Chile: changes and challenges

Modern Chile stands out for two reasons. Infamously, it was the poster-child for successful post-authoritarian neoliberalism. Somewhat eclipsed by pro-market fanfare since its 1990 democratic transition, Chile is also the country that elected a democratic socialist in 1970. 

Backed by a radical partisan alliance and bolstered by powerful social movements, Salvador Allende received expanding popular support to seize state institutions and transform a backward society into a deeply democratic and egalitarian order.

A 1973 military coup toppled Allende’s government. But progressive governments that followed further undermined the democratisation of the state and the economy. Dominated by a centre-left coalition, post-dictatorship neoliberalism was founded on the fragmentation and demobilisation of popular sectors and the oligarchisation of politics. 

The dictatorship’s 1980 constitution, preserved during the transition, instituted both features by structuring elections to monopolise representation for the two establishment coalitions, and by making unregulated markets the core mechanism for acquiring work, income and social goods. For more than 20 years, democracy undergirded by free markets installed a form of social apartheid. But it also generated growth, reduced poverty and secured stability.

After 2010, progressive neoliberalism began unravelling amid pervasive inequality and economic insecurity. The deterioration of its key pillars fuelled its breakdown. On one hand, the pro-business coalitions lost exclusive grip on the state as their electoral dominance waned and new challengers broke through their stranglehold on representation. On the other, social movements reactivated after rebuilding their associational capacities, launching cycles of protest that imposed steep disruption costs on political and business elites. The structural leverage of escalating workers’ insurgency in strategic sectors, such as mining and ports, buttressed the rising costs of popular mobilisation.

The historic October 2019 mass rebellion buried Chile’s post-authoritarian regime for good. What erupted as a spontaneous uprising gave way to coordinated mass mobilisations. Collective defiance forced the centre-right government, the last of the democratic neoliberals, to open a process for elected delegates to rewrite the constitution. 

Constituent elections gave Chile’s new and old lefts, along with social movement activists, a clear majority. As important, the rebellion and the realm of institutional contestation it opened forged a viable left for the first time in 50 years. Young radicals in the Frente Amplio and the traditional Communists, with enduring roots in labour, were compelled to overcome their differences and form the Apruebo Dignidad alliance. 

The 2019 explosion’s blows to the old political class created the conditions for Apruebo Dignidad’s Gabriel Boric to prevail in December’s runoffs against a realigning and hardening right. Perhaps most importantly, the explosion awakened swaths of poor and toiling Chileans who belong to neither social movements nor new parties, but expect their demands to be met.

Although Chileans have defeated the post-authoritarian neoliberal regime, they face major obstacles on the road to a post-neoliberal social democracy. Drafters of the new constitution must convince voters to approve their proposed charter on 4 September. Lamentably, social movement delegates spent months bickering over narrow and often alienating identitarian grievances, distracting the public from the democratic and universalist elements in the draft. 

Sensing that their main demands — wages, job protection and the guaranteed provision of public goods — were neglected, the toiling masses might be swayed by restorationist appeals. If the public votes down the proposed constitution, Boric’s government will be dead in the water just months after his inauguration.

But the return of mass politics also offers a chance to revive and extend the construction of a new Chilean road to socialism. If Apruebo Dignidad, both in office and during the constitutional campaign, returns to leading the process of change as the political arm of the anti-neoliberal rebellion, it could reanimate and re-embolden Chile’s toiling sectors in favour of insurgent democratic socialist transformations. But labour’s crucial structural power must be redeployed for the reform process to stand a chance.

This is an edited version of an article first published by Africa is a Country.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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René Rojas
René Rojas is an assistant professor in the department of human development at SUNY Binghamton. He is on the editorial board of Catalyst.

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