"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?

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times