Sympathetic Stupid

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Take

Ah, capitalism. The undisputed top of the -ism pops. Feudalism ruled when no-one knew what it was but gradually paled. Socialism? Seems the USSR messed that up. China's communism seems to challenge but there's every suspicion that capitalism's behind the scenes in the Grand Vizier role. That said, criticism could give them all a run for their money. And feminism, racism and cosmopolitanism have always been popular. Terrorism's fighting a war. Metabolism is indispensable. Tourism? Cynicism is probably my favourite. (Blast you, Wikipedia!)

But I digress.

The Take is another high-profile documentary (cf Mike Moore, The Corporation, Super-Size Me, Control Room), with similar anti-capitalist themes, made by the movement's power couple, Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis.

It focuses on Argentina in 2002, in the aftermath of the country's bankruptcy and fiscal crisis, an undoubtedly horrible situation for all involved. Argentina was a rising star in world economies and was borrowing heavily to get itself there. Then the government began to miss debt interest payments, so no-one would lend them more money to fund continuing budget deficits. The mostly foreign banks started to pull money out, companies started to go bankrupt, multinationals pulled out, exports dried up leading to increasing imports, and the exchange rate was worsening. It all fell apart; possibly because of weak regulation and strong corruption, probably a fixed exchange rate with the US dollar was bad. The crisis was probably worsened by the fact that most of the government borrowings were in foreign currencies and so as declining world confidence killed the exchange rate, payments got correspondingly higher. And possibly the IMF contributed, sparking the anti-globalisation interest.

None of this background is given in the film, which was slightly disappointing as context is always important. But regardless, Argentina ends up with a lot of empty factories because they've been closed down by both multinationals and locals, because there's no-one to sell to. The slogan is 'Occupy! Resist! Produce!' and it means that the ex-workers take over these empty factories and get them running again. The film focuses on a couple of factories in this process.

So there's two sides to this. One is that, in modern society, property rights are foremost, as seen in New Orleans with looters being shot; don't protect the people who're trying to feed their families, protect the store owners and shareholders' capital. So from this point of view, a company or individual has spent a great deal of time and money and effort in setting up a factory, and then had to close it when it becomes unviable. So the factory is still theirs if they want to reopen it, or if they want to pull it apart and sell off the pieces.

The other point of view says that the building of the factory has been heavily subsidised by the community, that often public land is given away, tax breaks are given, union concessions are made, as seen in Australia with competition between states for new projects. And also that the jobs provided by the factory help the community to function. The factory 'belongs' to the community. Capitalistically, this is a hard case to make. Socially, it's obvious.

So as Avi says in an interview, taking over a factory puts "the onus on the authorities to stop people from working". Capitalism says that everyone should work and consume, so the system finds it hard to reconcile forcing people out of work when they want to and have the means to (unless it increases profits, which isn't even a benefit in this case).

I'm undecided about this film and this concept. The film had some good footage and ideas but wasn't especially well made, for me, ignoring much of the overall context and not presenting the other side of the story at all. There were a few gratuitous shots of Klein (especially) and Lewis; I like my documentary cameras one step removed.

It does seem that if you can provide jobs that can only be a winning situation for everyone, so the only person who loses is the chump who started the factory and ran it into the ground. Especially given that these eneterprises can be run to break even rather than for monetary profit, as they produce widespread social profits. And because workers in autonomous enterprises should tend to have better motivation and a sense of collective goals, rather than slaving away for someone else's pocket.

The obvious downside is in the overall and the long term. First, it's hard to see a community getting together the seed capital to start an autonomous enterprise, even if it were possible to identify the need. Buying land and equipment, and training workers is expensive, but a proactive government could support this. Second, the running of an enterprise is easy in the short-term but not so easy in the long-term; that's why these factories are empty. There needs to be overall planning for replacing plant and equipment, which means setting aside a bit of cash each year instead of breaking completely even. And also for coping with technological evolution of products. If the product you're producing suddenly becomes obsolete, there's no option of keeping the factory open.

What the scheme effectively does is by removing the boss, it creates a better synergy between the workers and the owners of the enterprise. Ideally, this could be done elsewhere, although it's hard to see it coexisting with a profit motive. I'm interested to know if having union representatives on boards, as I understand it works in European social democracies, helps realise this synergy. Because it's important to realise that everyone benefits from a business, but that those benefits should be similar in magnitude; surely this is basic economic theory?