Occupy, Resist, and Produce

[6 June 2007]

By Chris Robé

“We prefer to believe the myth that thousands of years of human social evolution have finally perfected the ideal economic system, rather than to face the fact we have merely bought into a false concept and accepted it as gospel. We have convinced ourselves that all economic growth benefits humankind, and that the greater the growth, the more widespread the benefits.”
—John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

Despite their philanthropic origins to help reconstruct a devastated post-war Europe in the ‘40s, the IMF and World Bank have increasingly become the First World’s economic Inquisitors. They bludgeon the dogmas of neo-liberalism (divestiture of national industries, dismantling the welfare state, elimination of trade tariffs and quotas) into the political leadership of debt-ridden countries, forcing the acceptance of a “one-size fits all” economic policy that flies against the common-sense observation that different socio-economic circumstances require flexible solutions. When these debtor countries inevitably flail in reaction to such ill-designed policies, the IMF and World Bank dismiss such negative ramifications as merely short-term effects, the signs of necessary “growing pains” for successful integration into a global economy. Welcome to the era of capitalist double-think.

Yet the tides are beginning to turn against the brazen arrogance and smug ignorance of the priests of neo-liberalism. The ghost of socialism has risen within Latin America, as can be witnessed by the elections of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Boliva, and the near victory of López Obrador in Mexico. The new Latin American Left conjures the nostalgia of the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the ‘60s in order to mobilize both innovative and reactionary political strategies for sovereignty from First World manipulation. Ignored, however, by the mainstream, corporate media is the case of Argentina where workers are expropriating factories jettisoned by the multinationals that fled overseas to exploit reserves of even cheaper labor.

This media blackout is not surprising, since unlike Venezuela and Bolivia where Chávez and Morales can easily be demonized as Marxist tyrants who do not represent the public will, the Argentinean workers clearly embody a popular movement that cannot be reified into the will of a charismatic but misguided individual. Faced with the need to report on a genuine collective movement that challenges the very laws of ownership that define its organizational structure, the First World, corporate media remains silent—its financial interests trumping its professional ones.  So one must instead rely upon the public sector, in this case The National Film Board of Canada, to fund documentaries like The Take that chronicle the formation and power of anti-corporate, grassroots mobilizations like those found in Argentina. 

The Take traces Argentina’s trajectory from the 1’40s as one of the leading Latin American nations to its descent into a free-market economy during the ‘90s under President Carlos Menam, eventually causing the nation to declare bankruptcy in 2001, making it the largest sovereign debt default in world history. As foreign nationals pulled 40 billion dollars from the country, local residents and citizens had their bank accounts frozen. Millions protested in the streets. The country went through five presidents in three weeks.

The economy was devastated. National unemployment rose into double digits as multinationals fled overseas in order to escape the vortex of widespread political unrest and economic instability. Abandoned by their government and pillaged by multinationals, some workers decided it was time to take matters into their own hands: occupy their former places of employment and demand the government sanction expropriations that would set the stage for worker-controlled industries.

Naomi Klein’s involvement in writing The Take deserves special attention since the film in many ways acts as a logical corollary to No Logo, her seminal book on the global economy and branding. Within No Logo, Klein charted the international terrain of globalization and its discontents: the rise of anti-union temp. work in the First World; the establishment of Free Trade Zones within the Third World where multinationals are given free reign to exploit Third World, predominantly female, labor; the intrusion of marketing into our education system, treating children as potential consumers rather than as students; and the charring of an entire way of life into easily identifiable corporate brands.

Almost as if coordinated, No Logo’s release crested on the wave of the anti-globalization movement: the Seattle WTO protests of 1 December 1999. The book quickly became the unofficial bible for anti-globalization activists and sympathizers, appearing in raised fists at political rallies and on progressive classroom syllabi. It crystallized what we long suspected into a comprehensive and systematic analysis that could now be aimed to punch holes through the lame policies and mantras of free-trade fundamentalists.

However, despite the importance of No Logo both for the anti-globalization movement and for anyone else who desired to grasp the systemic fallout from our global economy, one central critique accompanied the book: although it clearly exemplifies what we should be against, it does not promote any alternative models to rectify the situation. Klein recognizes the legitimacy of this claim in The Take when she states that “there is only so much protesting can accomplish. At a certain point, you have to talk what you’re fighting for.” The film, as a result, is in part her answer.

The Take mainly focuses on the workers of San Martin seizing their old place of employment, the Forja auto-parts factory. If the film has a main protagonist, it is Freddy Espinosa, the leader of the Forja mobilization. This central storyline allows the film to offer an intimate portrait of a collective struggle. We observe the emotional difficulties and material sacrifices that such resistance entails, like when Freddy tears-up and explains before his wife and children how guilty he feels because he is unable to adequately provide for them. Yet we also witness the psychic growth that collective mobilization provides. A woman from another worker-controlled factory explains how her fellow workers offered economic assistance for her sister’s cancer treatment, whereas the bosses would deduct a day’s wages for each day of missed work. She declares as she hugs a fellow worker, “These workers are the ones who are going to get the country going. These are the people who we should support. This is the way a factory should be run. Nobody is the owner. It’s each one of them. These are the people who count.”

By revealing the intricate links that connect the personal with the political, The Take deftly reminds us how our psychic geography is intimately shaped by our socio-economic landscape, a fact that cannot be reiterated enough for Western audiences who all-too-often regard the screeds of late capitalism as holy writ rather than as the ramblings of a psychopath.  As one worker succinctly states, “This cooperativism is our way of making a new world to sweep away the old one.”

The Take situates the Forja takeover within a wider socio-political context that allows for a more nuanced understanding of the National Movement of Recovered Factories occurring within Argentina and the difficulties in gaining state support. We learn how many industries have been expropriated to become worker-controlled: education, health, ship-building, the garment industry, and so on. They have all banded together to form the National Movement of Recovered Factories, which offers mutual economic support between various industries as well as emotional sustenance between its compañeros.

However, the only way to fortify their worker-controlled status is through state legitimization with the legislature sanctioning expropriation. This proves particularly challenging since the workers are opposing the principles of private property and capitalism that in many ways define the state apparatus. As one member of Parliament notes, “[The worker-control movement is] exactly what capitalism everyday tries to prove is impossible. Bosses are supposed to be indispensable.”

The movement’s legitimization opens up a new world where bosses are unneeded, where politics are determined by the people, and where labor and life converge to forge new futures. But within a political terrain where votes can be purchased by the lowest bidder and stasis is the best road to political advancement, the outlook seems bleak. Yet against all odds, the Forja workers prevail, revealing how popular support and collective resistance can indeed trump political opportunism and corruption, if not with its utopian vision, then by its intimidating strength. The workers chant solidifies into a new reality: “Occupy, Resist, and Produce.”

The Take is quite simply a miraculous film, not because of its form or because of its cinematography, but simply because it exists and serves as a vital compass to as yet uncharted futures. Its very existence exposes the poverty of the current corporate mediascape that has long ago pawned its imagination for the cheap patina of cynicism and irony that often accompanies the myopic sights of advertising dollars.

Furthermore, The Take reveals through its own production method how the progressive forces of globalization might be harnessed for independent media: funded by a Canadian institution, conceptualized by a group of international activists and artists who went searching for social alternatives (recounted on the DVD’s extras), and actualized by the solidarity of Argentinean workers who collectively took hold of their future. It is both a product of and mediation upon the complex matrices of globalization. And in its most prophetic moments, The Take suggests that just beneath the vast networks of a highly exploitative, globalized economy shimmer the makings of a better world. All we need do is dare look.

Chris Robé is an associate professor of film and media studies. He's written for various journals such as Jump Cut, Cinema Journal, Framework, and The Velvet Light Trap. His monograph Left of Hollywood: Cinema, Modernism, and the Emergence of U.S. Left Film Culture was published by University of Texas Press. In his spare time he agitates for his friendly faculty union. He is currently researching contemporary media activist formations from the 1970s to the present.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/occupy-resist-and-produce/