Democracy, neoliberalism and talking to strangers: a kid on a local bus

In the act of going out from an excluding individualism, breaking the idea that everyone can improve their life conditions on their own, there is a big step. Español

Jorge Saavedra Utman
29 August 2016

Protest against the AFP (Chile´s pension system), 24 july, Santiago de Chile. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

A 14 years old kid jumps into a bus of the local transport system in the seaport of Valparaíso, the second larger city of Chile. It happens a day of June 2016. He looks enthusiastic, more than passengers not in the mood to hear a kid doing what sellers, comedians and beggars often do on local buses: ask for their attention to sell something or simply ask for money. The kid is not demanding money, just people’s attention. His goal is different: inform the passengers, citizens of Valparaíso, why his public high school – Liceo Eduardo de la Barra – is occupied and why they are still mobilized demanding for a public education system.

Here is what he says: “…well, the State gives funding according to the average attendance. If during March just 70% of students went to school, 70% of the total budget will be given (to schools). This generates, in schools with a low number of enrolled students or with low attendance, a lack of money to pay salaries, to repair infrastructure, among other things. We propose a base type of funding that is independent from the amount of students. Schools will receive funds for salaries, infrastructure or materials beyond the number of students. Now my classmate Carlitos will explain how the occupation has been working. I say goodbye and thank you very much”.

The speech of the kid – that receives a round of applause – is sad and mesmerizing at the same time. On one hand it is just a boy in front of adults talking about something that the adult world should have secured to the next generations. On the other hand, he is a member of the new generations explaining face to face the problems of the education system and the reasons to occupy their school. This dichotomy is a postcard of how Chile looks after 40 years since the inception of neoliberalism. In a city known by its marvellous landscapes, this postcard deserves a question and an observation.

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The question: What is the kid talking about? The need to reform the education system known for its extreme inequality in a country that already has the widest gap between the rich and the poor among the countries of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). Indeed, Chile has been living the last five years a constant back and forth to reform its education system. Nonetheless, after the massive student mobilization in 2011 – the biggest social movement since the recovery of democracy in 1990 – the claim for a free, equal and quality education has slowed down due the indecision of the coalition in power and the strong opposition of right wing parties. This indecision, however, is not new. It relates to a democracy that in 35 years have been unable to change the neoliberal guidelines supporting Chile’s economy.

The observation: Go to the encounter of the other. Standing in the aisle in front of the passengers, the kid talked to an audience embedded in a cultural atmosphere in which fear and individualism have rooted in the last decades. If in our childhood we heard our parents saying “do not talk to strangers” these days that mistrust has been taken to a higher level in order to fear everything and everyone. The cultural atmosphere of neoliberalism – supported largely by Chile’s private media system –is one in which fear is omnipresent: fear of not making ends meet, fear of being robbed, fear of being fired, fear of not having enough money to pay the credit card of the retail company where a large amount of the population get their goods, fear of the neighbour and the future, fear of not having a decent pension. In the end fear that gets in your daily life and makes you trust no one[1]. The question is, on this sense, what type democracy and what type society can be built based on such a lack of trust.

In days where the Internet has been regarded as the precondition of any revolt –as Manuel Castells[2] says – and smartphones as tools for freedom and revolution –as the New York Times says –, the simple act of going out and talking to strangers shows able to tackle a neoliberal foundation: live in your square meter, trust in no one. And it has been so thanks to the newer generations, to those not crossed by the hopelessness of a possible collective change. In 2011’s mobilization, there were hundreds of young students jumping on urban public buses to explain their points of view, asking for comprehension and for – eventually – support. It did not happen only on buses. The same kind of actions was displayed in local markets, shopping malls, in public squares and street corners all over the country. The idea was to talk to other, to talk with other, to stop the rush for a moment and simply have a conversation.


Protest against the AFP (Chile´s pension system), 24 july, Santiago de Chile. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Little by little, bus by bus, corner after corner, and conversation after conversation, these interventions have contributed to alter the cultural landscape shaped by neoliberalism, affecting the ecology of fear and individualism. It is impossible to be sure about how this trend will end but it is possible to say that is developing, moving onwards. Actually, two cases show this trend. One of them is the decision of the Chilean government to elaborate the new Constitution of the Nation based on local, communal and regional meetings (cabildos) in which any person could take part of dialogues and debates. The other one is the massive demonstrations against the pension system taking place in several cities of the country. These gatherings have been called up and run by the coordination of grassroots organizations that have explicitly rejected the participation mainstream parties, as long as they are observed as the political arm of neoliberalism.

In the end, the postcard of the kid reflects the need and urgency of talking to shape the future of a human and political collective. The question is, however, if that dialogue will be able to tear down neoliberalism. There is no answer yet but at least in the act of going out from an excluding individualism breaking the idea that everyone can improve their life conditions on their own there is a big step. And the simple act of going out rejecting the idea of “do not talk to strangers” has a lot to do with it.

[1] Several reports about fear in Chile are available online. The second report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) about Chile, in 1998, had a chapter called “Fear of the other” (in Spanish) that might be interesting for interested readers. Another source is the report Citizenship, public space and fear in Chile (in Spanish), by Lucía Dammert, Rodrigo Karmy and Liliana Manzano.

[2] In Castells, M. (2012) Networks of outrage and hope. Cambridge: Polity.

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