Chile’s New Left

The contours of a new left are taking shape in Chile. An explosive student rebellion has linked arms with workers, bringing the far-right Chilean President Sebastián Piñera everyday into further disrepute. The neoliberal development model and the state that has enforced it feel threatened from below for the first time in decades.

The subterranean rumblings of the student eruption began in May. They have since evolved – albeit through peaks and valleys – into the roar we hear at present. The government says nothing is free and that someone has to pay for the education system. The students say nationalise the copper industry and tax the rich, and we’ll have funds for free, quality education, and much else besides.

By the end of August 2011, Piñera’s approval ratings had reached a 17 month personal nadir of 26 percent, also a record low for any president since the end of the dictatorship in 1990. This singular achievement was accomplished in the face of nearly uniform condemnation and defamation of the student movement and its allies by the Chilean mainstream media. By early October, Piñera’s approval rating had plunged still further, to 22 percent, apparently the lowest recorded in Chilean history.

A billionaire business mogul and leader of the Alliance for Chile coalition, Piñera assumed office in mid-January 2010 after having won the second round of elections with 52 percent of the popular vote. Shortly thereafter, he manufactured an image as saviour of the nation when in February 2010 an earthquake of an astonishing 8.8 magnitude on the Richter scale struck the long, threadlike country that runs along the Pacific coastline of South America and stretches eastward and upward into the Andes.

It seemed as though even the most obscure of government-funded reconstruction efforts in subsequent weeks and months were accompanied by the immaculate portraiture or cultivated oratory of the media-savvy president.

This guardian mantle was requisitioned a second time by Piñera in September and October the same year, although now with millions of captivated eyes locked on developments in Chile. Thirty-three miners were trapped for over two months 2,300 feet underground near the northern city of Copiapó until their rescue on October 13, for which Piñera claimed full credit.

“President Sebastián Piñera,” reported the New York Times, “presid(ed) over each rescue as a kind of master of ceremonies,” as “the months of waiting boiled over every time the rescue capsule popped out of the ground.” He had reached the pinnacle of his political career, with 63 percent approval ratings amongst the populace.

The pageantry of crisis, however, could not indefinitely hold at bay the underlying fissures in Chilean society. As I write this in early October, Piñera’s benevolent mask has been definitively torn off. The streets of Santiago and other cities are witnessing the brutality of armed police repeatedly smashing peaceful student and worker demonstrations.

On October 6, for example, police assaulted a student march in the Chilean capital with tear gas and water cannons, detaining at least 130 protesters, and possibly 250. Dozens of civilians were injured, including widely revered student leaders, such as Camila Vallejo, and various journalists and photojournalists.

One expression of the indiscriminate repression meted out on that day was the injury of CNN reporter Nicolás Oyarzún at the hands of state agents. Other journalists were summarily arrested. Meanwhile, defensive stands by protesters against the police reportedly left wounded twenty-five carabineros, as members of the police force – despised and feared in roughly equal measure – are known in Chile.

A late-August editorial in the left-wing Mexican daily La Jornada correctly suggests that what is happening in Chile is much more than a student movement. The students were the spark that ignited a much more profound tinder box of discontent, the complexities of which are not yet fully known.

The demand for free and quality education at all levels remains a central focus of struggle. But the conflict between the popular classes and the state has deepened and extended, first from high school and university students to teachers and university professors, and then outward to public sector workers, bus drivers, the Mapuche indigenous liberation struggle, barrio organisations in the urban shantytowns, women’s groups, environmentalists, and diffuse layers of the working class and popular sectors of society.

While Piñera wallows in the paltry backing of roughly a quarter of the population, 80 percent of Chileans support the students in the streets. “We are an auxiliary social movement to the principal social force of the workers,” says Alfredo Vielma, a 17 year old student activist, “that is to say, our parents.”

As the student movement gathers momentum it accumulates forces around it; and with those new forces the movement acquires new causes, new demands, and new sources for reflection on how different social sectors are in various ways pitted against a common enemy, expressed ultimately in the neoliberal state, established decades earlier during the dictatorship but never dismantled under electoral democracy.

On August 4, for example, thousands converged on the streets of Santiago banging pots and pans, “a form of protest last heard under the dictatorship of General Pinochet. This time the cacerolazos, as they are called, are being staged in the name of educational Utopia,” reported the conservative British magazine, The Economist, with near-audible disdain. 

Another motivation, or even anti-dictatorial impulse, for August 4, was the ban on marches the government had introduced in an ill-conceived attempt to quell an earlier wave of demonstrations.

On August 21, 500,000 people marched through Santiago and occupied Parque O’Higgins in a day of protest for public education. At the end of August, the United Workers’ Central (CUT) – weakened organisationally by the informalisation of the world of work, and politically by its historic association with the Concertación – orchestrated a two day national strike, something it had not even attempted in two decades.

On August 25, 400,000 marched again for free and quality access to education at all levels; but on this day new discourses and ideas began circulating, and additional banners were raised.

The people now wanted to put an end to the system of private pensions, to have free and high quality access to public health care, and a new labour code to protect workers’ most basic rights. They demanded an end to precarious jobs and better salaries for workers. They figured they could finance the bulk of these aims quite easily by raising business taxes and nationalising the copper mines.

They were fighting against the neoliberal state, the characteristics of which had been institutionalised through a constitution written and conceived under the dictatorial regime in the 1980s. Thus arose a novel, overarching proclamation – that the people demand a participatory constituent assembly to remake the Chilean state, society, and economy in the interests of the poor, working classes, and oppressed groups, a constitution embedded in social justice.

The constituent assembly demand – echoing those in Venezuela and Bolivia in recent years – emerged out of both the aggregated interests of the different sections of society’s marginalised and oppressed that had been brought together through association in the streets, but also through an impulse to generalise on a wider scale, the democracy that such an association implied – a new form of doing politics, where the grassroots are present in the streets, and where assemblyist forms of democracy teach the popular classes of their potential social power.

Marx identified this process as “revolutionary practice.” In their struggle to satisfy needs, the rank and file of the Chilean student youth and working classes are increasingly recognising their common interests and becoming conscious of their own social power; through their self-activity they are coming to see themselves as subjects capable of altering the structures of Chilean society as well as changing themselves in the process through self-organisation and self-activity from below.

Revolutionary practice need not be a dull affair. Indeed, it almost requires a collective millenarian drive to overcome the daily alienation of capitalist society. A central component of the recent rebellions has been the festivity of “tactical creativity,” as one of the better analyses of the process has suggested.

In addition to occupations, student walkouts, hunger strikes, marches, protests, workers’ actions, and clashes with the security apparatuses of the state, the movement has witnessed dance-a-thons, kissing contests, and an unadulterated embrace of the carnivalesque, as tens of thousands jubilantly coalesce in the thoroughfares and avenues of power in order to unveil its bankrupt hypocrisy.

“Before we recover the education system we want we have to build a participatory, integrative, and equitable political model” of organising, Vielma argues, revealing the sort of intensified politicisation of Chilean youth that is occurring on a wide scale. “Chile can be a more just society and this will come about through the installation of direct forms of democracy. The people have to decide for themselves what they are going to do with their governments and natural resources.”

Vielma goes on to point out that the people in the streets “are demanding the recovery of education as a social right, an integral, pluricultural, anti-classist, anti-racist education. All schools must return to the hands of the state, which has reneged on its role of subsidising and guaranteeing a good, free education for all…. So long as we are not guaranteed a free, high-quality education we will not stop coming out in these mobilisations.”

“The future of Chile

Origins and Dynamics of the Chilean Moment

To locate precisely the neoliberalisation of the education system at the root of today’s student upsurge in Chile, one necessarily returns to the era of dictatorship. In 1980, the Pinochet regime introduced a decree that established a dual public-private education system in the country, the same system that persists in essence to this day.

On an ideological and organisational level, teachers deemed sympathetic to Allende’s legacy were purged from their jobs, while police surveillance, informant networks, and changes in the curriculum and content of textbooks reproduced those purges on a daily basis. Arts and humanities were punished as passè subjects, while those areas of inquiry functional to the productive structures of the new free-market Chile were duly rewarded.

On a structural level, the responsibility for administering schools was decentralised to the scale of municipal governments. The state, adhering closely to the neoclassical fanaticism of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, would continue funding schools but only indirectly through a voucher system.

Vouchers were provided to families, and parents would then select schools for their children to attend. Schools were put in a position in which their financing depended directly on the number of students they attracted, “imparting a strict competition ethic into the education system.” Fully privatised schools were also allowed to compete in this overall scenario.

The disparities of access to education were even starker at the university level after the General Law of Universities was introduced in 1981. This legislation established a policy of privatisation, and in its wake “resources destined for higher education underwent a 40 percent reduction between 1981 and 1990,” while “all pretences of a free university system” were abandoned, and the promise of “small private higher education institutions” offered instead.

As sociologist Marcus Taylor notes, “such reforms transformed higher education into an entity of the capitalist marketplace, promoted entrepreneurial profit-minded investment and remodelled the content of post-secondary education to consolidate the reorganised productive structures of the economy.”

Two decades of Concertación administrations consolidated this model, while Piñera attempted to deepen and extend it through increases in privatisation at the elementary and secondary school levels. The consequence has been that a tiny layer of the Chilean population now sends their children to elementary and secondary schools where there are exorbitant fees.

Approximately 70 percent of students in such schools come from families with an average income of $2,700 per month, compared to an average family income of $330 for over 80 percent of students attending fully subsidised municipal schools.

The quality of education received in these different institutions is reflected in the fact that 93 percent of students attending municipal high schools fail to achieve sufficiently high grades in general, or on scores of standardised entrance tests, to enter traditional universities, and “only 10-20 percent of young Chileans belonging to the poorest 40 percent economic strata are currently enrolled in post-secondary education.” Of the meager 4.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) the state spends on education, only 0.7 percent is directed to the university level.

The Rot of Neoliberalism-Lite

Like one’s tongue is a good indicator of general body health, the brokenness of the Chilean education system is merely a symptom of a wider, endemic disease of neoliberal capitalism in the country. There are precise limits to the metaphor, however, because sections of Chile’s body politic are doing just fine, as others suffer painfully.

GDP, or the overall measure of economic growth, averaged 4.4 percent in Chile during the 2002 and 2008 commodities boom. That dipped to -1.7 percent in the recession of 2009, as the delayed reverberations of the global crisis in the core countries rippled through the southwestern edges of Latin America. But growth picked up to a preliminary figure of 5.2 percent in 2010, and an anticipated rate of 6.2 in 2011.

In gross terms, Chile is a relatively rich country. It is a member, for example, of that club of privileged societies known as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The top 10 percent of income earners enjoy average incomes on a par with Norway. But the masses below lead a much different life, with the lowest 10 percent living on an average income equivalent to the Ivory Coast.

The country is the most unequal of any in the OECD and suffers the highest rate of poverty (18.9 percent) in that group – an assortment of countries, it should be noted, which in general do not share an illustrious record on equality or care for the poor. Chile is also the fifth-most unequal in Latin America and the Caribbean, the region of the world that scores worst on equality measures.

Looking at the distribution of national income between the five quintiles of Chilean society, provides us a further window into these dynamics – or better, stasis – between 2000 and 2009. The poorest 20 percent of the population received a paltry 3.4 percent of national income in 2000, and this moved less than 1 percentage point upward by 2009, despite the social democratic proclamations issued forth regularly by Concertación governments over this period.

Similar experiences were endured by the second and third quintiles, which each budged forward only 1 percentage point in their share. The fourth quintile also moved 1 percentage point forward, while the richest 20 percent of society lost a mere 3.6 percent of national income.

Pause and reflect for a moment. In Chile, a country held up as a model for development in the Global South, despite years of relatively high growth – driven in large part by high copper prices – the richest 20 percent of society continues to receive a whopping 58 percent of the nation’s income, compared to 4 percent for the bottom 20 percent.

These figures, moreover, are too generous, masking as they do the even more profound discrepancies that would appear if we had comparable figures for wealth (assets), rather than merely income. It is within this all-embracing context that the battle over education must be positioned.

The Movement From Nowhere

Just as the seeming spontaneity of the Arab Spring hid a much longer and richer process of preceding struggles and organisational advances of the region’s labor and social movements, the Chilean outbreak did not suddenly materialise from nothing.

Between the end of April and mid-June 2006, radical high school student protests against the deterioration of public education erupted in several cities. These actions by los Pingüinos – or the Penguins, as the students are known because of their black and white uniforms – were violently repressed by police, stoking further radicalisation and the wider participation of education workers and working class parents throughout different parts of the country.

These were the biggest demonstrations in the country since the popular struggles for democracy in the Pinochet era, and represent the most immediate precursor to today’s revolts.

The student and worker agitation against the privatisation of education was indicative of a spreading disgust with many of the basic continuities in Chile’s social structure and political economy between the time of Pinochet and Michele Bachelet, head of the Socialist Party, and the last president of the long reign of Concertación.

These demonstrations were followed in August and September of the same year by a successful miners’ strike at Escondida, the world’s largest copper mine, situated in the Atacama desert of Chile’s far north. The battles in the mining zones then found their echo in May 2007, in the forest industry of the south, where a militant worker in a timber strike was shot dead after he tried to drive a tractor through a police barricade, stimulating wider community support for the forestry workers and their martyr.

Also in 2007, subcontracted garbage workers engaged in a successful strike in Santiago. It is worth noting that these movements were illegal, and represented the first important strikes in industrial sectors, where the workforce has been dispersed and fragmented through waves of subcontracting.

The atomised, overworked, underpaid, and precarious labor force in these sectors is characteristic of the world of work more generally in Chile in the current period.

“After seventeen years of a neostructuralist-inspired Concertación coalition,” Fernando Ignacio Leiva suggests, “the case of Chile already foretells some of these nodal points around which such contradictions will emerge.” Leiva was referring to the fractures of the neoliberalism-lite practiced by centre-left governments throughout the region.

He argues that new articulations of an autonomous civil society will emerge as an antithesis to “an institutionalised and hegemonic form of participation that subordinate(s) civil society and the socio-emotional component of social relationships to the requirements of globalisation the capitalist profit rate.”

Leiva perceives in this expansion of social movement struggle the strengthening capacities of the popular classes for “building on their every day sociability and historical memory to defend their rights and challenge capital and the state or the destruction of their social fabric, grassroots dynamics, and leaderships through state-designed and NGO-enforced social programs and civil society-state alliances.”

For Leiva, the contradictions of the development model in Chile and elsewhere will continue to engender “struggles over whether the objectives of strengthening social solidarity should be to increase the power of the dispossessed and exploited or to provide an individualised and symbolic more than material sense of security so that citizens do not rebel against a daily existence made more precarious by the expansion of capitalism.”

The activities in 2006 and 2007, of the students, timber workers, copper miners, and garbage collectors were meaningful signals of initial steps toward rebuilding rebellion against the expansion of capitalism. “Ultimately,” Leiva contends, “the question is what purposes are being served by increasing coordination among the state, markets, and existing networks,” central to the Concertación project. “Is it to raise profits and the self-expansion of capital, or is it to increase the satisfaction of human needs and human dignity?”

In 2009, the incipient extra-parliamentary struggles of the mid-2000s began to take a back seat to the electoral contest scheduled for the end of that year. However, in 2010, following the elections, cracks reopened on several fronts.

One of the most crucial areas of growing combativeness in recent years has been the Mapuche indigenous struggle in Chile’s southern regions. In the early months of 2010, there were several land occupations carried out by La Alianza Territorial Mapuche (Mapuche Territorial Alliance, ATM). And in mid-July, 32 Mapuche political prisoners began what became an 82 day hunger strike that galvanised social struggle and solidarity across different sections of Chilean popular society and won considerable levels of attention and support internationally.

Meanwhile, on the Island of Pascua, the Rapa Nui indigenous peoples executed a series of land takeovers and occupations of public and private buildings in defence of their historic rights to the territory and claims for self-determination. In April 2010, they took over the Government Plaza on the island, and over the month of July alone carried out thirty-five different land squats.

The year also witnessed the spread and intensification of environmental battles over thermoelectric, hydroelectric, and mining developments throughout various parts of the country.

As far as workers’ struggles are concerned, 4,000 subcontracted miners went on strike and set up road blockades around a private mine, Doña Inés de Collahuasi, owned by Swiss and South African multinationals. The workers demanded better working conditions and better pay. The strike and blockades were broken up after a few days, and 80 of the subcontracted workers involved in the protests were fired.

However, when issues were still unresolved months later, a 33 day strike was conducted in November. Because the multinationals were losing $9 million a day due to the work stoppage, they eventually were forced to partially cave in and acquiesce to a modest raise and other benefits for workers.

The year 2010 also witnessed important strikes by bus drivers, postal workers, and dock workers. Meanwhile, in another sector of the labor market, a novel workers’ action unfolded. In the wake of the earthquake, unemployed, mainly female workers were provided with 12,000 temporary, low-paying jobs to carry out reconstruction efforts funded by the government.

When all but 3,000 of these limited contracts came to an end, 33 women again facing the threat of unemployment occupied the Chiflón del Diablo mine and refused to come out until jobs were guaranteed. The action generated widespread public support, and a number of workers in the womens’ region won full-time jobs as a result.

Perhaps most important though, were a series of strikes carried out by public sector workers over the course of 2010. It would be these strikes that most closely corresponded to the demands coming from student activists, and allowed the basis for the growing worker-student alliances that have developed over the first half of 2011.

While the latest return of the high school Penguins and university students would not begin in a massive way until May 2011, there were stirrings and minor episodes throughout 2010 that foreshadowed what was to come. In early April 2010, high school students took to the streets to protest a rise in bus fares, putting them in line with bus drivers who had struck earlier for unpaid backpay among other issues. By the end of April, university students had joined the fray.

On July 26, high school students hit the capital with a show of significant force once again, this time in coordination with a public sector strike. On November 10, they launched large mobilisations against the entire privatisation agenda of Piñera in the education system. High school students also organised various solidarity demonstrations with other popular sectors that were coming into conflict with the state, not least the 35 Mapuche prisoners on hunger strike. University students joined many of these struggles over 2010 and became a leading sector of revolt in 2011, as we have seen.

All of this is simply to note that a relatively long period of gestation, of slow building and movement re-articulation, was the necessary backdrop for the spectacular events we have witnessed in 2019 thus far.

The Latin American Conjuncture

Little has been said, finally, about the Chilean student revolt as it relates to the wider dialectics of Latin American social and political life over the last decade.

The timing of the revolt is in some ways out of step with regional dynamics. Latin American popular classes began blocking roads, occupying lands, leading strikes, taking over factories, amassing in capital cities, and overthrowing presidents in the early part of this century, as the steepest recession since the early 1980s struck South America between 1998 and 2002.

The legitimacy of neoliberalism had been struck a fierce blow. Heads of state were overthrown in Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia, and self-proclaimed left governments of different hues assumed office through elections in most countries.

The new regimes rode a commodities boom between 2002 and 2008, and delivered modest gains in poverty alleviation and reductions in poverty. But their failure to break thoroughly with neoliberalism – much less capitalism – led their economies up against a wall as the fallout of the world crisis began to strike home in 2009.

Class contradictions are coming to the fore, and working classes, peasantries, and indigenous peoples are beginning to struggle against the policies of governments that speak an eloquent discourse of change but practice a more banal continuity in their everyday political and economic programs.

Perhaps the worst hit by these contradictions have been the countries of the “radical” current of the Pink Tide – Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. In the former, the failing health of the big caudillo, ridden with an undisclosed cancer, has called into question the longevity of the Venezuelan revolutionary process, whereas in the latter two countries, indigenous movements, the urban working classes, and incipient left groupings are furiously demanding their voices be heard by presidents who embrace “socialism” on the one hand, and carry out anti-popular measures with a calm regularity, on the other.

Chile was effectively bypassed in this tumultuous decade of uneven left turns in South America between 1998 and the onset of the global slump. With Salvador Allende’s social democratic project brought violently to an end by a military coup, the dark nights of Augusto Pinochet reigned between 1973 and 1990.

Chile is one paradigmatic case of historian Greg Grandin’s insight that “state-and-elite-orchestrated preventive and punitive terror was key to ushering in neoliberalism in Latin America.” Pinochet led a bloody, militarised assault on organised working class life, and physically annihilated political left formations. Those leftists who escaped death, prison, or exile, were, at best, driven into clandestine obscurity.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Boys (a group of Chilean economists in the 1970s) effectively transformed Chile’s economy into Milton Friedman’s free market laboratory. The country became one of the most unequal in the world, thus positioning the government for wave after wave of effusive plaudits from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and financial savants across the globe.

Mass struggle for democracy eventually defeated Pinochet, but the left had not yet recovered organisationally or ideologically by the time the Christian Democratic-Socialist coalition known as Concertación formed the first post-Pinochet government in 1990. Residual authoritarian practices codified under the dictatorship persisted under the elected regime, and the Concertación governments perfected Pinochet’s neoliberal economy over their next two decades in power.

Any and all reform, the Concertación insisted, according to sociologist Marcus Taylor, “would involve change within a fourfold conjuncture of limits: namely, the limits of the stability of the democratic transition, the limits of the sanctity of private property, the limits of fiscal prudence, and, ultimately, the limits of sustained capital accumulation.”

As Taylor has painstakingly pointed out, “in practice, this has translated into the maintenance of neoliberal and technocratic solutions to socio-economic issues in an attempt to sustain rapid capital accumulation in the export sectors and to avoid antagonising powerful class forces. The Concertación years were characterised by relative political quiescence at the base of society, as a disoriented and disarticulated working class groped in the nightfall for new tools of resistance.

But if Chile in the early 2000s was out of alignment with a new cycle of protest occurring elsewhere in Latin America, it has been tightly attuned to international rhythms of resistance since the latest crisis of capitalism began fastening its grip over world events in 2008.

While remaining attentive to the globe’s great geographic and political variety, Chile’s student rebellion ought to be understood in the context of the undulating tide of combat internationally, from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Greece, to Italy, to the United Kingdom, and to so many other established or emergent locales of ferment and agitation. Indeed, the Chilean revolt is one important expression within this decidedly eclectic gamut of the possibilities engendered by student-worker collaboration.

“After two decades of strong economic growth, social progress and enviable political stability,” The Economist laments, “Chile has suddenly started behaving in a manner more akin to some of its neighbours.”

This article originally appeared in the International Socialist Review and is by Jeffrey R. Webber, the original version can be found here. It has been reproduced and edited under a copyleft licence.

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