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Occupy, Resist, Produce : Naomi Klein Takes On Argentina’s Occupied Factories

Jed Brandt Oct 6, 2004

The Take
Written by Naomi Klein
Directed by Avi Lewis
OdeonFilms, 2004, 87 minutes

Review by Jed Brandt

What is possible is just about always more than anyone expects; it can even be more than some dare hope. When Argentina’s once-wealthy economy imploded after years of free-market pillaging, foreign investors and the national elite pulled $40 billion out of the country in the middle of the night while the government froze individual savings accounts. Millions of people were financially ruined in the country with Latin America’s largest middle class. Capitalism was breaking its own rules. Free trade turned out to mean whatever financial markets dictated. For Argentina, they decreed an end to general prosperity after decades of growth.

An earthquake of popular revulsion drove out six governments in two weeks, but was unable to dislodge the state. Despite a national legacy of murderous military rule in the face of popular movements, crowds overflowed the streets smashing the banks now empty of cash with hammers, all the while singing que se vayan todos – they all must go.

It wasn’t one party or politician the people rejected, but an entire political culture called simply, el modelo. The ruling elites made corruption a virtue by carrying out the Washington Consensus of neo-liberal austerity and capitalist brigandage. But it was the aftershocks of the uprising that got really interesting.

Starting at the Brukman shirt factory in Buenos Aires, an escalating series of factory occupations was launched by workers under the slogan “occupy, resist, produce.” Over 200 occupations brought idle factories back to life despite police violence and police obstruction. Unable to withstand the uprising and with the economy in total shambles, the Argentine government relented, allowing for the temporary seizure of abandoned factories by unemployed workers.

For much of The Take, we follow the travails of a proud machinist and nearly-broken family man from one factory as he and his comrades seize the plant and navigate a complex election that threatens to bring back Carlos Menem, the ascot-wrapped caudillo who blithely drove Argentina to bankruptcy. The Take ends upbeat with the occupied factory lighting up as a new workers’ cooperative with government permission to produce. But now after the movie is over, the situation is heating up. The initial allowance of occupations had a two-year window and those two years are over.

The situation is currently unstable and it appears that the government will move on the cooperatives when they can get away with it. The Take is a remarkable introduction to a struggle that is just beginning and is very much ongoing.

Filmmakers Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis focused on these collective seizures and the lives of the workers transformed by the struggle as a way of showing an alternative to the horror of runaway industries under the globalization of capital. A writer with the Toronto Globe & Mail, and The Nation, Klein is perhaps the most prominent young writer to speak in sympathy with the street rebels of the anti-capitalist movement. Klein makes sure to include her own voiced-over rejection of workers’ government displacing the rule of capital completely as an “old” model, equated with the authoritarian legacy of Peronism, an opinion no doubt shared by many Argentines in the years since military rule murdered thousands of leftists.

Klein and Lewis use the occupied factories as an example of a “network” approach, which they argue gives more room for the agency of workers themselves than more radical solutions. Pervasive throughout the western left, this political myopia plays out in The Take’s selective reporting on the Argentine elections.

Respected by the community, the occupations shined against the shadow of reaction as Menem launched a galling comeback in the first national election since “they all must go.” Unfortunately, lesser-evilism is hardly confined to the North American two party system.

The social movements profiled by Klein were unable to mount a national political challenge inside the voting booth or out. In fear of Menem’s promised crackdown, many reluctantly fell behind Nestor Kirschner, a housebroken Social Democrat with a populist wrap to the same old shit. Mass hatred and the prospect of certain defeat forced Menem to withdraw from the runoff vote after he’d taken the highest vote in the general election. Kirschner became the de facto victor and after assuming the presidency promptly signed fresh loan agreements with the very international financiers from the IMF that wrecked Argentina to begin with.

Political power may be an “old” goal for the workers, but apparently the capitalists never get tired of it. Instead of que se vayan todos, Argentina got que sera, sera.

Where ten years ago the utopian left was carried away by Zapatista poetics, they’ve moved on to Argentina where limited goals can still seem visionary and romantic. The Take’s implicit argument for surviving capitalism instead of overthrowing it should give those most inspired by the events in Argentina pause. A revolutionary situation lapsed because the people, and the social movements which gave voice to their highest aspirations, were unable and unwilling to seize the moment. Capital still rules Argentina, even after it fled.

The Take succeeds in letting the world know of a great victory for workers used to losing while it ends up arguing a more dubious point. In effect, Klein remixes the famous quip of capitalist triumphalism, “there is no alternative,” to say in a roundabout way, there is “only” alternative. The very idea that the victims of corporate globalization
can do more than carve out a space of temporary autonomy in the backwash of capitalism is beyond discussion. Apparently socialism is still a dirty word, no matter how weak capitalism gets. Tenemos un mundo que ganar. Here’s to taking it all.