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  • Writer's pictureLuis Andueza

Notes on Chile: on zombie neoliberalism and its open wounds

The peculiarities of Chilean history over the past half century – from the Unidad Popular’s tragically failed attempt at a transition to socialism within the institutional framework of liberal democracy in the early 1970s, to the country’s status as a laboratory, and later poster child, for neoliberalism – have often made events in the country acquire a kind of special political significance beyond its borders. This has been especially true for the past couple of years, as the putatively exemplar neoliberal experiment seemed to implode in 2019, followed by a streak of historical electoral triumphs for what remains a shifting and unstable coalition of Left and progressive forces in the country. The process in Chile spoke directly to the many contexts in which ways out of neoliberalism are currently being sought.

This is why the plebiscite held on September 4th in Chile was no ordinary vote. It not only marked a decisive milestone in the crisis opened by what has come to be known in Chile as the 2019 ‘social explosion’, but it was also the largest and most encompassing vote in Chilean history – for the first time voting was mandatory and inscription in the electoral register automatic. As a result, more than 13 million people went to the polls, 85% of the electoral register. The outcome: the new constitution proposed by the once celebrated Convention was decisively rejected by 62% of the electorate, and only supported by 38%, losing in every region in the country, and in 338 of the 346 communes. The fact that polling had been consistently giving a two-digit lead for the ‘Rechazo’ option for months did not soften the shock for both Left and progressive forces in Chile and abroad, many of whom had hoped that the inclusion of those normally alienated from the political process – the younger and poorer sections of the population, who Chilean polling traditionally fails to capture adequately – would come out in favour of the new constitution. On the contrary: the ‘Rechazo’ option carried even more weight among the poorest sections of the population than it did among the middle and upper-middle classes.

What happened? No glib answer will do here, and the relative weight of the many causes of the outcome will take some time to discern. The reasons circulating more widely among the Left in the wake of the defeat range from those associated to the relative pre-eminence of ‘identarian’ struggles over universal demands, to a disconnection between the organised sectors of the population and the general public being as wide as that between the latter and the traditional political class, to the predictable effects of the almost total control of mass media by the ruling classes as well as the well-funded disinformation campaigns. None seem yet to be completely satisfactory. What is undeniable is that the proposed constitution – and the political forces that built it – failed to articulate an answer to the riddle posed by the 2019 revolt. For now, one would do well in keeping the question of what was it that was rejected on the 4th of September open, a tool to think with, rather than a hole to be quickly covered over. Was it a rejection of particular aspects of the proposal, the exuberance of which guaranteed that everyone would find something to reject, even if they felt represented by parts of it? Was it a rejection of the government, who was widely identified with the ‘Apruebo’ option? Did it introduce too much uncertainty at a time of deepening material insecurity? Is it just another instance of a wholesale rejection of a terminally bankrupt political process? Any answer will obviously imply a combination of all of factors, and its likely to vary widely across the social geography of the country.

As mentioned above, the rejection of the new Constitution has led to a discussion on the relationship between particular struggles and universal demands. Criticisms turn on how the constitution foregrounded a multiplicity of rights associated to the many particular struggles of the organisations that had made in into the Convention – those, for instance, around the environment, indigenous rights, feminist movements, sexual diversity, etc. – to the detriment of the broad universal material demands that fuelled the 2019 mobilisations. And it is indeed true that the relatively light-touch way in which the new Constitution dealt with matters of economic structure and property starkly contrasted with the intensity of the ‘culture war’ politics that public discussion around the constitution often veered towards. In this context, the links between the multiple rights secured in the new constitution and mass economic demands became opaque at best. There are certainly important lessons to be drawn here, and each require a special treatment of their own – from broad questions around hegemony and class composition under neoliberalism, to the more specific matters of ‘plurinationality’ and its relation to Chilean identity, or of the notion of property and its role in the symbolic economy of neoliberalism, its multiple precarities and chronic insecurity. If we are to learn, however, we would do well in avoiding reducing the relationship between universal and particular struggles to a simple antagonism, as many commentators in Chilean mass media have been quick to do. While universality – the ability of a political project to articulate the aspirations of the vast majority – is by definition the foundation of any socialist politics worth its salt, this is a truism that too often degenerates into simplistic idealism. After all, the fact that the Convention looked the way it did, and the fact that the constitution expressed so many particular demands, is not gratuitous. It reflects the material reality of a fragmented, yet existing, landscape of social antagonisms that give neoliberal capitalism in Chile its very structure – it is an expression of how accumulation in Chile is anchored in a kaleidoscopic range of struggles, including those of the colonial subjection of indigenous peoples, environmental destruction, and patriarchal domination, among many others. This does not make the failure of the Convention to articulate the aspirations of the majority in a coherent narrative any less real, but it points towards the need to think about the issue of universality and particularity more seriously than as a mere matter of emphasis, or an issue of communicational strategy. Both contemporary capitalism and the political and ideological composition of a diverse working class in Chile have developed through this landscape of disjointed battle fronts, and this is a reality that cannot be simply dealt with empty appeals to a universal subject that now only presents itself in the negative, as the immense electoral shadow cast by the political bankruptcy of the neoliberal state.

In this sense, the rather defensive (at times, self-serving) reflex on the Left to point to the almost complete ruling class control of the media, and the well-funded orchestrated campaigns of disinformation, also need to be reflected upon. To be sure, the impact of all of this was key: notions about ‘plurinationality’ being about the dismemberment of the country, or that any movement towards public provision entailed the risk of the dispossession of the pensions and homes of the masses, became widespread in the period leading up to the vote. Confusion and lack of clarity around the proposals was widespread. Yet, no one should be surprised that the Right will wage ideological war with all the means at their disposal – the real question is why the ideas put forth by the new constitution as a response to the terminal crisis of neoliberalism in Chile were so easily corroded by what at times were the most predictable of ideological concoctions. The fact that they did, revealed at the very least that the Constitutional Convention had been irrevocably swallowed by the very antagonism it had been called on to fix: that between the material conditions, subjectivities and aspirations formed under the four decades of neoliberalism in Chile, and the regime’s fundamental political processes and institutions. The Convention, one should recall, was as much an irruption into the political sphere of what had been structurally marginalised by neoliberal state, as it was a last-ditch attempt by the political system and its representatives to save themselves from collapse. Operating in such context of political bankruptcy, the risk of the process falling back into the swamp of terminal disaffection that defines the relationship of Chilean society with the political sphere was always a possibility. And, in addition to the Convention’s own deficiencies, this was an outcome that the Right – faced for the first time in living memory with a process they had no substantive control over – did everything in their power to guarantee.

In this sense, perhaps the most consequential set back entailed by the plebiscite has to do with the fact that, for all its failings, the rejected document was the outcome of a process in which for the first time in Chilean history the reigns of the constitutional process had been taken by forces other than the country’s elite. This opportunity seems, at the least in the immediate term, irretrievably lost. The push by the political and economic elite to regain constitutional control is now in full force, and virtually all pressure on the government is now being exerted from its right. Consequently, the government – the progressive impetus of which had in any case been strongly tempered at the outset by the combined pressures of economic crisis and political weakness, holding no majority in congress – is now in all likelihood incapable of effecting any substantive break with the overwhelming inertia of the political economy of neoliberalism, the contradictions of which have only intensified in the wake of the pandemic and mounting inflation. Recent events, such as the imprisonment of Hector Llaitul – the leader of the militant Mapuche organisation CAM –, and the increasing weight in key ministerial positions of the political forces of the ex-Concertación after the plebiscite results, only confirm that the administration’s drift to the centre has now turned into a steady course. Perhaps one of the decisive issues in determining the political direction of the government in what is to come, as well the shape of the coalition of forces that will sustain it, will be that of the yet to be defined official position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11) agreement. The position that the government chooses to take on the issue will be a sure index of the role that current President Gabriel Boric’s administration will end up playing in the context of the historical crisis in Chile.

On the other hand, these days the Chilean Right smells blood, and after the outcome of the plebiscite many among the Chilean ruling classes will be tempted to treat the chapter opened in October 2019 as a bad dream. But, as it is recognised by the more perceptive among their ranks, they do so at their own peril. The fact remains that Chilean neoliberalism entered a dangerous zombie phase after 2019 – after four decades, the neoliberal experiment created a set mass material demands and subterranean socio-political processes that have proven to be utterly unmanageable by its own fundamental political and economic structures. As shapeless and enigmatic as it remains in many ways, the revolt of 2019 managed to place a set of demands that weight over the political landscape as an inescapable social fact. There is no one to be negotiated with, and the old neoliberal recipes will not do. And if the Left and progressive actors of Chilean politics this time failed the task of articulating a response, it can count on the dubious consolation that the Right – over-encumbered as they are by their majoritarian commitment to the fundamental ideological tenets of neoliberalism – are perhaps even less capable of doing so. In general terms, the dominant response of the Right to what happened in October 2019 continues to be made up of begrudging concessions to reform, and a (mis)understanding of the ‘social explosion’ in terms of violence, delinquency, and external agitation.

From a broader perspective, the situation remains very unpredictable. The social wound in Chile, which exploded in 2019, has not found the proper language in which to articulate itself, and mass disaffection is only getting worse as the economic crisis deepens and the political system continues to haemorrhage legitimacy Left and Right. The situation – a crisis of representation and legitimacy underpinned the system’s incapacity to solve the material needs and aspirations of the majority – seems to be defined by mass alienation. And this is a scenario that, in the absence of a radical democratic antidote, breeds authoritarian (anti)politics (as foreshadowed by the growing political space taken by ‘anti-political’ proto-fascist populist forces, such as the Partido de la Gente). The technocratic, elite-driven direction that the constituent process is now bound for is very unlikely to make things any better. After September the 4th Chilean neoliberalism continues to be dead and kicking.

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