The Take


In the early 90’s, Argentina was largely regarded in the mainstream as the poster child for neoliberal globalization. Time magazine announced, in one of its covers, “Menem’s Miracle”, referring to the country’s president at the time and his success in turning the economy around after many decades of serious downturn. Moreover, he did so by adhering strictly to the mandates of the IMF and the World Bank, privatizating everything in sight and putting every state owned company up for a fire sale.

 

By pegging the peso to the dollar, Domingo Cavallo, the Harvard trained economy minister, was able to stop runaway inflation and bring a measure of stability.  Stopping inflation made it possible to establish a credit system in a country that previously functioned very largely as a chaotic cash economy, where it was common to get paid with “flying checks” (a very complicated ad-hoc system where the person ultimately depositing the check had no idea where it had originated). When all of a sudden people were able to buy on credit they went on a binge, contributing to creating incredible GDP growth, that was touted as evidence of the successful policies insisted on by the IMF and other international financial institutions and adhered to religiously by the Menem government.

 

But the “miracle” was a house of cards, bound to collapse – and when it did it was brutal.

 

Hidden behind all the smoke and mirrors was the fact that the “miracle” was based solely on financial speculation,  and not on adding an iota of productive output to the economy – in fact quite the opposite, as the equivalency between the peso and the dollar made all Argentine goods prohibitively expensive, destroying its exporting capacity and ultimately having a devastating effect on the country’s industrial base. The “peg” was only maintainable by borrowing more in the international markets, contributing to an explosion in foreign debt.

 

The newly privatized companies fired most of their workers in the name of efficiency. And factories, farms and other businesses were closing everywhere. Accompanied by the destruction of the social safety net demanded by the IMF to bring the national budget under control so that foreign creditors could be repaid, the social effect was catastrophic and it pushed millions and millions of people into unemployment – and into poverty.

 

Starting mid-decade, people pushed to the brink starting taking matters into their own hands. The now famous unemployed workers “piquetero” movement began a series of extreme civil disobedience actions, such as taking over the main access arteries to Buenos Aires, causing disruption as a way to bring attention to their plight and their demands for deep, radical societal change.

 

It took until 2001 before the complete catastrophe, when it became evident that the entire financial system was unsustainable. International and much of national capital held by the Argentine upper classes flew away, and, ostensibly to prevent a run on the banking system, the government froze everybody’s bank accounts – effectively robbing people their money in order to protect the international financial institutions that had established branches in the country. On December 19, when president De la Rua (who was elected in 1999 to replace Menem)  declared a state of siege, people took to the streets in the millions in what amounts to a spontaneous rebellion whose main demand was “que se vayan todos” (leave, all of them).

 

Although misunderstood at the time by many as a pre-revolutionary condition, the process, out of people’s necessity to cope with an extreme situation, created a veritable laboratory of social experimentation, sparking a plethora of movements that the world has much to learn from.

 

Although many of these experiments were ultimately corrupted by different factors – the large scale barter systems were proven to be ultimately unsustainable,  absent  mechanisms to prevent unscrupulous participants from taking advantage of its flaws, for example, or the originally democratically participatory neighborhood assemblies being co-opted by the different political parties, the process informs us so we can learn to do better in the future. Perhaps as importantly, many of these movements remain to this day and they are bringing about real, direct change in many people’s lives. The “piquetero” movement, which aside from their direct action focus is dedicated to finding creative ways to survive and create spaces for growth, is but one example.

 

Another one, perhaps the one that has received the most attention, is the Movement of Recuperated Factories. Workplaces that have been shut down by the owners as economically unviable are being reclaimed by the workers, who are operating them successfully and mostly under principles of participatory democracy, without bosses, managers or foremen.

  

“The Take”, a film by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein starting a two week run on September 22nd in New York at the Film Forum Theater, concentrates on a group of metal workers from one of these factories, Forja San Martin, as they form a cooperative and go through the difficult process of taking over their workplace which has been closed for three years due to economic insolvency.  Their actions are born out of pretty extreme necessity, not necessarily a pre-determined ideology. They are uncorrupted by a political agenda, which lends a certain purity to what they are trying to do and how they are doing it together – an issue that the film demonstrates very successfully and wherein lies what is perhaps its greatest value: showing that human beings are capable, under the most dire circumstances, of working together, cooperatively and democratically, towards common goals.

 

A lot of attention is focused on Freddy, the “president” of the cooperative, as he likes to refer to himself, and his family. Freddy is a reluctant warrior. Before the economic collapse that befell Argentina, he had a comfortable lifestyle and was grateful for the material things that Forja “provided” him. (At one point in the film his wife mentions that “Forja built their house”, although the meaning is not that it gave the house to them but that thanks to the job they were able to build it on their own.) The extreme circumstance of losing his job and not being able to find anything else, in a country where there is rampant unemployment, forces him to become radicalized and re-evaluate the entire system – and challenge it. After so many years of living in a hierarchal system which has programmed him to be very individualistic, Freddy is forced to grow and begin to understand the value of solidarity. As Avi Lewis says, “In a way, a melancholic and conflicted everyman like Freddy doesn’t make for a bad leader in a factory – he might not stand up to power as well, but he can certainly be kept honest by his constituents, and is subject to the will of the asamblea. He just wants to work, and that is a pretty democratic impulse, as he needs all the others to do the same”.

 

Opening when the workers, who are owed a very considerable sum of money in back pay, first return to Forja to prevent it from being dismantled and sold off in pieces, the film follows them through a torturous process in which they are trying to acquire legal status to operate the factory in safety without threat of being evicted. This is a danger lurking in many of the other successfully occupied workplaces which the capitalist bosses, in collusion with the system, are trying to take back after the workers have demonstrated their economic viability.

 

Such are the cases of Zanon, a tile factory in the Argentine south, and Brukman, a suit factory in downtown Buenos Aires, also featured in the film, which have been operating under worker control for several years under principles of transparent, horizontal participatory democracy and with everybody receiving the same salary.

 

Zanon has been so successful that in an economy with rampant unemployment, it has started hiring new people – this, of course, after it was declared insolvent by its former owner who had received vast amounts of money in subsidies that were squeezed out of the community at large in the form of taxes. The Zanon workers, when the owner closed the factory, were also owed large amounts in back pay.

 

It is in this context that the workers have felt entitled to challenge the capitalist system and expropriate their workplaces. The movement’s slogan is “Occupy, Resist, Produce”, and the Zanon workers are helped in their endeavor by very strong support from the community surrounding them, which has helped them by showing up in the thousands whenever they physically fight eviction (the film shows the workers training in the use of slingshots to fight off the police, a perfect David and Goliath analogy). 

 

Although the movement is relatively small (there are approximately 200 Occupied Factories employing 15,000 workers, a drop in the bucket as the country has over two million unemployed people and therefore not an immediate solution to this huge problem), its hopefulness lies in its implicit revolutionary messages: first, that unlike what the capitalist and other hierarchal systems want people to believe, absent the profit motive workplaces can and in most cases do function better and more efficiently without managers, bosses or foremen; second, people are profoundly challenging the most basic tenets supporting the system – the supposed absolute right to private property alluded to in the film by a judge, who says that defending this right is his primary responsibility; and third, the movement, working along other groups (including the piqueteros), is helping people at large wake up to the fact that all our fates are deeply intertwined.

 

At one point in the film Freddy and some of his co-workers attend a meeting with other occupied factories, where it is mentioned that they consider that they are making history, and slowly understanding that their actions have transcended the need to bring food to their families’ tables and grown to a militancy that can have deep resonance in the future.

 

It is interesting to point out that even though what they are doing is to a large extent revolutionary, they have no choice at the moment but to operate within the constraints of the larger system, which is deeply stacked against their success. For example, the government after the rebellion of 2001 had granted workers temporary permits to operate the occupied factories. However, most of these agreements had a two year expiration period and many of them are today again fighting the threat of being evicted by force (see ZNet,  http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=42&ItemID=6250).

 

The Take makes an attempt at showing the historical context in which all this was brought about, a very difficult thing to do as the history is very long and complicated. The film’s one glaring flaw, in my opinion, is how it glosses over nearly 40 years of history from the first Peron government to Carlos Menem and later the tumultuous elections that followed the 2001 rebellion. In the process, perhaps as a result of time constraints, the film  barely  mentions  the brutal military dictatorships the country endured from the mid 50’s to the early 70’s, followed by the return of Peron and then by the incredibly murderous military regime that fought the dirty war where 30,000 people disappeared. Peron himself is far from the social democrat alluded to in the film –he started out as a military colonel, one of many Argentine military men who were largely Nazi sympathizers, and in fact sought refuge first in Stroessner’s Paraguay and later in Franco’s Spain after being deposed in 1955. Although his attempts to organize the working class were instrumental in instilling a sense of self-respect, and his government brought about a number of reforms that guaranteed the social safety net that helped create the country’s famous middle class, he operated paternalistically, ultimately not helpful to the larger interests of this very same working class, organizing very corrupt unions that were in the end self serving to the union bosses. His nickname was “el macho” – a label that even very committed leftists used admiringly in referring to him not aware of the irony. All this is significant because it would help explain how the supposedly working class Peronist party has encompassed tendencies from both poles of the spectrum, including someone like Menem, culminating in people slowly coming to understand not to engage in politics as usual and realize the folly of putting their faith in so called representative democracy based on elections – which is neither representative nor democratic.

 

Ultimately, The Take succeeds in perhaps its most important goal: to bring us a human perspective to the fight of the Argentine population in their effort to create a decent society. Their dignity and capacity for solidarity is shown again and again in a variety of ways. Towards the end of the film, a woman describes how the Brukman women, who are very poor themselves, are making an effort to financially help her sister, who is undergoing chemotherapy and used to work in the factory.  She describes how the previous owners would discount her pay when she had to go for treatment. This scene is  followed by another one where the workers, most of them middle age or older dressmakers, try to fight an eviction order and are severely repressed by the police.

This juxtaposition serves indeed as a great metaphor for the rest of the film’s message.

 

Daniel Morduchowicz was born in Argentina  in 1959 and has been living in the US for the past 24 years. He currently works as a member of the Z Collective in Woods Hole, MA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment