By Elizabeth Mizon.
Why, in our democracy-obsessed society, do we balk at the idea of economic democracy in our workplaces? Why do we – the majority of us wage-reliant labourers, working in organisations we have no influence in – so willingly defend and trust the capitalist business model, “the most hierarchical institution we have,” rather than arguing for our own right to be involved in making key decisions about the way a vast portion of our own lives are run? This is the central question of Swedish documentary Can We Do It Ourselves?, a glimpse at the potential of co-operatives to provide an alternative model to the capitalist one we grumbling drones continue to servilely uphold.
This is a huge question, and the film quickly answers it. There are examples of people already “doing it themselves” – happily and sustainably, not a grumbling serf in sight. The focal success story is home-care co-operative CHCA; founded in 1985 it is now the biggest co-operative in America, with a CEO and over 1,600 workers, 98 percent of whom are Latina or African-American women who have the opportunity to purchase an equal ownership stake in the business. (CHCA is one of the largest private-sector employers located in the South Bronx and one of the largest women-and-minority-owned businesses in New York City – a forceful riposte to the demographics of the exploitative marketplace, if you ignore the depressing/comical mimicry of it in their white male CEO – their very own “1%.” He seems like a nice dude, anyway.)
Taken aback by the film’s surprisingly straightforward explication of the core problems of industry power structures, I appreciated and enjoyed the film’s clarity. One can’t help but agree with its central argument and be engaged by its central questions, and I felt the familiar blend of comfort and frustration that is often experienced watching films of the “social justice documentary” genre, a codifier of which arrived immediately – the obligatory interview with Noam Chomsky. (Does he ever turn filmmakers down, I wonder? Does MIT know he’s both moonlighting and advocating the downfall of large institutions all over the internet? They’re an Institute of Technology for God’s sake… are Chomsky’s anarcho-syndicalist values in fact so persuasive that MIT is letting its workers decide when and how to act in everyone’s best interests?) The comfort comes from the political stance and the demystification of concepts – the difference between “market economy” and “capitalism,” “monopoly” rather than “free” markets – that are so often bound up in academic language or labyrinthine explanation, it turns off even the most dedicated and eager. From this commitment to simplicity and accessibility, though, also comes frustration.
Stylistically the film is akin to a gentle, and not so painfully self-regarding, VICE documentary – the kind of thing that might end up as a Vimeo Staff Pick. Contemporary issue, nicely lit shallow-focused DSLR visuals, ambient soundtrack and a well-paced 3-act-structure. It’s safe to say that its audience could be broad, but it feels made for considerate and interested liberals by considerate and interested trendy young liberals. Realistically those who sit down to watch this film are likely to already agree with its politics (try asking a Tory if they want to watch an hour-long documentary on the humanitarian benefits of co-operatives) and even those who don’t could hardly argue with co-operative workers effusing their increase in self-respect and quality of life. It does use a couple of interviewees – Mattias Svenson of Neo magazine and Janerik Larsson, former vice-president of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise – to sound a counter-argument in favour of capitalist orthodoxy, but these appear to be springboards that facilitate explanations of capitalist concepts, rather than serious attempts to present an “objective” viewpoint (and rightly so; such a thing cannot ever truly exist, and nor does it need to. Having an opinion is fine, it turns out.)
Let’s not pretend that individual works can change the world alone; were that the case, the seminal and hugely successful 2003 Oscar winner for best documentary Bowling for Columbine – the film credited with catapulting the documentary format into the money-making, audience-rousing, luvvie-of-netflix-users-and-executives-alike that it continues to be today – might have ended the firearm debate in the US. Within much more realistic boundaries, what this film provides is an explanation and clarification of concepts for those who are already interested, and an opportunity to present those demystified concepts to others who aren’t. To give a basic review of the film, I could discuss the content and the style and say plenty more on whether or not I – someone who is already involved in co-operatives, documentary filmmaking and left-wing politics, liked – or more importantly, agreed with – the film’s angle and thought it a worthwhile watch. However, with an advocacy film of this kind, in the political climate in which it exists, it seems more relevant to understand what impact it might have, or not, and why. The film will certainly illuminate and clarify ideas around economic democracy for many, and potentially convert those who are resigned to Thatcher’s decree that There Is No Alternative. The test of its “success,” however, will be found not in whether film reviewers personally like it, or whether it’s agreeable to many, but what impact it might achieve in encouraging people to act on a fuller understanding of the exploitative dynamics of capitalism.
Clearly, in style, method and structure, the filmmakers are trying to make the film as accessible as possible, and there is much merit in this – but the film’s lack of anger, of direction and drive, of demanding, hinders its ability to move. It is true that many viewers prefer a leisurely approach to political questions, but when it comes to exploitation and power relations, a stroke of the beard doesn’t cut it. Perhaps the filmmakers don’t regard themselves as “advocating” anything, simply making a film with no political agenda – but when considering alterations to global capitalism, one cannot sit on the fence and expect to remain splinter-free. Ultimately, this film is advocating something society desperately needs, and the desperation cannot be understated. It argues for a radical overhaul of the industrial world, of the way we spend the vast majority of our lives, how we think about freedom, power and other people’s power over us, and how we make value judgments about our own and each other’s welfare as “more” or “less” important. In opposition to global, unregulated, industrial capitalism, we need more than a decent lens and a three-point lighting setup, to take a viewer’s arm, offer them a warm beverage, and in soft rehearsed vocals inquire as to which door they’d like to stroll through – capitalism or co-operatives? Continued Stagnant Destruction or The Potential For a New Flourishing Human Epoch?
This is not to discredit the work. The content of the film is brilliant and should not be underestimated, and technically it is well accomplished. It was overwhelmingly persuasive, and the lack of marketing campaign suggests that the filmmakers are working without a substantial budget, making the achievement ever more impressive. But before we can take a leisurely glance at alternative industrial relations, we need to understand the immensity of the transformation that must take place to alter the current ones. Were we to already have a comprehensive distribution and exhibition network for radical films that ensured their promotion around the world and facilitated numerous and accessible screenings, a film like this would be exemplary – perhaps on a double bill with a film that could dedicate time to an honest illustration of the relentlessness of capitalist domination. With the industry the way it is, and the dearth of resources available to those of us making and screening radical film, a more forceful advocacy for change is necessary to prevent us from simply mumbling into the echo chamber and eating our own tails. The nascent Radical Film Network (disclosure: which I had a hand in setting up), and sites such as Films For Action, are currently attempting to build these infrastructures.
Can We Do It Ourselves? is a helpful offering of direction to a better way of life that is already in motion. As Paul Mason argues in his new book Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, a new global economic structure could indeed, in theory, flourish and standardise. But the treatment of the question as simply a matter of choice – a subscription to the neoliberal utopia of free individual choice that capitalism itself promotes as a reality – is misguided and unhelpful; only half of the question is being asked and answered. For people to begin organising into co-operative working structures there is plenty of educating to be done about why many cannot. Without recognising the absolute tyranny of capitalism – especially when it is challenged – we will run out of time before we get the chance. To combat the monopolisation of education and industry, we need to match and surpass its voice – a forcefulness which the social justice documentary genre currently lacks.
Elizabeth Mizon is a writer and film-maker. She was the production manager on The Film that Buys the Cinema and is Co-Director of the Bristol Radical Film Festival and the Bristol Cable. She is the editor of The Fourth Estate, a documentary that “traces the links between capital, politics and media power.”