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Social movement in Chile and the call for a constitutional assembly

By de-demonizing the signifier ‘communism’ we can open new ways to think about the explosive combination of popular actors questioning the legitimacy of democracy and the figure of the State. Español

Cristobal Escobar
3 June 2015
Melissa Sepulveda calling for a free and quality education system in Chile, June 2014.

Melissa Sepulveda calling for a free and quality education system in Chile, June 2014. Demotix/Andres Bravo.All rights reserved In recent weeks, the collective action of Chilean citizens has made a return. Protests came four days after Bachelet overhauled her cabinet to stem a plummeting approval rating due to corruption scandals linking politicians and prominent financial companies, including one that involves her son. With 150,000 people marching in Santiago, citizens are calling for a constitutional assembly to be convoked via referendum, a more open process of creating the new magna carta for the country, in which the social collective would be an integral part of its formation.  

While in previous years Bachelet only hinted at reforming the constitution through Parliament, the recent wave of scandals hitting her administration has opened new dialogues between the movement and the Presidential Palace. During a press conference last week, La Moneda’s spokesperson Alvaro Elizalde said, “the government has reviewed all democratic, participatory or institutional mechanisms to form part of the alternatives on which the President will make a decision.”

The democratic agency of the Chilean multitude faces a real possibility of social transformation today. Through self-governance, engaged in the same democratic struggles for effective equality and ‘real democracy’ of citizen insurgencies abroad, Chileans are posing a political question crucial to left renewal worldwide: is it possible to claim back people’s sovereignty by taking a radical distance from the State in pursuit of direct social self-governance? Foucault’s research into governmentality, Badiou’s  ideas on communism, Hardt’s and Negri’s concept of empire and Álvaro Garcia Linera’s La Potencia Plebeya, all have a theoretical bearing on over a decade of social struggle in Chile.  

Despite its peculiarity, the Chilean social movement offers a clear case of the outstanding global dilemmas in democratic politics today. The gathering exclusion of large groups of people from economic activity has begun to de-legitimize the political system in an unprecedented way. New forms of radical militancy and mobilization, as is the case around the world, mark a return to political participation, all questioning the formula of liberal-democratic capitalism as the best possible society.

Such dissent has introduced wide sections of the population and significantly more young people to new ideas of resistance, rebellion and emancipation. The new militancy seen in the Greek aganaktismenoi, the Spanish indignados and the Occupy Wall Street movement with its socially and ideologically heterogeneous membership, as described by Kioupkiolis and Katsambekis, has its echo in the Chilean multitude that has also set up collective assemblies across the country.

In 2006, during Bachelet’s first presidential period, a highly active student body began to challenge Pinochet’s legacy by catalysing demands for an institutional reform in public education. Through massive protests and school takeovers, students gained widespread public support, and by 2011, polls showed an 89% citizens’ approval towards the social movement and its demands. From the beginning, the slogan was no less than, ‘universal, free and high-quality education’, its emancipatory politics impacting beyond the students to highlight the inequalities of the Chilean system. The appeal also led to a wider call for the revival of the commonwealth; public pensions and the healthcare system, progressive tax reforms to finance social spending, environmental struggles and the deprivatization of natural resources, and most important of all, the call for a redesign of the Chilean State via a new constitutional assembly.

These Chilean mobilizations directly address the inequality created in the name of democracy, fuelling a sense of injustice and reviving the need for resistance, as the elected leader of the University of Chile’s student federation, Melissa Sepulveda declared at the time: ‘We do not want to regulate, but to change the entire model. We ask for direct political participation’. The State, so understood, has played a key role in securing the necessary conditions for the functioning of capitalism through its coercive and ideological instruments; repressing protests, but also deploying its institutional networks to socialise the population into accepting the dominant ideology over many years.

The State’s creation of the many different modes of organizing people, whether through political parties and elections, the media, or public opinion is described in detail in Foucault’s rewriting of the art of government, his take on Machiavelli’s The Prince, whose motto ‘divide and rule’ seems as fresh today as in the Italian Renaissance. For such a reading, the return of the economy to political practice is crucial, if we are to understand how the State manages people; how a broad machinery of power operates upon the population with new practices, technologies, instruments and institutions that make each of us feel responsible as subjects.

The Chilean State, perhaps more than any in the region, presents clear symptoms of this capitalist rationale. Its exclusively subsidiary role in protecting the private sector has proved to be efficient in the creation of wealth, but ineffective in its distribution: while Chile has the highest rate of economic growth among the 34 developed countries, it is also the most unequal. That is to say, technically, that the Gini Coefficient does not drop from 0, 50. Moreover, its anti-democratic structures established during the seventeen years of dictatorship still define the rules of the game.

This includes the Chilean State’s own political constitution, which might also explain the increasing political disaffection and ageing voting pattern over recent decades in Chile, a period in which the electoral roll declined from 89,1% in 1988 to 56,7% in 2009. In the last presidential elections only 51% of the voting age population cast ballots, an estimated 60% of those in the age of 18-34 stayed home, or took to the streets in protest. Today, among the countries with a voluntary voting system, Chile reaches the highest abstention levels, 56% according to La Tercera. 

These levels of abstention--certainly not unique to Chile--when contrasted with the sustained level of participation achieved in nearly 10 years of popular mobilization, expose not only the movement’s auto-exclusion from this form of traditional politics, but the unprecedented strength of politics through collective action in Chile. When asked why she did not go to vote, Melissa Sepulveda once explained that ‘the possibility for change is not there in Congress. Chileans are disillusioned by the manner of conducting politics since the return to democracy’. In such a scenario, where representative democracy has so miserably failed, we cannot restrict the ‘will of the people’ to the passive expression of approval or consent: ‘People, says Kant, have the quality or power of being the cause and author of their own drama’.   

During the last two decades, the Chilean left coalition has shown that whenever the left gains power it fatally loses its transformative energy. Bachelet’s promise of structural reforms during the first days of her mandate has prompted general disaffection throughout the population today. The left has made so many compromises to achieve good electoral results. The consequence was well summed up by Gianni Vattimo, that ‘today the left is called upon to help save the banks, that is, the capitalist system, for the good of the workers, and so on.’So, if socialism has failed in Chile, capitalism is globally bankrupt and democracy does not seem to be an appropriate name for this egalitarian explosion, then what comes next? Vattimo offers one answer: ‘We need an undisciplined social practice which shares with anarchism the refusal to formulate a system, a constitution, a positive realistic model according to traditional political methods: for example, winning elections. Who believes in them any longer?’

It is here that Alain Badiou’s idea of communism as collective action draws interesting parallels with the social manifestation occurring in Chile. In his booklet Of Ideology (1976), Badiou first introduced the idea of communism as a set of ideological anti-property, anti-authority and anti-hierarchy principles; an autonomous mass organization that takes emancipatory action against, or at a distance from, the coercive State apparatus. In his own words: ‘As a pure idea of equality, the communist hypothesis has no doubt existed in a practical state since the beginnings of the existence of the State. As soon as mass action opposes State coercion in the name of egalitarian justice, we have the appearance of rudiments or fragments of the communist hypothesis (...) May’68, and still more so the five years that followed, inaugurated a new sequence for the genuine communist hypothesis, one that always keeps its distance from the State’.

In this vein, the call for communism can only be achieved outside the State: it will have to be constructed on the basis of society’s self-organizing capacities in order to generate and distribute communitarian and self-managing wealth, a project that seeks to broaden the autonomy of the communitarian world itself. The failure of the communist State and it promise of equality has corrupted the concept so much, that in our own political vocabulary the idea of communism has come to mean its opposite, that is, total State control of economic and social life. But Marx’s idea of communism not as an ideal, but as a movement which reacts to actual social antagonisms is still relevant for us today. As Michael Hardt suggests, it is time to explore another possibility for this political imaginary: ‘neither the private property of capitalism nor the public property of socialism but the common in communism’. 

In Chile, claims for equality, redistribution of wealth and the broadening of rights have been fundamental to the social movement’s struggle. The divide--until now--between left coalition members and the movement’s representatives in relation to the design of a constitutional assembly is illustrative in this respect.

While government officials support the institutional strategy of change from within, relying on the congress to produce a new constitution, students and other popular sectors are calling for a constitutional assembly to be convoked by referendum. In fact, in a 2012 national opinion poll, 45% of the surveyed expressed their support for this second option - a referendum that acquires consensus to break once and for all with the current model of post-dictatorship duopoly politics. This re-engaging of the civil society through collective action could provide a valuable opportunity for the country to reconnect with its own deeply democratic traditions, as illustrated by the high levels of social awareness and participation achieved through poder popular (popular power) during Allende’s Popular Unity government. In fact, as Chilean historian Gabriel Salazar has suggested, the popular appeal for this constitutional assembly via referendum can also be read as a victory of the movement’s capacity for self-organization through its collective assembly. There, with a spokesperson as the ambassador of the general will, the power remains always in the collective and never in the representative.

Several ex-student leaders during eight years of struggle in Chile attained seats in Congress, and we have seen the gradual incorporation of the movement’s social demands onto a government platform. But the moment the movement enters into government, does it not begin to validate the State and to forego its own collective aims? Not if it abides by a criterion well articulated by Breno Bosteels, no more and no less than, ‘To support as much as possible the unfolding of society’s autonomous organizational capacities’.

By way of example, look at another major thinker of our time: Álvaro Garcia Linera, Evo Morale’s running mate for the 2005 elections and current vice-president of Bolivia. In his book La Potencia Plebeya (2009) through his position as vice-president of the Bolivian State, Linera’s project is to raise a new collective consciousness as one unifying voice by restoring manoeuvres, agreements and compromises between the various groups of proletarians, parties and unions. So he says: ‘It is entirely a case of knowing how to apply these tactics from the State in order to raise, and not lower, the general level of collective-consciousness and revolutionary spirit.’ Indeed, as Karl Marx argued, the State is thought of as strictly functional and designed to render itself defunct: ‘The more the functions of State power are exercised by all the people, the less this power becomes necessary’.

As we have argued, most of Chile’s problems today have their origin in anti-democratic structures established by the 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, left largely intact by successive democratic governments since Chile’s ‘return to democracy’ in 1990. But a highly mobilized Chilean social movement has in recent years transformed the passive indignation of civil society into an active refusal of the inequalities generated in this democratic period. Through its self-organizing political capacities, reform proposals and constant tensions with the State, the Chilean multitude has expressed the ability to manage social demands in a radically democratic way, that is, as a democracy of all for all.

In the same way, by including new political subjectivities and returning to a popular voluntarism, the idea of communism as collective action as manifested in the notion of pueblo unido has offered new alternatives to confront our understanding of politics and its relations to the State. This suggests that in our present time, the post-industrial era, the old call ‘Proletarians, unite!’ is more pertinent than ever: the unity of the explosive combination of popular actors on which victory relies. 

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