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“Taking” self-management seriously

The new documentary about Argentinian workers banding together to take over their abandoned factories, The Take, is playing here at the Red Vic. Naomi Klein is the writer, and her husband Avi Lewis is the director. It’s a very good film, and well worth seeing. But I didn’t love it through and through for two basic reasons.

One, I think it embraced a Spielberg-ian emotionalism that bugged me. And two, it compellingly illustrates the confusion and difficulty facing workers who slowly decide their only course is to “occupy, resist and produce” (the slogan of the Argentinean movement), but fails to contextualize the self-management movement either in terms of Argentinean history (anarcho-syndicalism was a powerful movement in the early 20th century), or in terms of the problems of self-management as the ultimate co-optation of workers’ energy back into reproducing capital.

I can guess why the producers shaped this film around the intense emotions of some of the main characters. For U.S. audiences especially, politics and history are far less compelling than feeling someone else’s pain and humiliation. The Take‘s cameras spend many minutes on the anxious faces, crying and sobbing, embracing and cheering, as the story unfolds.

The workers at Forja San Martin, a steel fabrication plant, decide to join the wider movement of occupation and having so decided, appeal to judges and the legislature to legalize their “taking.” In order to make their case, they have to prove to the judge (and themselves) that there is a market for their potential output, and that the previous owner had looted and abandoned a perfectly functional and potentially profitable factory. (The owner is a sickening mogul whose arrogant self-importance oozes contemptuously when he smiles to the filmmakers and insists that the government will return to him “his” factory because he did all the work, it was his idea, his money, etc.) The film goes back and forth between the personal life of one of the workers’ leaders; his wife, sitting at the table with him and their young children, painfully describes how her husband has lost all his dignity while he looks down in shame. It is one of those confusing moments where you want to scream at the movie, “No! It’s not his dignity that’s been lost, his dignity is irreducible, and it’s not derived from his job of all things!” But instead the film just keeps going, because in fact that is the commonly held belief, that the man needs a job to feel like a man, he is cuckolded if his wife is earning the money and he is left home taking care of the children. But I wanted them to query this point, not let it go by so blithely, because leaving dignity linked to a job is a horrible political mistake that will keep haunting us until we finally break with this absurd, fundamentally capitalist notion.

The problem of taking over an old(er) factory and producing for the market, whether as a capitalist or as a collective capitalist called “self-managed workers”, is still much the same. The plant must be made to produce goods at a profit, at least enough to pay everyone and maintain the plant and keep the raw materials coming in. The workers ultimately succeed in taking over the plant, it becomes a co-op, and their main client is another self-managed tractor factory. So they will go on making forged steel parts for tractors. OK, we will probably always need some tractors to do heavy work. But it perfectly illustrates what’s missing from the whole discussion.

Is it a good idea to go on making industrial products to facilitate (by tractors) either industrial agribusiness monocropping or further urbanization? That question doesn’t come up. Neither among the tractor factory workers (who in their own self-management deal have maintained wage differentials and some kind of managerial hierarchy, though we don’t learn much about it from the film), nor among the Forja San Martin workers who are desperately focused on restarting their factory, submersing themselves once again in the deafening roar of production (they miss the ear-shattering sound, they say!) and the toxic, filthy, hot and dangerous work of making metal parts.

Probably we need to make more metal parts, even in the most utopian scenario we can imagine. But self-management factory by factory without a larger system of planning and coordination will only reproduce the same dynamics of the previous economic arrangement, the only real difference being the diffusion of titular ownership, and probably the elimination of certain arbitrary managerial practices. Self-management of a money-based, capitalist economy will not alter the deeper logic that is wrecking planetary ecology and stunting the potential of a free human society.

On the other hand, you gotta start somewhere! I enjoyed the movie and found it very moving. It got me, again and again, and I spent half the film fighting off my own tears. I hate that feeling! I always feel very manipulated. But the story is real, and so are the feelings. OK. I just wish the filmmakers, who are very smart, politically engaged and savvy thinkers and agitators, would have introduced into the story some of the longer-term, deeper issues surrounding self-management and transformation. Because at the end of the film, it seems that if we all went out and took over our companies, we would be free, and that’s far from the case.

There are a lot of us in self-managed work gigs in the Bay Area. It’s an important social and economic network, and it helps sustain a lot of worthy efforts in culture and politics. But we would be a lot stronger if we could challenge ourselves to go beyond piecemeal fantasies of self-management to begin seriously discussing what a self-managed global society might look like, and how local self-managment schemes can promote that larger transformation, rather than being acts of survival, mere holding actions in a hostile world. Creating networks of sharing, types of exchange that don’t involve measurement or money, might be a beginning. In Argentina there were reports of at least one building taken over by hundreds of small self-managed enterprises that deliberately refused to allow money OR BARTER to define their exchanges, to shape their relations. I wish The Take had something about that.

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