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Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis Offer Their 'Take'

The power couple, whose film on an Argentinian workers' revolt opens today, discuss Bush, Iraq and 'the future of activism'.

Derrick O'Keefe 29 Oct
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Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis have been described as Canada's "left-wing power couple." With both having established themselves in their own fields --Klein as an author and journalist, and Lewis as a popular television host -- they decided to try their hand at filmmaking.

The Take, Klein and Lewis's documentary, takes us to Argentina to show not only how the principles of neo-liberal globalization destroyed the once prosperous Argentinian economy, but how an alternative, socialist-based vision of cooperative factories is inspiring and reinvigorating the country's economy. The film follows the struggle to change the face of Argentina's economy, while also capturing the trials and tribulations of the ordinary working people that are carrying out this process.

The Take focuses mostly on the attempt of the workers at the Fjord factory to expropriate and operate the company for which they once worked. The owner, who had abandoned the company years earlier, claimed that it was no longer economically viable to keep the factory running, leaving many workers unemployed and owing millions of pesos in unpaid wages. Inspired and supported by the workers and activists of the occupied factories before them, -such as those at the Zanón Ceramics factory, Brukman garment factory, as well as other health clinics and schools -the laid off workers of Fjord decide to take over their old workplace, start the machines back up and function as a highly democratic worker cooperative. Once the workers start producing products and show the viability of these abandoned workplaces, the bosses want "their" factories back.

The film powerfully captures the outrage of middle and working class Argentinians after their government closed the banks, thus allowing the international and local capitalist elite to spirit their wealth out of the country. This eventually led to the occupied factories movement with its motto: occupy, resist, produce.

Klein and Lewis granted this interview after a special Vancouver showing of The Take, which opens in theatres Friday, October 29.

What was your initial motivation in making this film?

Avi Lewis: We set out to make a resolutely hopeful film. We wanted to find people constructing real alternatives to corporate capitalism. And we looked all over the world where people were doing interesting things, and it just happened, when we were looking, that in Argentina it was on fire - a laboratory of democracy.

So you were in Argentina right after the uprisings of 2001 that went through five presidents. How did you meet up with the workers movement that was reclaiming factories?

Avi Lewis: We went there for five weeks right at the beginning of 2002, then went home and raised money for like eight months. By the time we got back, with our crew, 200 factories had been taken over and the movement was on its way.

You are from a very well known social democratic family here in Canada. What lessons do you think the movement in Argentina, what's depicted in the film, has for the labour movement here?

Avi Lewis: I think this film - and this movement - is a real challenge to the traditional labour movement. And an opportunity, I would add. What they do down there is they invert the traditional labour action. Instead of withholding their labour, which - in a globalized era of downsizing and closing of public services - is exactly what they want us to do, they insist on working. A strike is kind of meaningless in that context, when a factory is closing. But insisting on working is an inversion of the traditional labour action. In terms of optics, it's incredible, because you put the onus on the authorities to stop people from working. And in an economy where people are desperate for work, here and there, that's a very powerful symbolic statement.

There's also a real debate between how much of our energy, as activists and people who want to change the world, we put into electoral politics versus outside the electoral system - and I believe that you don't have to choose. At election time, we should get out there and try to get rid of the worst Campbells and Kleins, and Paul Martins, and try to get the slightly less bad politicians. But not think, in that way that my parents' generation and my grandfather [David Lewis] did, that we're actually going to see real change at the legislative level anytime soon, because all of their hands are tied by the same trade agreements and by the same forces of international capital. And things have gotten dramatically more globalized and more centralized in globalization since my grandpa's day. And so I think that the grassroots movements and the electoral movements have to work together, and I don't think we have to choose. But right now, where we feel the energy [is best used] is outside the political system.

There's a segment in the film where one of the central characters invites you back to film a "sequel," to see the movement's progress. In terms of sequels, are you considering looking at the process in Venezuela, where you have that interplay between government and grassroots - and where there's a growing cooperative sector?

Avi Lewis: There's a huge amount of autonomous organizing in Venezuela. It's a totally different situation because the space is being created by the state. And there's a lot of debate about how much is being co-opted by the state and how much Chavez is actually creating community media and community services that are autonomously run and are not politically indebted the way the Peronist machine uses all social services to keep people in the service of The Party.

I haven't been [to Venezuela], so I wouldn't be able to weigh in - I know it's a big debate. But, in terms of the sequel, I think it's being lived right now all over the world. I'm interested in seeing the sequel in Canada. I'm really interested in seeing what happens as these ideas leak into Canadian communities that are losing work and the increasing number of places where the crisis has arrived in Canada. And where people are fighting back and building things, not just protesting.

In terms of U.S. politics, how do you think that the election outcome, either way, will impact the anti-war movement?

Naomi Klein: I believe that John Kerry and George Bush essentially have identical policies on Iraq. Their differences are so minor. The problem in Iraq is the U.S. occupation and John Kerry is not talking about ending the occupation. He's talking about winning the war. It's un-winnable. He's talking about increasing the number of troops by the end of his first term. He's talking about having a greater role for European allies, which in Iraq means more foreign intervention, and foreign intervention is the problem. He's not talking about more Iraqi participation in decision-making. John Kerry does not have a solution to what is going on in Iraq right now.

That said, I still think it's important to get Bush out. I think it's important for a few reasons. I think he's kept the discussion in a state of arrested development in that he's so outrageous, that we're reduced to this level of just sloganeering, focusing on individuals as opposed to policies, pathologizing individuals - who are indeed pathological. And I think that when you have somebody like Clinton or Kerry in power, who seem like nice guys and are educated, but yet impose these brutal policies anyway, it challenges us to see behind the individuals, instead of just focusing on the cowboy in charge. That's why I endorsed not John Kerry, but the Anybody But Bush petition.

There is one thing that John Kerry has said that I took some encouragement from. In the first debate -- and I say this with a great deal of scepticism about whether he meant it - he said (and it's the only substantial difference that he has said) that 'if I were elected, I would make it absolutely clear that we do not have long-term designs on Iraq.' That's the fundamental issue, and he talked specifically about the fact that they're building enduring military bases in Iraq. What is being resisted in Iraq is a clear U.S. plan for continued occupation. They've seen it happen in Saudi Arabia, and they see it happening in Iraq, and that's what's being resisted. And John Kerry said the right thing, by saying that the key to ending the conflict is to make it absolutely clear that they do not have long-term designs. They do have long-term designs. Iraqis know it. He said the right thing. Whether he'll do the right thing is a completely different story but at least it's a place to start.

You've spoken in support of the struggle at Sun Peaks. What are some examples of resistance internationally that you see as important to support, and what are some of your other upcoming projects?

Naomi Klein: I think it's important to look at the different ways in which property is being redefined and reclaimed. Whether it's the right to land, whether it's the right to resources at the community level, whether it's the right to land for First Nations people in B.C., whether it's the right to machines and factories which communities have been subsidizing for decades and are then informed that the factories are leaving, whether it's the right to water or electricity, the really exciting social movements around the world are all insisting, are claiming resources. You know, we have this slogan, 'stop asking.' They're not asking anymore, not lobbying anymore.

Everyone has tried lobbying, and it's not working. We have legal precedent, whether it's in UN declarations or our own constitutions that assert the right to housing, water, and jobs. And rather than trying to continuously win these battles, over and over again in the courts system, people are just taking these precedents and acting on them and it's a powerful combination of genuine legal rights and direct action. And I think what I'm trying to do is connect the dots. What it is really is a redistribution of debt, of who owes what to whom. That's what's happening in Argentina. This is supposedly this heavily indebted country that owes everything to the world. What people in Argentina are saying is 'actually, you owe us, we've been subsidizing you.' And they're not just saying it, they're acting on it. And to me that's the future of activism.

The Take opens in theatres Friday, October 29. For screenings and times, go here.

The North American Tour of the Argentina Autonomista Project comes to Vancouver on  November 4, 7pm at Britannia Community Center - Main Auditorium 1661 Napier Street.

Derrick O'Keefe and Gina Whitfield write for Seven Oaks Magazine, where a version of this originally appeared.

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