ourEconomy: Opinion

Neoliberalism’s children are rising up to demand justice all over the world

From Chile to Lebanon, mass mobilizations are calling for a political and economic revolution against the neoliberal consensus.

Medea Benjamin Nicolas J S Davies
8 November 2019
"Neoliberalism was born and will die in Chile"
Nando, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Uprisings against the decades long dominance of neoliberal “center-right” and “center-left” governments that benefit the wealthy and multinational corporations at the expense of working people are sweeping the world.

In this Autumn of Discontent, people from Chile, Haiti and Honduras to Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon are rising up against neoliberalism, which has in many cases been imposed on them by US invasions, coups and other brutal uses of force. While the severe repression against these activists have led to more than 250 protesters killed in Iraq in October alone, the protests have continued to grow. Some movements, such as in Algeria and Sudan, have already forced the downfall of long-entrenched, corrupt governments.

A country that is emblematic of the uprisings against neoliberalism is Chile. On October 25, 2019, a million Chileans – out of a population of about 18 million – took to the streets across the country, unbowed by government repression that has killed at least 20 and injured hundreds more. Two days later, Chile's billionaire president Sebastian Piñera fired his entire cabinet and declared, “We are in a new reality. Chile is different from what it was a week ago.”

The people of Chile appear to have validated Erica Chenoweth’s research on non-violent protest movements, in which she found that once over 3.5% of a population rise up to non-violently demand political and economic change, no government can resist their demands. It remains to be seen whether Piñera’s response will be enough to save his own job, or whether he will be the next casualty of the 3.5% rule.

It is fitting that Chile should be in the vanguard of protests sweeping the world in this Autumn of Discontent, since Chile served as the original neoliberal laboratory.

When Chile’s socialist leader Salvador Allende was elected in 1970, after a six year covert CIA operation to prevent his election, President Nixon ordered U.S. sanctions to “make the economy scream.”

In his first year in office, Allende’s progressive economic policies led to a 22% increase in real wages, as work began on 120,000 new housing units and the nationalization of copper mines and other industrial sectors. But growth slowed in 1972 and 1973 under the pressure of brutal US sanctions, as in Venezuela and Iran today.

Allende was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup on September 11, 1973. The new US and Western backed leader, General Augusto Pinochet, executed or ‘disappeared’ at least 3,200 people, held 80,000 political prisoners in jail, and ruled as a brutal dictator until 1990.

Under Pinochet, Chile’s economy was radically restructured by the “Chicago Boys”, a team of Chilean economics students trained at the University of Chicago under the supervision of Milton Friedman. US sanctions were quickly lifted and Pinochet sold off Chile’s public assets to US corporations and wealthy investors. The neoliberal program: tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, together with mass privatization and cuts to pensions, healthcare, education and other public services, was soon duplicated across the world.

While the Chicago Boys pointed to rising economic growth rates in Chile as evidence of the success of their neoliberal program, by 1988, 48% of Chileans were living below the poverty line. Chile is currently one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America, and one of the most unequal.

The governments elected after Pinochet, from “center-right” to “center-left”, have abided by the neoliberal model. The needs of the poor and working class continue to be exploited, as they pay higher taxes than their tax-evading bosses, on top of ever-rising living costs, stagnant wages and limited access to voucherized education and a stratified public-private healthcare system. Indigenous communities are at the very bottom of this corrupt social and economic order.

The neoliberal consensus following Pinochet has triggered a disillusionment with the traditional political process, as voter turnout declined from 95% in 1989 to 47% in the recent presidential election in 2017.

If Chenoweth is right and the million Chileans in the street have breached the tipping point for successful non-violent popular democracy, Chile may be leading the way to a global political and economic revolution.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.


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