Dan Katz reviews The Take, a film by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein
In the early 1990s Argentina’s government under Carlos Menem carried out IMF instructions and pegged the local currency, the peso, to the dollar in order to check inflation. State owned banks, publicly owned utilities and airlines were privatised.
Later in the 90s the economy went into recession. The new government of the Radical Party borrowed from the IMF and, in return, made cuts in health and education spending.
In 2001 the GDP was $97 billion and the debt stood at $240 billion. At the end of 2001 Argentina defaulted on its debt repayments and in the crisis that followed the rich moved $140 billion out of the country. It was the poorer sections of society, however, who had their bank accounts frozen. This film begins with footage of mobs of ordinary people trashing bank property. Massive crowds demanded, “All politicians must go!” and Argentina had three presidents in two weeks.
The IMF demanded cuts in pensions and salaries, and bankruptcies hit the middle classes.
During the 90s the peso had been held at a rate of one-to-one with the US dollar. But at the end of 2001 it fell to three pesos to $1. As a result, the price of a basic weekly shop surged by a staggering 64.7% in the first seven months of 2002.
By the end of 2002 official statistics suggested 56% of the population were living in poverty and 22% of workers were unemployed. Economic output had fallen by 20% in four years.
In Buenos Aires an army of 100,000 cartoneros, or rubbish sifters, scavenged recyclable waste from the rubbish. Tens of thousands of children became ill from lack of food.
But amid the chaos many different experiments in struggle and different ways of organising life took place.
Piqueteros — “picketers” — blockaded main roads into Buenos Aires in protest at lack of work. Neighbourhood assemblies sprang up across the country. Barter markets were set up in local areas, where goods were exchanged through a system of credit notes.
And workers began occupying factories rather than letting them close.
The two best known examples — the Zanon Ceramics factory in Neuquén province, and the Brukman suit factory — both feature in The Take.
The film shows 300 workers at Zanon running their own plant, democratically, and with massive local support. The factory donates new tiles to local schools and factories. All the workers have slingshots to protect the occupation from the police. but six separate eviction orders had been defeated because local people stopped what they were doing to help the workers defend the factory.
The Brukman occupation was one of the first occupations, and The Take shows the police’s attempts to re-take the factory in April 2003. The workers and their supporters chant, “Brukman belongs to the workers — and those who do not like it can go screw themselves!” before attempting to force the police out. They are met with tear-gas and rubber bullets. (The workers eventually had the factory returned to them by the local authority).
The thread that holds the film together is the story of a smaller factory — Forja — where car parts are made by 30 workers. The workers had been laid-off with sizeable back-wages still owing. They occupied because they had no choice — they needed work and money to feed their kids. And they wanted to stop the former boss from asset stripping the plant.
They aimed to set up a workers’ co-operative and petition the state and politicians to allow them to stay. As the film closes it seems they have been successful.
Lewis and Klein start the film by rightly saying that protest can only take us so far. We also need an alternative to capitalist globalisation.
And this is what they offer. And no matter how limited (the movement has encompassed just 200 factories in very specific conditions), and how problematic (if the police and the law don’t stop the new occupied factory movement, in the next few years the banks may ), there are fantastic scenes of basic class solidarity, dignity and bravery.
The makers might want — they seem to suggest it is possible — an “alternative economy” underneath and aside from capitalism. And they might recoil from the unpleasant reality of Argentinean politics by suggesting “networks, not pyramids”. But the women worker who acts as the Brukman spokesperson is right to suggest that workers’ control at factory level should be a model for the country. In the end an “alternative economy” — run by and for people, not by capitalists for profit — requires alternative politics and an alternative state.