Still don’t get Occupy Wall Street? Watch The Take

December 4, 2011

The Take, Forja San Martin, roof, factory, workers

Argentine workers overtake the Forja San Martin factory in the 2004 film, The Take.

If there’s anyone out there who still doesn’t understand the Occupy movement, the 2004 movie The Take offers about as clear and concise a rundown of the movement’s main points I’ve found. It may not change the minds of those who have already formed a negative opinion about OWS, but for those who feel some pull towards the group yet have been unable to put their finger on exactly what is being protested, this short 87-minute film may provide answers.

Just as important, the movie also offers a clear directive of what I feel should be the primary focus of the movement going forward: The idea that regular people – you know, people whose daily thoughts center around things like what to eat for lunch or taking their kids to soccer practice, rather than building corporate monopolies and world domination – can manage their own affairs and create a society built around their own values.

The idea that humans are naturally greedy, and therefore must have a society that rewards greed over virtue, is an idea that has been sold by the 1% and bought by the 99% for about a century now. We are led to believe that without the incentive of profit, most of us would be too lazy to do anything and as a result the vital needs of society would go unmet. Argentina’s recovered factories movement chronicled in The Take is an exercise in testing the validity of that statement.

Still reeling from the 2001 economic collapse, the laid off workers from the Forja San Martin auto parts plant come to the realization that the factory which provided their employment, and the demand for the products they produced, was still intact. The only thing that had changed was the macro-economic conditions that, for a reason completely beyond their purview, no longer allowed the plant to operate. But the workers, being workers, don’t speak that language. They simply saw a fully functional factory and a need that wasn’t being met, so they went about fulfilling that need.

If we adhere to the free market bible, this little idealistic endeavor is doomed from the start, especially given the fact that the Forja workers decided early on that all would receive equal pay, regardless of title. What will motivate them to work hard if there’s no financial incentive, one might ask? What will stop someone from taking innumerable breaks if there is no disciplinarian keeping him in line? And besides, just the very idea of everyone being equal and working together just smacks of socialism, and we may not know exactly what socialism is, but we know it’s bad.

Given the plainly evident anti-globalization message of The Take, one need not read this post or watch the movie till the end to know how it turns out, and that isn’t really the point. The real value of the film is the window it offers into the thought process behind the recovered factories movement, which is the same thought process behind OWS. Of course, the take home messages people will derive from this thought process will be as varied as people’s perceptions of OWS. Here are some of mine:

  • As the dust settles from one economic collapse to another, a new consciousness is emerging that is questioning the necessity of CEOs, boards of directors, and even politicians. Perhaps, by taking on a little more responsibility, people can reap more of the benefits of their labor, and shift the paradigm from petitioning the establishment for more and better jobs, to providing their own.
  • For most people, contributing and providing a needed service to society is its own reward and gives meaning to their lives, as does the desire to interact with their fellow humans in a spirit of honesty, fairness, and harmony. This means, contrary to popular assumption, most people will not flounder or shirk responsibility in a situation where the primary incentive isn’t financial – they will thrive in it.
  • Equality, whether in terms of the amount of money made or perceived status in society, does not lead to excessive homogenization, nor does it strangle innovation. Rather, it frees people to be exactly who they are and utilize their talents in the most effective way, for money is no longer the chief motivator or distracter. On the other hand, inequality does lead to greater homogenization and compromises innovation by allowing a cunning minority to control messaging and set the parameters the rest of the population must adhere to.
  • Lastly, the idea of ownership, a concept so central to the capitalist persuasion, deserves another look under the microscope. On first glance, the brazen re-appropriation, or expropriation as the workers call it, of a multi-million dollar factory owned by someone else, may appear morally untenable. On further reflection, however, many questions arise: Why is the utilization of a dormant factory in order to simply earn a living any less scrupulous than a company neglecting to pay millions in owed wages, or skipping out on agreed upon pensions? Who is to say the wage the workers were paid was fair value for their labor and doesn’t constitute theft in itself, given that the entire economic and political climate is operated by the few, with the sole motive of profit for the few? Why is money the sole determinant of whether a person is allowed to purchase and monopolize large swaths of land from the public and claim it as his own? Does it matter if that money was acquired ethically?

At one point in the film, Luis Zanon, the owner of one of the factories taken over by workers, is asked for his reaction to the developments and the community’s newly adopted slogan Zanon is of the people. “The investment was mine, all the work was mine. It can’t be of the people,” he says with a phlegmatic chuckle. He’s right about the investment – that certainly was his. The work? It’s normally not the best practice to judge a book by its cover, but from one look at Mr. Zanon, we can be fairly certain that he didn’t break a sweat during the factory’s actual construction, nor did he spend any time forging steel with the workers he laid off.

Luis Zanon

Luis Zanon

So again, the predominant question presents itself: Do we need him? When it comes to the logistical, planning, and administrative purposes he represents, certainly we do. When it comes to the excessive profit motive of the ruling elite and the corrosive side effects that come with it, no, we don’t. The Take, and OWS for that matter, suggests the possibility that these two conditions need not go hand in hand.

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