Stalemate in Chile: Reflections on the Ongoing Revolt

EDITION: Bad New Times.

Chile wants a revolution but a mixture of the effects of the Coronavirus crisis and an inequality of force has, so far, blocked it.

This is the fourth in a series of articles on the situation in Chile. The first three are available here.

“In March, Chile ends.”

This phrase seemed to have spread across the length of Chile as 2020 took hold. It appeared in newspapers, magazines, and social media. In February, as I spent a holiday hitchhiking through Chilean Patagonia, I heard it again and again on people’s lips, from truck drivers to an IMF data analyst. It had become a consensus.

Of course, this new saying was always tongue-in-cheek. Few predicted the imminent and total collapse of the country. However, the implication—that the ongoing social revolt would explode with new force come March—was real. February, the heart of the Southern Hemisphere summer, is holiday-time for Chileans. Hundreds of thousands of santiaguinos (residents of Santiago) pack into cars, buses, and the occasional still-functioning train and flee the sweltering heat of the capital. It has something of the feel of an exodus with tailbacks at motorway toll booths often stretching kilometers.

This sudden flight of humanity conspired with fatigue, heat, arrests, injuries, and school closures to partially suppress February’s turnouts (it’s worth noting that this is numerical suppression in relative terms – February still saw riotous protests of tens of thousands every Friday in Santiago along with large, regular mobilisations in provincial cities, notably Valparaíso, Concepción, and Antofagasta, and land, water, and anti-toll struggles in the countryside). Students no longer had the geographic centre around which to organise. Sweltering temperatures of 35-40 made marching in the streets in daytime practically impossible. And four months of perpetual fighting had left people exhausted, not to mention those arrested (tens of thousands), wounded (thousands), or killed (an absolute minimum of 30).

March was to mark the end of this summer season, the return of the wave of humanity ‘gone travelling’, and the moderation of temperatures. Having had time to rest and recover, the presumption was that the streets would soon fill once again. Moreover, if Chile has a ‘marching season’, March has always been it. The month features two of the largest annual demos—International Women’s Day on the 8th and the Day of the Young Combatant on the 29th—the latter of which commemorates three teenage militants assassinated in the late years of the Pinochet regime and invariably features widespread rioting in poorer, urban districts throughout the country. It also marks the reopening of universities and secondary schools and, as such, both the reintegration of student social networks and a practical opportunity to block the onset of the school year through strikes and occupations.

Tension was high as the month started. The state rushed the delivery of a new fleet of water cannons. Government buildings were reinforced. Chile waited with bated breath.

Chile Doesn’t (Quite) End

Mobilisations kicked off on March 2nd, dubbed “Super Monday.” Metro stations, still of great symbolic importance, were occupied and clashes spilled out onto nearby streets. On the 4th and 5th, secondary and university students held their own mass rallies, repeating the targeting of Metro stations whilst threatening school occupations upon the resumption of classes (March 9th). The next day, March 6th, the throngs flowed into the centre of the city, numbering perhaps one hundred thousand (official police estimates in Chile are horribly unreliable, even compared to other countries). Intense fighting broke out almost immediately as the police unleashed wave after wave of teargas in an attempt to seize the central square and prevent the demonstration going forward. A water cannon was overwhelmed by protesters and burnt. Serving as a blockade, it long delayed the attempted police advance. Rioting spread simultaneously to several other poorer, outlying barrios of the city.

The next day it was announced that, amidst fighting in the city centre, a protester had been killed, suffering a direct shot to the skull at short range from a tear gas canister. Tensions continued to mount in the run-up to International Women’s Day. Feminist groups have continuously played a key role in the Chilean left, a role only enhanced in the aftermath of the initial uprisings in October. Abortion is largely illegal, barring the usual exceptions, and machismo, if less ingrained than in some Latin American countries, remains a problem. Following revelations of sexual assault between students and the abuse of power of professors, 2018 had seen a wave of feminist occupations reaching at least 24 universities and 9 secondary schools. Many have argued that the surge in militancy that ultimately culminated in the October revolt had its roots in the energy generated here and in the March 8th 2019 demonstrations. Numbers were expected to be huge despite major question marks over security against police attacks and tensions over the participation, or lack thereof, of men in the march.

In the end, the demonstration was unquestionably massive. Organisers claimed a turnout of some 2 million people in Santiago alone which, given the overwhelmingly female make-up of the march, would signify some 25% of all the adult women in the country, not to mention making it the largest day of protest in Chile’s history. The police’s initial number, 125,000, was later rounded up to “at least” 650,000. Momentum was flowing and clashes continuing. Police ambushes of the edges of the march failed to result in significant arrests. In the poblaciónes (poorer suburbs), the new wave of revolt continued to grow; between March 8th and 10th, at least 5 buses were torched and numerous shops looted with the police repeatedly expelled from the streets. It’s worth noting that, particularly on the 8th, many of these demonstrations, which had a clear working class base, made clear their feminist nature—thus putting paid to the image of the ‘middle class’ feminist nurtured by right-leaning media throughout the world.

However, for reasons I’ll attempt to analyse later, this tide soon began to stagnate. Demonstrations, with the exception of the weekly Friday mobilisation, failed to attract large numbers throughout the second week of March, the Friday demo itself failed to grow (although to some degree militancy continued to increase), and student occupations, though themselves growing, failed to reach critical mass. The same is true of sporadic rioting, looting, and fighting in the poblaciónes—they continued, and continue, but didn’t reach the same scale as the first weeks of the revolt. Notably, however, organised and semi-organised attacks, usually using homemade arms, on police stations did see a significant uptick, although their overall numbers remained small.

The rise of coronavirus, unsurprisingly, did not help. With momentum slipping and panic spreading, local assemblies reoriented their efforts towards mutual aid. Self-quarantining became common and large gatherings were banned.

The rise of coronavirus, unsurprisingly, did not help. With momentum slipping and panic spreading, local assemblies reoriented their efforts towards mutual aid. Self-quarantining became common and large gatherings were banned. A joint declaration by a number of primera línea (front line) affinity groups and voluntary medics called for people to stay home. This, for the moment at least, stopped the political confrontation. It also meant, despite popular grumbling, the government was able to delay the planned April constitutional referendum until October (its attempts to further delay it based on claims that it will cost too much during the coming recession have been generally rebuffed).

Ultimately the period since March have provided three key lessons of interest. First, the pandemic has successfully allowed the introduction of police state measures largely aimed at preventing protests though officially oriented towards public health. Given intense quarantine restrictions (it is illegal to be outside for any reason without police permission in Chile, a 10pm curfew is strictly enforced, and exercise, particularly running, is explicitly banned), protesting in the city centre has become impossible. The largest attempt, a small, socially distanced May Day demonstration, was brutally suppressed, with virtually all attendees arrested including journalists and medics (among whose number was Pablo Sepúlveda Allende, grandson of Salvador).

The second lesson was the continuation of mutual aid networks. Chile is without a state-funded unemployment system – employees are rather required to contribute a proportion of their income to a private fund held in the stock market – and over ¼ of the country works in informal labour. As such, money quickly ran out and food became hard to access. Prices began to inch up as petty bourgeois traders and corner store operators took advantage of the crisis (larger companies find it harder to circumvent anti-price gouging laws introduced after the 2010 earthquake). Ollas Comunes, communal lunches, became the key source of food for many. Often these meals and distribution networks grew directly out of local assemblies. The police responded accordingly, frequently attacking the ollas comunes and arresting organisers for violating quarantine laws.

The third lesson grew out of this second. Piñera would not be able to mobilise the crisis to his advantage. Despite an initial bump in his approval rating (reaching year-long highs of 20%), food shortages soon triggered food riots. Sporadic reports of looting have become the norm. The hyper-divided, mostly privatised health system has crumbled. Jaime Mañalich, the minister for health, has taken to televised scolding the Chileans for their indiscipline, denying any culpability for hospital collapses himself. It has become abundantly clear—and on this every political wing of society is in agreement—that the revolt will return as soon as coronavirus departs. The question is only how forceful it will be.

“The Struggle of A People Without Arms”

Between 1975 and 1979, Patricio Guzmán, a then-young Chilean film director, released a series of documentaries exploring the events leading up to the fall of Salvador Allende. Each of The Battle of Chile‘s three parts bore with it the same subtitle: “la lucha de un pueblo sin armas”—“the struggle of a people without arms.”

There is a deep underlying thread throughout the films. The coup was not inevitable. As the “insurrection of the bourgeoisie” mounted and the military began to undermine the government, grassroots supporters began to organise to protect the nascent ‘revolution’, the “Chilean Path to Socialism” as Allende himself labeled it. Factories were seized, farmland occupied, and distribution networks socialised. However, the people’s call for arms, for the formation of “people’s militia,” went unheard. Allende, ever fearful of civil war, remained convinced until the last that he could compromise with the Christian Democratic opposition and maintain the loyalty of his generals. History, sadly, proved him wrong on both counts.

The underlying implication of Guzmán’s film, never fully spelled out but heavily implied, is that arms were exactly what the people needed. More importantly, and structurally, it was arguing that Fascism, seemingly banished from the world outside of its aged Spanish holdout, remained (and remains) the final card in the bourgeois hand, one they were sometimes reticent but always ultimately willing to play. Should the people rise up, should capital be threatened, should electoral democracy go too far, the ruling class could and would use force to reassert its control of the system. In the face of this threat, Guzmán tells us, we have no choice but to arm the movement.

Such proclamations in the 1970s, particularly by Latin American militant leftists, if controversial, would have caused little surprise. Virtually every country in the region had had an armed guerrilla movement at this point. Cuba’s Batista dictatorship had fallen to Castro and Guevera’s army not long earlier. In Asia and Africa, revolutions were sweeping to power in country after country. In Vietnam, the US seemed perched on the edge of defeat. Revolutionary organisation meant at least rhetorical support of armed action.

In 2020, these arguments have become much rarer, whether in Chile or the UK. Very serious and educated critiques have been aimed at armed struggle. Its efficacy, for one, is now doubted by many. The vast majority of guerrilla wars have been lost. It has been decades since one has been truly successful. Moral doubts have been cast as well. “Non-violence” has grown into an ironclad rule for many within left movements. And serious questions about its ability to deliver a desirable future, even if it does triumph, have been raised. The intrinsically centralising command structures of the military campaign, with its necessities of orders, obedience, hierarchy, and, often, strict secrecy, does not lend itself easily to creating a culturally pluralistic, egalitarian, open, and radically democratic world.

Alternative theories of social change have also come to the fore in recent years. The postmodern critique of immediate, overarching transformation and of ‘historical narrative,’ have had a deep impact. These, combined with traditional anarchist and council communist influences reborn more recently through some anti-capitalist movements, have partially looked towards, in the words of John Holloway, ways to “change the world without taking power.” Perhaps even more impactful, the resurrection of the possibility of a “radical social democracy,” be it in the form of Podemos, Corbyn, Mélenchon, SYRIZA, Bernie Sanders, or any of the others, has deeply influenced millions around the world, particularly in the West.

However, the underlying importance of Guzmán’s argument remains extremely relevant, particularly in the case of Chile. The material inequality of forces makes the displacement of capitalism virtually impossible. In Chile, the police and army have made it abundantly clear that they support the Piñera presidency and the post-dictatorship neoliberal settlement and that they are willing to use force to secure its longevity. With the list of casualties ever-mounting, and little to show in the way of progress, the revolt here seems incapable of generating the literal, physical force necessary to overthrow the present state of things.

At the same time, the Allende experiment seems, at least to a great number of Chileans, to demonstrate the infeasibility of using the levers of representative office within the present system to affect fundamental change. Allende occupied the presidency. However, the state, in virtually all its forms, remained opposed to him. He effectively held office without being in power. For one, without the physical capacity to defend any gains made, there is nothing to stop the army from returning. This is to say nothing of the underlying structural obstructions to change. The organised devastation of the Venezuelan economy, never even transformatively socialist, seems to indicate that capital continues to be willing to sacrifice short-term financial gain in exchange for long-term power. Finally, in the face of unhesitating state power and capitalist social organisation, autogestion, squatting, and other forms of ‘prefigurative’ or directly redistributive politics seem destined for prison, suppression, or safe obscurity without a serious capacity for self-defence.

In Chile, the police and army have made it abundantly clear that they support the Piñera presidency and the post-dictatorship neoliberal settlement

I have no answer to the questions raised here over how to defeat the capitalist state. However, it is a question that must be addressed and that we must renew a vigorous debate over. The depressive images conjured up by Guzmán’s subtitle, of a people determined and willing to change the world but ultimately unable to even preserve their own lives in the face of capitalist reaction, remain deeply relevant to the present state of Chile and, quite probably, much of the world. This inequality of force also goes a long way towards explaining the present stalemate—a country which wants a revolution but seems unable to birth it.

A Question of Organisation

A second question must be raised without answers here as well—the question of organisation. Beginning particularly in the 1990s, but growing out of earlier networks of autonomist, anarchist, and anti-capitalist movements, a scepticism towards formal, large-scale organisation has taken hold in the left. I confess myself to be a strong proponent of this scepticism. The priority became affinity groups, neighbourhood assemblies, organic uprising, and loose coalitions. The 20th century model of the Communist Party had failed and something new was needed.

However, as has been argued many-a-time, a great deal of the most inspiring examples of this new organisational mode proved flashes-in-the-pan. The peak of the alter-globalisation movement survived for three years. Yet, it failed to sufficiently extend its activities outside of the summit protests. Of those efforts to do so, most ended up transforming into more conventional NGOs. Other such moments – the anti-war protests, the student uprising, Occupy, and others – proved even shorter in duration. Lacking institutionality, movements surged and then retreated.

While its ability to create cultural bonds of protest allowed the proliferation of black bloc anarchist groups in Europe, thus far, this hyper-decentralised project appears to have failed to truly produce the potential for revolution in the West. In this sense, Chile, along with a few other examples—Argentina between 1999 and 2001 springs to mind – seems to provide the ultimate testing ground. For here, truly, we see a movement without leaders and without political party banners – as Chileans are always quick to mention—bringing the government to its knees and forcing it to rely on the most primitive forms of force to try to retain power.

However, how is the jump, the jump from possibility to actuality, to be made? The total lack of organisational structures to some extent obstructs the realisation of the revolutionary moment, that exact point in time where the state implodes and capitalist property relations find themselves without the raw, physical protection that maintains them. Without the ability to collectively marshall our collective force for a final assault, a revolt of this kind develops something of an element of theatre. Deprived of that ultimate moment, of climax, protests repeat, clashes repeat, death and injuries repeat, without any apparent change in the overall situation. Although it has not yet been the predominant case here, in my estimation, there is a clear propensity for this to damage the momentum of revolt and lead to falling participation.

Of course, there are other models of disruption. The general strike, lasting for a significant period of time and defended by a militant movement, could, in conjunction with attacks on capital’s ability to circulate and the direct redistribution of goods, cause systemic collapse. However, it is exactly the question of how to reach that point where the possible necessity of true, widespread organisation arises. This is, of course, deeply linked as well with the above questions on how to defend and advance these aims physically.

It is important to note that the anti-organisational trend has not been an eternal one within even our anti-authoritarian wing of the revolutionary left, nor does organisation inherently signify the party structure. To take just one example, the CNT in Spain by the 1930s was probably the largest social organisation—so long as you exclude the church—in the history of the country.

Ultimately, I once again do not hold answers but seek to stir debates. For all its good, the lack of any overarching organisation has left the revolt in Chile vulnerable to this present stalemate. Without the ability to organise our forces and direct our efforts towards specific weak points in the state-capitalist regime, we risk falling into a logic of repetition. This is manifestly true in the “movements of the squares,” which Chile has partially become, with its locus of activity forever on retaking and defending, then subsequently losing again, control of the Plaza de la Dignidad. It is a tactic that becomes a strategy and then, without an effective forum in which to discuss and make decisions, an end in and of itself. This clearly lacks the ‘jump’ we need.

Without the ability to organise our forces and direct our efforts towards specific weak points in the state-capitalist regime, we risk falling into a logic of repetition.

A Question of Revolutionary Content

And what happens if we do make that jump? How do we defend it? What do we do and what does what we do mean?

If the question of force has been dismissed and the question of organisation ignored, the question of revolutionary content has been wholeheartedly spurned. The standard response, paraphrasing Marx, is that we do not have a crystal ball and cannot say what policies, what content, what specificities will fill the revolutionary form. We cannot, it tends to go on, even really predict the revolutionary form, what things look like organisationally ‘the day after.’

Quite frankly, this response, while grounded in a commendable relation with reality and openness to innovation and imagination, is insufficient. We do not need to try to predict the exact nature of the future world, how goods will be exchanged in a century’s time, nor what decision-making structures might seem most sensible once capitalism has been wiped out. However, we do need a firm idea of those famed ‘first hundred days,’ a ‘minimum programme,’ in the old Communist-speak, that is not separate to the whole, the ‘maximum programme’ but essential to and a part of it.

What does this mean? It means addressing yet another series of open-ended questions, the first of which is: how will we ensure the revolution has revolutionary content? Street uprisings that have overthrown governments – in the old Eastern Bloc, in Ukraine in 2014, in the Arab Spring—have often seen the old regime replaced by a new one that is (at the most generous assesment) hardly better. How do we prevent that from occurring? The answer here, for once, is relatively clear. We must have an idea of those ‘first hundred days,’ of what that immediate revolutionary surge looks like—not a blueprint, merely an idea.

This could include any number of initiatives, for instance: the immediate cancellation of all rent payments and the turning over of properties to their tenants; the similar cancellation of all mortgage payments; the turning over of workplaces to their workers; the creation of community committees to help manage publicly relevant ‘natural monopolies’ such as transport, gas, and electricity; the seizure of distribution centres and their goods, particularly large ones such as supermarkets; the abolition of the police and of border controls; the dissolution of the judiciary and its replacement by local committees on justice. Additionally, this does nothing to eliminate the need of a long-term vision as well. The patriarchy, for one, is partially, perhaps even principally, maintained by a knot of social and cultural, as well as organisational-structural and economic, relations. Attacking this does not lend itself as easily to such immediate demands as does, for example, ‘turn the houses over to the renters.’ Similarly, saving the planet will require a dramatic reduction in consumption (and thus production) as well as a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. Again, this is not a hundred day process.

My goal here is not even to briefly sketch what such a programme should look like but rather to give an idea of the form it could take as an illustration of my overall point. We must act quickly. The back of the system would have to be broken immediately if a revolution were to survive and prosper. Without this rapid action, the risk of reactionary backslide would be almost insurmountable, whether this comes in the form of armed reaction or ‘bourgeois democratic restoration,’ the implementation of new personnel to run the same machine.

Such formulations, clearly related to the question of organisation, are also critically important to mobilising ourselves into an actually revolutionary moment. For obvious reasons, having a minimal degree of content programmation allows the movement to appeal to new forces. Whilst abstract ideas inspire people, specific plans appeal to the mind. Thus, the cry for “revolution” and “liberation” can be underpinned by the argument for “rent-free housing” and “the elimination of national border enforcement.” This will attract those, of which we can count many in society, frightened by the idea of the “unknown” by giving immediate examples of concrete ‘policies’ and their evidently positive impact on the day-to-day lives of the vast majority of the population. People must have at least some vague idea of not just what the revolution will feel like but what it will look like.

The Coming Debate

Chile is important. This revolt is the most fascinating, potentially impactful event in the recent history of Latin America—at least since Chávez and the rise of the Pink Tide. It has taken an approach and perspective distinct from those of tradition. In this, in the revolt’s similarity to the present movements in the West, it also bears a special urgency to those of us from these areas. Here is a grand experiment, a grand attempt to change the world in an explicitly revolutionary way that has mobilised huge proportions of the population in the face of brutal state repression and media complicity. It has shaken the capitalist state to its core and it yet threatens to bring it tumbling down.

It is exactly because of this great importance that we must not merely cheer from the sidelines but analyse, criticise, celebrate, and question what is occurring here and the significance it has for our movements, our thought, and our fight. I have raised three key questions that have increasingly laid dormant but which are of critical importance for the left, revolutionary or otherwise: the question of violence, the question of organisation, and the question of content. It is my sincere belief that if the Chilean revolt has taught us one thing, it has been that these questions must be openly addressed and debated and, although they will obviously never be resolved, that real progress must be made on our collective thinking on them. The grandest parts of our discussions must remain in the drawer no longer.

The revolt has taught us something else as well—that all of this is possible. We must take the ‘revolution’ seriously, we must discuss what it is and how to make it, for the revolution is knocking at the door. Perhaps it is not yet, to paraphrase Marx, a spectre haunting Europe. But it is certainly a spectre haunting Chile.


Charlie Ebert

Charlie Ebert is a radical and a writer. He is currently based in Santiago, Chile.