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Taking liberties

Ivan Briscoe
25 November 2004

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In the days before the April 2003 presidential elections in Argentina, a worker-occupied factory in Buenos Aires became the unlikely location of a fierce battle. A scene from the documentary film The Take shows the moment when the stand-off between police and protesters outside the Brukman Textile Plant ignited: a dozen middle-aged seamstresses in blue nylon uniforms trample over a crowd-control barrier, and a downpour of tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets begins.

This mismatch in force between armed officers and shop-floor staff is one of the many ironies of industrial conflict portrayed in this film, written by Naomi Klein and directed by Avi Lewis. Klein & Lewis went to Argentina in 2001 and stayed for almost two years; with the country in economic ruin and its political class in disgrace, they followed the destinies of several occupied firms – the Brukman factory, the San Martín metal works, and the Zanon ceramics factory. At stake, Klein declares at the film’s outset, is the post-No Logo gauntlet laid down by belligerent journalists and free-market ideologues alike: find an alternative.

In doing so, Klein & Lewis completely sidestep economic or revolutionary theory. They have no intention of unfurling a programme of political action: the condition of Argentina after the economic crisis of December 2001, marked by almost unanimous public disdain for markets, state and legal authority, was therefore ideal for this endeavour. What they find inside the occupied factories – numbering over 100 across the country at the time and employing over 15,000 people – is not a particularly coherent mobilisation, nor a violent one, but a last-ditch spasm by workers trying to save something of their lives.

Finding an alternative?

The seamstresses in the Brukman factory, for instance, first started squatting after finding their heavily-indebted owners vanished. For a month and a half, they did not touch the machines; the only motive was to stop an asset-stripping incursion. Klein shows an identical obsession with the state of the lathes among the unemployed male workers of the San Martín metal works, one of whom chokes on his tears at the sight of so much idle, dirty machinery. The speed at which owners and capital have fled forms a profound contrast with the workers’ family needs and sense of identity. All this raises the issue that is dearest to the filmmakers: who does this work really belong to? Who has the strongest claim?

Opposition to their cause is personified by two elderly men in bespoke tailoring. Carlos Menem, who stood in the 2003 elections for a third term as president, calls for the streets to be “saturated” with police officers, and compares himself to Jesus Christ at a rally full of desperately poor people waiting for a free meal. Luis Zanon, a ceramics magnate from north-west Patagonia and a close friend of Menem, sits beside a champagne bucket as he informs Klein & Lewis that the rebellious workers must leave his factory so he can close up and sell to settle his debts.

Compared to the mendacity and hypocrisy of Argentina’s old-time elites, the workers from the occupied factories appear as models of nobility: their valour is unquestionable, their dedication to work for its own sake humbling, their solidarity moving. In the case of Zanon, a subsidy-hungry “dinosaur” has been trimmed into a profit-making enterprise by simply cutting out the employer class and its expense accounts. Who could argue with that?

Yet Klein & Lewis are not content merely to portray the heroics of industrial survivors. “You have to talk about what you’re fighting for.” says Klein. A “globalized ghost-town,” Buenos Aires is coming alive thanks to “direct action, direct democracy.” The slogan, soon to be exported to all places, is “Occupy, Resist, Produce.”

This is the heart of the matter: can these microcosmic struggles versus decline and abandon in the industrial wasteland of modern Argentina form the basis of a programme of universal action? After all, the bruised Argentina of late 2001, with its kaleidoscope of state-printed paper currencies, booming barter economy and bank savers’ movement in uproar, was a unique situation. These factory occupations might be no more than the highly localised products of dire economic straits added to an immigrant working-class tradition, dating from the 1920s, of southern European anarcho-syndicalism.

The Take, however, demands more. Argentina, we are told, is a tragic model of what to expect from globally-integrated, free-market economies. By seizing control, the workers are cutting their dependence on impersonal, arbitrary market forces. The cooperative values they turn to – which Klein & Lewis linger over – are no off-the-shelf business solutions, but attempts to humanise the workplace and turn work into an ethical, identity-affirming force.

The dark arts of Argentine politics

The first problem with this manifesto relates entirely to Argentina. No one in their right mind would deny the validity of the occupied factory movement, but this does not mean that it has much of a bearing on the gravest problems in the country. Huge tracts of Greater Buenos Aires and the far-off provinces have never seen more than occasional work, and though the current President, Néstor Kirchner, has witnessed growth rates of over 8% a year, unemployment has barely been affected (19% if welfare recipients are included). Inequality has got significantly worse, and malnutrition is a relentless scourge (70% of Argentine children are born into poverty).

Unemployment, inequality and hunger are the country’s deepest woes. Factory workers constitute a minor elite of craft workers’ in comparison to the massive proportion of the population living on handouts. The priority in Argentina, along with Mexico and Brazil, is to create work so that these people do not spend entire lives in social dependency. To do so requires business creation or vast public intervention; it is improbable that cooperative industry could do the job.

Klein & Lewis seem to recognise this, but the factories’ ethical transfigurations are of far greater resonance to the authors than the problems of the country’s endemic underclass. This reasoning implies that Argentine society and politics are somehow meaningless when they are not accessories to the true cause.

It is here that the film makes its greatest errors of judgment. Kirchner, who is depicted as more or less the same as other politicians and has signed an accord with the International Monetary Fund that “looks a lot like the old deals,” has in fact scythed through many of the country’s most disreputable institutions (the Supreme Court, the police, the armed forces). It is certainly true that some of his demagogic traits have been borrowed from General Perón’s style guide, but without Kirchner the factories would have been restored to the old timers’ hands by now. Politics has been not a side show to these occupations, but fundamental to their success.

Klein in particular has an aversion to traditional politics, but in Argentina no one should be dismissive of the pull of the right and the siren songs of security. To ignore this reality is simply fatal. When hardline piqueteros (picketers) embraced more radical tactics in spring 2004 – cutting major roads, raiding the Buenos Aires city legislature and occupying a number of company offices in the city – the press and public rapidly renewed calls for tougher policing, even as Kirchner declared that “I will not lead a repression with trigger-happy cops.” Since then, the protests have subsided, but this dynamic of action and fierce repression is deeply inscribed in the country’s authoritarian traditions. And once the pressure of “disorder” passes a threshold, it is not just tear gas that the authorities turn to.

The survivors of the decimated revolutionary movement of 1970s Argentina no longer treat this issue of indirect responsibility as taboo. No one denies that the military dictatorship killed and plundered to bestial excess, but critical voices on the left now insist that this reaction was wilfully misread by the insurgent bombers and kidnappers; according to one radical veteran, political analyst and novelist José Pablo Feinmann: "a climate of war was created, which they had been waiting for so as to lead a massive repression. There is a iron link between those solitary and arrogant attacks and the justification that they ended up giving to the repression.

Similar calculations of cause and effect are a hallmark of Latin America’s progressives after the “lead years” of recent decades. In this respect, the occupied factories are a model. In 2002, Brukman’s workers were demanding state ownership and pure democratic control over the plant. As one of them, Mathilde Adorno, told me afterwards: “we got seasick on political speeches. All that rubbish filled our head.” A year later, in the wake of the pre-election riots, they regained the factory by forming a registered cooperative and lobbying for an expropriation order from the city council; it was not all “direct action.”

It would be very interesting to know how a movement of occupations would fare in Europe or North America. The film suggests that this “taking back” of work is possible wherever markets rule, yet it is clear that a background of mass economic hardship is some sort of prerequisite. In such a case, how would this movement apply not just to skilled jobs in industry – where production lines are clearly structured, and management oversight is largely expendable – but also to employment in the service sector? Can we really talk of “Occupy, Resist, Produce” for a home-employed data analyst or the member of a night-cleaning team in a city office block?

Klein & Lewis may be excused answers to these questions. To an extent, they have simply depicted a movement in which market whim and owners’ avarice have been resisted. But the moral virtues of this struggle are not necessarily enough to justify it as the “alternative”: consumer society needs fewer logos, and the poor need more than a call to arms.

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