Chile: The beginning of the end of neoliberalism?

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Samuel F, a former member of the ISO now active in Chile, offers these reflections.

After more than 40 days of almost non-stop demonstrations things are on the surface somewhat quieter on the streets of Chilean cities. Quieter does not mean “normal” in any sense of the word – the streets are filled with political graffiti, today we were sent home early from work, and shops are boarded up to repel looters; on the other hand at least one can go about life without constantly worrying about getting tear gassed. It is common to hear people discussing politics in the streets – something rarely heard before, and hatred of the police is a more or less universal phenomena. The recent viral hit “Un violador en tu camino“ not only attacks rape culture, but also targets state violence quoting in irony the hymn of the national police force, Carabineros. On a personal level, most people are utterly exhausted both physically and emotionally, and according to news reports demand for psychological consultations has gone off the scale since the start of the crisis.

Politically, the president Piñera is doing all that he can to remain in office, and at the same time being politically isolated including by his own party. His strategy can be described as both a war of attrition against the protestors, and an attempt to divert the movement against the government by pushing a law and order agenda. The law and order agenda appears to be faltering a little, not least because a city council representative from his own right-wing party was recently arrested for organizing the looting of a shopping mall. The fizzle of the law and order strategy is promising, because by reducing the call for a crackdown amongst certain sectors, in particular small business – the short term risks of further violence and economic deterioration have receded somewhat.

The tactic of waging a war of attrition against the protestors, in place since the second week of the unrest following the end of the state of emergency, has had some success in limiting the movement thus far, however it has come at the cost of the complete discrediting of the police force and by extension the government. The negotiations for the constitutional change process are underway, and it is almost certain that a constitutional assembly will be convened following a referendum next April. There is also a series of economic (social) reforms which have been put on the table, however they are unlikely to be deep enough to bring about the real changes which people are demanding. Concerningly there is no widespread tax reform as part of the package which puts into question their long term sustainability.

In order to move forward, the key task for those on the left is political organization. The movements remain largely leaderless, and existing political parties are largely discredited in the public eye. One of the key benefits of political parties is that they provide a forum in which experience and political know how can be accumulated, and through which a coherent strategy can be developed. Thanks to the destruction of left wing organization following the coup in 1973, a lot of work needs to be done with some urgency in order to reconstruct an organization or organizations capable of converting the anger displayed today into real changes tomorrow.

The area where change has been truly revolutionary has been public consciousness. The neoliberal paradigm of the past 40 years in a large part of the western world has had a profound influence on culture, emphasizing the agency of the individual at the expense of the role which society plays in the welfare of said individual. We are told (indoctrinated) that each of us is responsible for our own successes or failures, that we can improve our economic position through studying or simply working harder, and that material goods are key for happiness. What we are not told but on an individual level suspect to be true is that one’s family background plays a strong role in determining socioeconomic outcome, that education is a positional good (the value of my diploma is greater when no-one else has said diploma), or that a $1000 phone does not really make one much happier than a $100 phone. The result of the recent protests has been that the ideological mask of neoliberalism literally fell off overnight, however it is too early to tell to what extent that will flow through in the political developments in the coming months and years.

Neoliberalism was born in Chile, and has just entered what could well be its terminal decline. In the context of the need to decarbonize the entire global economy, the political collapse of the so called stability of this Latin American tiger should give hope to millions around the world. There is much work still to be done, but cracks have started to appear in the monolith. To quote Greta Thunberg, “The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not”.