Chile's new left

More than a student movement

"Education is the mother of all battles, and we will win or lose our battle for the future in the educational sector" — Sebastián Piñera1

"This is not a students' movement or a workers' movement. It is a movement of students and workers. — Staughton Lynd2

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 nationalize the copper industry and tax the rich, and we’ll have funds for free, quality education, and much else besides.3

By the end of August 2011 Piñera’s approval ratings had reached a seventeen month personal nadir of 26 percent, also a record low for any president since the end of the dictatorship in 1990.4 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.5

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 savior 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.”6 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.7

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 organizations 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.8 “We are an auxiliary social movement to the principal social force of the workers,” says Alfredo Vielma, a seventeen-year-old student activist, “that is to say, our parents.”9

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.10 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 organizationally by the informalization of the world of work, and politically by its historic association with the Concertación11—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.12

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 nationalizing the copper mines.

They were fighting against the neoliberal state, the characteristics of which had been institutionalized 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 marginalized and oppressed that had been brought together through association in the streets, but also through an impulse to generalize 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 recognizing 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-organization and self-activity from below.13

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.14 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—con pasión por la educación—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 organizing, Vielma argues, revealing the sort of intensified politicization 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 subsidizing 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 mobilizations.”15

Origins and dynamics of the Chilean moment
To locate precisely the neoliberalization 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 organizational 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.16

On a structural level, the responsibility for administering schools was decentralized 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.”17 Fully privatized 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 privatization, and in its wake “[r]esources 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 reorganized productive structures of the economy.”18

Two decades of Concertación administrations consolidated this model, while Piñera attempted to deepen and extend it through increases in privatization 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 subsidized 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 standardized 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.”19 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.20

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 2011.21

In gross terms, Chile is a relatively rich country. It is a member, for example, of that club of privileged societies known as the Organization 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.22 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.23

Table 1, reflecting 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.

Movement from nowhere?
Just as the seeming spontaneity of the Arab Spring hid a much longer and richer process of preceding struggles and organizational advances of the region’s labor and social movements, the Chilean outbreak did not suddenly materialize 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 Penguins, as the students are known because of their black and white uniforms—were violently repressed by police, stoking further radicalization 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.24

The student and worker agitation against the privatization 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.25

“After seventeen years of a neostructuralist-inspired Concertación coalition,” Fenando Ignacio Leiva suggests, “the case of Chile already foretells some of these nodal points around which such contradictions will emerge.”26 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 institutionalized and hegemonic form of participation that subordinate[s] civil society and the socio-emotional component of social relationships to the requirements of globalization 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.”27

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 individualized 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.”28

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?”29

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 eighty-two-day hunger strike that galvanized social struggle and solidarity across different sections of Chilean popular society and won considerable levels of attention and support internationally.30

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 defense 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.31

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

As far as workers’ struggles are concerned, 4,000 sub-contracted 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 eighty of the sub-contracted workers involved in the protests were fired. However, when issues were still unresolved months later, a thirty-three 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, thirty-three 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 2011.32

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 back-pay 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 mobilizations against the entire privatizing agenda of Piñera in the education system. High school students also organized various solidarity demonstrations with other popular sectors that were coming into conflict with the state, not least the thirty-five 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 2011 thus far.

The social and the political
In his brilliant survey of the Chilean left since the 1990s, Leiva identifies a panoply of developments and complexities up to the present.33 In one camp, the Socialist Party (PS), Party for Democracy (PPD), and Radical Party (PRSD), have, in joining the Concertación coalition, completely submitted to the interests of transnational capital.

In another, a traditional left, composed of the Communist Party (PC), the Christian Left (IC), the Humanist Party (PH), and a split from the Socialist Party, the Allendista Socialists, is to be found. This group formed an electoral alliance in the 2009 elections called Juntos Podemos Mas-Frente Amplio. This left is debilitated by its inability to respond to the changing socio-political and class conditions of Chilean society in order to build a social base, or to overcome its top-down organizational culture and fastidious adhesion to electoral politics. An ossified rigidity predominates.

A third eclectic melange of the SurDa Movement, the Social and Democratic Force (FSD), Generation 80, and various small anticapitalist groupings (the most important being the Movement of Peoples and Workers (MPT), represent an incipient radical left politics. These “formations have sought to construct new forms of representation based on bottom-up organizing, social mobilization, and autonomy from political parties and the state.”34 The SurDa movement, which operates with other groupings in a broadly autonomist-Marxist current, has been particularly successful at winning leaderships in various university student federations, and their influence can be seen in the politics unfolding in the streets at present.

Finally, a multifarious array of issue-specific, local anti-poverty and anti-discrimination organizations, environmental assemblies against toxic dumping and other eco-depravities in poor neighborhoods, and community health and youth cultural groups, have grown up at the barrio level in impoverished communities, taking on initiatives in the spirit of “solidarity, collective action, territorial organizing, and efforts to preserve the historical memory of past popular struggles.”35 Leiva calls this the social left, fighting to sustain collective memories of struggle against an all-pervasive mall culture and consumerism, weave a micro-fabric of resistance in marginalized zones, and “keep the utopian dream of social justice through self-reliant collective action alive, reaffirming the construction of a popular identity and dignity in the midst of vastly transformed society.”36

If we take this portrait seriously, as we should, the  alignment with Concertación has clearly been delegitimized in the extreme, and offers no hope for student struggles and the wider popular movement in the making. The historical left is largely moribund, despite the fact that Camila Vallejo, the most prominent student leader, is the daughter of Communists, the niece of miristas (members of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, MIR), and a member of the Communist youth. The incipient radical left currents of anticapitalist initiatives and the social left seem to be resonating most pervasively with the student-worker revolt, both in terms of ideological development and organizational tactics and strategy.

The strengths of this break with the Concertación and the ossified left, as we have shown, are many. The biggest social movement against neoliberalism in Chilean history has shaken the pillars of the Piñera regime.

Assemblyist forms of democracy in the streets are revealing to the popular classes and oppressed their potential social power, while their political consciousness makes leaps forward with every development in the movement. Women and youth are front and center, from the grassroots to the highest echelons of the movement.

The Mapuche and other indigenous liberation struggles, as well as the ecological component of the crisis of capitalism, are a part of the everyday awareness of activists in the movement. The carnivalesque character of the mass actions, the justice of their demands, and the audacity of the youth have won over huge segments of the Chilean population to their cause.

The movement is democratic and participatory, while also being quite disciplined and organized. There are good reasons to believe that many of the small breakaway acts of property violence—sensationalized at length in the local media—have been instigated by agents provocateurs, undercover state forces seeking to provide a pretext for police violence, to undermine the legitimacy of the movement in the eyes of the wider public, and to generate internal fissures within the student and other popular organizations.37

It would be remiss, however, to avoid discussing the potential limits of the autonomist political expressions seemingly dominating the student uprising. “The autonomists,” writes Argentine political economist Claudio Katz, “eschew political affiliation and ideological definition. They share feelings, attitudes, and projects, but they do not support a common doctrine. They broadcast a moral critique of capitalism from an anti-authoritarian perspective, rejecting all forms of leadership and state power. They use a libertarian language and defend autoorganización [self-organization], emphasizing values of solidarity and community. They question participation in mainstream institutions and encourage autogestión [self-management] in the economic sphere.”38

Perhaps the most widely celebrated thinker to have expressed the ideas of the new Latin American autonomism is John Holloway, particularly in his book Change the World Without Taking Power (2005). His thesis, distilled to its barest elements, is as follows: it may or may not be possible to change the world without taking power (we cannot know for sure); within this context of uncertainty, the best way to imagine revolutionary change is to seek the dissolution of power rather than the conquest of power; and it is particularly important to avoid a strategy focused on the conquest of statepower, which was ruinous for the revolutionary left in the twentieth century.

Many have pointed out important flaws in Holloway’s perspective: oversimplification of a very complex history of competing theoretical and strategic debates in the international history of the workers’ movement; too little account taken of a vast critical literature within the Marxist tradition on the state; lack of serious theoretical and analytical treatment of history and the role of the revolutionary left therein; mystification of the Zapatista experience in Mexico through an analysis rooted in discourse rather than the real contradictions of the political situation on the ground; and abandonment of the terrain of politics and strategic orientation, a vacuum which will inevitably be filled by capitalist or pro-capitalist forces if left empty.39

The ideas that Holloway has sought to clarify need to be taken seriously and they continue to resonate in particular settings within the Latin American left, especially among “autonomists” and “horizontalists” in Argentina, and some adherents of Zapatismo in Mexico and elsewhere. Today, variations on the themes he has taken up in the past are making themselves visible once again in the streets of Chile. Much of this, as noted, is to be welcomed and celebrated, but there are certain strategic limits to consider.

One potential problem stands out as necessary for the movement to avoid. While the critique of the Concertación and the traditional parties of the left, such as the Communist Party, is precisely correct, it would be damaging for social movements to generalize this critique into a position that rejected the necessity of long-term revolutionary-party building. There is, in any class struggle, a necessary connection between the social and the political.

In a recent speech I was privileged to hear at the Europe against Austerity gathering in London on October 1, 2011, Olivier Besancenot, the best-known spokesperson of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France. He was speaking of Europe, of course, but there is a universal element to his intervention:

What type of movements and what type of alternative? We can no longer debate in the way we used to debate. Previously it was a thing we had big arguments about. Some people thought that it was only workers’ mobilizations and nothing else which would allow us to establish a political alternative, and there were others who thought that we had to recreate a credible political alternative in order to encourage workers mobilizations. Today there is a complementary, dialectical relationship that obliges us to try to create a synthesis between the left in the social movements and the political left in each of our countries. This needs a complementary relationship in which one strengthens the other, without a hierarchical relationship between them and which gives us both political responsibilities and responsibilities in the movements.40

“Movements and parties,” writes Katz in an intervention in ongoing Latin American left debates,

constitute two modes of contemporary popular organization. Both are essential to the development of socialist convictions. They reinforce confidence in self-organization, and they develop the norms for the future exercise of people’s power. Movements sustain the immediate social struggle, and parties fuel a more fully developed political activity. Both are necessary for facilitating direct action and electoral participation. But this complementarity is frequently questioned by exclusivist advocates of movement or party. Some movement-oriented theorists—who subscribe to autonomist points of view—believe that party organization is obsolete, useless, and pernicious.41

The mass Chilean social movement will inevitably run up against these questions again, particularly if the demand for a Constituent Assembly continues to percolate and build momentum. Sustaining the grassroots dynamism and self-activity of the protests thus far, with a strategic political vision that prevents cooptation by the bourgeois state and fights any new articulations of the old Concertación coalition, will be among the most pressing challenges the protests face.

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 Bolivarian 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.42

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.”43 Pinochet led a bloody, militarized assault on organized 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 organizationally 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, “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.”44

As sociologist Marcus 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.”45 The Concertación years were characterized 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.”46

  1. John Paul Rathbone and Jude Webber, “FT Interview: Sebastián Piñera,”Financial Times, October 4, 2011.
  2. Staughton Lynd, “Students and Workers in the Transition to Socialism: The Singer Model,” Monthly Review, 54, 10, March 2003.
  3. Francisco Herreros, “Recursos para financiar una educación pública, gratuita y de calidad,” Rebelión, October 5, 2011; “¿Hasta cuándo abusan de la paciencia nuestra?” Punto Final, September 16–29, 2011.
  4. Enrique Gutiérrez, “‘Preocupante,’ la condición de 5 estudiantes en ayuno: medicos,” La Jornada, August 23, 2011.
  5. Jonathan Franklin, “Camila Vallejo—Latin America’s 23-Year-Old New Revolutionary Folk Hero,” Guardian, October 8, 2011.
  6. Alexei Barrionuevo and Simon Romero, “Freed Miners in Chile Tell of Ordeals and Plot New Lives,” New York Times, October 13, 2010.
  7. Enrique Gutiérrez, “Reprime el gobierno de Sebastián Piñera protesta de los estudiantes,” La Jornada, October 7, 2011; Jonathan Franklin, “Camila Vallejo.” Police repression also led to one death in the course of this struggle. Manuel Gutiérrez Reinoso, a 16-year-old youngster, was pushing his disabled brother in a wheel chair on August 25, the second day of a national strike and protest called by the Unified Workers Central (CUT), when, according to various witnesses, he was shot and killed by the police. See “Editorial: Otro crimen de Carabineros,” Punto Final, September 2-15, 2011.
  8. “Chile: movimiento más que estudiantil,” La Jornada, August 24, 2011.
  9. “La educación es un derecho social,” Punto Final, July 22–August 4, 2011.
  10. “We Want to Change the World: A Trial of Strength between the Students and the Government,” Economist, August 13, 2011.
  11. The coalition of center-left parties that has dominated Chilean politics for the past two decades.
  12. Paul Walder, “¿Quién escuchará la voz del pueblo?” Punto Final, September 2–15, 2011.
  13. For a relevant discussion of Marx’s conceptualization of “revolutionary practice,” see Michael Lebowitz, Build it Now! Twenty-First Century Socialism(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006),  19–20; and David McNally, Another World is Possible: Globalization and Anti-Capitalism, second edition (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Press, 2006), 375.
  14. Manuel Larrabure and Carlos Torchia, “‘Our Future is Not for Sale’: The Chilean Student Movement Against Neoliberalism,” The Bullet, September 6, 2011.
  15. “La educación es un derecho social.”
  16. Marcus Taylor, From Pinochet to the ‘Third Way’: Neoliberalism and Social Transformation in Chile (London: Pluto, 2006), 89.
  17. Ibid., 90. “Social service decentralisation,” Taylor further explains, had the added benefit of “disarticulat[ing] the national power of unions involved in the provision of services” 88.
  18. Ibid., 92.­­­
  19. Larrabure and Torchia, “Our Future is Not for Sale.”
  20. Jude Webber, “Education: Student Protests Tap into Wider Desire for Social Equality,” Financial Times, October 4, 2011.
  21. ECLAC, Economic Survey of Latin America and the Caribbean (Santiago: Chile, July 2011), 67; EIU, Chile: Country Report (London: Economist Intelligence Unit, April 2011), 3.
  22. Larrabure and Torchia, “Our Future is Not for Sale.”
  23. “Chile, el reino de la desigualdad,” Punto Final, July 22August 4, 2011.
  24. Orlando Sepúlveda, “Chilean Students Launch Mass Protests,” International Socialist Review, September-October 2006.
  25. Manuel Riesco, “Is Pinochet Dead?” New Left Review, II, 45, September-October 2007, 7-8.
  26. Fernando Ignacio Leiva, Latin American Neostructuralism: The Contradictions of Post-Neoliberal Development (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 187.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Mónica Iglesias Vázquez, “Chile 2010: In Crescendo. Informe de coyuntura sobre conflicto social,” OSAL, May 2011, 46-50.
  31. Ibid., 50–52.
  32. Ibid., 56–61.
  33. Fernando Ignacio Leiva, “The Chilean Left After 1990: An Izquierda Permitida Championing Transnational Capital, A Historical Left Ensnared in the Past, A New Radical Left in Gestation,” in Jeffery R. Webber and Barry Carr, eds.,The Resurgence of Latin American Radicalism: Between Cracks in the Empire and an Izquierda Permitida (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, ­forthcoming 2012).
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Larrabure and Torchia, “Our Future is Not for Sale,” muse on some of these possibilities, referencing statements from Camila Vallejo: “Another victory for the student movement was the growing support from broad sectors of the population. Parents, teachers, and copper miners openly expressed their support, recognizing that all their grievances against the neoliberal regime were being expressed in the student strike. However, the government responded quickly by threatening to declare an early winter break to the school year, and even its possible cancellation. In addition, the corporate media began its demonization campaign against the students, using isolated incidents of violence conducted by ‘los encapuchados’ (the ‘black bloc’) to delegitimize the whole movement.

    “Responding to these attacks, Camila Vallejo asserted that, although these violent provocateurs do not represent the collectively agreed tactics of the student movement, their actions are driven by their marginalization from the system and their rage should be understood as a reaction to their future-less position at the bottom of the neoliberal ladder. At the same time, she added, government infiltration within some of these groups cannot be ruled out. Indeed, adding to the suspicion, about one hundred ‘encapuchados’ were found attempting to torch the central offices of the National Teachers Union, a staunch ally of the student movement.”
  38. Claudio Katz, “Problems of Autonomism: Strategies for the Latin American Left,” International Socialist Review, Issue 44, November-December 2005.
  39. Daniel Bensaïd, “On a Recent Book by John Holloway,” in IIRE, ed., Change the World without Taking Power?... or ... Take Power to Change the World?. Amsterdam: International Institute for Research and Education.
  40. Fred Laplat and Olivier Besancenot, “Europe Against Austerity Conference Report,” International Viewpoint, Issue 441, October 2011.
  41. Claudio Katz, “Socialist Strategies in Latin America,” Monthly Review, 59, 4, September 2007.
  42. For one suggestive intervention on the regional scenario, see William I. Robinson, “Latin America’s Left at the Crossroads,” Al Jazeera, September 14, 2011.
  43. Greg Grandin, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004), 14.
  44. Marcus Taylor, “Evolutions of the Competition State in Latin America: Power, Contestation and Neo-Liberal Populism,” Policy Studies, 31(1), 39‐56, 2010
  45. Ibid.
  46. “The Dam Breaks: Pent-Up Frustration at the Flaws of a Successful Democracy,” Economist, August 27, 2011.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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