Movie Review: “The Take”
The Take tells the story of the growing number of factory workers in Argentina who, instead of acquiescing in unemployment when their factories are shut down, take matters into their own hands by occupying the factories and starting them up again, without the oversight, or permission, of their former bosses. The workers’ motto: “Occupy, Resist, Produce.” In particular, the film focuses on the efforts of 30 workers to re-start the bankrupt Buenos Aires auto-parts factory (“Forja San Martin”) that once employed them.
Film-makers Lewis & Klein begin the movie by telling us that their visit to Argentina was driven by the desire to demonstrate something their political leanings demand they believe, namely that there are alternatives to global capitalism. Klein narrates: “There’s only so much protesting can accomplish…at a certain point, you have to talk about what you’re fighting for.” To which Lewis adds, “So we decided to shut up for a while. Our opponents wanted alternatives…so did we.” And where better to look than a place where workers are casting off their chains, running their factories by direct democracy and (according to the workers) doing a better job of it than their former bosses?
As for various kinds of “bosses,” well, any good drama needs a bad guy, and The Take features 2 of them. One is former Argentinian President Carlos Menem, whose policies (implemented at the urging of the International Monetary Fund) are blamed for the countries serious economic woes. The other villain is Luis Zanon, owner of another factory — the Zanon Ceramics Factory — now also under worker control. If this weren’t a documentary — if you didn’t see Zanon with your own eyes — he wouldn’t be a plausible villain. He’s too perfect for the role…like a smoother, better-groomed version of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. He smiles into the camera and smugly states that, yes, of course, he will get his factory back. The government will give it back to him, he claims. The subtext: that’s how things work for rich Argentinians with connections in high places.
But the segments about political corruption and corporate greed are really just backdrops. The real story of The Take is the story of the 30 workers trying to restart the Forja San Martin. These are good men, hard-working men, who just want to be earn a living to support their families. Hence their motto: “Occupy, Resist, Produce.” In the end, it’s a heart-warming story. We want the factory to work the way the workers say it will: managed through democratic decision-making, equal pay for all, etc. We want to believe that, under the workers’ cooperative, Forja San Martin will be run ethically and efficiently. We want to believe the optimistic words of the cooperative’s charismatic leader, Freddy, whose movie-star looks and strong, honest face make him both an obvious leader and an obvious focal point for the movie:
In the cooperative, we’ll all be administrators. I’ll check on what he does, and he’ll check on me. Of course, we’re going to have to be more conscientious, and not be too bourgeois, like before under the boss…when you would duck around the corner for a break whenever you could. Now, no. If a light is on, turn it off if it’s not necessary. There won’t be exaggerated salaries like there were before, which is one of the things that caused all thiss…the salaries will be equal.
Of course, it’s not so clear that what Freddy envisions is really the “alternative” to global capitalism that Lewis and Klein are seeking. It’s just a different management structure. Under control of the Cooperative, Forja San Martin will still buy raw materials and sell finished products, while consuming energy and producing pollution and waste along the way. The decision-making process will be different, but the fundamentals of commerce will not.
One final note: the context — one that includes financial desperation and political upheaval — makes it hard to evaluate, ethically, what goes on in this movie. Everyone seems wrong, in some way or another. The Argentinian government is portrayed as corrupt, and corporate bosses as evil. On the other hand, what the members of the cooperative have done is illegal. They’ve stolen control of the factory. And in any sane world, no amount of corporate malfeasance could justify unilateral appropriation of a multi-million dollar piece of property. But if the story told by the film-makers is even close to accurate, the world the workers live in is anything but sane, and they’re struggling, after all, to feed their families without the help of the power-brokers who see them as mere pawns in a very high-stakes game.
The cynic in me, of course, doesn’t believe Freddy’s claim that under the Cooperative, everything will be better. Why would anyone shirk their responsibilities, when they’re part-owners of the factory? See the enormous literature on collective action problems. How could things not go well, given that all workers have equal input through a democratic decision process? See the literature, and history more generally, on the limits of direct democracy. And so on. But despite these academic worries, the film is well worth watching, as is the experiment — however naive — in alternatives forms of commerce currently under way in Argentina’s worker-managed factories.