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Inequality and the center-left of Chile

It is clear that under the governments of the Chilean center-left, the issue of legitimacy of economic inequalities was not particularly questioned. Español

Students marched through the main avenue of Santiago de Chile on April 2017, demanding a free, quality, democratic, non-profit public education, as well as rejecting the educational reform project. Mauricio Gomez/NurPhoto. PA IMages. All rights reserved.

This article is part of the series "Persistent inequality: disputing the legacy of the pink tide in Latin America" produced in alliance with the Institute of Latin American Studies and at the Instituite of Sociology of the Freie Universität Berlin.

For twenty-four out of the last twenty-eight years, Chile has had a center-left coalition government. The first twenty years (1990-2010), uninterruptedly, under the name of Coalition of Parties for Democracy.

It returned to power in 2014 under the name of New Majority, this time in alliance with the Communist Party. This year (2018), a version of the party associated with its left-wing base had to concede the government to the center-right coalition which has put an end to its long stay in power.

It is in this context, focusing on the legacy of center-left governments over the previous years, that we desire to consider the issue of inequality, however we want to do so from a slightly different perspective than the usual one.

Inequality can only be perceived as such and then politicized if it is recognized as something unacceptable, mostly by those who suffer the consequences.

We start off with the premise that any social transformation requires legitimacy, because this is an essential requirement to make it sustainable. For it is precisely the transformation of a relationship or a situation into an legitimate one that paves the way for politicization.

Inequality can only be perceived as such and then politicized if it is recognized as something unacceptable, mostly by those who suffer the consequences - as shown, for example, in the case of the issues promoted by feminist movements.

What have been, therefore, the returns of the center-left governments at this level? For the sake of brevity, it is useful to focus on two types of inequality, emphasizing the novelty and importance of the second one at the present time.

It is clear that under the governments of the Chilean center-left, the issue of legitimacy of economic inequalities was not particularly questioned – not, at least, until the last New Majority government led by Bachelet which, beyond its arguable success or failure, tried to promote reforms that dealt with structural dimensions.

The legitimacy of inequality was not questioned, not only because the development model was not questioned either.

Chile is still affected by high levels of inequality. It is the most unequal country in the OECD, and it is one of the most unequal countries in the most unequal continent, Latin America. One figure suffices to grasp the sheer extent of the phenomenon: in Chile, 1% of the population retains 33% of the overall wealth.

But the legitimacy of inequality was not questioned, not only because the development model was not questioned either. Nor was the regulation of wealth accumulation faced in a consistent way, and nor were the spheres of social life subjected to commodification logic.

This is because the principles of the social order that prop up the neoliberal establishment (competition, individual improvement, confidence in ones own effort, differential compensation according to individual performance) were not dismantled, neutralized or nuanced, but rather the opposite.

This was not without consequences. Economic inequalities are not considered as particularly legitimate in Chile. An example of the political expression of this is the fact that, faced with government measures aimed at de-commodifying school education, promoted by Bachelet’s last government (2014-2018), parents themselves protested against them much to the surprise and dismay of the government and other sectors of the left.

This is a complex and multifaceted issue, but it could be argued that this shows that training in facing ordinary social life in a particular way has produced, on the one hand, shared common values according to which the wealth and the social goods obtained by someone are understood as a direct result of his or her personal effort; on the other hand, the widespread conviction that you have to pay for a "service" persists. These two beliefs ultimately justify the existence and permanence of economic inequalities.

But there is another aspect of the relation between the Chilean center-left governments and inequality that merits attention.

The expansion of the concept of rights and citizenship was strongly promoted by these governments, and this has had an unforeseen effect on the political class.

The inequalities which are rejected the most in Chile are the ones which have to do with the daily interactions between individuals and between individuals and institutions.

The legitimacy of a particular type of inequality has been put into question and this has become relevant element, as we will see, in the construction of social and political demands, and with regards to the ways in which people think about politics and their relationship with it. 

As several studies have shown, the inequalities which are rejected the most in Chile are the ones which have to do with the daily interactions between individuals and between individuals and institutions.

Of course, inequality in interactions is essentially viewed because of how a person’s social position is defined - mainly, though not only, due to being poor. A sensitivity to economic differences exists, the differential forms of treatment are at the core of the perception that individuals have of their social experience in Chile, and are the building block on which they establish their relationship with society.

They also increasingly fuel their demands and political judgments - which has an enormous effect on the forms democracy and politics take. 

The emergence and relevance of this type of inequality is related to the so-called "process of citizenship", which has entailed the pre-eminence of the figure of the citizen and the strengthening of the idea as a tool for structuring social order.

In the case of Chile, this process went hand in hand with the return of democracy beginning very early in the nineties. The modernization of the State, one of the proposals of the center-left when it first gained power, included the establishment of this new paradigm as a framework for State action.

 Citizenship and the paradigm of rights carried the promise of equality.

There were several reasons for this. On the one hand, international pressure, primarily through international organizations, made the transfer of funds conditional on the adoption of this perspective.

On the other hand, citizenship and the paradigm of rights, which carried - and this is essential - the promise of equality, offered the center-left a renewed formulation of its political goals and its commitment to society. 

The magnitude and consistency with which this paradigm cemented itself in the relationship between the State and society was quite unexpected, and the issue of rights and the promise of equality expanded in Chilean society.

This happened because of the ways in which the State approached members of society, but also through the actions of other actors from social movements, the media, and the political sphere. These issues took shape in forms such as electoral propaganda, public policies, state programs, or new legal regulations.

What is more, as results of empirical research show, equality became embedded as an ideal in individuals. This means that equality became a central component from which people built their expectations of how society should be, of their relationship with others, and of what they should be getting from the world.

But, as we have seen, the establishment of this promise of equality occurred in Chile in an innovative way. This is explained, at least in part, by an increasing appeal to the individual as an agent responsible for himself and as the axis of his own life and experiences, by virtue of the consequences of the commodification of the different spheres of life and the shrinking of the State.

The promise of equality dealt with mainly social matters, particularly those relating to social relations.

But also because of the weakening of the model of relating to the collective through politics. The promise of equality dealt with mainly social matters, particularly those relating to social relations. What has emerged from this are expectations of receiving a more horizontal type of treatment in relationships that are both symmetrical (between peers or passers-by) and asymmetric (hierarchical superiors or political authorities).

It is these interactions that are put to the test in everyday and ordinary situations such as getting on a bus, applying for a job or going to a public hospital.

Therefore, what is critical is the perception of not only the distribution of social goods (health, wages, education), or of institutional symbols (recognition of individuals as political subjects or subjects of rights), but of actual relational practices such as the use - or not - of signs of respect, containment in the use of power, and considerations of justice, or of kindness, among others which is new.

Individuals equipped with this new social lens - the promise of equality applied to the sphere of interactions - have clearly perceived the effects of the still very much in force social logic which has traditionally determined social relations in Chile (the logic of privilege and authoritarianism, among others), and have recognized them as unacceptable offences against the dignity of others.

The perspectives gained from this process have become a tool for interpreting society and have thus acquired greater political importance. They have played a role in shaping judgments about society and social actors, attitudes towards politics and politicians, adherence to politics and society, and also in the structuring of social and political demands. 

Political actors are judged less by their big actions than by their small actions.

This is clearly shown in the changing criteria through which politics and politicians are judged. Here, two essential questions are at play. On the one hand, the importance that the dimension of ordinary interactions linked to interpersonal relationships has acquired implies that people focus their attention on what their actual social experiences tell them rather than on discourses and abstract notions.

Political actors are judged less by their big actions than by their small actions. On the other hand, closely related to the above, abuse and disrespect have become the usual language to express what are deemed politically and morally intolerable attitudes.

Today, ordinary abusive behaviour is considered as lacking public and political legitimacy and, even more so, it constitutes a valid argument for disobedience. 

The demands for democratizing social relations have become, in fact, a central structuring element of collective action.

However, things have gone a little farther. The demands for democratizing social relations have become, in fact, a central structuring element of collective action: the basis of political demands, of their rhetorical forms, of the ways in which they are justified are decisive factors for the potential support they can gather.

This is clearly shown in the recent massive mobilizations of university students against gender based violence and sexism in education in Chile but, above all, in the widespread support they gained among the population – quite unexpected given the historic trajectory of these kinds of movements.

Another social impact of collective action is, undoubtedly, the importance of abuse as the main rhetorical element to legitimize demands ranging from complaints against transportation to mobilizations against the Pension Fund Administrators (AFP). 

Therefore, the center-left has contributed to the erosion of the legitimacy of differential forms of treatment and to the emergence of new forms of perceived inequality. It has helped legitimize the demand for the democratization of social relations.

And without necessarily having perceived it and even less so learned from the consequences of it, these new ideas have increasingly manifested themselves as the main expression of the politicization of inequality.

These two inequalities may be different, but they both have something in common. They are, undoubtedly, essential achievements for the center-left, that has been in power for some time, which now needs to retrace its steps in the face of its setbacks.

For the new left converging as the Broad Front which is trying to build more defined political proposals for the country these considerations also matter. They are essential because the way they have evolved constitute the key to understanding political challenges in Chile in the coming years.

About the author

Kathya Araujo es socióloga peruana, radicada en Chile hace 20 años y académica de la Universidad de Santiago de Chile. Su último libro es “El miedo a los subordinados” (LOM, 2016).

Kathya Araujo is a Peruvian sociologist, based in Chile 20 years ago and an academic from the University of Santiago de Chile. Her latest book is "Fear of subordinates" (LOM, 2016).


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