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LOCKDOWN AMERICA: An Interview with Christian Parenti

In addition to prisons and punishment, Parenti discusses Marxism, post-Marxism, postmodernism, and anarchism. He also comments on the current movement against capitalism.

Christian Parenti is a San Francisco-based author, activist, and educator. His recent critically acclaimed book "Lockdown America" attempts to outline the recent history and causes of prison growth and the rise of militarized policing in America. He spoke with Christopher Carley last month.

CHRISTOPHER CARLEY: When you say you're a Marxist, what are you saying exactly? What is the current role of Marxism?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: When I say I'm a Marxist, I'm saying that I think the 150 year-old intellectual tradition called "Marxism" is the most strategically useful set of tools for analyzing capitalism. And when I say capitalism, I am referring to the social system in which we live. Now, we can get infinitely theoretical about where capitalism stops and starts, and we can wonder about the exact contours of the inside and outside of capitalism...

CHRISTOPHER: What do you mean by that, exactly?

CHRISTIAN: Well, we can ask the question: "Is all of social phenomena contained within capitalism, or are there psychological and cultural and emotional and geographic and economic spaces outside of capitalism?" But I haven't really fully explored that question, because my everyday life is (pretty clearly, and in very non-abstract way) contained within capitalism. I live in a city; I live in an American city. Therefore, almost every single thing I do is mediated by not just the commodity form, but by money. We're able to record this interview because you bought batteries for your tape recorder. Someone's paying for the gas that is heating this apartment. Our interaction here is infinitely mediated by economic exchange values. So, I think it's really important to analyze capitalism and the way that capitalism shapes everyday experience, and our landscape.

CHRISTOPHER: Why do you object to being called a "post-Marxist?"

CHRISTIAN: The kind of Marxism that I use might fit many people's definitions of "post-Marxism." But the reason I don't use that term is because I think it's a political act to just say "I'm a Marxist." I'm not interested in making a coded and sophisticated apology. To call myself a "post-Marxist" would be to create a nuanced and sympathetic (yet cowardly) distance between myself and Marxism. Now, if Marxism were totally hegemonic, maybe that would be the right thing to do. But it's not. The Marxist tradition is a completely hated, hunted pariah. Therefore I think there is political utility in just putting it out there. Yeah, I'm a Marxist, you know, so what? What the fuck do you have to say about that? How many people have even thought about what that actually means? Anti-communism in this country has really shut down certain things that we're just not supposed to think about. But, more specifically, I call myself a Marxist because there are categories within Marxism that are really useful to explore. I don't consider myself an expert in the field. I'm not a theorist. Nor am I really interested in the Marxist study of Marxism, which is one whole discipline within Marxism. There's Marxist political economy, there's Marxist geography, there's Marxist criminology (or there was, until it was crushed in the United States with the dissolution of the Berkeley School of Criminology) there's Marxist ecology, etc. But there's also this other stuff which is like Marxist Marxism, and the infinite self-reflexivity of Marxism itself. That stuff can be veryproductive and useful, but some of it can also be really absurd. So, I'm not a Marxist who is obsessed with Marxism. I embrace it in a pragmatic way.

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