Will Neoliberalism Finally End in Chile?

René Rojas

Chile voted for sweeping structural reform and an end to neoliberalism. It’s a repudiation of Augusto Pinochet and the economic regime he cemented in the country.

A woman casts her vote during the plebiscite to overturn Chile's Pinochet-era constitution in Santiago on March 15, 2021. (MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Cale Brooks
Nando Vila

In 1988, Chileans voted to end General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. But despite popular hopes, the transition to democracy left key parts of his regime intact, including a constitution that enshrined neoliberalism and elite control in the political system. It did so by requiring a supermajority in both houses of congress to make large-scale reforms to the economic or political system and establishing an electoral regime that rewarded virtually all seats to the top two parties or coalitions.

In the decades that followed the transition, power has traded between a center-right and center-left that have both managed the system effectively handed to them by the Pinochet regime without making any fundamental changes. During this time, Chile has seen immense economic growth, but it has been heavily concentrated in the hands of the rich while workers have faced more and more economic insecurity. In the fall of 2019, this helped spark mass protest, first against an increase in metro fare prices, but then into a larger rebellion demanding an end to austerity, neoliberalism, and the fundamentally antidemocratic political system. The unrest forced the government to organize a plebiscite on whether or not to rewrite the Chilean constitution and the method to do so.

With a sharp uptick of voter participation, 80 percent of those voting in the plebiscite chose to overturn the Pinochet constitution and to have an elected Constituent Assembly write the new one. Recent delegate elections to the Constituent Assembly were a devastating blow to traditional political elites and demonstrate new openings for a resurgent left.

Jacobin’s Nando Vila and Cale Brooks sat down with René Rojas as part of Jacobin’s YouTube show Weekends to discuss the recent developments in Chile and the path forward for the Left. Rojas is a sociologist who teaches at Binghamton University. His research is on neoliberal development and politics in Latin America, where he spent years as an activist.

Cale Brooks

Explain to us what’s going on in Chile.

René Rojas

I imagine you’re referring specifically to the latest elections, which were held on May 15 and 16. Chileans were electing delegates to a Constituent Assembly to redraft the country’s constitution. There were also local and gubernatorial elections. For the first time, there were provincial elections in Chile.

Most of the attention has been paid, correctly so, to the outcome of the constituent elections and the very fact that these elections were held in the first place. The best way to describe what occurred is a veritable earthquake that has shattered the foundations of the old political regime in Chile. This is the regime that emerged out of the dictatorship in the post-authoritarian transition in 1988 and ’89 and that ruled over Chile ever since, primarily under center-left governments. What these elections have done has been to shatter the old partisan political system and open, for the first time in over four decades, the possibility of more substantive democratic reform in the country.

Nando Vila

Mark Fisher talks about the assassination of Salvador Allende in Chile as the opening salvo of the neoliberal era. For many decades in places like the Economist, Chile has been held up as a model of a free-market economy and just how well everything goes, and a decent place to live, etc. Is that picture an accurate one? Do the free-market reforms, the ones that Chile is famous for, create a decent, healthy society where everyone is happy?

René Rojas

That’s fundamentally what was at play here and what was in question during these elections. And not just this round of elections. Chile has been going through a cycle of mass mobilization and rejection of this model for about the past ten years, and it really intensified and exploded in October 2019. 

Chile has been celebrated as the poster child of neoliberalism precisely because it allegedly combined two things that we all love: prosperity and democracy. And there is actually some truth to both of those assessments, but they’re just wildly incomplete.

In terms of prosperity, Chile received this attention as the “South American miracle.” In the ’90s, Chileans took to calling ourselves los jaguares del Pacífico (the jaguars of the Pacific) because Chile did experience very robust growth rates from the beginning of the late ’80s under the dictatorship into the 2000s, averaging 5 percent yearly growth rates with some years getting up to 8, 9, 10 percent. The result was an overall increase in living standards, and you can measure that by looking at GDP per capita, which reached about $16,000 or $17,000 per year. On paper, it looked like the model had in fact delivered prosperity across the board, because, compared to the rest of Latin America, you had this fairly spectacular looking growth-per-capita income rate. 

Of course, if you dig a little further, what you find is that Chile, by the same token, was characterized by just massive levels of inequality and also huge levels of popular and social insecurity. There was a big chunk of the population that received very low wages. Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of Chileans continued to work in the informal market, so they don’t have secure employment for income and to feed their families. Many people had to assume risk on their own — risk in terms of getting health care, risk in terms of sending their kids to decent schools. Another thing that became a huge problem was the living conditions of elderly people, because pensions have been privatized and about 70 percent of retired elderly workers in Chile make under half of the minimum wage. They can barely scrape by. So that’s what was happening on the social-economic front. 

In terms of political democracy, again things aren’t as rosy as the picture the Economist, the New York Times, and many elite Chileans themselves try to paint. Chile transitioned from a military dictatorship into a liberal democracy with civil and political rights and free elections. But it ended up producing an oligarchic system in which two main coalitions, the center-right and the center-left, have pretty much traded power. The dominant coalition was the center-left, originally called Concertación, which was in power for twenty years straight. They pretty much shared power and became the oligarchs of the political system, making all policy decisions and excluding the vast majority of Chileans who felt alienated, and who didn’t feel represented. 

You can get a picture of that crisis of representation by looking at voter turnout rates. In the first democratic elections in Chile, 90 percent of registered voters came out to vote. By 2017, after almost thirty years of this, under 40 percent of the population was bothering to vote. So even in the political realm, it turned out to be not a very representative state and that’s what led to that massive crisis of legitimacy.

Cale Brooks

To follow up on that point, I want to read something that you wrote in a recent Catalyst piece titled “Chile’s Democratic Revolution.” Beyond just the voter turnout, “Since 2002, the figures for those reporting scant or zero trust in ruling parties has hovered around 80 percent or higher. In other words, just over ten years into the transition [to democracy], the vast majority of Chileans — the same proportion that has now voted to rewrite the constitution — had lost faith in all parties.” The question is why? Why did they lose faith, and maybe even more concretely for us, why did working people lose faith in the left parties? We see these massive demonstrations over the last couple of years and it’s coming from working people and not from political parties. There’s somewhat of a disconnect between the actions on the ground and the left institutionally and in party formation. What lead us to that situation?

René Rojas

Before I try to answer, I want to highlight something that was embedded in your question. As I said earlier, the dominant force in Chilean post-authoritarian politics has been the center-left. The center-left in Chile includes the Socialist Party. This is the party of Salvador Allende, who was deposed in the 1973 coup. This was the party that tried to make a democratic Chilean road to real socialism. It started off as the junior partner in the center-left coalition. The major partner was the Christian Democrats, but by 2007, the Socialists had really become the strongest party in the center-left coalition.

So one might suspect that with the Socialists being in power, and with Michelle Bachelet being elected twice, this would be a prolabor government, a pro-working-class, pro-poor government. I think it shocks many people to see just how thorough and deep the popular rejection of the Concertación has become. The reason is that, in very simple terms, this was not a party of labor. This was not a party of the poor as it had been under Allende. This was a neoliberal party dominated by elites and that governed for elites. There’s no way around that. 

Part of it is due to the manner in which the transition occurred. To restore democracy, this new center-left political class had to agree to leave the basic market rules of the game intact. But part of it is also because this party had refashioned and transformed itself and has deliberately continued to fragment and weaken labor and popular sectors. Instead, it has woven very direct and chummy ties with the country’s business elite. That resulted in all of the indicators I listed earlier on. That resulted, for instance, in privatized pensions, and therefore no real material security for elderly people in Chile. That resulted in the continuation of privatized health care where most Chileans don’t have security when it comes to being insured or receiving proper care. That resulted in labor legislation that has been completely in favor of employers and has undermined the ability of workers to organize and bargain collectively. The result of all of that has been a fractured society with massive wealth accumulated at the top and massive material insecurity at the bottom.  

Nando Vila

I want to ask about the constitutional convention and the makeup of it. Who are these people who are writing the constitution, and how do you write a constitution? It seems very difficult and complicated to get everyone to agree. I’m just imagining what a constitutional convention would look like in the United States in 2021, and it seems like it would be chaos. What is that process going to look like? What do you expect to be in it? Who is deciding what’s in it?

René Rojas

Before answering this question, I should go back to something I said earlier. When this new centrist political class made a series of pacts as it negotiated the transition back to democracy, one of them was to inherit the constitution that was imposed through fraud and coercion under Pinochet. So the constitution that has governed Chile since the return to democracy has been the constitution imposed in 1980 by the military regime. That is the constitution that became the target of mass fury and mass resentment that exploded onto the streets in 2019 in this popular rebellion that lasted for weeks. The regime could not put it down through force, could not contain it, and could find no way to get young people and workers off the streets and to keep them from rioting.

Demonstrators are sprayed by security forces with a water cannon during mass protests against Chile’s government in Santiago on November 4, 2019. (Jeremias Gonzalez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In November 2019, the center-right government under Sebastián Piñera, feeling this pressure from the street — Santiago and many cities and towns up and down the country were burning — made this huge concession. It negotiated with all factions in parliament, including the new left that has emerged in Chile called the Frente Amplio, and agreed to hold a plebiscite in which Chileans were asked if they wanted a new constitution and how the new constitution would be written. As a result of that, in October of last year, 80 percent of Chileans voted to reject the old constitution and for a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.

The elections to choose delegates to this assembly were postponed on a couple of occasions because of the pandemic, but now that it was held, the results are really not only fascinating but quite shocking — shocking in the sense that they portend a complete overhaul of Chile’s political system. The two dominant coalitions, the center-right and the center-left, were just crushed.

The center-right knew it would lose badly and was hoping to win a third of the votes so it could veto any major transformations. It only won 20 percent of the vote. The real loser, however, is the center-left — the old Concertación, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists primarily. And it stands to reason. As I said earlier, they have been the bulwark of the post-authoritarian neoliberal regime. They simply got trounced — something like 14 percent of the vote. To give you an indication of the magnitude of their defeat, the Christian Democrats, which used to be the strongest party in the ’90s and into the early 2000s, elected two delegates out of 155. Just two delegates! It’s just a major rejection and thrashing. 

And alongside that defeat of those two regime forces, you see the emergence of new political forces. Primarily and most encouraging is the emergence of a coalition between the Communist Party, which had been totally relegated to the margins of Chilean politics up until very recently, and this new left force, the Frente Amplio. They came together, ran shared slates, and elected about 20 percent of the delegates. They did as well, if not better, than the old ruling coalitions. 

And along with this new left bloc that has emerged, a number of independent slates did quite well with them. Most encouraging of these is the Lista del Pueblo, which is a series of fairly motley slates that social movements and grassroots organizations put together, and they received close to 15 percent of the vote. These are the folks who are going to come together and within a year draft the new constitution. There are a number of rules, and we might want to get into them if you want, but the interesting thing and the promising development is that the old oligarchs and old mainstays of the democratic neoliberal regime are now minorities and have been tremendously weakened.

Cale Brooks

What are the new rules?

René Rojas

I’m just going to mention a couple because they received a lot of attention. One actually had an ironic outcome. One of the rules that was put in place both for putting together slates — lists of candidates — and then for actually electing delegates that will be drafting the constitution is the gender parity rule. At least half of the candidates had to be women and at least half of the elected delegates had to be women as well. Turns out that most political forces, even the Right in Chile, has no problem fielding women candidates. Turns out that men actually benefited more from this rule than women, because more women were elected than men, so, to reach parity, some of the women had to be removed and men had to be put in their place. 

I think it’s interesting because Chile has experienced over the past few years huge feminist mobilizations. They’ve had these massive days of demonstrations and last year up to two million women hit the streets, and it’s really impressive. There is a sense that gender equality in a very, very sexist country has been forced onto the agenda and gender oppression has to be dealt with. What I find somewhat surprising, again, is that the parties from right to left actually took this on fairly naturally. It wasn’t a big imposition on them. So we’ll see how that plays out.

Another similar thing is indigenous representation. There are, I think, eleven seats reserved, not just for the Mapuche, which is the major indigenous population in Chile, but all indigenous groups. That’s a good thing, because most of these communities and populations have been involved in local grassroots campaigns against multinational corporations and have developed high levels of organization, and programmatically point toward and will fight for universalist demands for everyone. I think the Left and popular forces will count on working with them.

The other big controversial rule that came out of that November agreement between Piñera and most groups in parliament was that you need supermajorities to ratify big changes to the constitution. So that meant that a bloc that controls only one-third of the delegates could veto major transformations. We’ll see what happens. Things are in such flux right now, particularly for the two dominant old coalitions, that we’ll have to keep an eye on the old Concertacionistas and, in particular, the Christian Democrats. They’ve really been relegated to the dustbin of Chile’s political history. 

But the Socialist Party, somehow, and I still don’t quite understand why, actually elected 14 delegates. It’s going to be very hard for them to band with the Right. All the pressure from the street and their own constituencies, to the extent that they still have any, will push them to ally with this new left and independent delegates to vote in the types of basic legal foundations that the population really wants. Here what we’re talking about is not just political democratic rights but social and economic rights as well. 

Cale Brooks

What’s interesting is, whether it be the plebiscite or the feminist movement in Chile, so much of the actual political manifestations have come through people going to the streets in protest action. It’s something of a global phenomenon. Obviously, we just saw a year of protests around racial justice and Black Lives Matter in the United States, but also regionally specific variants of that across the globe. You have a critique of the limitations of protest and I was wondering if you could get into that, because elsewhere in that same Catalyst piece you say:

It was not realistic to think of toppling the government via unending street escalation, given the low levels of organization and strategic coordination that still hamper popular forces. While disruption in the streets and in workplaces certainly wrested the promise of a plebiscite, it was only those at the highest echelons of state power who could have granted the concession.

In other work you talk about the importance of mobilizational resources and structural leverage with regard to working-class power. So the question is, both specific to Chile and in a broader sense as well, how strong are protests and when does the Left want to be utilizing protests?

René Rojas

There was a lot of criticism in November of 2019 of the left congressional figures that signed onto this agreement that opened the way for the plebiscite, and then the constituent elections, and now the assembly. There was this sense that mobilization on the street was so strong and so disruptive [that they might have toppled the government]. There’s no doubt about it that the only reason we got this concession was because of the cost imposed by the disruption on the street, the disruption in neighborhoods, the disruption to the economy that this rebellion imposed. But there was this sense that that type of mobilization alone could have continued and accomplished bringing down the regime. 

The Frente Amplio congresspeople who signed on were accused of saving Piñera’s ass, because he was about to fall and we should have let the revolution occur on the street. The fact is, perhaps because they were so strong and because the mass insurgency was so powerful and it rocked the government so dramatically, it probably could have brought down Piñera, but then what? It would not have had the wherewithal to take over, to topple the entire regime, and to build a new one. And that’s where, unless you’re striving for a Bolshevik-type takeover and revolution, which I think is off the agenda for a number of reasons, the weakness of that type of approach is most notable. 

Instead, what I think movements need is to find the kinds of transmission mechanisms from mass social movements and mobilization on the street to the levers of power and state institutions, so that that mobilization and disruption coming from below can actually translate into institutional change and transformation. That is exactly what the movement achieved in Chile through that agreement and through that concession from the state. 

One of the ways of using this insight is to now look at the situation in the assembly. There’s a lot of praise and celebration for these independent lists because they represent the grassroots and more autonomist networks of community movements and social movements. Some think they will be the ones who will be able to refound Chilean democracy. I’m somewhat skeptical of that. 

If these “independent” movements and their grassroots affiliates and organizations don’t find ways to team up with more organized parties and institutions that have programmatic and strategic vision and discipline, I fear that all that energy, all that potential might be lost. Just to give you a slight taste or sense of this, these independent lists in Chile weren’t just one standard slate from across the board, from north to south. It was really fragmented throughout, and as a result, because they couldn’t coordinate a single slate, much less coordinate with this new left slate, about ten percent of the vote was just squandered. We could have had an additional ten percent of the delegates on our side had there been better coordination with these “independents,” these grassroots social-movement forces. And I think we can project the same kind of concern moving forward in terms of the role they might play and how they might better articulate with partisan forces.

Nando Vila

I want to ask about the Frente Amplio. What’s their deal? What kind of party is it? What are the differences between them and the Communist Party? If I’m some Chilean guy and I’m sampling the parties, what would make me join the Frente Amplio over the Communist Party or vice versa?

René Rojas

First of all, I’m really happy they’ve come together in this alliance with the Communists. There seemed to be these two kinds of distinct paths with too many differences to come together. So, for Chilean politics and for the prospects of democratizing Chilean society and for social justice outcomes, it’s really a great development that the Frente Amplio has joined the Communists in the coalition. 

But who or what is the Frente Amplio? Frente Amplio really grew primarily out of the mass student mobilizations of 2011 and 2012. Those were the first huge mass protests that rocked the post-authoritarian regime in Chile. And it spawned new organizations and new political figures, and the elections that followed in 2013 saw a few of them elected to congress, somehow breaking through this duopoly that’s actually enshrined in Pinochet’s 1980 constitution, because it pretty much reserves all representation for the top two forces per district. But these new movements and their leaders had had such an impact through those mobilizations that a few of them broke through. Some were Communist, some were not Communist. Some described themselves as autonomist or Gramscian. All kinds of stuff. But when these new young leaders were elected to Congress, the Communists decided to make an alliance with the center-left [rather than ally with them]. 

What, in my view, really distinguishes the Frente Amplio, besides the fact that they emerged from these new mass protests, is that they were completely opposed to not just the Right and the center-right but the center-left as well, because they correctly saw them as the managers of Chilean neoliberalism. So they preserved that independence and kept building their organizations. From student organizations, they went on to have influence in teachers’ unions, and from there into other sectors.

So that by the 2017 elections, and this is a force that just came together as a formal alliance in 2014, they won 20 percent of the first-round vote in the presidential elections. So they kind of established themselves as a new new left in Chile to be distinguished from the old hard left, the Communists. 

The Communists by then had lost their mass base that it historically had in Chile’s working class because it had been marginalized from the transition process and from its negotiations. It had really become an extremely weak force in Chilean politics. They experienced a revitalization, both through their participation in the mass student movement and then through some local victories — primarily Daniel Jadue’s victory in one of the Santiago townships, Recoleta, and he’s done quite well. That has bolstered Communist credibility because he has governed in fairly pragmatic ways, but has delivered some real reforms for poor and working people in Recoleta. 

Many of the Chileans who have, of course, come to reject the old regime and by that [I mean] rejecting both the center-left and the center-right, see this new alliance of Frente Amplio and the Communists as a viable formation that can move things forward.

Cale Brooks

My last question harkens back to that old hard left because, as you’ve written, the social base for the classic left in Latin America, much like the Left around the world, was historically working class, industrial, and in manufacturing. The old left’s social base wasn’t exactly the same everywhere, but was typically concentrated in dense workplaces and not easily replaceable. This gave them a good deal of structural leverage in the economy. They were central in the process of leading capitalists making a profit, so when they did fight back, the punch hit that much harder and reverberated throughout society.

The thing is, as you know very well, so much of employment across Latin America is informal work, meaning it’s not the standard contract between a worker and a boss that grants the minimum of legal security. Across the continent, you have these very high levels of workers who are in some form of part-time work or what we know as gig work. It might just be making ends meet in their particular communities. One of the things that’s particularly shocking about this graphic is how flat so many of these lines are across the continent despite the amount of political change that has happened over the last several decades. But at the very bottom with those triangles is Chile. Chile has among the lowest levels of informal work on the continent. So thinking ahead to the outcome of the plebiscite, or the possibility of the Left being renewed in Chile, or across the continent — there’re massive transformations happening across Latin America right now — how should we understand the actual social base of a left-wing project going forward, and to what extent does that give us indicators for how successful these efforts might end up being?

René Rojas

To me, this is the key question for the future, not just of the Left in Latin America but for politics and development more generally in the region. This, in my opinion, is the core handicap of the Left right now in the region. The key constituencies that it relies on, that it mobilizes, or that mobilize on their own, have come from the most peripheral, most marginal sections of the working class, mainly the informal sector. 

For instance, in the Pink Tide countries, the main bases of support for those left governments that emerged in the early 2000s into the mid-2000s were informal-sector workers and communities. They did propel them to power, and they did bring down old neoliberal governments. The problem as you pointed out, Cale, is that while they might be able to forge new organizations and coordinate fairly massive mobilizations, they lack the kind of leverage that the old constituencies of the Left used to have, and which they used to deploy in order to really impose costly disruptions on the system.

And what we call structural leverage was rooted in their position in the industries that elites valued the most. If your backers now are working in food stands or in gigs, freelancing from day to day, first of all, they’re not working in industries that, if they somehow find ways to disrupt them, will really hit elite interests hard. If you decide one day not to show up to your sandwich stand, elites aren’t going to really care because it’s not imposing costs on them. On top of that, these are the most atomized, the most scattered portions of the working class. You’re working on your own, getting by on your own. It’s a hypercompetitive environment just to survive. It’s hard to forge these bonds with like-minded people and communities and come together around a shared project. This is the challenge that the Left in Latin America and I guess the world over has to somehow overcome. 

The Left shouldn’t reject, of course, the involvement and participation of informal workers, especially if they’re rebelling. That’s what happened in Chile in October 2019, and they accomplished quite a bit. But we have to go beyond that and find ways to organize sectors of the working class that do, because of where they work, have this built-in ability to disrupt elites and their profits and interests.

The figures that you showed there in terms of the Chilean scenario are a bit too optimistic. Later on, in that very long essay, I show that, more accurately, about 40 to 45 percent of Chileans toil in the informal sector. That means that most Chilean workers are scattered throughout society and the economy. 

We have to find branches of industry, geographic locations where there are larger concentrations of workers who work in key nodes of the economy, where, if they stop working, they can really, really hit business profits hard. And I think Chile does offer some promising prospects. Along with the rise of mass protest, these renewed cycles of mobilization that started around 2010, there has also been a revitalized labor insurgency. It’s been patchy and uneven, but thankfully it’s also happened in key sectors of the Chilean economy. In mining, for instance. Chile is a country that continues to depend on natural resources, primarily copper and copper exports. There has been some new organizing and rebellions in copper since then. In the ports, after you dig up the mineral, the copper, you need to ship it to ports, and from there, transport it out to the world: to China, the United States, what have you. There have been very powerful dock worker organizing campaigns and strikes over the last five or six years. 

What I think the new left, the new partisan left, needs to do is find ways to go beyond the layers that it already works with — students, impoverished professionals, middle-class urban sectors — and find ways to connect with these newly rebelling working-class sectors that have this kind of structural leverage. 

One of the implications of that is that when it comes, for instance, to the role that these independents play — both the independent delegates in the Constituent Assembly and these independent, autonomist, horizontalist networks and movements on the ground — we have to really pose this question and think about it hard. Are they the sectors that are going to get us over the hump? Surely, they have a lot to contribute. As you mentioned earlier, Cale, there have been middle-class women who’ve been great in mobilizing this way — millions of people on the street and they can paralyze the capital for the day. There are retired workers who are just barely scraping by and no longer working in industry, and they mobilize a million and a half people in their biggest demonstrations. Will these be the sectors that will really be able to confront any resistance by the old neoliberal elites when it comes to legislating universalist reforms like a public health care system, like real public universal education for all, including for the children of the poor? Will they be the ones that will be able to band with us and push that through? We’ll have to see.

What we do know is that this new partisan left is strong in one sense because it has occupied some institutional positions, and that’s really important, but is weak in another sense because it lacks these deeply rooted constituencies in the working class. Will they be able to really push hard and face the resistance of both the Concertación neoliberal elites and the new right without relying on that structural power of these newly rebelling sectors of the working class? I’m pretty skeptical about it.

Cale Brooks

It’s kind of the double bind that we have in the United States as well right now, where to revitalize the Left you probably need something like an industrial policy, and in order to implement an industrial policy, you probably need to have the Left in power. It’s the same thing, here in the United States, we’ve been talking about with the PRO Act. To pass the PRO Act, you would probably need to have a revitalized labor movement. To have a revitalized labor movement, you probably need to rip apart so much of the draconian labor law we have on the books right now. 

René Rojas

But again, the difference is we won a Constituent Assembly. So labor rights can be written into the new constitution. Chile is so backward and so pro-employer when it comes to labor legislation and labor law. This is why winning the plebiscite, winning the assembly, and electing a new left really matters, precisely because we can now shift the balance in workplaces in ways that allow rebelling workers to organize much more effectively, and then deploy this potential power that they have. It’s going to be tough, but it’s on the agenda for the first time in about fifty years.