Some Comments on Michael Parenti's Talk on The Pathology of Wealth

I recently listened to a recording of a speech Michael Parenti gave at the La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley on “Democracy and the pathology of wealth” (Jan. 6, 2013):

I’ve never read Parenti, but I thought his speaking style was enjoyable.

I read on his Wikipedia entry that “Parenti has repeatedly criticized the tendency among many who profess to be progressive to downplay the importance of class and class power as a formative force […​]” So I was a little surprised that he is so enthusiastic about the ninety-nine percent rhetoric: “To finally see people out in the street just coming right out and saying ‘one percent’ and ‘ninety-nine percent,’ and seeing it getting picked up by commentators — Let me say, that’s a big ideological victory right there” (14:58).

It seems probably true that the “we are the 99%” talk (for which I think we can blame David Graeber) has made the public more aware of the incredible wealth disparity resulting from the American system. But any income-based class analysis is also a very good way to obscure the much more useful definition of classes formed by relations to production. A socialism which seeks to abolish exploitation and return control to individuals over their lives and their products will also preclude gross wealth disparity; a socialism which seeks first to merely redistribute the profit of the arbitrarily-selected “one percent,” in contrast, is simply a clumsy bandage on capitalism.

Such a sloppy class analysis makes it difficult to even know what is meant by terms like socialism and capitalism. For example, towards the end of his talk, Parenti mentions that, “Not all things need to be socialized. In Cuba they’re now doing small service businesses, which are, I think, a good.” (44:56). He doesn’t attempt to explain how we know what is good to ‘socialize’ and what is good to not socialize. What is ‘small’? Raul’s new plan for Cuba, which Parenti is referring to, allows for certain worker-owned cooperatives to operate independently of the government. Are cooperatives, then, not ‘socialized’? According to a Reuter’s article I read, the plan also allows for contract labour to be hired on a three-month basis. That certainly sounds like Cuba has re-introduced a small-scale labour market. Is that a good? Is there an optimal amount of exploitation we should aim for?

Lacking any rigorous definition of socialism, Parenti seems to revert to the old quasi definition that anything which is publicly funded is “socialism”. I like this sentence he used: “Capitalism works, if it works at all, because it always has socialism to bail it out and to subsidize it.” (44:06) Peter Kropotkin made a similar point when he said, “without a certain leaven of Communism the present societies could not exist.” Kropotkin used public libraries and toll-free bridges as examples; Parenti uses public roads, public utilities, public schools, etc.

But without a basis in class relations, there is no talk of alienation or exploitation, and all of Parenti’s arguments in favor of socialism come down to simply insisting that public institutions are better, more efficient, or more just, with little by way of explanation other than the vague assertion that the profit motive is bad. The idea that anything that is “public” is socialism quickly leads to absurdities like the list in this (apparently non-satirical) article I’ve seen floating around the web, 75 Ways Socialism Has Improved America.

My very favorite part of the talk was towards the end when he said, “Profits are what you get when not working. […​] Somebody will come up and say to you, ‘Well, don’t you make profits on your book?’ No, I wrote the book, you jackass! I wrote the book.” (46:10)

Finally, he’s talking about socialism! The equivocation of generic or accounting profit with the unearned, economic profit critiqued by socialism is the source of much confusion. This sort of clarification can’t be made often enough.


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