The Chilean October: Neoliberalism Was Born and Will Die in Chile?

Chilean democracy has protected and nurtured the widespread abuse caused by an economic model that has commercialized all of the aspects of social life. There is no need that has not been transformed into a big business. This is why the first cry of the mobilizations has been “no more abuse,” what the protesters demand is “dignity.” Chileans feel abused, offended, and outraged. These feelings did not suddenly appear on October 18th, they existed long before this year. What happened that day was that those feelings were enhanced by their willingness to mobilize. The mobilizations were definitely a surprise to everyone, but what was more of a surprise was that they hadn’t happened earlier.

Accelerated Politicization

The organization of metro fare evasions by high school students stoked the transformation from outrage to mobilization. Initially, the massive fare evasions inspired sympathy among subway users, because the fare hike was seen as abusive. The students were able to do what we all should have done: protest. As has been the pattern throughout these mobilizations, the government chose to respond to this scenario with repression, affecting both fare evaders and normal, paying users, which generated even higher degrees of identification with the students. Finally, when on October 18th, the metro was closed and surface transport suspended operations during peak rush hour on a Friday, this created the perfect cocktail for the explosion. Workers who had to start long walks to return to their homes spontaneously began to swell the barricades on every corner of the city. It was the last straw: the demonstrations of discontent had been radicalized, and the next day’s protest had already been nationalized, spreading from the capital to the country at large.

Everything was put into question, nothing seemed impossible to change. The mobilization operated as a powerful denaturant of the entire political and economic model. What was tolerated up until yesterday, albeit reluctantly, was openly questioned from that moment on. The mobilization became transversal, there was no part of the country that was not feeling part of this “explosion.” Rapidly, the economic demand to freeze the fare hike became a highly politicized struggle, with criticism of the existing constitution being the greatest part of this step.

What up until yesterday had been identified as an individual or personal problem, indebtedness or abuse, began to be understood by Chileans as collective problems, as public questions: pensions, salaries, health, and basic services. Moments of historical density, such as the one that began on October 18th, incubate radical transformations in the paths of those who participate in them (Bringel and Pleyers, 2015). One of the most visible transformations is the process of accelerated politicization. It should be noted that these new forms of politicization are not always expressed within the normal parameters of traditional politics, particularly via participation in political parties or electoral behavior. What is seen are the politicization of everyday conversations, counter-cultural demonstrations that re-weave lost ties, organizations’ empty spaces that are re-empowered (unions, professional associations, sports clubs, or neighborhood associations), or new platforms of articulation that emerge (local chapters, territorial assemblies, etc.). The neighborhoods, the workplaces, the public spaces? They will never be the same again. Not only do we now know each other, but we have also seen that our rage, frustration, and hopes are shared collectively. These profound political transformations may have been delayed in expressing themselves, in a forceful manner, in political-electoral terms, but at some point they will be synchronized. In the meantime, an enormous challenge of establishing bridges that connect institutional policy with these new politics remains a huge challenge.

The lag of the previous phase has helped fuel alarmist discourse by public actors about the danger this movement poses to democracy: the President of the Republic said about the mobilization that “we are at war with a powerful enemy.” However, although generally, the movement expresses a critique of how democracy has developed in Chile and has further exposed the deep crisis of the political system, the mobilizations seem to have enormous democratizing potential. First of all, because they portray conflict as a fundamental element in collective life and second, because they have allowed the sovereign, in this case, the people mobilized, to recognize their transformative power.

Chilean democracy, limited by inherited authoritarian enclaves, has privileged stability over conflict, also giving a decisive veto power to business elites. A few days before the social outbreak, a main business organization published a document questioning bills that would put economic growth at risk (environmental, reduced working hours, pension reform, etc.). Thus, any aspirations for transformation or reform of the pillars of the model that has plagued Chileans are characterized as threats to economic growth and, therefore, to democracy. As a result, the political system has become increasingly insensitive to the demands for change expressed by the public, despite the fact that the modification of the binomial electoral system during Michelle Bachelet’s second administration has allowed Congress to become more representative of the country’s political diversity.

Many analysts wondered why Chileans expressed themselves so radically, through mobilizations that incorporated a high degree of violence into their repertoires of collective action. What could be expected if attempts to reform the system in large part have been torpedoed, time and time again? The Nueva Mayoría (New Majority) government, a center-left coalition that brought Bachelet to power a second time, represented an attempt to channel criticism that emerged from the 2011 mobilizations, but most of its transformative agenda failed, in part due to the internal boycott of parties such as the Christian Democratic party, but above all due to the business veto and the padlock of the Constitutional Court, which has rendered parliamentary majorities useless. Even if Congress succeeds in passing transformative laws, the Constitutional Court will work against them for the most part by declaring the laws unconstitutional. This is why the demand for a new constitution gained so much force, not because it would be the solution to all of the existing problems, but because the current constitution is virtually impossible to change, no matter how much support there is for change. Radical criticism of the political system will hamper the construction of projects that aspire to express the yearning for change. The principal renovating force in Chilean politics, the Frente Amplio (a coalition of leftist parties in Congress), has behaved erratically at this juncture, and the coalition has experienced a deep crisis due to some of its most radical members accusing it of reproducing the elitist logics of traditional politics. Although there are left-wing parties that will surely capitalize on the “explosion,” all of them have been overtaken by the force of the street. Building bridges between “the mobilized” and the parties will not be easy, but the reluctance of the mobilizers is not a reluctance towards politics in general.

In this vein, unlike other recent incidents of mobilization, such as those that occurred in Brazil in June 2013, where the demonstrations were capitalized on by an extremely reactionary right wing, which was preceded by the violent expulsion of the left (as well as their symbols) from the streets; in Chile, for now, the movement has tended towards progressive patterns. The symbols in the streets are historically identified with the left: the Mapuche flag, the LGBTQIA+ flags, representations of leftist icons such as: the gay writer Pedro Lemebel, the fallen Communist leader Gladys Marín, the singer Víctor Jara (assassinated during the dictatorship), and the artist Violetta Parra.

The Mesa de Unidad Social (Social Unity Table), which has grouped the organized world, from the trade union movement, to the student movement, to the urban poor, to the feminist group Coordinadora feminista 8 marzo has been a highly meritorious experience, given the fragmentation and differences that had prevailed so far among the organized sectors. However, although Social Unity has not sought to assume leadership of this movement, the invisibilization of this organically formed organization by the government and the press has been a way of weakening the mobilizations, because a movement that cannot be an interlocutor is a movement without demands that can be satisfied. Moreover, at this stage it seems clear that the social movement that started on the 18th of October has two expressions that they use in dialogue: the inorganic side, with a high capacity for gathering people and reinvention, without visible faces or organizational structures; and the organic side, represented by Social Unity, with a high degree of discursive articulation and with clear demands. This is another difference from Brazil in 2013, in the Chilean mobilizations there is congruence and complementarity between the street and the world of organizations, however, in certain circumstances there may also be tensions. In Brazil in 2013, trade unions and student organizations were displaced, arguably even expelled, by conservative sectors. The two work production stoppages organized by the Bloque Sindical de la Unidad Social (Trade Union Bloc of Social Unity) during the mobilizations are the best expression of this strength: the protesters massively supported the strikes and marched side by side of the trade unionists.

On the other hand, the potential of those who today are inorganically mobilized to found new forms of activism and to enhance existing organizations must not be disparaged. It may take more or less effort, but the politicization of the paths that caused the outbreak, the new solidarity created, will at some point translate politically by renewing or recreating the current landscape.

In conclusion, we can say that the mobilizations that began in October have brought to light the deep tension in the country between the neoliberal economic model and democracy. It is not entirely clear what the way out of the current crisis will be, but it seems clear that the contradictions that have provoked the present moment will not be resolved within neoliberalism or within the narrow bounds of our current democracy. The mobilizations have questioned neoliberalism, not in an abstract manner, but in its concrete expressions, in the everyday consequences lived by Chileans. However, neoliberalism is not dead. Although we can definitively say that the narrative that identified the Chilean model as a paradigm to be imitated by countries in the region is over. Today, when Latin America is torn between conservative resurgences and attempts at progressive reinforcement, the end of Chile’s path to neoliberalism, as an export model, is good news.

The eruption of Chile in October will continue to shape new landscapes, although we cannot know what form they will take, because the strength of the social unrest has been so overwhelming that it is difficult to channel it. But the magma released will also create fertile ground for a new future. What seeds will be scattered? The answer lies in our hands.

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Alexis Cortes | Radio Free (2021-06-22T20:57:30+00:00) » The Chilean October: Neoliberalism Was Born and Will Die in Chile?. Retrieved from
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