[R-G] Klein & Lewis: "Occupy, resist, produce"

Anthony Fenton fentona at shaw.ca
Sat Sep 1 11:33:36 MDT 2007

Copyright 2007 New Statesman Ltd.
All Rights Reserved
New Statesman

August 30, 2007

LENGTH: 1514 words

HEADLINE: "Occupy, resist, produce"

BYLINE: Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis


In response to Argentina's economic catastrophe of 2001, unemployed  
workers took over the running of bankrupt factories. In this  
exclusive essay, Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis explain how, six years on,  
these tiny co-operatives have nurtured a powerful social movement


On 19 March 2003, we were on the roof of the Zanón ceramic tile  
factory, filming an interview with Cepillo. He was showing us how the  
workers fended off eviction by armed police, defending their  
democratic workplace with slingshots and the little ceramic balls  
normally used to pound the Patagonian clay into raw material for  
tiles. His aim was impressive. It was the day the bombs started  
falling on Baghdad.

As journalists, we had to ask ourselves what we were doing there.  
What possible relevance could there be in this one factory at the  
southernmost tip of South America, with its band of radical workers  
and its David and Goliath narrative, when bunker-busting apocalypse  
was descending on Iraq?

But we, like so many others, had been drawn to Argentina to witness  
first-hand an explosion of activism in the wake of its 2001 crisis -  
a host of dynamic new social movements that were not only advancing a  
bitter critique of the economic model that had destroyed their  
country, but were busily building local alternatives in the rubble.

There were many popular responses to the crisis, from neighbourhood  
assemblies and barter clubs to resurgent left-wing parties and mass  
movements of the unemployed, but we spent most of our year in  
Argentina with workers in "recovered companies". Almost entirely  
under the media radar, workers in Argentina have been responding to  
rampant unemployment and capital flight by taking over businesses  
that have gone bankrupt and reopening them under democratic worker  
management. It is an old idea reclaimed and retrofitted for a brutal  
new time. The principles are so simple, so elementally fair, that  
they seem more self-evident than radical when articulated by one of  
the workers: "We formed the co-operative with the criteria of equal  
wages and making basic decisions by assembly; we are against the  
separation of manual and intellectual work; we want a rotation of  
positions and, above all, the ability to recall our elected leaders."

The movement of recovered companies is not epic in scale - some 170  
companies, around 10,000 workers in Argentina. But six years on, and  
unlike some of the country's other new movements, it has survived and  
continues to build quiet strength in the midst of the country's  
deeply unequal "recovery". Its tenacity is a function of its  
pragmatism: this is a movement that is based on action, not talk. And  
its defining action, reawakening the means of production under worker  
control, while loaded with potent symbolism, is anything but  
symbolic. It is feeding families, rebuilding shattered pride, and  
opening a window of powerful possibility.

Like a number of other emerging social movements around the world,  
the workers in the recovered companies are rewriting the script for  
how change is supposed to happen. Rather than following anyone's ten- 
point plan for revolution, the workers are darting ahead of the  
theory - at least, straight to the part where they get their jobs  
back. In Argentina, the theorists are chasing after the factory  
workers, trying to analyse what is already in noisy production.

These struggles have had a tremendous impact on the imaginations of  
activists around the world. At this point, there are many more starry- 
eyed grad papers on the phenomenon than there are recovered  
companies. But there is also a renewed interest in democratic  
workplaces from Durban to Melbourne to New Orleans.

That said, the movement in Argentina is as much a product of the  
globalisation of alternatives as it is one of its most con tagious  
stories. Argentinian workers borrowed the slogan "Occupy, Resist,  
Produce" from Latin America's largest social movement, Brazil's  
Movimiento Sin Terra, in which more than a million people have  
reclaimed unused land and put it back into community production. One  
worker told us that what the movement in Argentina is doing is "MST  
for the cities". In South Africa, we saw a protester's T-shirt with  
an even more succinct summary of this new impatience: "Stop Asking,  
Start Taking".

The movement in Argentina is frustrating to some on the left who feel  
it is not clearly anti-capitalist, those who chafe at how comfortably  
it exists within the market economy and see worker management as  
merely a new form of auto-exploitation. Others see co-operativism,  
the legal form chosen by the vast majority of the recovered  
companies, as a capitulation in itself - insisting that only full  
national isation by the state can bring worker democracy into a  
broader socialist project.

Workers in the movement are generally suspicious of being co-opted to  
anyone's political agenda, but at the same time cannot afford to turn  
down any support. More interesting by far is to see how workers in  
this movement are politicised by the struggle, which begins with the  
most basic imperative: Workers want to work, to feed their families.  
Some of the most powerful new working-class leaders in Argentina  
today discovered solidarity on a path that started from that  
essentially apolitical point. Whether you think the movement's lack  
of a leading ideology is a tragic weakness or a refreshing strength,  
the recovered companies challenge capitalism's most cherished ideal:  
the sanctity of private property.

The legal and political case for worker control in Argentina does not  
only rest on the unpaid wages, evaporated benefits and emptied-out  
pension funds. The workers make a sophisticated case for their moral  
right to property - in this case, the machines and physical pre mises  
- based not just on what they are owed personally, but what society  
is owed. The recovered companies propose themselves as an explicit  
remedy to all the corporate welfare, corruption and other forms of  
public subsidy the owners enjoyed in the process of bankrupting their  
firms and moving their wealth to safety, abandoning whole communities  
to economic exclusion.

This argument is, of course, available for immediate use in the  
United States and Europe. But this story goes much deeper than  
corporate welfare, and that's where the Argentinian experience will  
really resonate with us. It has become axiomatic on the left to say  
that Argentina's crash was a direct result of the IMF orthodoxy  
imposed on the country with such enthusiasm in the neoliberal 1990s.  
In their book Sin Patrón: Stories from Argentina's Worker-Run  
Factories, to which this essay forms the introduction, the Lavaca  
Collective makes clear that in Argentina, just as in the US  
occupation of Iraq, those bromides about private sector efficiency  
were nothing more than a cover story for an explosion of frontier- 
style plunder - looting on a massive scale by a small group of  
elites. Privatisation, deregulation, labour flexibility: these were  
the tools to facilitate a massive transfer of public wealth to  
private hands, not to mention private debts to the public purse. Like  
Enron traders, the businessmen who haunt the pages of this book  
learned the first lesson of capitalism and stopped there: Greed is  
good, and more greed is better. As one Argentinian worker says:  
"There are guys that wake up in the morning thinking about how to  
screw people, and others who think: how do we rebuild this Argentina  
that they have torn apart?"

In the answer to that question, you can read a powerful story of  
transformation. Capitalism produces and distributes not just goods  
and services, but identities. When the capital and its carpetbaggers  
had flown from Argentina, what was left was not only companies that  
had been emptied, but a whole hollowed-out country filled with people  
whose identities - as workers - had been stripped away as well. As  
one of the organisers in the movement wrote to us: "It is a huge  
amount of work to recover a company. But the real work is to recover  
a worker and that is the task that we have just begun."

On 17 April 2003, we were on Avenida Jujuy in Buenos Aires, standing  
with the Brukman workers and a huge crowd of their supporters in  
front of a fence, behind which was a small army of police guarding  
the Brukman factory. After a brutal eviction, the workers were  
determined to get back to work at their sewing machines.

In Washington, DC, that day, USAID announced that it had chosen  
Bechtel Corporation as the prime contractor for the reconstruction of  
Iraq's architecture. The heist was about to begin in earnest, both in  
the United States and in Iraq. Deliberately induced crisis was  
providing the cover for the transfer of billions of tax dollars to a  
handful of politically connected corporations.

In Argentina, they'd already seen this movie - the wholesale plunder  
of public wealth, the explosion of unemployment, the shredding of the  
social fabric, the staggering human consequences. And 52 seamstresses  
were in the street, backed by thousands of others, trying to take  
back what was already theirs. It was definitely the place to be.

In 2004, Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis released "The Take", a film about  
worker-run factories in Argentina.This essay is an edited extract  
from their introduction to "Sin Patrón: Stories from Argentina's  
Worker-Run Factories", written by the Lavaca Collective (Haymarket  
Books, $16)

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