out on the streets.
       I guess the best approach is the one offered by Antonio Gramsci who said we must have “a pessimism of the mind and an optimism of the will.” That is, we must be able to look at how grim things can get and have no sunshine illusions about what we face, but we must also keep fighting as if it made a difference and had an impact---because sometimes it does. 

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Free Market Health Care: True Stories
by Michael Parenti

I recently wrote an article about my personal experiences in dealing with the medical system while undergoing surgery (“Free Market Medicine: A Personal Account”). In response, a number of readers sent me accounts of their own experiences trying to get well in America.

Health care in this country is hailed by conservative boosters as “the best medical system in the world.” It certainly is the most expensive, most profitable, and most complicated system in the world, leaving millions of Americans in shock. None of the people who wrote to me had anything positive to say about the U.S. health system. Below are some of the responses to my article. (Several of the senders requested that their real names not be used).

~ This first email, in a few words, contains one of the more familiar stories:
“In the mid-90s I had an attack of sciatica while visiting my wife's daughter in the Bay Area. I went to Alta Bates Emergency. After I waited three hours, a doctor stopped by, saw me for two minutes, gave me a pain prescription & sent me home.
“ Total bill was over $1,000.”
---John Steinbach

~ Price gouging is the name of the game:
“I had a kidney stone which was causing me great pain. I drove myself to the emergency ward where I was told the kidney stone was so large that it had to be ‘shattered.’ I spent one night in the hospital. The operation was performed early the next morning. My family had to come pick me up which they did by noon that same day. I wasn’t even in the hospital for 24 hours. Imagine my shock when the bill came. It was $57,000, not including the doctor’s bill! I actually thought it was a typo. I thought they had put the comma in the wrong place.
“Blue Cross paid it, except for $2,500 which I had to pay. Then Blue Cross promptly dumped me.”
---Angel Ewing

~ In my original article, I did not have much to say about pharmaceutical costs, but this next reader does:
“Medicare cannot negotiate drug prices, which means that the one Rx I take costs over $700 every three months, of which I pay $90 until I reach the ‘doughnut hole,’ which happens with just this one drug. When I first started on this medication, the cost was about $350, so it has doubled in just three years. No improvements, it's the same exact drug and there are no generics. The only change is the higher price!
“ Speaking of higher prices, I just renewed my prescription and the three month cost has increased again, from $718 to $781. My doctor at Kaiser said that should I get into the ‘doughnut hole’ she would give me a prescription I can use at a Canadian pharmacy. It's crazy that even with a drug coverage plan, I'll eventually have to buy from a Canadian pharmacy!”
---Joan Leslie Taylor

~ Another subject deserving of more attention, iatrogenic disaster:
“The U.S. medical/hospital/industrial system as it has developed is horrifying to me. I went through the hospital and nursing home process with my late parents in the 90s up through 2000 when my mother died from an infection from an antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria, Mercer, caught in the hospital.
“At least you were not subject to staying overnight and having to endure a hospital food system which is criminally poor in nutritional value. . . . Plus the added risk of infection.”
---Dennis Goldstein

~ Here is another reported tragic mishap:
“When the nurses went on strike at Alta Bates, a friend of mine was being treated for her uterine cancer, which was finally in remission. The replacement nurse misdiagnosed the treatment and connected a tube in an erroneous way. My friend tragically died from the mishap. Such a sweet, wonderful person taken by medical error.
“So, my friend, you were basically lucky that you got out with your life. [My wife] recently had a small procedure and she is still getting bills from the treatment - six months later. In other words, you are right, be prepared for the other shoe to drop.”
---Roberto Ronaldi

~ Medical care in America for the longest time has been all about owing, billing, and paying. This letter deals with events from fifteen years ago. (The writer is herself an M.D. who is on disability):
“I have had my own disastrous hospitalization. In 1997, I had private insurance that left a lot unpaid. The hospital ate some of the uncovered costs as a one time only concession, but the "extras" (anesthesiologist, radiologists, etc.) insisted on full payment. I went over the supplies billing and was shocked at the repetitions and also waste. . . .
“ At that time almost all my income from Workman’s Comp went to pay my insurance coverage. Within a couple of years I was unable to continue to afford being insured due to pre-existing conditions.
“The whole thing was so traumatic, I couldn't even write about it, though I wanted to! And I signed myself out a day early because I felt unsafe due to the many errors of omission or neglect made in my 3 days there.
“A problem which I could not prove was surgical or due to post-op neglect left me with one-and-a-half years of rehab, a limp, and continued hip pain which, by the way, was not the area that was to be addressed by the surgery-- it was my neck! But they took some bone from my hip to fix the neck... and apparently, the hip ended up being less well connected to the rest of me afterwards. And that was Free Market Medicine and Worker's protection health benefits 15 years ago.”
---Deb Rosen

~ Among the hardest hit are the homeless. Here is a report from the field, from someone who works for Task Force for the Homeless:
“Every day we ‘house’ 500-700 homeless Atlantans [Georgia], who are men, mostly. We distribute mail daily as well, and the bulk of the mail is hospital bills from our former ‘charity’ hospital which is now a private hospital. Homeless men who owe that hospital for treatment are often denied jobs and housing because of their credit problems. We are in the process of fighting those bills. All too often, our friends don't even seek treatment because they know they cannot pay. The prescriptions at that same hospital cost $10 each, and so people who take more than one medication often go without, as in the case of one man who has heart failure [and needed] life-saving medication.”
---Anita Beaty

~ A reader offers a look at the Swiss system:
“Last year I had four eye surgeries and breast cancer and the maximum I paid was 7000 CHF for it all. I had to fight to get out of the hospital after five days because they wanted to make absolutely sure I had no problem with drainage. I was able to walk out (no wheelchairs). A portion of my insurance payment does go to cover people who can't afford insurance. I'm fine with that.
“I had a team that still keeps tabs on me and a lead nurse who is there 24/7 (she does have off time with a substitute who is there for whatever I need.).
“No way would I ever live in the US again. It's too cruel. I do carry insurance that if I were in the US and I get sick, I get air ‘freighted’ back to a civilized society.”
---Dora Philips

~ From a friend in Canada:
“I am just appalled reading your account---although our Conservative government is trying very hard to destroy our cherished health care system these days. But to give you a personal example, my husband just had a total hip replacement and is due for another one this summer. Five years ago he had a serious bowel operation which required a nine day stay at the hospital.
“ NO bills were sent to us for either of these operations. It is all included in our health care system OHIP for Ontario. Ontario Health Insurance Plan.
“The only cost this time is for buying a commode chair, a bath bench and a walker ( which we could have rented). And we will be able to deduct these expenses on our income taxes. We also have a $100.oo deductible yearly for our medications so it cost us about $6 to $8 for each prescription.
---Madeleine Gilchrist

~ From another friend in Canada; after giving a detailed account of the excellent free treatment accorded her mother, she added:
“Far too many Americans accept an utterly depraved and bizarre system of health-care-for-profit. The health system in the USA is an aberration. Many Americans have been led to think that we Canadians pay a fortune for our health care in taxes. But Americans already pay more per capita in taxes for health care (that most of you don't receive) than do Canadians. We get full, FREE coverage, no questions asked.
“Our system is under attack by the Conservatives. But so far, only free prescription drugs have been taken away from my Mum's coverage. She now pays about 20% of the cost of her heart medications. Until about a decade ago they were totally free of charge.
“Meanwhile, my fellow Canadians are being lied to, and many are being hoodwinked. They look at the TV commercials for American for-profit health care, and listen to Fox television and its Canadian counterpart, Sun television, and the ranting of Prime Minister Steven Harper, and conclude that we have an inferior system.”

---Amanda Bellerby

~ These observations from a friend in England:
"I just read your article - a lot of it left me speechless. Some I am not surprised by; my friends in California have told me about their own horror stories when it comes to accessing health care. The National Health Service [in the U.K.] is far from perfect but we had peace of mind when a family friend had surgery recently and was taken to and from the hospital by mini-bus—so different from your experience. . . .
I noticed when interviewing some of my refugee/asylum seeking clients that a huge percentage of them are given anti-depressants. Doctors readily hand out prescription drugs rather than referring to other services (which are more costly). I can now easily spot when someone is taking them as their memory is often bad and they have delayed responses to my questions. One man I was talking to the other day from Zimbabwe has been taking anti-depressants for seven years and was prescribed them after just one meeting with his doctor. We used to have an NHS service in Nottingham where I live called Health In Mind who were great with supporting refugees suffering post-traumatic stress, but it's been scrapped now. Companies who supply anti-depressants must be making a fortune here.
---Sharon Walia

In sum, readers found the conditions I described in my earlier article to be quite unsettling. But the above comments indicate that many people in the USA have a story of their own to tell about the heartless medical industry. And people abroad make clear to us that their “socialized” medical systems are more humane and less cruel than ours---even if they too sometimes suffer from faulty practices.

The corporate goal in the United States and elsewhere is to treat medical care not as a human right but as a market-determined profit-driven service. We should unequivocally demand socialized medicine, that is, a publicly funded and publicly administered system whose purpose is human care rather than profit accumulation. It will cost so much less and serve us so much better.

Michael Parenti’s most recent book is The Face of Imperialism (2011). For more information about his work, see his website: www.michaelparenti.org, and the Michael Parenti Blog.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Free-Market Medicine--A Personal Account by Michael Parenti

Free-Market Medicine—A Personal Account
by Michael Parenti

When I recently went to Alta Bates hospital for surgery, I discovered that legal procedures take precedence over medical ones. I had to sign intimidating statements about financial counseling, indemnity, patient responsibilities, consent to treatment, use of electronic technologies, and the like.

One of these documents committed me to the following: “The hospital pathologist is hereby authorized to use his/her discretion in disposing of any member, organ, or other tissue removed from my person during the procedure.” Any member? Any organ?

The next day I returned for the actual operation. While playing Frank Sinatra recordings, the surgeon went to work cutting open several layers of my abdomen in order to secure my intestines with a permanent mesh implant. Afterward I spent two hours in the recovery room. “I feel like I’ve been in a knife fight,” I told one nurse. “It’s called surgery,” she explained.

Then, while still pumped up with anesthetics and medications, I was rolled out into the street. The street? Yes, some few hours after surgery they send you home. In countries that have socialized medicine (there I said it), a van might be waiting with trained personnel to help you to your abode.

Not so in free-market America. Your presurgery agreement specifies in boldface that you must have “a responsible adult acquaintance” (as opposed to an irresponsible teenage stranger) take you home in a private vehicle. I kept thinking, what happens to those unfortunates who have no one to bundle them away? Do they languish endlessly in the hospital driveway until the nasty weather finishes them off?

You are not allowed to call a taxi. Were a taxi driver to cause you any harm, you could hold the hospital legally responsible. Again it’s a matter of liability and lawyers, not health and doctors.

One of the two friends who helped me up the steps to my house then went off to Walgreen’s to buy the powerful antibiotics I had to take every four hours for two days. I dislike how antibiotics destroy the “good bacteria” that our bodies produce, and how they help create dangerous strains of super-resistant bacteria. I kept thinking of a recent finding: excessive reliance on medical drugs kills more Americans than all illegal narcotics combined.

So why did I have to take antibiotics? Because, as everyone kept telling me, hospitals are seriously unsafe places overrun with Staph infections and other super bugs. It’s a matter of self-protection.

Two days after surgery I noticed a dark red discoloration on my lower abdomen indicating internal bleeding. I was supposed to get a follow-up call from a nurse who would check on how I was doing. But the call might never come because the staff was planning a walkout. “We have no contract,” one of them had told me when I was in the recovery room. So now the nurses are on strike---and I’m left on my own to divine what my internal bleeding is all about. What fun.

Fortunately, it didn’t turn out that way. A nurse did call me despite the walkout. Yes, she said, it was internal bleeding, but it was to be expected. My surgeon called later in the day to confirm this opinion. Death was not yet knocking.

A few days later, there were massive nurses strikes on both coasts. Among other things, the nurses were complaining about “being disrespected by a corporate hospital culture that demands sacrifices from patients and those who provide their care, but pays executives millions of dollars.” (New York Times, 16 December 2011). One cold-blooded management negotiator was quoted as saying, “We have the money. We just don’t have the will to give it to you” (ibid.).

As for the doctors, both my surgeon and my general practitioner (GP) are among the victims, not the perpetrators, of today’s corporate medical system. My GP explained that it is an endless fight to get insurance companies to pay for services they supposedly cover. Feeling less like a doctor and more like a bill collector, my GP found he could no longer engage in endless telephone struggles with insurance companies.

There are 1,500 medical insurance companies in America, all madly dedicated to maximizing profits by increasing premiums and withholding payments. The medical industry in toto is the nation’s largest and most profitable business, with an annual health bill of about $1 trillion.

Along with the giant insurance and giant pharmaceutical companies, the greatest profiteers are the Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), notorious for charging steep monthly payments while underpaying their staffs and requiring their doctors to spend less time with each patient, sometimes even withholding necessary treatment.

I am without private insurance. And my Medicare goes just so far. Like many other doctors, my GP no longer accepts Medicare. For a number of years now, Medicare payments to physicians have remained relatively unchanged while costs of running a practice (staff, office space, insurance) have steadily increased. So now my GP’s patients have to pay in full upon every visit—which is not always easy to do.

Our health system mirrors our class system. At the base of the pyramid are the very poor. Many of them suffer through long hours in emergency rooms only to be turned away with a useless or harmful prescription. No wonder “the United States has the worst record among industrialized nations in treating preventable deaths” (Healthcare-NOW! 1 December 2011).

Too often the very poor get no care at all. They simply die of whatever illness assails them because they cannot afford treatment. An acquaintance of mine told me how her mother died of AIDS because she could not afford the medications that might have kept her alive.

In Houston I once got talking with a limousine driver, a young African-American man, who remarked that both his parents had died of cancer without ever receiving any treatment. “They just died,” he said with a pain in his voice that I can still hear.

Living just above the poor in the class pyramid are the embattled middle class. They watch medical coverage disappear while paying out costly amounts to the profit-driven insurance companies. I was able to get surgery at Alta Bates only because I am old enough to have Medicare and have enough disposable income to meet the co-payment.

For my out-patient operation, the hospital charged Medicare $19,466. Of this, Medicare paid $2,527. And I was billed $644. The hospital then writes off the unpaid balance thus saving considerable sums in taxes (amounting to an indirect subsidy from the rest of us taxpayers). Had I no Medicare coverage, I would have had to pay the entire $19,466.

I was informed by the hospital that the $19,466 charge covers only hospital costs for equipment, technicians, supplies, and room. So besides the $644, I will have to pay for any pathologists, surgical assistants, and anesthesiologists who performed additional services. I am waiting for the other shoe to drop.

How much does my surgeon earn? Not much at all. He gets about $400 to $500 for everything, including my pre-op and post-op visits and the surgery itself, an exacting undertaking that requires skills of the highest sort. He also has to maintain insurance, an office, an assistant, and an increasing load of paperwork.

My surgeon pointed out to me, “If you ask people how much I make on an operation like yours, they will say $4000 to $5000, and be wrong by a factor of ten.” He noted that in a recent speech President Obama criticized a surgeon for charging $30,000 to replace a knee cap. “The surgeon gets a minute fraction of that amount,” my doctor pointed out.

To make matters worse, there is talk about cutting Medicare payments to physicians by 27 percent. If this happens, it is going to be increasingly difficult to find a surgeon who will take Medicare. Still worse, the private insurance companies will join in squeezing the physicians for still more profits.

I was able to meet my payment ($644) not only because my operation was heavily subsidized by Medicare but because it was a one-day “ambulatory surgery.” I don’t know how I would fare if I had to undergo prolonged and extremely costly treatment.

So much for life in the middle class. At the very top of the class pyramid are the 1%, those who don’t have to worry about any of this, the superrich who have money enough for all kinds of state-of-the-art treatments at the very finest therapeutic centers around the world, complete with luxury suites with gourmet menus.

Among the medically privileged are members of Congress and the U.S. president. They pay nothing. They are treated at top-grade facilities. They enjoy, how shall we put it, socialized medicine. No conservative lawmakers have held fast to their free-market principles by refusing to accept this publicly funded, medical treatment.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, cheerfully announced that medical care is not a human right; it should be “market determined just like food and shelter.” Nobody has a higher opinion of John Mackey than I, and I think he is a greed-driven, union-busting bloodsucker. Nevertheless I will give him credit for candidly admitting his dedication to a dehumanized profit pathology.

The U.S. medical system costs many times more than what is spent in socialized systems, but it delivers much less in the way of quality care and cure. That’s the way it is intended to be. The goal of any free-market service---be it utilities, housing, transportation, education, or health care---is not to maximize performance but to maximize profits often at the expense of performance.

If profits are high, then the system is working just fine---for the 1%. But for us 99%, the profit lust is itself the heart of the problem.

© Michael Parenti, 2011
Michael Parenti’s recent books include: The Face of Imperialism (2011); God and His Demons ( 2010); Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader (2007); The Assassination of Julius Caesar (2004). For further information, visit: www.MichaelParenti.org.

Monday, 2 January 2012

An Opinon About the Opinion-Makers by Michael Parenti

Jill Pletcher and Mary Magnuson (two of my favorite FB people) were speculating as to what might be my opinion of Chris Hedges. I think Hedges makes a valuable contribution. He goes over issues and topics that some of us have dealt with for many years. It is familiar terrain but also nice to have a fresh verve injected into it, the enthusiasm of the recent convert. Plus he brings his own idiom and experience to it.

I differ from him in regard to his view (resembling Michael Moore's view) that capitalism "has lost its way." As that argument goes, earlier capitalism was okay but this corporate monster has become something that cannot be countenanced, etc. I agree of course that it is a corporate monster but I also think that earlier capitalism was pretty rotten in its own way: y'know, 8-year-old kids working 14-hour-days, widespread typhoid epidemics, massive underemployment, starvation wages, etc.

Perhaps Hedges and Moore are thinking about capitalism after WW II, with the postwar prosperity and "historical compromise" with labor. In that case, their argument is a little more understandable but it still does not hold, since even then the 1% was at war with the 99%, albeit with less of the systematic confidence and brutal persistence displayed today.

Also, Jill wrote, "Dr. Michael Parenti would wholeheartedly support Hedges comments on Yugoslavia." That surprised me. In Hedges' early book about war correspondence, as I recall, he supported the destructive war against Yugoslavia which broke that country into a cluster of shattered, right-wing, mini republics where everything is privatized and deregulated and (almost) everyone is poor. Hedges just couldn't stop demonizing the Serbs and Milosevic in that most ill-informed but de rigueur way that does shore up one's legitimacy with the liberal centrists.

Maybe Jill is referring to a more recent opinion of Hedges. I hear that some people on the left ,who stood shoulder to shoulder with NATO, the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House (Clinton) in delivering death and destruction on Yugoslavia, now are having second thoughts. Maybe Hedges is one of them. I wonder how he stands on Libya.

In any case more important than what I think about this or that other left commentator is what do YOU think about what is being said. Fashioning a reasoned argument is always a superior path to political liberation (both mental and collective) than embracing the latest name as the authoritative source. I am happy to say that people like Jill and Mary keep all of us on our toes as they forge ahead, determined to make sense out of the madness.