Carlos Lagos P. and Jorge Budrovich S. discuss the massive student movement in Chile and the social unrest which has accompanied it.
…. oh, terrible days of green youth! Ah, on the road nearby, I hear the solitary song of the worker returning to his poor lodging, late, after the revels: and it grips my heart fiercely to think the whole world passes, and scarcely leaves a trace. See: the holiday’s over; some nondescript day follows; time carries off all mortal things.
Giacomo Leopardi, Canti XIII, La sera del dì di festa
To understand and make sense of the recent wave of social unrest in Chile, we have to refer to the history of the last half century of this country: the revolutionary upsurge that had its peak in late 1972, the destruction of the social movement after the military coup, the neo-liberal restructuring imposed by the Pinochet regime and the consolidation of that legacy by successive civilian governments. Such events, which have overshadowed the lives of several generations of Chileans, now emerge in a new light. Recent events seem to suggest that this nightmare was only an interlude between two festivals, and that it was only a matter of time before the old tensions re-emerged. Today, however, these tensions emerge in a much more educated form than forty years ago. Four decades of forced modernization in the economy and the culture had to leave their mark on minds and hearts: revolt has broken out again, but now with a decidedly “citizenist” (“ciudadanista”) cast, full of moderation and very suspicious of the ideologies and grievances that ruined everything in the uprisings of the past. What earlier generations had clearly perceived as class struggle and the abolition of an anachronistic social system, is now viewed with a much friendlier and more optimistic eye. Today the issue is not abolishing the horrible dominant mode of production, but to make it fulfill its promises. Indeed, although the current protest movement is far from homogeneous, it is easy to recognize its fundamental ethos: since it has not yet posed the question of the exploitation of man by man, but only its moderation, what this movement pursues is nothing but the old and incongruous dream of a good capitalism.
This crude affirmation does not mean we condemn this social movement in any way. The revolt that shook Chile over the past year has changed many things for the better, starting with the fact that it has awakened a social force that seemed to be languishing forever, and whose transforming potential we can scarcely foresee today. But this latent revolutionary force will never fully emerge if it is not aware of its own reality, its current limitations and future possibilities. Groping, especially through its most minoritarian and ambitious nuclei, the rebellious movement is trying today to ask the right questions, to arrive at more fruitful answers and to be fully aware of its strength and its real possibilities
With this text we wish to contribute to the social process now underway.
This movement of revolt, so full of unabashed confidence and realism, so free of messianic impulses and so hostile to the drama of the old class struggle, does not claim to change everything, and knows it. But it knows very well, on the other hand, what it does want to change. It wants to wipe out the old oppressive atmosphere which for decades has not allowed anyone to breathe freely, and that on first approach comes from an easily recognizable source: the educational apartheid that is also an outrageously lucrative business; authoritarian political institutions embedded in a constitution imposed by force of arms; the looting by transnational capital of natural resources and the resulting environmental devastation throughout the country, the ruthless exploitation of the labor force and its subjugation by credit, advertising and medication; the despotic control over politics and culture by ten billionaire families whose fortunes amount to one third of GDP …
All this, which was known and accepted as a fact of nature, has suddenly emerged as an intolerable reality. Consequently, there emerges an overwhelming need to change it and the suspicion that, after all, it is possible to change it. Of course, from the simple daily hassles to the consciousness that there is a socio-economic structure which produces them, there is always some distance to be traversed.
These themes had been, so to speak, in the air for some time. In recent years news kiosks have begun to gradually accommodate citizen newspapers, leftist and even anarchist publications, whose headlines challenge the government of the day and sometimes spread openly anti-capitalist positions. Some neighborhood radio and TV channels have developed, although with great difficulty, in various regions of the country.
At the same time, a “popular culture” has emerged at “ground level” with fairs, plays, music concerts, workshops and meeting places, which served as a refuge for many people reluctant to accept the frivolous desert of mass culture. This slow and laborious reconstruction of the initiative and creative power of ordinary people held out steadily and against all odds for decades, and has formed a breeding ground for revolt. The most notable result has been, above all, a certain spirit. Last spring, one felt, at times and everywhere, something of a breath of optimism and of power spreading through people’s countenances and words. One felt, after each day of protest, the joy that comes from the struggle, of any struggle whereby we will no longer be kneeling before our masters. On the walls of the city center one can read: “We will lose a year, but we will win the future,” “We are poor people at war,” “The streets are ours,” “Kill your rector,” “social war,” “joy and subversion”…
The main protagonists of the revolt were the secondary and university students. Since April, when there was the first big march organized by the CONFECH (the Chilean Student Confederation), the movement has never stopped growing in geographical extent and intensity, multiplying since then the occupations of schools, colleges and university campuses. The first manifestations, driven by the university students, focused on the modest demands which had been customary in previous years: more state funding for universities, for scholarships and for the National Student Card.1
Successive government responses to these demands were rejected by the students, which gave greater intensity to their demonstrations, and especially to street actions. This radicalization and extension of the movement forced the government to give in on one of the key demands of the moment: the resignation of Education Minister Joaquin Lavin. That was followed by an increasingly vast and intense escalation, which included calls by the CUT2 for a “national strike,” days of heavy street fighting from early morning until evening, and massive “cacerolazos,” beating on pots and pans in every street and every neighborhood,3
which otherwise had not been used in Chile since 1985, when it was often a form of opposition to military rule.
Only the arrival of the end of the year, with the cessation of academic activities and of uncertainty about the results of a “wasted” school year, defused the intensity of that progression of mutual challenges between the government and the mobilized masses.
The occupation of the local high schools for several months allowed students to develop their initiative in creating workshops and courses, artistic events, forums and lectures… This has not only fueled an increasingly accurate critique of the educational system, but also helped socialize to some extent a more elaborate critique of capitalism. Moreover, the occupied premises served as shelter against the brutal attacks of the police, which had systematically attacked the students with water cannon, tear gas, batons and torture sessions aboard the police vans.
This repression, directly ordered by Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter and his political team, did not, however, prevent the increasingly massive marches from being accompanied in turn by ever more numerous and better organized groups of self-defense, willing to confront the police force with stones, sticks and Molotov cocktails. As the weeks passed, it became common for students to perform lightning actions, leaving the occupied buildings to block the main streets, and stopping traffic early in the morning, thus bringing traffic to a halt in large parts of the capital and in the provinces. Most of these actions were sparked by high school students. The university students were more oriented to marches and “symbolic” protests.
The difference in the fighting methods of both sectors reveals a fairly significant fact, which we will try to elucidate further: during the whole wave of protests, radicalization of the high school students was largely ignored, and sometimes even rejected by the university students, who showed themselves generally more confident in the ability of institutions to provide a “negotiated” end to the crisis. The general perception, as the end of the year approached, is that the university organizations completely abandoned the high school students, and did not even include their demands in the negotiations initiated with the government and parliamentary representatives.
This attitude by the university students seems difficult to understand if one takes literally the central demand of the mobilization, which, moreover, was the same for all sectors: “an end to profits in education, free and public education at all levels.” But, of course, it is better not to take this literally, but rather read between the lines. This slogan expresses the general interests of a large mass of people eager for better living conditions, and who have found a way to express their discontent in a more or less unified and coherent way, but it also tends to hide the fact that this mass is rigidly segregated in sectors experiencing class domination, and the practical struggle against it, in different ways. Though this movement expresses a crisis of the reproduction of capitalist dynamics, and though to understand it we need to include all the actors within the general category defined as exploited labor power, that should not blind us to the fact that within the movement there is a real segregation with real practical and possibly decisive effects.
The demand for free education finds its legitimacy at almost a common sense level for most of the Chilean population, mainly because the increasing privatization of education has only contributed to the deteriorating quality of life for all who must sell their labor power to survive. Those who do not have capital or a rich enough family inheritance see obtaining a college or technical degree the only hope for a job and a decent life. With education being perceived as a vital necessity of the first order, its transformation into a lucrative business controlled by banks could only exacerbate the discontent of people. In fact, the full liberalization of the education business has taken things to disconcerting extremes: in Chile, studying for a university degree costs about $500 monthly, which when paid on credit can add up to $60,000, in a country where the minimum wage is less than $300 and the average wage is around $900. The common perception in this regard is ambivalent: on one hand, Chileans assume that “studying is for those who have money”; on the other hand, they consider professional qualifications as a need so basic that they have long been willing to endure any hardship or indebtedness to get them.
This disproportionate emphasis on professionalism has to do with immediate economic calculation, which in turn is justified by a powerful ideology. Currently two out of three college students are first generation, meaning that for their parents “higher” education was never anything but an impossible dream. The current generation of students and professionals carry with them this new burden of expectations that their parents and grandparents developed in an era of economic growth and of the expansion of individual consumption. Indeed, the idea which has acted as a driving force of the current mobilization is that higher education is not only a necessity but also a fundamental human right which the State must guarantee to all. Such an idea is inseparable from a belief in an unlimited expansion of production, consumption, of the cultural industry and of material well-being, and as such is part and parcel of a powerful faith in the basic logic of capitalism: infinite growth.
But it is not just a mirage. No ideology could hide the fact that in Chile today 60 percent of university graduates do not work in the field for which they studied, and this figure can only increase in the future. That proletarianized families nonetheless continue to make enormous sacrifices to professionalize their children is a result of the severe defeat of the workers in recent decades. As long as the Chilean working class is deprived of the most basic tools of economic struggle, its ability to recover some of the surplus value that the capitalist class takes from them in the production process has been reduced to a minimum. This weakening of the work force in relation to capital is clearly expressed in the very fact of economic growth in Chile: in recent decades almost all of this growth is attributable to corporate profits, while the overall wage bill relative to GDP growth has only decreased to negligible levels.
Given the apparent impossibility of extracting from employers the means for a minimally comfortable subsistence, Chilean workers have had no other way to escape from economic insecurity than to mortgage their hopes on the promises of well-being that professional qualifications imply, either for their children or for themselves. That this defeat of the working class, moreover, has been transformed into a booming capitalist business, is evidenced by the fact that nearly half of higher education is provided by Technical Training Centres (TTCs) and Professional Institutes (PIs), whose slightly lower fees than those of the universities have made their main marketing “target” the middle and lower layers of the population. Significantly, among the ranks of the lower classes, these PIs and TTCs are currently recruiting 87 percent of first-generation students, of whom 40 percent study in the evening in order to work during the day.
This, however, does not prevent these young people from graduating with a bank debt averaging $25,000, with interest rates higher than those imposed on the relatively privileged students at the state universities, whose employment prospects are much higher than those of the poorest students. All told, the increased access of poor families to higher education through these non-university centers does not at all mean that the rigid segregation reflected by the ESOMAR mode4
has become more flexible, since the quality of education that a young person receives and their labor market prospects depend on how much his/her family has paid previously. The industry of technical-professional education, in the best of cases, assures that members of the lower middle strata remain there, which, in any case, seems better than nothing.
The multi-million dollar business of the TTCs and the PIs continues to be presented, nevertheless, as a contribution to the advancement of the workers. Whether the workers believe it or not, the fact is that labor market saturation and the relative stagnation of wages never fail to show that this seeming way out is as illusory as any other within the existing framework of relations between capital and labor. For now, professionalization seems at least to give atomized workers psychological security and self-esteem in an extremely competitive and precarious environment.
For this and other reasons, the preservation of university education is a palpable reality, something concrete to defend, only for one-fourth of the Chilean population, including the most privileged classes. For other strata, “advanced studies” continue to be for the most part out of reach. This persistent social stratification must be taken into account if we seek to understand why, during the last wave of agitation, university and secondary students seemed to take divergent paths. The interests of the former consists, above all, in softening the burden of indebtedness they have had to take on, without forgetting that they did so in exchange for a personal validation already guaranteed them and one which was for life. They are already integrated in the mechanism which assures them of their places in the higher echelons of society, and their struggle is basically to keep increasing costs and debts from pushing them into the strata below them. For them, “an end to profits” in education means ending the risk of losing their relatively privileged socio-economic position.
For the students at the secondary level, taken as a whole, the situation is different. In fact, 40 percent of them study in technical-professional high schools, which set their life trajectory on a clear direction, one quite far from the universities and from the upward social mobility offered as compensation to whose students who “really work hard.” At least for the 65 percent of secondary students, who come from the poorest two-fifths of the population, these promises seem mainly a joke, because they are hardly stupid, and they know that their life situation from an early age gives their life chances an indelible stamp.
As a result, for them the slogan of “an end to profits” in education does not mean improvement in a situation which is already assured them, but rather conquering something they never had and which they will never have if things continue as they are. This is the reason why the occupations, hunger strikes, barricades and confrontations have been carried out mainly by the 75 percent of young people who attend municipal or subsidized high schools, and not by those from the private high schools whose access to the university has been guaranteed from birth.
This also explains other revealing facts. For example: since 2006, the Coordinating Assembly of Secondary Students (CASS) has developed more ambitious sets of demands and more audacious programs for action, going well beyond the timid demands raised year after year by the CONFECH. Further: the CASS, and not the CONFECH, actively solidarized with the casualized miners of El Teniente on strike in May 2011, almost as soon as the last waves of protests began. During this joint march of miners and students, the secondary school youth spontaneously adopted the slogan “nationalization of copper under workers’ control” as a demand of their own, since they know that without structural economic changes, they will never set foot in a university.
But this disconnect between secondary school and university students does not merely reflect a spontaneous divergence of interests, determined by socio-economical stratification. It corresponds to the very logic of a social movement which is being instrumentalized for the specific ends of a political caste. The very existence of a “student” movement delimited as such, mediatized by the celebrities of the university student bureaucracy, fits, like other “citizen” movements, in the programmatic development of a left which, for now, has no other perspective than participation in national political life, which means in the life of the parties in power.
Whether this objective is expressed in calls for a “new kind of politics,” or anything else, is of no importance, because at bottom it is an attempt to expand the parameters of the same old politics, the only kind that is possible in a capitalist economic framework. At least in part, the power of the last mobilization can be explained by this ever more imperious necessity for the left to regain its existence as an active political force. Or, in other words, as an entity floating above the social movement to determine its evolution from the outside, as the active negation of the social.
This helps us answer the question why, today, the student movement is being much more intransigent in its demands than was the “penguin revolution”5 of 2006, or the periodic student “flues” of recent years. The fact is that, in the past several decades, the destruction of the social “tissue” gives the parties of the left and the right the monopoly over formal organizations, as well as over the very initiative and capacity for action of students and workers, in the student centers, federations and unions.
Discontent and rage have always been there, but while Social Democracy was in power, the supporters of the regime—well placed in the open spaces for action and thought in high schools, universities and companies—were able to use them to channel protests into directions that did not endanger the political credibility of the ruling parties. Thus the large mobilization of 2006 was unable to formulate any clear objective beyond the repeal of the general education law and free public transportation for students, remaining in a defensive position. This led to an agreement which helped to strengthen the image of the government then in power. Today, those political militants have quite simply ceased to act, allowing protest energy to flow spontaneously toward the more logical objective: the demand for free education, which was always in the air without being expressed with the clarity and force it took on in the past year.
The “laissez-faire” strategy toward the social movement, however useful it may be for the left and center left parties, also implies a potential loss of control which is difficult to ignore. This potential self-activity is obvious in the proliferation of autonomous means of communication, the assemblies and the independent networks emerging in recent months, through which a distant and cautious attitude toward parties and formal organizations became clear. This attitude was given form in a slogan cropping up repeatedly in the street demonstrations: “The people united moves forward without a party.”6 The spread of the conflict throughout the country also shows in some way this relative autonomy of the social movement from the parties, since the formal organizations have always tended to concentrate their forces in the capital, thus following the modus operandi of bourgeois politics, which centralizes and concentrates things in order to better control them.
In previous years, social agitation did not succeed in changing life in the provinces, where normally action tends to be very isolated and have a merely symbolic character. During the last wave of protests, on the other hand, in many cities, there were road blockages, “cacerolazos” and confrontation. This geographical extension of the conflict is especially revealing of the centrifugal tendencies of the movement, which found a powerful decentralizing impulse in its center, immune to any political manipulation.
The meaning given to all these events varies a great deal, of course, depending on the position one occupies in the order of exploitation; but for everyone it has some meaning, and this is perhaps the most important change: the revolt has forced people to think about how, why and for what they are living. Some, perhaps those most damaged by the capitalist order, have been content to take advantage of the temporary turmoil in a daily asphyxiating routine, throwing their own energies into increasing this turmoil. Others, more confident, have been redoubling their efforts to built up and increase what they call “popular power,” which is nothing else than the power of initiative and the ability to react which are hammered out in the course of the struggle itself. There are always those who, above all, pursue their politics, and those who bend submissively to the temperament of the majority, whatever that may be.
If, finally, one had to point to a dominant discourse which imposed its meaning on virtually all the manifestations of this revolt, this discourse can be summarized as follows: if we have taken to the streets, this means that the history of Chile has once again taken up its old march towards a future which will be most just, more developed, happier and more democratic…
Outside this candid desire for harmony between social classes, in the framework of a “good national capitalism,” there is not much else. An understanding of the how and the why of the categories which define real existing capitalism is something which remains deeply disconnected from the social malaise and its practical expression. Between the clamor about “civil society” and the latter-day regurgitations of Leninism, the radical critique of the system has at best a phantasmagoric presence in the public scene. In Chile, in the last analysis, explosions of mass non-conformity continue to be, as in other epochs, much ado within a disarmed prophecy.
- 1This card is used for discounts on various types of purchases.
- 2The Confederacion Unitaria de Trabajo, the national trade-union confederation.
- 3This method of protest characterized such uprisings as the “piquetero” revolt in Argentina in 2001–02.
- 4A plan for measuring social-economic status.
- 5A shorter-lived student mobilization in 2006, which began to raise some of the demands.
- 6 “El pueblo unido avanza sin partido.” A significant “correction” of the putrefied Popular Front slogan “el pueblo unido jamas sera vencido,” which mass demonstrations were chanting in Santiago just days before the September 1973 overthrow of Allende, and which has been mindlessly taken over by the international left with no apparent understanding of its sinister overtones.