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Chile Finally Has an Opportunity to Bury Pinochet’s Legacy

Víctor Orellana
Nicolas Allen

After weeks of unrest in Chile, Sebastián Piñera's government has finally agreed to a process of constitutional reform. It's a historic opportunity, won by millions of Chileans taking to the streets, to step out from the long shadow of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Demonstrators wave Chilean flags during protests against the government of President Sebastian Piñera who turns seventy on this day at Plaza Italia on December 1, 2019 in Santiago, Chile. Jonnathan Oyarzun Jara / Getty

The Chilean uprising is now in its second month. Piñera’s government is caught between right-wing calls for an even more authoritarian approach to contain the protests, and a left-popular movement that is calling with greater force for his resignation. Meanwhile, the nation’s Parliament has taken the entire country by surprise, announcing a plebiscite on a constituent assembly.

The agreement, which was reached at 2 AM on November 15, is in part the by-product of pressure from the streets. At the same time, it’s a response to military strong-arming. Unofficial information suggests that the military had two days earlier given forty-eight hours for a civilian resolution to the situation, before it would be given recourse to even bloodier forms of repression.

The agreement establishes two plebiscites: one to propose and another to confirm a constituent process. Constitutional change will be implemented either by a Constituent Convention (or assembly) elected entirely by universal suffrage, or by a Mixed Convention of elected and parliamentary members.

The Left and other mobilized sectors are likely to campaign on behalf of sweeping constitutional change, and to do so they will naturally favor a Constituent Convention. Never before has a Chilean constitution been written in a democratically elected constituent assembly. This procedure would conclude with a referendum on the newly written constitution.

That said, there are many misgivings and ambiguities surrounding the agreement. First, it establishes majority quorums of two-thirds, a concession made to the Right that could potentially thwart the passage of more radical proposals. The makeup of the Assembly itself is another question: would high school students, for example, be allowed to participate? Then, there are concerns over whether assembly members can be independent nonpartisans, if there will be gender equality, and quotas for indigenous peoples. In short, uncertainty abounds.

The proposed settlement has unleashed intense debates on the Chilean left, in large part over the content of the agreement and its specific format. But above all, it has created a rift on the Left over what role, if any, it should play in the proposed constituent process. On either side of this complex debate, the only agreement seems to be that the struggle has entered a new phase, one whose outcome seems more uncertain than ever.

The Neoliberal Defense

Dominant sectors in Chile are scrambling to take control of the situation. Whereas before they were able to tolerate and even utilize the neoliberal progressivism of Michelle Bachelet and Ricardo Lagos, the center has fallen out. The ruling class is left with its “natural allies”: the rentier corporate class and a political right wing that is increasingly divided and encumbered by its own lukewarm commitments to democratic rule.

Some populist fractions of the Chilean right, like that led by Mario Desbordes of the National Renovation party, have shown an apparent disposition to engage with the demonstrators. The settlement struck in parliament marks the growth of their influence over the political process. This populist right is inclined to accept a new constitution and is eager to demonstrate that it will make amends for the inequality that decades of neoliberalism have sown.

Whether or not the Chilean corporate class is willing to go along with this is another matter altogether. The rentier class will dig in its heels to prevent any constituent process that would include economic redistribution of any kind, insisting, as they always have, that everything depends on what they term “growth”: i.e., the expansion of a neoliberal rentier economy at the expense of a modern productive structure.

As the conflict between protestors and the government has escalated, even onetime democratic liberal intellectuals have started to embrace a more openly conservative line. A recent report by Amnesty International clearly shows that Chilean police are engaged in widespread human-rights violations. And yet, for the so-called liberal intelligentsia, it is the use of military force, not the demands of the social movements, that is justified — another sign that, as the center gives way, the Chilean right is losing what little democratic patina it once enjoyed.

It seems dubious that the ruling class in Chile will embrace the constituent process, since it lacks the social and historic base to support such a shift in tack. And the liberal intelligentsia, for its part, shows no signs of abandoning its sinecure with the dominant classes. Even less likely is a scenario in which the Chilean economic elite would, in an about-face, abandon their rentier model in favor of a new constitution that promotes a value-added economy.

Meanwhile, the philo-fascists — headed by figures like senator Allamand and Secretary of Education Cubillos — are busy fulminating against the settlement. The hard right is willing to bet on a war of attrition if it means avoiding the constituent process or, if need be, to derail the process so that the Chilean people will have no say.

Unity of the People?

As the constituent process lurches forward, popular mobilization continues. Increasingly, it can be split into two main currents.

The mobilization is being catalyzed in part by a group of associations that predate the country’s neoliberal turn, like the communist-led Workers’ United Center (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, CUT). This current is united under the umbrella organization Social Unity (Unidad Social).

The Social Unity group was behind the general strike that, while not bringing the national economy to a halt entirely, accomplished a considerable feat nonetheless, considering only 10–15 percent of the Chilean workforce is unionized.

Then there is the unorganized mass of protestors, the majoritarian component of the uprising. This multifarious sector, largely born of Chile’s neoliberal turn, has no clear organization. Grouped into micro-associations or not at all, there is no obvious channel of communication between this current and the more historically constituted and institutionalized social sectors.

The duality between an organized and an unorganized popular movement found its expression on the day of the general strike: Social Unity issued the call in the morning, and the main march was comprised largely of member organizations. Later in the afternoon, Santiago’s streets were filled with a spontaneous march of mostly unaffiliated individuals and smaller groups.

At this stage, and with the recent spate of marches, the movement has come up against its biggest challenge: uniting a people in neoliberal Chile, where the natural tendency is towards social stratification and heterogeneity. While organized and politicized groups have played a key role in articulating popular demands, a new Chilean people is taking shape in real time, articulated in the process of struggle. This new popular current is concerned with economic demands and has a strong class dimension.

Organized popular movements — organized labor, student groups, and so on — tend to be most responsive to struggles against traditional forms of capitalist domination and exploitation. The new Chilean people, still in formation, tends to see itself as struggling against newer forms of exploitation that are often associated with the extreme commodification of life, introduced under the neoliberal model, particularly the commodification of social rights. Its targets are the privatized, individualized pension system (AFP), student debt, transport fares, and the introduction of tolls on what used to be a public highway system.

Of course, there is overlap between the two groups. The call to raise the minimum wage is universal, as is the demand to respect human rights, as well as calls for Piñera’s resignation. In fact, ever since 2000, Chile’s primary social mobilizations have been catalyzed by alliances between the traditional left and the new, mobilized Chilean people, be it in the student movement, the feminist struggle, or the fight for pensions.

However, social unity remains elusive in the midst of the revolts. Dispersion so far has carried the day, and not every fraction of the popular movement has the same traction within institutional politics.

The more organized sectors of the movement maintain closer ties with the political class, by way of their connections with the various strains of the organized left. And it is there that the canalization of constituent demands is expressed most explicitly, where leftist parliamentarians tend to foreground the political aspects of the Constituent Assembly, rather than broader social demands against the commodification of everyday life.

The settlement that has been ratified in parliament may be regarded by some as the groundwork for a Constituent Assembly, which has provoked criticism. But more importantly, it entirely ignores the more full-blooded social demands expressed in the streets.

Response to economic and social problems have so far been fragmented and still lack a common left-wing platform. The student-debt forgiveness movement (Movimiento Deuda Educativa) has applied pressure on parliament with obtaining full clemency. The movement against highway payments (Movimiento No + TAG) have begun talks with the government. Finally, the coordinating committee in the fight against Chile’s private pension system (Coordinadora No + AFP) has tried with little success to advance its cause.

Chile’s Left has thus yet to define a common set of terms on which to debate the constituent process. It has to a large extent focused its discussion on the lack of democratic debate in the decision-making process — which is no doubt the case. But these concerns largely forego the larger question of introducing social demands into the process of political deliberation.

Social and Political Democratization

The settlement in parliament inaugurates an opening chapter in the struggle over a new constitution, but without social and political democratization, the constituent process is in danger of leaving the existing neoliberal model untouched.

The philo-fascist right seems to be counting on this eventuality: a constitutional gatopardismo that actually serves to entrench the existing model.

Ever since the fall of the Pinochet dictatorship, neoliberalism has operated by separating politics and society into two separate and exclusive spheres. As the technocratic political caste seeks to safeguard its power over and against society, the Left would do well to recognize that as it seeks to exert its influence on institutional politics, it is not immune to getting too caught up in the game.

This is even the case when the organized left is involved in radical street protests: the issue is not one of means or methods; it is a question of how to connect political action to its social bases. Neither the barricades nor the ballot box can guarantee the connection between the Left and the people. It is only by combining political and social democratization that this occurs.

What is at stake in the constitutional debate is how to affect a complete transformation of the structures of power, one that reaches up to the command centers of both society and politics. In short, the task is to expand democracy while de-commodifying everyday life.

Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, labor’s struggle against capital — in some parts of the world — engendered social organizations and institutions that catalyzed political, legal, and economic change. That struggle saw the rise of trade unionism and labor rights, for example, while wages rose and social rights were won.

Those changes also affected everyday life: workers henceforth were recognized as a legitimate counterpower in the workplace, capable of affecting the correlation of forces from the base of society. Today, in Chile, we are left asking what the future counterpowers will look like.

What agents, organizations, and institutions of the Left can emerge in the midst of neoliberal society? How can those forces continue to act to shape the national life of a new, still unorganized people? How can these counterpowers expect to change both everyday life and institutional politics?

The constituent process has been made possible by revolts, but its future fortunes are anything but guaranteed. The dominant classes, with a tenuous interest in democracy, will fight the process every step of the way, defending a rentier model of accumulation by dispossession that excludes any type of economic or political redistribution.

The challenge for the Chilean people is to build bridges between the political and social dimensions in play. Only then can we advance toward a horizon beyond neoliberalism.