"Occupy, resist, produce"

Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis report on how Argentina's worker-run factories have nurtured a powerful so

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)

Naomi Klein will be discussing The Shock Doctrine at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Thursday 13 September. Readers who take out an annual subscription this month (September 2007) receive The Shock Doctrine for free

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Guns: Where are they all coming from?

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Guns: Where are they all coming from?