Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 4, 2021

Thinking like an Octopus

Filed under: Counterpunch,Octopus — louisproyect @ 4:17 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 4, 2021

Just over five years ago, Inky the octopus became a folk hero because of his escape from a New Zealand aquarium. After squeezing through a narrow chink in his tank, he crawled across the floor and found an opening to a 164-foot-long drainpipe that led to the ocean. As much as I enjoyed the film based on Stephen King’s “The Shawshank Redemption”, which climaxes in Tim Robbin’s daring prison break, I only wish that a gifted animation team like the one that made “How to Train Your Dragon” could tell Inky’s story.

At the time, I made a mental note to myself to learn about octopuses. From the time that I read about Inky, interest in the creatures has increased dramatically with this year’s Oscar for documentary going to “My Octopus Teacher.” Nearly everybody who spends time looking at octopus YouTube videos, or going further and reading books about them, will be struck by both their intelligence and inscrutability.

This article will discuss Sy Montgomery’s best-selling “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” and Peter Godfrey-Smith’s “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness.” It will also review “My Octopus Teacher.” Despite the inclusion of the word “consciousness” in both titles, there are vast differences between the two. Montgomery’s focus is on the interplay between humans and the octopus taking place in aquariums just like the kind that Inky fled, while Godfrey-Smith applies neuroscience and Darwinism to a creature that seemingly defies what these disciplines hold as sacrosanct. In either book, you’ll discover that both authors have the kind of love for the octopus that other authors had for the chimpanzee or the wolf. I, of course, am referring to Jane Goodall and Farley Mowat respectively.

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May 21, 2021

Film reflections on the opioid crisis

Filed under: Columbia University,Counterpunch,drugs,Film — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

When a publicist sent me a press release and screener for Nicholas Jarecki’s “Crisis”, I looked forward to covering a film by a director who I acclaimed as making one of the best films of 2012: “9. Arbitrage – Don’t tell Oliver Stone that I said so, but this is much better than his “Wall Street” sequel.”

One of his personal quotes on IMDB will give you a sense of what motivated him to take aim at a fictionalized version of the Sackler family of Purdue Pharma infamy in “Crisis” as well as a billionaire arbitrageur who kept his role in the death of his mistress a secret a la Ted Kennedy/Chappaquiddick in the earlier work. “I think that people need to become more educated about money. We need to stop creating systems that benefit only the most-cutthroat sharks.”

“Crisis” is the first narrative film to tell the story of how both criminal gangs and prestigious philanthropist families worked to extract blood money from American families in recent years through the sale of opioids like Oxycodone. Set in Detroit and Montreal, it begins with the arrest of a man in a white camouflage suit dragging a sled full of pain-killers across the Canadian border.

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May 14, 2021

Hard Crackers: the Revolutionary Legacy of Noel Ignatiev

Filed under: Counterpunch,workers — louisproyect @ 4:08 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 14, 2021

Back in 1996, while browsing through the Marxism section at Labyrinth Books near Columbia University, where I was working as a programmer at the time, I spotted a book that stopped me dead in my tracks. Titled “How the Irish Became White” and written by Noel Ignatiev, it did not just promise to be about a particular ethnic group’s embrace of white supremacy but how all whites enjoy privileges that help to keep the working class divided. I purchased the book, took it home and read it over the next couple of days. It remains one of the most important studies of class and race I have ever read.

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April 16, 2021

WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,VOD/Streaming — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, APRIL 16, 2021

In the late 70s, I worked for a consulting company in New York called Automated Concepts Inc., mostly known in the industry as ACI. The CEO was a guy named Fred Harris who was well-liked by the staff, including me. It was also common knowledge that Fred used to attend EST workshops, where he supposedly learned the skills he needed to become a successful businessman.

EST stood for Erhard Seminars Training that was a mixture of founder Werner Erhard’s ersatz Eastern religious mysticism and Dale Carnegie type lessons on how to become a “success” in business. While certainly cultish, it was by no means as bad as Scientology. Fred used to take me out to dinner from time to time, mostly to be able to chat with someone who didn’t fit the mold of the propellor-heads who worked for him.

Even as the 60s/70s radicalization was dying out, the New Age lingered on in the corporate world as the idea of leveraging economic success with spiritualism proved seductive. With some leftists like Rennie Davis jumping the radical ship, it was the perfect place for them to land. You could simultaneously “make it” and feel superior to the grubbiness of American society. After becoming a disciple of Guru Maharaj Ji, Davis created the Foundation for a New Humanity, a technology development and venture capital company specializing in new technology.

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April 9, 2021

Exterminate All the Brutes

Filed under: colonialism,Counterpunch,genocide,television,white supremacy — louisproyect @ 3:53 pm

“Where art is a weapon, it is only so when it is art”

–Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten

Last night, HBO launched “Exterminate All the Brutes”, a four-part docudrama by Raoul Peck that is both art and weapon. As a director of the great narrative film “The Young Karl Marx” and the equally great James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro”, Peck includes staged performances by professional actors to highlight the cruelties visited on native peoples in the Americas and in Africa. In the first episode, we see a scripted reenactment of a massacre American soldiers carried out against Seminoles and their escaped slave allies in 1836 who dared resist ethnic cleansing.

We also see a savage attack on the Congolese people in 1892, during King Leopold’s reign. In this reenactment, a Catholic mission founded by the Swedish priest Edward Sjoblom witnesses a white rubber plantation owner storming into the modest church, gun in hand, and forcing a Black parishioner from his pew. As everyone gathers outside the church, the colonist fires a bullet into the man’s head and then forces a young parishioner to cut off his hand to be proof to the authorities that law and order was being upheld, just as white settlers often took Indian scalps in the USA.

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March 22, 2021

A Short History of the Syrian Conflict

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 22, 2021

When the Arab Spring came to the Middle East ten years ago, most on the left welcomed the protests, except in Libya and Syria largely out of geopolitical concerns. If the world was made up of opposing camps, you had to support Washington’s enemies even if their secret police were torturers and their governments little more than family dynasties. Libya was far more up-front about being the wholly-owned property of the Gaddafi clan but didn’t Syria have elections? Most notably, you can find references to Bashar al-Assad being re-elected to President in 2014 with close to 90 percent of the vote, a seeming anomaly given the depth of the civil war.

It turns out that he did even better in 2007, when he got 97.29 of the vote, a total redolent of Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman’s studies of demonstration elections. But you had to avoid making such a charge since you didn’t want Assad to be mistaken with José Napoleón Duarte’s victory in El Salvador in 1984. He got 54 percent of the vote but—who knows—maybe Assad deserved such overwhelming support. Yes, it’s true that it wasn’t exactly an election but a referendum on whether he should take over for his father after Hafez’s death that year. With word of posters being plastered on Damascus’s walls and songs blaring from cars and loudspeakers “We love you”, who could deny his popularity? Of course, anybody caught writing graffiti on the walls denouncing such a rigged election might end up hanging upside down in a police station and beaten for hours. That would the norm in 2011, when Syrians lost their fear.

Between 2007 and 2011, not much attention was paid to Syria. For many, the charms of the country were irresistible. Visits to Damascus and Aleppo were a perfect alternative to the usual resort spots. What could be more fun than strolling through the bazaars in search of cheap rugs? Even after the country had been torn apart by civil war, you could always count on Vanessa Beeley and Max Blumenthal to report back on the glories of the nightlife and their favorite hotels.

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March 12, 2021

Socially Relevant Film Festival 2021

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 9:40 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 12, 2021

Starting next Monday and ending on Sunday March 21st, the Socially Relevant Film Festival will present dozens of films through a virtual theater. Like last year, the pandemic has had an impact not only on this festival but all theaters in New York that cater to leading edge independent work. The big commercial theaters like AMC have opened under conditions of social distancing but the best leading-edge houses like Film Forum are streaming only. On the plus side, people everywhere will be able to see SR Festival films for $7 each, with a festival ticket available for $75. If you need any motivation to see one or all the films and have also found yourself appreciating films I recommended on CounterPunch, let me repeat my testimonial to the SR Film Festival in 2015. I would only add the words “unending economic crisis and pandemic”:

I had an epiphany: “socially relevant” films have a higher storytelling quotient than Hollywood’s for the simple reason that they are focused on the lives of ordinary people whose hopes and plight we can identify with. With a commercial film industry increasingly insulated from the vicissitudes of an unending economic crisis, it is only “socially relevant” films that demand our attention and even provide entertainment after a fashion. When the subjects of the film are involved in a cliffhanging predicament, we care about the outcome as opposed to the Hollywood film where the heroes confront Mafia gangsters, CIA rogues or zombies as if in a video game.

The four documentaries s under review below constitute just a tiny minority of the festival offerings. As is universally the case, I found all of them compelling. Except for the last, they deal with issues close to my heart and I suspect that they will be close to yours as well.

The Boys Who Said NO! (Monday, March 15, 4:00 PM)

Directed by Judith Ehrlich, who made the superlative “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” in 2009, the film is a history of the anti-draft movement that began in 1964 and lasted until 1972. While focused on the civil disobedience wing of the antiwar movement, it also serves as a terrific overview of the war and a reminder of why people my age were willing to go to prison for up to five years for burning a draft card or joining a “subversive” organization and risk careers because of a COINTELPRO. Hoover’s FBI provocations even caught me in its web.

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March 10, 2021

A Short History of Uighur Resistance

Filed under: China,colonialism,Counterpunch,Uyghur — louisproyect @ 6:35 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 9, 2021

Abdulla Rozibaqiev, a Uighur Bolshevik

In a by now familiar pattern, Grayzone has taken up the cause of a powerful and oppressive state against a weaker enemy using a geopolitical litmus test. Since the USA has invaded and occupied dozens of Third World countries for over two hundred years, there’s no point in taking the side of any oppressed nationality or ethnic group since willy-nilly they are acting on behalf of Wall Street, the CIA, NATO, George Soros, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

Why bother looking at the deeper historical roots of a conflict when all you need to do is dredge up some evidence that the State Department has paid off some dissidents. Long before Max Blumenthal and his cohorts launched Grayzone, Michel Chossudovsky had perfected this methodology at Global Research. When young people filled Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand the overthrow of Mubarak, Tony Cartalucci took Mubarak’s side in a Global Research article because the National Endowment for Democracy had funneled some cash to his opponents. I am surprised that Chossudovsky did not sue Grayzone for the theft of intellectual property.

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February 26, 2021

A Cineaste’s Picks for the Best Films of 2020

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:26 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, FEBRUARY 26, 2021

This film made $0 in North America and $27,136 worldwide. It is my pick for best narrative film of 2021

The pandemic has turned the yearly ritual of film awards ceremonies a molehill out of the mountain they once were. With major Hollywood studios shelving multi-million dollar prestige movies, except for Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” that was largely dismissed as a flop, it has been left to less costly and nominally “indie” films such as “Nomadland” and “Minari” to fill the gap. Both had full-page ads in the N.Y. Times usually reserved for films made by Stephen Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, et al, with fawning articles over their stars Frances McDormand and Steven Yeun. Instead of A-listers like Scarlett Johansson or Brad Pitt chatting it up with late-night TV show hosts, we see McDormand and Yeun on the guest sofa.

Having seen these films and others in the same vein (“The White Tiger”, “First Cow”, “The Nest”), my reaction has been lukewarm at best. At our yearly New York Film Critics Online virtual awards meeting, not a single one of these overrated works got my vote. Alongside my arch-contrarian colleague Armond White, my votes went for the far more obscure but groundbreaking films that would have never been the beneficiary of a full-page ad in the N.Y. Times. While Armond tilts rightward, my preference is for films that challenge political or dramatic conventions. My picks below reflect my tastes as well as my critical judgement. If you have found my reviews useful in the past, then I would urge you to check them out. All are available as VOD on Amazon Prime and all the other usual sites.

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January 21, 2021

Cuba, Hip-Hop, and American Imperialism

Filed under: Counterpunch,cuba — louisproyect @ 2:24 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 21, 2021

Cuban Freedom Fighter Denis Solis: “Donald Trump 2020! That’s my president.”

When Charles Post and other independent Marxists teamed up with ex-ISOers to launch Spectre Journal, it struck me as a welcome left alternative to Jacobin. Although I am a subscriber and have urged others to subscribe, I am deeply troubled by a recent article by Sam Farber that exploits the San Isidro controversy as part of his decades-long crusade against the Cuban government.

On November 9, 2020, Cuban rapper Denis Solis was arrested for “contempt” in the San Isidro neighborhood where artists and musicians had begun using social media to protest attacks on their right to free expression. The New York Times article on the arrest links to a Facebook video made by Solis while a cop was in his apartment. Lacking subtitles, it is not easy to make sense of the confrontation. I can assure you that Solis calls the cop a maricon, the Spanish equivalent of “faggot”. I also invite you to pay special attention to what Solis says at 3:10 into the video, namely his support for Donald Trump. Even the Times found this impossible to ignore:

In a country hammered by U.S. sanctions, the politics of some in the group have raised eyebrows. Mr. Solís is a die-hard Trump supporter: In the video he posted of his arrest, he screamed: “Donald Trump 2020! That’s my president.”

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