Political Film Society - Newsletter #224 - April 15, 20055

April 15, 2005


The TakeIn 2001, the Argentine economy collapsed. The government defaulted on $3 billion in payments to the International Monetary Fund, global corporations pulled out their assets, factories were shuttered, and banks closed so that citizens could not tap their savings. The Take, directed by Avi Lewis and based on a script by Naomi Klein, is a documentary about the unusual consequences of that economic crash. The reason for the crisis, according to the documentary, is that President Carlos Meném had been following (from 1989-1999) the IMF model--privatization, increased charges for government utilities, cuts in government programs, yet subsidies to attract foreign capital; in short, Argentina was auctioned off to global corporations, which then pulled out when the government's cashflow crisis emerged. But the same corporations paid managers abnormally high salaries and continued to accept government subsidies, so they could not balance their books; worker salaries were cut, and next the businesses filed for bankruptcy, the workers went home, and the events of 2001 unfolded. What, then, did the unemployed workers do? The answer is a story right out of the pages of The German Ideology by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, not the top-down model of Vladimir Lenin: Workers reclaimed their factories based on the principle "occupy--resist--produce." Starting with the Brukman clothing factory, they returned to their workplaces, began to operate the plants as cooperatives, and asked bankruptcy courts to recognize them as the new owners. The argument of the Movement of Recovered Companies was that state subsidies conferred partial ownership to the government on behalf of the people; ample evidence that the corporations tried to sell off assets after declaring bankruptcy placed their rights of ownership in default; therefore, the workers had the right to establish cooperatives.

The cooperatives, in turn, were managed by majority vote, in some cases by paying all workers exactly the same salaries, and they were returning a profit to pay off the debt. The cooperatives helped one another not only through political solidarity but also by exchanging unprocessed or semiprocessed materials so that they could rely on a vertical flow of goods from raw materials to finished goods. However, the judges followed the constitutional principle of the inviolability of property rights, so workers had to move into the political arena, at first by mounting street demonstrations, and later by appealing to the Buenos Aires provincial legislature, which voted unanimously to award ownership of Brukman to the cooperative. Next, reform candidate Néstor Kirchner came in second in the presidential vote of 2003 despite hostile media coverage, and frontrunner Meném dropped out before the runoff election when polls showed that he had no more than 20 percent support, whereupon Kirchner became president. The documentary consists of interviews many workers and film footage of confrontations and rallies that were crucial in the political struggle which brought to power a new leader who has allowed worker cooperatives to run many of the factories that were closed by the multinationals. What the documentary does not show is how Kirchner quickly placed a new chief justice in the supreme court, purged the army and police of corrupt elements, and made a new deal with the IMF while refusing to raise utility prices, to compensate banks, or to cut government services, arguing that growth would enable repayment, not austerity. The IMF blinked, especially when Kirchner went over its head to appeal to government leaders in Europe and Washington for a different approach and former IMF Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz openly argued that the IMF must change its ways or preside over a world economic calamity. The Take and subsequent developments in Argentina describe a new and important model of resistance to globalization, but the message is limited to one-week runs in art theatres of major cities and to careful readers of occasional articles in The Economist. Meanwhile, the private capital markets, which Argentina owes in addition to the IMF, are not likely to extend any new credit to Argentina.  MH