Chile’s Process of Change


The 2021 presidential election in Chile has resulted in the victory of the left candidate Gabriel Boric. With nearly 56% of the vote, he has won by a margin of more than 10 percentage points. In absolute terms, this is a record majority, with some 4.6 million votes cast for Boric, putting him almost 1 million votes ahead of the pro-Pinochet candidate, Juan Antonio Kast, who obtained 44%. The electoral result is only a surface expression of the social explosion that has rocked the country since the October 2019 upheaval and the five months of popular mobilizations and self-organization that followed.

Ignited by high school students protesting a thirty-peso increase ($0.04) in Santiago’s subway fare, the simmering energy of a revolting people boiled over, tearing apart the decaying social fabric of an unsustainable neoliberal model. It was only the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic in March 2020 that succeeded in cleansing the streets of the barricades – something which the armed forces could not do despite the imprisonment and maiming of thousands of citizens. The resoluteness of the demonstrations is explained by the deep-seated grievances and experientially rooted hopes they convey. As protesters themselves explained, “It’s not thirty pesos, it’s thirty years.”

Counter-hegemonic dynamics had already been unleashed by two prior waves of student-led social mobilization, the Penguin Revolution of 2006 and large-scale protests half a decade later in 2011 and 2012. This student movement was itself occurring against a background of resistance by indigenous communities, rising working-class militancy and the multiplication of feminist protests. Social churnings like these had to contend with the deep de-politicization wrought by the consumerist culture of neoliberal capitalism. In “Chile Today: Anatomy of a Myth”, political scientist and sociologist Tomás Moulian Emparanza writes:

“Chile Today combines a flexible labor market with the extremely restrained power of unions cloistered within the company and an extension of credit that operates as the most efficient form of achieving the dream of comfort. Credit, much more than the union, appears as the instrument of progress. The individual strategy of financial purity is considered much more profitable than a strategy of association. In Chile Today the individual is more important than the group”.

The undermining of solidarity is a direct result of the economic logic of Chile’s social structure of accumulation. After General Augusto Pinochet’s coup against then socialist President Salvador Allende, Chile became a laboratory for Hayekian experiments and a playground for Chicago boys. To test the theories of neoliberalism, a smooth field of operation was needed – an imperative fulfilled by a bloody political cleansing directed against major working class parties and their leading cadres. With the ground cleared, the dictatorship began privatizing state-owned companies.

Privatizations occurred in two stages. The first saw the return of firms taken over between 1970 and 1973 (Allende’s years of tenure) and the sale of other companies that the state had acquired. By 1983 the number of public companies had dropped from 596 to 48, but the financial crisis of 1982–1983 led to some renationalizations. The second phase, after 1982, saw the reprivatization of those firms, and the sale of many large public companies which existed before 1970. Post-Pinochet governments did little to change this state of affairs.

In 1990, the Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin became the first President after the restoration of democracy.  Contrary to the populace’s high expectations of a redistributive agenda, the ruling center-left “Coalition of Parties for Democracy” (Concertación) followed regressive policies. When asked about the continuance of the Pinochetist economic model, Alejandro Foxley, the minister of finance, replied, “we have already paid the social costs of these neoliberal policies, so we might as well enjoy their economic benefits.” This slick remark mirrored the views of pro-imperialist Western journalists who had defended Pinochet by singing in praise of the new Santiago, writing lyrically about all the consumer goods on offer after the years of “socialist austerity” and “greyness”.

What both anti-communist Pinochetists and Concertación functionaries preferred to ignore was the fact that the majority of Chileans could only window-shop. In order to mask this brutal truth, the promise of luxurious abundance was systematically propagated – an ideological vision which could not be effectively combated due to the injuries inflicted on the left by Pinochet’s destructive onslaught. An immediate upshot of this was the entrenchment of a hyper-attachment to commodities. As Emparanza comments:

“The everyday culture of Chile Today is penetrated by the symbolism of consumption. At a subjective level this means that in great measure the identity of Me is constructed through objects, and that the distinction between “image” and being has been lost. The trappings of Me, the objects that indicate status or comfort level, are confused with the attributes of Me…This Me has become a mirror image, trapped in the culture of outward appearances. I am the car I have in the driveway or the improvements to the house that make it different from others in the same shantytown. I am the school where the children study”.

Consumerist values solidified relentlessly thanks to the peculiar politico-electoral structure of Chile. The binomial system – designed by the military in 1989, uncritically inherited by the subsequent democratic administrations and repealed only in 2015 – provided that each coalition could present two candidates on open lists. Although voters chose a candidate, votes were pooled to determine whether lists won one or two seats. The highest polling coalition in a district could only win both seats if it more than doubled the vote total of the second-placed list – providing effective thresholds of 33% for a one seat victory and 66% for a two seat victory.

There were two main defects of the binomial architecture. First, a candidate with a relatively low number of votes could be returned if, as a whole, that candidate’s list performed well. The system favored large coalitions at the expense of individual parties and smaller coalitions. For instance, in the 2009 election, the Communist Party had to compete in the same list as the Concertación to win three seats in the Chamber of Deputies. In this way, political diversity was also restricted since coalition leaders negotiated candidate nominations jointly and could impose discipline across all members of the coalition. Thus, if any small party failed or refused to strike an electoral bargain with the mainstream coalitions, it was marginalized.

Secondly, since it was rare for a list to reach the 66% threshold, one seat effectively went to each of the two coalitions of Chile – the Concertación and the right-wing Alianza. Owing to the systematic exclusion of marginal formation, the Concertación’s level of electoral support hovered around 55% and the Alianza’s at around 40%. This allowed them to divide seats in most districts, inflating the electoral numbers of the right (winning 50% of the seats with only 35– 40% of the vote). Between 1990 and 2010, no party outside the two main coalitions obtained representation in Congress. The establishment of a duopoly allowed the neoliberal kleptocracy to express its consumerist messages through a pliant political class.

Both the center-left and the right blurred the distinctions between consumers and citizens, reducing politics to a means of obtaining ever greater goods. Social contract became the social version of market contractualism. Citizenship started making sense more in terms of consumption patterns and service-delivery rather than in the language of equality and justice. Emparanza elaborates:

“In Chile Today, where the economy creates false and simulated ways to protect the individual from economic inequality—providing him with credit that gives him a concrete, feasible hope that the great, abstract ideologies cannot provide—it is easy to fall into the temptation of a life lived between the pressure of work and the relaxation offered by the mall or the television. In this context, what end would politics, participation or public action serve? These activities cannot compete with credit as a source for hedonistic pleasure, and they are not able to do what consumption does: provide good, faithful clients with the hope of ever-increasing comfort, the constant renewal of the passive pleasures of entertainment, and a future filled with more and more objects.”

However, the stranglehold of consumerism was not absolute. Time to time, Chileans felt compelled by their material conditions to rebel against structural injustices. In July 2011, 2,500 students gathered in the central forum of the University of Concepción campus to spell with their bodies “No+Lucro” – No More Profits. This cry reverberated with the oppressed sectors of Chilean society and gave rise to radical energies that could not be contained by the political elites. The momentum of mass opposition kept increasing, culminating in 2021 in the defeat of the traditional politicians. Thus, in the first round of presidential elections, the center-right Chile Vamos (Let’s go Chile) and center-left Nuevo Pacto Social (New Social Pact) were pushed to fourth and fifth position respectively. These developments, nevertheless, are not uniformly progressive, as is indicated by the rise of the ultra-conservative Juan Antonio Kast, who obtained 44% of the votes. Moving Chile in a progressive direction will take time, depends as it does on the ability and willingness to confront the unified opposition of capital.

Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected].

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