The "Chilean Spring" Continues. Part One.
by Charlie Ebert on December 9, 2019



This article, a large-scale overview, forms the first of a two part report on the present state of the Chilean uprising. The second, addressing the rebellion through the lens of a single neighbourhood, Barrio Brasil will be soon forthcoming.

A few years ago Netflix released a documentary on the 2013-2014 Ukranian Revolution entitled Winter on Fire. It documents, through regular interviews with several participants and a few splashes of high-tech graphic explainers, the long fight to overthrow then-president Viktor Yanukovych.

If one goes on ‘Chilean’ facebook nowadays, in the midst of their own social revolt, they’ll see countless references to the film. It’s being treated as something of playbook, if not politically, then tactically. ‘How’ is the question more than ‘why.’ It is also being taken as evidence that a popular street movement can topple a bourgeois-democratic government, regardless of any inequality in physical resources.

As of late, another particular note has begun being made as well. The movement in the Ukraine started on the 21st of November. It wasn’t until the 23rd of February, 94 days later, that the government of Viktor Yanukovych collapsed.

Here in Chile we are either on day 53 or 57 depending on which start date you pick, the 18 October declaration of the state of emergency or the 14 October launch of Evasión Masiva which ultimately sparked it. As you might infer from all this talk of the 94 days in Ukraine, the mood has shifted somewhat, as perhaps was always inevitable.

As I tried to capture in my article from October 23rd, the emotions flying through Chile in the early days were raw and powerful. A mix of outrage and the sudden, freeing rush of insurgency had flooded through the discourse and the popular imagination of the country. I was speaking to a protester in the Plaza de la Dignidad, the location now at the heart of the movement the other day. He spoke of the early days in a sense of perpetual disbelief, his eyes widening. The sheer size of the crowds, the feeling of an avalanche, it all felt so different then anything which had come before.

Two days after my last article was published, 1.2 million took to the streets of Santiago, and this is according to official government estimate. The government estimated that in the country in total, by around that point, 3.7 million people had taken part in marches and protests throughout Chile. With an estimated 15+ population of just 12.5 million, this constitutes a full 29% of the adults and teenagers.

Concessions and Repressions

Two days after that, the largest march in Chilean history, President Sebastián Piñera announced a cabinet reshuffle, including the sacking of the Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick, a Pinochet sympathiser seen as partly responsible for a large amount of the human rights abuses. The next day the state of emergency came to an end.

Piñera and his government switched gears. Unable simply to physically destroy the movement, they moved instead increasingly towards a two-pronged approach. On one hand, a series of concessions were announced. Beginning with a freezing of the metro fare, it moved onwards to welfare and wage increases, pension reforms, utility price freezes, and finally the promise of 2020 referendum on the form of a new constitution. The offer seemed to be for real economic gains in exchange for surrendering revolutionary hopes.

The flip-side of this policy of concession was one of increased repression. The “New Social Agenda,” as the above became known, was effectively approved by every parliamentary party with the exception of the Communists. Importantly, this included the Broad Front, a left-wing coalition which had won around 21% of the vote in the 2017 election, narrowly missing out on the run off, and which holds an outsized influence in the major cities, including the mayor’s office in Valparaiso, the country’s 2nd metropolitan area.

While Piñera and his allies accepted these egalitarian demands, in return they expected, and received support for their “Security Agenda.” This included an anti-mask law, targeted specifically at the “encapuchados” at the front-line of the demonstrations, a law making it harder to prosecute police and military personnel, a law strengthening penalties for looting, vandalism, or “public disorder,” an ongoing attempt to allow the use of the military to “guard infrastructure,” thus freeing up more police to attack the protests, the recruitment of more police, and more.

This ‘consensus’ has deprived the movement of any meaningful institutional allies. More importantly, it has allowed the government and media to increasingly embrace a discursive distinction between the ‘good protesters,’ non-violent marchers in the initial period, and ‘bad protesters,’ “delinquents” and “looters” who wanted only to cause trouble, steal, and commit crime regardless of the social cost.

It is worth noting that this discursive maneuver has proved largely ineffective within society at large. Piñera’s popularity ratings are lower today than ever before. In fact, at 4.6% they are quite possibly the lowest of any ‘democratic’ leader in history. The street movement remains popular and widespread hatred of the state security apparatus has fully taken hold. There is little to no trust in the political class to willingly deliver on promised reforms and the constitutional referendum in April is increasingly seen as a stitch-up operation meant to change the aesthetic form of the regime while maintaining its continuity.

It has succeeded, partially, however, on two separate fronts. First, it has helped to render the protests invisible or un-understandable within the world of the media. ‘The protesters won,’ they say. ‘Why do they continue to cause trouble?’

Within this context, they oscillate between ignoring the protests, belittling them, and offering an array of utterly absurd explanations which reached its apex this week in a BBC Mundo article which claimed that a drought is to blame. Offhandedly dismissing the idea that inequality could be a factor, Chilean “journalist” John Müller does not even suggest it is the structural impacts of this drought, say upon agriculture or the economy, that is to blame. Rather, his answer is “psychological.” Heat, he says, causes people to lose their sense of reason and act like “zombies.” They become violent and can no longer process the meaning or significance of their actions. This is what we are dealing with. (It is also worth noting as the BBC is ever-more criticised for its lackluster election coverage that its international content is even more jaw-droppingly asinine.)

While this invisibility in the press is not in and of itself critical, it provides the state with greater capacity to execute its repressive functions without proper exposure. Reports continue to flood in day after day of rape, torture, and murder at the hands of the state. Two illustrative examples: a popular street performer, Mimo, was arrested. A few days later she turned up raped and hung from a tree. The police claimed that, while they had indeed arrested her, they had subsequently released her peacefully and had no role in her subsequent murder. A second: Le Monde Diplomatique‘s Chilean edition recently exposed reports of mock executions with soldiers lining up blindfolded and bound prisoners against the wall, lowering and aiming their guns, and then firing blanks. There are many more.

The official “end” of the protests has made it all the easier for the right-wing dominated Chilean press to ignore these events while focusing on crack-pot theories and criminalisation to explain what continues.

These concessions, discourses, and publicly declared ‘ends’ of the movement, combined with the continued quasi-invisible repression, has also played a second role. They have suppressed turnout at the demonstrations themselves. The sacrifices being asked for to continue daily protest are large. Many individuals missed weeks of work in the initial uprising and are on the verge of literal bankruptcy. Tens of thousands have been injured or arrested. This personal suffering, the sheer difficulty of attending demonstrations day after day, combined with the appearance of at least some progress and the under-visibility of the continuation of the demonstrations and their repression, leads these individuals to stop turning out while nonetheless continuing to sympathise forcefully with the movement. The ultimate result is that numbers have fallen - from regularly drawing hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands for large rallies and sometimes as few as a few thousand for the daily ones.

Reorientation and Resilience

As emphasized above, however, this real decline in numbers does not necessarily indicate a retreat into normalcy. The opinion of the people remains almost hegemonically behind the protests. What’s more, we have seen the emergence of a number of new initiatives. If there has been any retreat to speak of, it has been a retreat into the barrio.

Whilst, as indicated in the introduction, a second, forthcoming article will address the popular assemblies sweeping Chile in more detail, it is worth briefly addressing them here, if not in great depth. In virtually every neighbourhood, commune, and town in the country, local assemblies have taken root. Some are focused primarily around weekly general assemblies. Others put their effort towards a series of decentralised events and talks. Some zero in on local problems and how to fix them. Others prefer a more abstracted, grand approach.

What is important in this article is not their specific content, but their broader existence and the significance of this existence. They evidence the fact that processes of political engagement and radicalisation have not died, even if the movement in Dignidad is occasionally at a low-ebb.

Two pieces of evidence further reinforce this. First, the Constitution of Chile has become an overnight bestseller, and not for its popularity. For a large number of people, it has become a base text for zeroing in their critiques of what specific laws and structures are hamstringing their lives. While I expect that many reading this article may disagree with the idea that a reformed constitutionalism holds the key to ultimate change, it nonetheless demonstrates the birth of a very real attempt on a popular scale to make arguments structural – to say this movement is not merely about one’s individual life chances, not merely about pensions, wages, or transport fares individually, but about a system of inequality built into the fabric of the state and system.

Secondly, the development of a counter-hegemonic common sense, particularly in relation to the police and military, has become widespread. Kids sing “fuera Piñera” (Piñera out) whilst they play. Every time a cop car passes by my local square, the yells of “paco conchetumadre,” “asesinos,” “violadores,” ring out - “son of a bitch cops,” “murderers,” “rapists.” Flags of the movement fly from window after window. Matapacos (literally “cop-killer”), a famed, now-deceased street-dog who fought alongside anarchists throughout the 2010’s, has become a national symbol of defiance. His portrait graces countless murals, his face countless t-shirts, magnets, and patches. Known for his black fur and red handkerchief, it seems sometimes as though every black dog in the country has now been given one.

Writing in the same Chilean Le Monde Diplomatique referenced above, a special issue on the Chilean uprising, Alvaro Ramis, rector of the Academic University of Christian Humanism (Universidad Academia de Humanismo Cristiano), draws on Marcuse to talk of the rupturing of the “reality principle.” Here in Chile the base precepts – the acceptance of the need for police, the right to private property, the dictum not to steal, the idea of the state and capitalism – have increasingly faced terminal collapse in the face of the protests. As such, the question is no longer over an argument of whether to do away with the present way of things in one way or another. Rather, it becomes what this new subjectivity that has taken hold can produce, what the material demands are, and whether the state can ultimately repress it out of existence.

The Movement Continues

The protests continue of course. They continue in the Plaza de la Dignidad every day. They continue in the barrios, the neighbourhoods, the poor poblaciones on the city outskirts. They continue in every major settlement up and down the country. And they continue with particular force within the Mapuche, indigenous-populated territories of the south. Each and every day the people rally and fight, are wounded and wound, win and lose inch after inch of political and physical territory.

Huge demonstrations were held on 4 November and a general strike on the 12 November. The turnout immobilised the economy, the clashes so great that, it would later be revealed, Piñera considered abandoning the new approach and calling the army back to the streets.

Soon thereafter, attacks on the financial center began. Further general strikes were held from the 25th to the 27th of November, again freezing the economy. Unidad Social, a broad coalition of extra-parliamentary groups including the CUT trade-union confederation, has hinted there are more strikes to come and a further major demonstration occurred last Friday, December 6, during which the center of Santiago was flooded with protesters.

Equally as important, the fighting of the “primera linea” (first line) continues. This group of individuals, hooded and armed with shields, stones, and the occasional molotov, have become the faceless face of the movement, the physical incarnation of both its radicalism and its decentralised horizontality. They have also become famous. Popular posters depicting the “superheroes” of Chile, with the primera linea at the centre, have popped up across the country and the internet.

They also disrupt forcefully the state’s attempts to generate an appearance of normalcy. The present protests would not be able to occur without the physical support and protection of the primera linea. It has been made amply clear that any unapproved demo will be immediately attacked with water-cannons and tear gas. Much as in the Ukraine years ago, the government refuses to allow even peaceable dissent to materially organise itself in the streets.

Thus the violence of the primera linea displaces the state both literally and symbolically. Literally by creating the conditions necessary for mass, grassroots protest. Symbolically for they put paid the imaginary of the state’s omnipotent capacity by acting outside both the system’s rules and its control.

Finally, one must not discount how property destruction has directly undermined capitalism. Thousands of shops have been destroyed – according to some reports over 15,000. It is reported that every Walmart in Santiago has been looted and/or burned. The capitalist economy contracted by 3.4% in October, a month in which the protests only took place for half the time. Numbers from November are yet to be released. Unemployment, much of it caused by the material destruction of workplaces, jumped from 4%-7% and may now be as high as 10%. Obviously, the loss of one’s job is not individually pleasant. However, the capitalist economy will inevitably implode in the face of its political demise. Whilst the world was not yet in the habit of collecting GDP figures in 1917, I doubt it was a very good year for ‘economic growth’ in Russia.

What Next?

The same is likely to continue. The reality in Chile today is one of stalemate. The movement, while continuing and, in some ways, ideologically growing, is at a low-ebb physically-numerically. It seems highly unlikely that this decrease will last indefinitely. A new spark will most probably see numbers increase dramatically, particularly if Piñera succeeds in his proposal to return the military to day-to-day policing roles. However, as I am sure all understand, it is extremely personally difficult to turn up day-in, day-out and as such it was never likely that the 1.2 million high point would be regularly hit.

Nonetheless, the movement has thus far failed to unseat Piñera himself, much less Chilean capitalism. For many on the libertarian left, including myself, a certain hope for popular, street revolutions has been seen as a decentralised middle ground between the state-power seeking behaviour of the political party and the military organisation of the armed revolution. This hope is now being put to the test.

Thus far, the movement is uncrushable yet Piñera remains undefeated. The increasing coordination between the different parties and the different branches of the state and economy can certainly be read as an indication of the system’s fear. In the face of the prospect of displacement, they consolidate for now. However, the tension is not yet enough to cause an implosion and the police and military remain unshakably committed to violently repressing every ‘enemy.’

Thus, what happens next in the short term is likely to be the continuation of the three-pronged thrust of the movement: daily demonstrations, community self-organisation, and semi-regular mass demos and general strikes. Attacks on police stations and communiques from anarchist and communist militants seem to indicate the possibility of a small uptick in armed violence. However, there is little sign that it is about to generalise and little apparent appetite for it. On the other hand, the CUT has thus far resisted demands for a permanent general strike, although certain public-sector unions and workplaces have declared one.

In this climate, Dignidad, at Santiago’s center, remains symbolically critical. The state has been stepping up daily attacks on the square, moving them earlier into the day and using ever more force. They seem to believe that by cutting off the head, they can kill the beast. Realistically it would be a major loss should Dignidad fall. However, in the days since major attacks escalated on Sunday, they have shown no sign of breaking the will to return to the square day in and day out.

Ultimately, as frustrating as it is to write and to read, the future remains to be written. As Ramis pointed out in his article, the Chilean rebellion has unleashed not a single thread of attack, but a generalised explosion of diverse demands and possibilities. A subjectivity of revolt has taken hold and these demands have coalesced effectively into popular coalitions of equally diverse, decentralised actors. The sense of inevitability, of “there is no alternative” in one human’s words, “capitalist realism” in another’s, has been broken. It has become clear to millions that another Chile, ultimately another world is immediately possible. The conditions are all in place. Now, collective, popular agency will play its role. What will happen, to embrace a bit of tautology here, will ultimately depend on what people do.


author

Charlie Ebert

Charlie Ebert is a mobile activist and writer published in a number of outlets. He is currently based in Latin America.

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