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A New People Is Born in Chile

The mass protests that have rocked Chile this month declare a new popular movement, emerging from the ruins of a broken system. The country’s new left force, the Frente Amplio, must seize on the people’s demands for radical transformation, from the ground up.

A demonstrator waves a Chilean flag on top of a monument during the seventh day of protests against President Sebastián Piñera on October 24, 2019 in Santiago, Chile. (Marcelo Hernandez / Getty Images)

Thanks to the ongoing protest movement in Chile, the legitimacy of the country’s neoliberal model is currently on trial — reason enough to feel hopeful. The huge revolts have been even larger than the impressive mobilizations seen earlier this decade in Chile, capturing the imagination of radical resistance movements around the globe. With the staggering popular turnout on the streets, covering almost all sectors of Chilean society, there is plenty of reason for optimism, but this opening also poses a number of serious challenges for the Chilean left.

A Crisis of Legitimacy

Neoliberalism sealed its grip in the 1980s under the Pinochet regime, once the Left had been radically weakened. Contrary to the widely accepted theory of neoliberalism, the Chilean model is based on a regulated and state-dependent form of capital accumulation; its highly concentrated economy rests principally on extractive industries, along with lower value-added sectors like services.

This system has promoted an obscene concentration of wealth (today, the richest 1 percent Chileans take roughly 33 percent of income, according to the World Bank). Inequality is soaring, and middle-class Chileans have been hit hard, pushing them to join in on the protests; they can be seen banging on pots and pans alongside the residents of Chile’s informal slums. In fact, except for the most elite quarters, virtually all of Chilean society is out protesting.

For the first time, society sees its own image reflected in the protests. There is an “us” — all those who make a living from their labor, be it professional or unskilled — and a “them” — the political class, the military, and the rentier business class.

Neoliberalism in Chile could not quite lay the hegemonic ground for the social edifice it had constructed. It is true that Chilean society has become increasingly individualistic since Pinochet, but this does not mean that Chileans see the world as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman did. Rather, people in Chile have adapted to their neoliberal reality — which is not to say they consider it legitimate.

By shutting down all avenues for political participation and replacing them with a technocratic market rationale, Chilean neoliberalism has been slowly eroding its own hegemonic ambition. Even areas like education have been so overwhelmingly determined by neoliberal market logic that schools have forfeited their chance to build consensus among their students. Spaces that are typically ideal for sociocultural integration have become victims of what Chilean sociologist Carlos Ruiz calls “public-services capitalism.” There is a blind faith that individual “behaviors” will adapt themselves to the market, and that a suitable technocracy can make up for the fact that these institutions are unable to secure loyalty or legitimacy.

This is how we should understand the complete incomprehension of Piñera-loyal intellectuals in the face of mass protests. Where a broad social mass has come together to proffer an alternative set of values, Piñera’s lot sees only “social anomie” and chaos, a simple lack of values.

Neoliberalism — particularly since the 1990 transition to democracy — has to a large extent relied on the effects of an economic expansion that modernized the country throughout the 1990s and 2000s. This has lifted the expectations of younger Chileans — the sons and daughters of neoliberalism use smartphones and, unlike their parents, aspire to more than a pair of sneakers — but now that growth has halted, this economic model is facing a legitimacy crisis.

Nor is the political system faring any better. The democratic transition did little to organize society and mediate its conflicts. Incapable of controlling markets in any meaningful way, and in fact assisting the rise of rentier capitalism, the state has played a fundamental role as the handmaiden of neoliberalism, even sharing with the market the same supporting cast: technocrats who move freely between corporate boards and government ministries. In this context, it is unsurprising that citizens feel that they’ve been hustled by a vague “them,” who grow rich on the immiseration of the “us.”

Filling the Void

This model may be losing its grip, and what we see emerging is a new popular consciousness with a broad social outlook. For better or worse, we are witnessing the birth of a new Chilean “people,” partly forged out of the neoliberal experience and of a different variety to its twentieth-century predecessor.

Chileans have been individualized under neoliberalism, but paradoxically, this individualization has also incubated a demand for authentic individual autonomy — an attitude that does not sit easily with the traditional Chilean left.

But street mobilizations are no less dynamic. In cacerolazos, we find not only expressions of rage directed toward the business class and government. We also find expressions of joy, of people dancing and singing, celebrating the power that comes with being united in common struggle. It is no accident that the most emblematic figure of the movement is none other than the Chilean flag: there, in all its heterogeneity, a new Chilean people is being born.

The Right’s Countermobilization

In the lingo of the Latin American left, the protests in Chile constitute an “inorganic” movement: it lacks a centralized leadership. There is no legitimate social organization that can represent it, although all of Chile’s political and social organizations, new and old, find themselves drawn into the mix.

Institutional politics in Chile have been completely thrown off-balance by the protest movement. The most conservative elements — sectors of the Democratic Independent Union (UDI), Opus Dei, and a series of powerful impresarios — won the initiative in responding to the movement. Indeed, the rentier class has long been lobbying the government to take a more interventionist right-wing approach. Economic deceleration has only emboldened this fraction of capital to double down on its strategy of accumulation by dispossession. Represented in politics by ultra-conservatism and backed by fractions of the military and the media, this sector will fight tooth and nail against any proposed redistributive reform.

These same groups have been promoting the imposed curfew and the state of emergency. Their aim is not to avoid violence, but rather to stoke it. Already desperate, small fractions of poor Chileans can easily turn to looting, and this in turn can feed the narrative of criminality that distracts from social demands.

Others on the Right — fractions of National Renovation (RN), like Senator Ossandón — know that the conflict cannot be settled only with violence, even if they are not themselves opposed to military tactics. This right-wing sector is actively trying to use the popular movement in the hope of neutralizing its radicalism. Rhetorically calling for law and order, and condemning the violence, they nonetheless attempt to profit from the generalized distrust of elites. It offers a demagogy of social redistribution, introducing the basic ingredients of a right-wing populist discourse.

President Piñera, finding himself pinched between these two right-wing currents, is looking to combine the demands of both, and it is not clear which tendency will win out. But these two right-wing tendencies are the most powerful in Chilean institutional politics today; both the centrist Concertación and the new left-wing coalition Frente Amplio are marginalized.

When the Third Way Is Not Enough

Once buoyed by a national-popular alliance that underwrote much of its legitimacy in the twentieth century, the Concertación — the coalition of Socialists, Radicals, and Christian Democrats that led the state from 1990 to 2010 — is undergoing a vertiginous decline. Serving for decades as the custodian of neoliberal policy, its historic social-democratic identity has been effectively buried. Over the years, the upper tier of the coalition party has been molded into an efficient conduit between the state and rentier sectors, a technocratic caste that saw enormous economic gains while in power. It has become, in a word, the elite.

Where once Concertación was ashamed to defend the neoliberal model, today, strands in the party openly support the most regressive, right-wing interests. In 2019, there are sectors that don’t even merit comparison with the Third Way neoliberal progressivism of Blair or Clinton. It is possible that they will join with Piñera in the name of forming a “national unity government.”

Beyond its leaders, Concertación’s social base has been radically compromised by the growing inequality that the same party oversaw. Public employees who support the party, the coalition’s popular base, and contiguous social layers are all taking part in the movement. But there is no possible way to harmonize their participation with the party’s legitimacy, in fact, just the opposite.

Concertación’s bureaucracy is desperately making overtures to its base, trying to survive in the context of the drama unfolding on the streets of Santiago de Chile and other major cities. But this will prove near impossible: for decades, party cadres have been reduced to propagating state bureaucracy, training its militants for state administration rather than working with civil society. Regardless of attempts to revive the mythology of the 1980s’ anti-dictatorial struggles — as the Socialist Party has done — their calls are met with a resounding silence.

Challenges for the Left

The protests also present a huge challenge for the Frente Amplio (“The Broad Front”), the new left-wing coalition party with parliamentary representation. What the street revolts make clear is that if the Frente Amplio is to have any future role in national politics, it will have to do more than replace the decrepit Concertación in the equally decrepit electoral contest, with a current abstention rate of 60 percent.

The entire political class wants to see the end of this popular uprising, and it will do everything possible to enlist the Frente Amplio to that end, be it militarization, demagogic populism, or “national unity.” And if this new left-wing force — originally inspired by an insurgent impulse to overcome the old ruling political caste — allows itself to be co-opted, it will likely become the next victim of the larger crisis of political legitimacy.

The challenge then is to transform the popular unity expressed in the streets into an effective political force. And this, of course, requires incredible political acumen and the forging of alliances, where the challenge, as always, is to join forces without being subordinated.

Chile’s new left will only be up to the task if it can abandon the temptation to invoke nostalgic left-wing identities and narrow electoral ambitions. It must put forward a new model, one that reconfigures the relationship between society, the economy, and the state. It must act in unison with, rather than behind the backs of, the protest movement. It must make the struggle for a constituent assembly more than propaganda.

To secure a meaningful place in Chile’s future, the Frente Amplio must act to protect the mobilization; without a mobilized society, there is no meaningful left in Chile. To that end, the Frente Amplio must reinforce the space won by protesters and help deliver further victories.

With the reversal of the fare strike, and the acceleration of parliamentary discussion of the forty-hour week, we now have tangible proof of the people’s power. The movement must go for much more. The Frente Amplio must take note and, from its foothold in the state, put itself in the service of this unfolding process.

Reversing years of neoliberalism is no easy task but one thing is certain: Chilean society must be reinvented. This will involve far more than taking state power and governing by decree. How to organize what is today a market as a democratic society? The task implies facing the challenges left by the defeats of socialism and social democracy in the twentieth century. There is no possible shortcut to it.

Neoliberalism, by favoring the concentration of wealth, has unwittingly laid the foundation for a broad popular alliance. Chile’s new left will need to support the creativity and energy stored in society, guiding it toward a democratic transformation with greater equality and individual and collective freedoms.

The Chilean people have spoken: they are no longer afraid of the powerful elite, and they want more democracy than the ballot box can offer. The Frente Amplio and other left-wing forces would do well to listen to their message.