Chile and the Possibility of Post-Neoliberalism (A Brief Report)

My recent visit to Chile was marked by the “social outbreak”. This ubiquitous concept engenders a special connotation in the vocabulary of the present: on the one hand, it portends the idea of a collective catharsis against a structure seen as unfair; on the other, it contains the consciousness of the historicity of a process brewing for more than thirty years.

“Chile Limits at the Centre of Injustice” a verse from Violeta Parra. Credits: Pablo Ampuero.

In this brief piece, I present my reflections of two weeks in two of the country’s biggest cities: the Great Valparaiso and Santiago. My perspectives are those of an insider, not only I was born and raised in this country, but also I have been an active supporter of the movement. Being aware of my positionality, I tried my best to bracket these sensibilities and engage with interlocutors in a diverse set of locations, providing a safe space to allow them to speak freely. In this sense, the experiences I gathered in the streets were no different than the reality within my own family, which, like many other Chilean families, brings together opposite opinions that can establish a dialogue around rather lavish amounts of wine and meat.

The Revolutionary Moment in Suspension.

I have been in Valparaiso and Santiago, in the hot spots and the touristic as well. I held conversations with workers, tourists, entrepreneurs, and social fighters of the so-called “first line”. For all of them, the “social outbreak” represents an inflexion point that divides the old from the new (or better said, that which is to be built). My interactions happened during the festive month of February, when students and workers go on holidays, trying to take distance from their quotidian working life. This temporal condition conveyed a sense of the protest as being “suspended” in time and space. “March is coming”, said the hairdresser in front of the old Municipal square in Quilpue while she styled Miri’s hair. Her colleagues agreed, showing concern for the possibility of violence, but not opposing to the tenets that motivate the events.

Presence of Mapuche Iconography at Dignity Square. Credits: Pablo Ampuero.

This temporospatial suspension is being actively capitalised by the more conservative groups, particularly those aiming to create a fear campaign through social media. Jose Antonio Kast — an old-guard politician who recently lead the creation of the conservative Republican Party — has been cultivating an “outsider” persona, accusing his former associates (now in government) of being lazy, corrupt, and anti-patriotic. Without a public post anymore, Mr Kast spends most of his time in Twiter, Facebook, and YouTube publishing and sharing texts and videos with an alarming tone that resembles the darkest years of Pinochet’s dictatorship, which are then widely circulated by followers and critics alike.

Conversely, the left has been shy of the spotlight. On the one side, we witness the return of old-guard centre-left politicians seeking to conduct the transformative political process, just as they did in the resistance against Pinochet. For many on the streets, they are responsible for consolidating the neoliberal order in Chile during the 1900s and 2000s. On the other, the internal convulsions of political conglomerates such as the Frente Amplio have stifled the possibilities of forming a coherent opposition block against capitalism.

On the growing barricade in front of the renamed “Dignity Square”, a group of “first-line” young guys comment on the political situation. The consensus was that the ruling cast has betrayed the people. The collusion between politicians and capitalists and the vicious cycle of mutual benefits at the expense of the people at large is perceived as the root of the problem. They chat about the relationship between the fishing industry and some conservative right-wing politicians, about the illegal frame-ups by the police against Mapuche activists and how the forestry industry has profited in the Ngulumapu (the Mapuche lands west of the Andes), and about the hoarding of water by big plantations connected to prominent political families. The discussion in the barricade is not concerned with the Left or the Right, for these social fighters the struggle is a class struggle: the people against the “cuicos” (the rich and arrogant).

In spite of being active political subjects, they do not see themselves represented in any of the current political alternatives. Especially in the left, where the Frente Amplio has failed to create support groups amongst the protestants, which they see as unreliable and captured by internal struggles. Consequently, these social fighters consider that the best alternative is the formation of instrumental electoral parties emerging “from the streets”. It has been precisely in the streets where new communitarian textures and political expressions have been woven. It is in the public space where indigenism, mestizanism, patriotism, socialism, anarchism, ecologism, and anti-capitalism have come together, establishing themselves collectively in dialogue and political action.

The Revolutionary Space and the New Public Memory.

In his Theses on the Philosophy of History (1950), Walter Benjamin says that “the awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action”. That feeling echoes the current stand of social fighters in the “first line”, yet, it does not exclude the intensity of fear if the battle is lost. For all generations of Chileans, the public memory of the dictatorship is very much alive.

Politico-artistic interventions in the facade of the GAM Culture Centre. Credits: Pablo Ampuero.

The scribbles and posters on the walls are ubiquitous around the cities, depicting a rich consciousness of this historic transformation. Far, albeit not forgotten, are the reclamations against the price increase in transportation; the messages that prevail today are the collusion of great corporations, the daftness of President Piñera, the criminalising policies promoted by former Ministry of Interior Mr Chadwick, and the disconnection between elite and society.

The bourgeoise aesthetic of the “modern” city, still trapped in the ideals of the European nineteenth century, clashes against the creative potential of the common people. The same spirit that Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena — winner of the prestigious Pritzker prize in 2016 — has highlighted in his projects for social housing, where the living space is unfinished but ready to be expanded, personalised, or completed by the residents. The same creative potential rescued by Aravena is now being expressed in the transformation of the public space, where interventions are performed with a vocation of historical memory. Ultimately, these expressions humanise the cold, distant, and anonymous urbanity of “modern Chile”.

Walking down Dignity Square, across the Forestal Park, or outside the Gabriela Mistral Culture Centre (GAM) we saw groups of people stopping by to observe and comment about the myriad of interventions. It felt like a public museum, a space of memory where the common citizen could feel represented. These expressions have even overflooded into the institutional spaces of memory, such as the National Museum of Fine Arts, where a poster in the lobby poised the question “what would you do with the messages written on the exterior walls of the museum?”. Both sides of the panel were completely covered with answers. The most repeated ones argued for keeping them and document them in a visual archive that could be exhibited later. Some added the caveat of deleting vulgarities. A tiny minority of comments alluded to the complete cleaning of the exterior walls as they portend an attack against a public monument.

The dispute of the symbolic is inherent to any transformative process. All the more in Chile, where the Portalian (sc. Diego Portales) discourse of the unitary nation-State has been imposed against its original diversity by the white minority with flamboyant surnames that have become commercial and financial brands. The new public memory, which has partially reached the curated messages in museums and academia, raises once again and conquests the bourgeoise urbanity. Its validity as an expression of the zeitgeist is such that the authorities of consecrated art must accept it. This is not to say that a graffiti announcing “Chile: the cradle and tomb of neoliberalism” is equal to the paintings of Pedro Lira or the oeuvre of Laura Rodig; yet, they all share a spirit of the times that motivated its origin and provided them with meaning. As such, they allude to dated symbols like the correspondence of leaders of the Independence or the political posters against Pinochet’s dictatorship.

The Political in the Democratic.

He was taller than you, the cop was staring me in the eye all protected by his gear. Like that. I just stood there. He defied me and I responded back. He treated me of being ignorant, the fucking cop, me! If I were ignorant, I would not be here, I said. You are the ignorant!”. Mrs Maria was walking outside the GAM going towards Dignity Square; her pace was slow, looking at the messages on the façade. Right there, Miri and I were talking with Cunco, a professional photographer selling his images documenting more than a decade of demonstrations at a very accessible price. Mrs Maria stops next to me and says, “there I was”. Cunco asked whether she was in the picture. “Not in the picture — she replies — but I have not stopped going to the streets, I was there that day”.

“Not Even Coronavirus Can Compare with the Pandemic of Cops we Have in Chile”. Credits: Pablo Ampuero.

Maria is a sanitation worker at an office building in the business district of Santiago, popularly known as “Sanhattan”. She tells me that the precarity of life in Chile is due to the hoarding of resources by the ruling class, who have become insensitive to the difficulties of most of the people in the country. Noting Miri’s nationality, Maria claims with a sarcastic tone “it is unbelievable that the Health Minister says that we have the best health system in the world. What would you guys there in Germany think? Would you even come here for treatment? No way!”.

Both Maria and Cunco agreed upon the constitutional change not being everything, that the movement should aim towards a substantial change of Chilean politics. Cunco has been an active participant in territorial assemblies where citizens discuss the new constitution. He attends as a photographer but also as a subject engaged with the transformation of the country. He tells me that he has been to Quilpue, Valparaiso, Santiago, Coquimbo, San Felipe, Los Andes, and a variety of small towns in the centre-north of Chile. He usually put his pictures on sale hanging between two trees; at the price of two thousand pesos per image, he is not looking for a profit but for the democratisation of historical memory. “I want Mrs Juanita to have this picture in her home, that she sees herself reflected in these images, on what has happened here”.

There is no doubt that the transformative process that started on 10 October 2019 has shaken the foundations of democracy in Chile. The imaginary of political participation has morphed from electoral passivity into the proactivity of street demonstrations and territorial assemblies. Similarly, the conception of “Chileanness” has been put into question with emerging discussions integrating flags, rites, and languages as the conditio sine qua non of the new present.

The testimonies of my interlocutors, as much as the myriad of mottos on the walls, depict an overwhelming eagerness of striving for change, where many voices converge in the upcoming constitutional referendum on 26 April. It is understood that the people cannot renounce the practice of politics in favour of professional politicians — who are seen, together with financial speculators and the mainstream media — as an enterprise of manipulation. For those supporting the writing of a new constitution, it is more important to take sovereignty back instead of waiting for those in power to voluntarily give it back. “Casting a vote is no longer enough, these people are glued there, hoarding money and power”, says Cunco. A similar discourse resonated with those in the first line: “now we have to practice politics, practice democracy”. It is under this precept that political violence against institutions — public and private — is justified, as a way to rebalance power: “when it was all fucked up, then those up there moved their arses, they announced reforms and even accepted writing a new constitution. Then the street calmed down a bit and they fucked us, now we have to push back again so our fight, and that of those who lost their eyes, those who died, is worth it”.

The Countermovement in Chile.

The myriad of voices that have emerged during this conjuncture represents different chokepoints in the polity. On one side, the big division between “Approval” and “Rejection” — the two options at stake on the referendum for the writing of a new constitution on 26 April — has been taken by messianic discourses and counterposed end-of-the-world accusations. On the other, the chasm generated by increasing political violence that creates division amongst those supporting the movement. What is ultimately true, is that what is happening in Chile could trigger an epochal change, opening the space to a post-neoliberal era.

The intervention of a Public Monument in Dignity Square. Credits: Pablo Ampuero.

One of Karl Polanyi’s most important contributions is his analysis of the historical development that led Europe to the Great War. The Austro-Hungarian thinker argued that the development of the market economy acted against the foundations the traditional society. This movement from a complex society where the economy is just one of the many dimensions of human quotidian life, to one where economic growth and productivity seem to be at the centre is what he calls the Great Transformation.

Against the discourse promoted by some centre and right-wing politicians, the transformative processes are not teleological in nature. Given the multiplicity of elements in motion, it is not possible to know the outcome of the phenomenon. That is why Polanyi talks of the movement and countermovement. To the free-market movement follows the social democratic response, implementing centralised organic solidarity. Then comes the new movement: neoliberalism and the financialisation of social reality. Chile’s conjuncture arises from this pitfall, when, in the words of Gramsci, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”.

The trajectory of the neoliberal interregnum unfolding in Chile will be settled in the following semester. According to the surveys, it will be a certain win for the “I Approve” option; however, an increase in the sensation of fear could end up in the opposite. In this context, the left has a critical role to play, providing the demands of the people with substantial narratives that frame this struggle in a global one, a struggle against capitalism. Simultaneously, they should work as translators of hopes and stretch the margins of possibilities. Because the most challenging problem of any revolutionary process is not as much conquering power but keeping and safeguarding the consolidation of a new order. Up to now, the great epic that started last October risks becoming just another historic hangover instead of the yet plausible alternative of a post-neoliberal reality.

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Pablo Ampuero-Ruiz

Photographer and Social Anthropologist, working at the Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR) of the University of Amsterdam. https://ampueroruiz.info