Chile has experienced an unprecedented uprising in recent days. Starting with the increase in ticket prices for the metro, the uprising spread rapidly and targeted the entire system in a country that has been a laboratory for the toughest neoliberalism since the Pinochet coup in 1973 and where inequalities are among the most massive in the world. While the right-wing government declared a state of emergency and introduced a curfew, while the military patrolled the streets for the first time since the end of the dictatorship in 1990, we held a meeting with one of our companions in Chile to discuss the situation. He explains the challenges of the current social explosion, its composition, its fighting methods and its response to the parallel uprisings in South America.
Chile is experiencing popular uprisings of an intensity that has not existed for decades. What triggered the uprising?
The trigger for the uprising was the fight against the price increase of the Metro in Santiago. A journalist from Agence France Presse, who is still a good researcher, has just discovered that the Santiago de Chile subway is the most extensive in Latin America and that the capital is completely overloaded by traffic jams. It would be more appropriate to say that this movement, initiated by precarious students and high school students, is typical of a situation analyzed by the Italian Autonomia Operaria through the concept of militant investigation. At a time when the entire city has become a factory, and thus the entire urban social space is involved in value creation, it is only logical that the metro price should become a radical theme in the struggles. If we think of the movements in South America in recent years, we can make a comparison with the struggles in São Paulo in 2013 and claim that there are hardly any public buses in this city. Similar to Brazil, the movement began with a militant group that was independent of workers’ parties and trade unions and spread from the capital to other major cities throughout the country. The most surprising thing is the speed of the expansion of movement in the Chilean case. On Friday it began in Santiago. On Saturday it was implemented in all the major cities of the country, from north to south.
How did the fight against rising fares become a widespread uprising?
These forms of contemporary struggles, in which the metropolis itself becomes a political object, have become increasingly present in Chile in recent years. This is certainly not the first attempt to politicize the “right to the city” in Chile, be it in Santiago or elsewhere. Other previous struggles have already taken place, with similar results. Likewise, insurgency practices are not new here. And we must remember the courage of feminist activists in the face of police repression, be it during the feminist movement in 2018 or during the 8 March of this year. If there is a social explosion of such magnitude this time, one of the reasons, in my opinion, is the new, much more offensive forms of struggle that have been developed in Santiago since day one.
“They stole so much from us that they even stole our fear” – popular uprising in Chile.
What forms of struggle are practised?
The movement began with the idea of a “massive fraud” (“evasión masiva”) at several metro stations in Santiago to criticize this price increase. The idea is simple and of course reminds us of the self-reduction practices of the Italian Settanta: if the subway becomes too expensive, we won’t pay for it anymore, and we will invade with several hundred people so that no security guard can prevent us from entering. But in the face of oppression, self-reduction quickly turned into sabotage and rupture. Showcases, distributors and broken displays, information screens were thrown on the rails, then fires were set in subway stations and in several buses.
We see the continuity between self-reduction and sabotage: if we exclude the most precarious from using the subway, and if the subway is not for everyone, it is not for anyone and must be destroyed. The rejection of the restriction of one’s own options for action leads directly to sabotage. From that moment on, everything went on. The police actions used against the action in the subway led to unrest. The riots led to attacks and looting of supermarkets. The next day’s demonstrations in the various cities of the country also triggered unrest and looting, to which the state responded by imposing a state of emergency in all these cities and the subsequent military curfew.
What kind of repressive reaction has the state carried out?
This is perhaps one of the most surprising things about this event in terms of the speed of its expansion. With the declaration of a state of emergency and then a military curfew, right-wing President Piñera delegates the restoration of (civil) order directly to the army and not just to the police. In a country like Chile, which is forever marked by 15 years of General Pinochet’s dictatorship, this has a very special meaning. It seems to me that this is a dangerous option because the rights in Chile, as in other post-dictatorial countries (e.g. Spain), are the direct child of the former dictatorship. Just as the politicians of the People’s Party in Spain are former Frankists who, at the time of the fall of the regime, suddenly found out that they were now conservative democrats, so the Chilean right-wing party is essentially made up of ex-pinochists. Some of Piñera’s ministers were, among others, the main leaders for the “yes” in the 1988 referendum, i.e. politicians who fought against Pinochet’s dismissal and against his return to a parliamentary democratic regime. Consequently, the deployment of the army in this situation naturally means threatening the population with the same methods as in the 1973 Pinochet coup and making it clear that it was itself part of the coup. This can be dangerous for the right, because, as in Spain, there has been some form of agreement between the ex-Pinochists and the left. The right stopped being fascist and sharing power with the left in the late 1980s, and the left stopped being revolutionary and abandoned all plans to prosecute the crimes of the dictatorship. It also accepted the 1980 Pinochet Constitution, which is still in force.
Using the army today means breaking this consensus and thwarting the hypocritical attitudes that have led to the belief in the sincere democratic transformation of the Chilean right. In order to win with this strategy, the ruling right is trying to present itself as being between the rioters and looters on the one hand and the honest citizens on the other, in other words to criminalise this uprising. We are not willing to see how the permanent injustice towards a large part of the population is expressed in the riots, and we make it a simple question of crime. This reminds us of the attitude of Sarkozism at the time of the uprising of the French suburbs in 2005. I think it is a risky decision for the government in such an unequal country, but with media propaganda it can work for a while.
Which social segments are most mobilized?
Answering this question helps to understand the repressive strategy of the state. Like many contemporary uprisings, the movement is interclassist. For the time being, it ranges from the progressive middle class to workers and precarious workers, students and high school students to the lumpen proletariat. And it is this reality, typical of many Latin American countries, that determines this movement, both in its sudden spread and in military oppression. The revolt began with precarious youth, students and high school students. A left middle class supports them as well as the more traditional militants of the workers movement. In my opinion, the presence or absence of the possibility of action by organized workers will be crucial to counteract the attempt by the right to criminalize and depoliticize the revolt. The victory of this already historical movement probably depends in part on it. The existence or absence of other fighting networks in this situation will also be decisive, I am thinking in particular of feminist groups and Mapuche fighters or Mapuche supporters (the Mapuche are the main indigenous community that has always fought with the Chilean state for the recognition of their rights and against the expropriation of their land). Knowing that the same people often exist in workers’ or precarious organizations, in feminist struggle and in support of the Mapuche, since one can be a feminist worker in solidarity with the Mapuche, for example. One of the South American particularities is the existence and numerical importance of a “lumpenproletariat”, as Marx said, or a “subproletariat”, as Pasolini said, i.e. an even poorer social class than the workers, because it is not so much integrated into a fixed wage system. The term “rags” is often used in Chile to describe them, and is not an expression of Marxists alone. It is, of course, derogatory. The right’s attempt to criminalize is to create a contradiction between honest, hard-working citizens on the one hand, and sabotage by precarious youth, students, high school students, and the looting of businesses by “ragged” journeymen on the other. I believe that it is this contradiction on which the strategy of the right is based with the criminalization of the movement, and the intensification of this internal contradiction of the working class is the only way in which it can get rid of the conflict The importance of this subject and its complexity should not be underestimated.
From the point of view of social consciousness, there are just as great differences between the proletariat and the subproletariat as there are between workers and managers in Europe. A proletarian feels in his social consciousness of himself as far removed from a subproletarian as an engineer would from a manager. There is the same misunderstanding between them, and often the same class racism. With the exception, and this makes analysis more difficult, of course, that in a neoliberal country where work has no real social protection, the border between the two is often blurred. You can have been a proletarian and become a subproletarian after dismissal, or be a born subproletarian and become a proletarian if you take a permanent job in a factory. As a result, in the working classes often one is the “subproletarian” of the other. Some working-class neighborhoods fear being plundered by subproletarians in the neighborhood, while the neighborhood considers the others as proletarians and is therefore afraid of them. What is certain is that the practice of looting is a common practice of subproletarians in South America, as well as in the United States. And when you know that reselling stolen household appliances earns much more than the average Chilean salary, you can quickly guess the reason for this practice. In itself, it is not specific to social unrest. It is found every time there is a massive blackout in Chile during a major earthquake. In this situation of natural disaster, the state generally declares a state of emergency to prevent these thefts, as it does today. That is the right-wing strategy: To make people believe that this popular and spontaneous uprising is ultimately nothing more than a natural, common disaster in a country that stretches along a seismic fault line. And so the solution to this disaster is to punish plasma TV thieves and supermarket arsonists. Just that this week’s earthquake is social. The tectonic plates that collide are the antagonistic class relationship. And until today there is no military curfew for political reasons, at least since the attempt to liquidate Pinochet by the revolutionaries of the FPMR (Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, an illegal armed group of the Chilean Communist Party) in the 1980s.
What are the slogans, the messages that bring people together?
The slogans about the price increases for the subway were very quickly replaced by a general criticism of neoliberalism long before the government withdrew this increase to reassure the population. This allows us to understand the national dimension of this movement, because there is only a metro in Santiago and Valparaiso, and not in the other cities of the country. The simple fact that this fight spread to all the major cities in 24 hours shows that the people immediately recognised themselves in this particular case of the metro price. It immediately understood that this was just another phenomenon of the exploitation of neoliberal capitalism, which has dominated everything in this country since the fall of Allende and the Popular Front. This is important because it suggests a common awareness of the exploitation of all the cities of this vast country, where geographical lifestyles are so different, from the northern desert to the Arctic, and even if the regions have quite strong cultural differences. Moreover, Chile, like France, is a highly centralized country, and yet the difference between the capital and the provinces is not too great. On the contrary, the provincials immediately reproduced the movement in their cities and at their own level. So there is a common class consciousness of the exploited in their social diversity and contradictions that runs throughout the country. The uprising was certainly strong in all the big cities: Valparaiso, Concepción, Valdivia, etc., but especially in the northern cities like Iquique and Antofagasta, which belong to the poorest regions of the country. The common slogans after the actions on the subway of Santiago express the general criticism of Chilean neoliberalism, the daily rejection by him, the denial of human dignity in view of the corruption of the elites. So there are all kinds of reasons for criticising this neoliberal system, and there are many: Social injustice, corruption, nepotism, widespread insecurity of work, economic exploitation, radical inequality in access to health, education, extractivist economy that destroys nature and leaves only ruins, etc.
The entire neoliberal Chilean system as a whole and the political system created with the return of democracy are rejected. One of the most explicit slogans is: “No es por 30 pesos, es por 30 años” – “It’s not about 30 pesos (the price increase of the subway), but about 30 years”. “30 years” is the time since 1989, the time of the return to democracy and the consensus between the ex-pinochists and the left that I have already mentioned. This is indeed a political-economic system that is being criticized here. Another of the particularly fine slogans that we hear in the streets is the same: “nos quitaron tanto que nos quitaron hasta el miedo” – “They stole so much from us that they even stole our fear”. Some older people make it clear: they thank young people for their revolt and for the lack of fear they feel in the face of a post-dictatorial system that has paralyzed the previous generation. This fear, which young people have lost, is now being used to mobilize the armed forces. Since the military dictatorship is a kind of psychological mass trauma, the use of the army against the demonstrators is an attempt to awaken the trauma, to revive fear and censorship. Today, the balconies have reacted to these fears in the same way as they did during the dictatorship of the 1980s: with the “cacerolazo”, the concert of pots and pans, real percussions that react from one building to the next to make the military understand that if you are not allowed to leave the house during the curfew, you still show your opposition and support for the demonstrators on the street.
What are the possible organized forces within the insurgency? How are left parties, trade unions and revolutionary groups positioned?
Apart from the students and precarious fighters who are at the origin of this movement, all the factions associated with the workers movement seem to live only in theoretical worlds and could not imagine such an event. It is very likely that the organizers of the first actions against the price of the subway will also be overwhelmed by the events today. Even those who wanted such a movement could not imagine such important consequences. However, there is one important point, and that follows from the previous point, the social democratic left, which co-created and co-administered post-dictatorial Chile, has been ignored as much as the right. Even left-wing voters say it: it was the mediocrity of Bachelet’s reforms that led to Piñera’s victory. The Social Democrats are jointly responsible for the current social catastrophe.
How does the Chilean uprising resonate with the mass struggles in the rest of Latin America? Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil…
This point is very important and gives us an idea of the dynamics of struggles in a globalized capitalism. It has been known for some years that riots do not develop according to a diffusionist model: they do not spread like a liquid over a neutral space, but swing from one country to another, like harmonies in music. We are not in Marin Karmitz’ Coup pour coup , but in Gérard Griseys Partials.
It is certain that the uprising in Ecuador is a crucial element of the Chilean movement. In just one week, the mobilized Ecuadorians abolished an increase in the price of gasoline demanded by the IMF. Given the extent to which the IMF has dominated Latin America and Chile in particular, this Ecuadorian victory surprised many people on the continent and probably gave young Chileans a lot of courage, both consciously and unconsciously. The class composition, the standard of living, the political and economic system of Ecuador are very different from those of Chile, the importance of indigenous communities, which make up 35% of the population and are very socially organized, is not comparable to the situation of the Mapuche, for example.
But Ecuador has shown how an offensive struggle can be victorious, outside the party organizations of the left and even against them. Also in Ecuador, an alliance between different social groups was victorious, rural indigenous communities, students, the organized working class, etc., and the social groups of the people of Ecuador were also victorious. And I believe that this logic of the union of different social groups, beyond the internal contradictions of the working class, is present in the minds of the Chilean militants. It is precisely this class alliance that wants to break the right with its criminalization and its attempt to divide itself between proletarians, sub-proletarians, precarious students – high school students, and so on. As a result, the current Chilean challenge is enormous. A short- or long-term victory or defeat of the rebels would have a direct impact on the entire continent. To a certain extent, the renunciation of the Metro price law is already a limited but real victory. Social defeats are so widespread in Latin America (and elsewhere) that no victory is too much. It remains to be seen whether a tactical victory will lead to a strategic victory.
The Chilean bourgeoisie is aware of all this. They have certainly had no difficulties in obtaining their own power and ever better conditions for exercising it, but they know that the chance of Ecuadorian resonance has made Chile the current and temporary front of social struggles. It fights not only for itself, but also for all the bourgeoisies of the continent that are its allies. Imagine such a movement tomorrow in Argentina or Brazil against Bolsonaro. The Chilean bourgeoisie must avoid this, and Piñera made it very clear today in his anti-delinquency propaganda: “We are at war with a powerful enemy (…) and in this struggle we must not lose him”.
The difference is that the “enemy” he names is not the exploited and plundered working classes, but an imaginary “criminal organization” that can only be justified by state action. The more we have invented a suitable and legendary enemy, the more we convince ourselves of the necessity of war. Where powerful criminal organizations really dominate a country and not just steal household appliances, as in Mexico, the state seems much more timid.
What do you think are the possible consequences of mobilization?
The fight goes on, it’s very difficult to predict the outcome. This depends on factors that have not yet been determined. What is certain is that oppression is enormous and aimed at intimidation. While hypocritical journalists say they condemn mass violence to pretend to support the legitimacy of peaceful action, none of them have shown or reported how peaceful demonstrations and other sit-ins on Sunday afternoons were suppressed by police violence before curfew. Fortunately, this information circulates on social networks, but it is not certain whether it is sufficient. For the next few days we can quote Breton: “We have the hope to contribute to the solution of an unresolved problem”.
Note: This post was published on 21 October 2019 on “ACTA – Partisan*e*s dans la Metropole”. The translation was done in a hurry and with a rather inadequate knowledge of the language, but it was a matter close to my heart, because there is no doubt that history is being written in Chile and this text should contribute a lot to a deeper understanding of the social revolt there.
Sebastian Lotzer, 26.10.2019
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