Occupy, Resist, Produce!
With the popularity of such documentaries as Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s The Corporation and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911, so-called "guerrilla filmmaking" is quickly becoming a new genre in itself.
The most recent example of this is The Take, a Canadian documentary written by No Logo author Naomi Klein and directed by her husband, former CBC Counterspin host Avi Lewis. The backdrop of the film is the spectacular failure of neo-liberal economics in Argentina. It is the same story that could be told of a multitude of countries from the Global South: under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Argentina’s government, led by President Carlos Menem, privatizes state assets, deregulates financial markets, cuts social spending, raises interest rates to unprecedented levels, and slashes wages. Not surprisingly, the incomes of the wealthy and powerful increase almost exponentially, while unemployment and poverty skyrocket for the poor and working class, leaving the society ridden with greater inequality and public squalor. This leads to a financial collapse in 2001, when even hundreds of thousands of well-to-do, middle-class Argentines lose their jobs and savings.
The documentary takes viewers into the industrial wastelands of the country, where, after the crisis, thousands of factories are abandoned and stripped of their assets by their owners. Out of desperation, some of the unemployed workers fight back, organizing to re-take control of their former industries and manage them on their own, without owners or bosses. As the workers’ motto proudly states: "Occupy, Resist, Produce!"
Klein and Lewis introduce viewers to Freddie Espinosa and his family, who have spent virtually all of their savings since Espinosa lost his job at the Forja auto parts factory. The documentary follows Espinosa and his co-workers as they attempt to salvage their factory and resume work. They are supported by, and learn from, other workers in Argentina who have successfully expropriated industries and placed them under workers’ control, including those at Zanon Ceramics and the Brukman garment factories.
Klein and Lewis also cover the politics of Argentina, including a presidential election that took place during the actual filming. Seeking a political comeback, disgraced conservative Carlos Menem, blamed by most Argentines for the crisis, is challenged by a more progressive rival, Peronist Nestor Kirchner. The documentary includes a clip of a hilarious Menem TV campaign commercial, where Menem apologizes for his previous economic mismanagement and then, with a straight face, attempts to display himself as a Christ-like figure seeking forgiveness from the voters of Argentina.
Unlike a Michael Moore documentary, Klein and Lewis have limited time on camera. Instead, they let the cameras roll, filming how the Forja workers confront one crisis after another. They are the stars of the film. Framing a grim reality, The Take films the workers and their families as they face off against the former owner of the factory, corporate-backed politicians, the corrupt Argentine judicial system, and an appallingly violent police state. There is an alternative to global capitalism, but no one said that creating workplace democracy was going to be easy.
As decades of labour research has shown, industries that are self-managed and controlled democratically by their workers are, under static conditions, more efficient and cost-effective than companies that possess a traditional, top-down, bureaucratic form of administration. More importantly, they also create far better working conditions for employees. Further studies have revealed that those working in democratic workplaces tend to live longer and healthier, enjoy more satisfying personal and family life, and are more likely to engage in social activities such as volunteering, community service and political participation.
Of course, we’re not supposed to know this. People are trained to believe that workers are uninformed, careless, and lack the capability to manage their own businesses. The irony about this myth is illustrated in the film, where the former owners who only a few years ago abandoned their businesses, including Mr. Zanon of the ceramics factory, all of a sudden want them back now that many of them are operating so successfully.
A noteworthy scene is an interview with a female worker at the Brukman garment factory, who speaks of being both surprised and relieved to realize how easy it was for workers to manage the factory and undertake such duties as accounting, purchasing, sales, and other financial planning, activities that were once thought only to be the responsibilities of educated and well-paid managers. When asked about the larger picture, she smiles and confidently declares, "Maybe we can run the entire country this way."
She was definitely on to something here. Due to whatever reason, whether time, budget or the desired focus of the film, Klein and Lewis don’t look at the larger picture of a democratically-controlled economy that is socially-owned and controlled by workers and consumers.
What does the existence of worker-managed companies say of the millions of other workers who still labour under the thumb of corporate management in other businesses? And what happens if some of the democratic firms cannot survive in the global economy? Could they be forced to cut back production and fire workers in order to remain afloat? This could result in a kind of "people’s capitalism," where worker-controlled firms have to compete with each other, just like traditional corporations.
This is where the issue of social ownership becomes vitally important: factories, as well as entire economies, would need to be owned and planned democratically by local communities to guarantee full employment, environmental sustainability and social justice.
This is not a critique of the The Take or of the courageous struggles of Freddie Espinosa and thousands of other working people in Argentina. We in the more industrialized world have much to learn from them, and it is only these struggles that will lead to larger mobilizations for economic democracy on a global scale.
As one woman working in a democratic enterprise proudly declares near the end of the film, "We are now where the rest of the world is going."
SEAN CAIN is a freelance writer from Oakville, Ontario. Cain can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about The Take, visit www.thetake.org.