The story of how Chile, in the decades after its 1973 coup and death of democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende, became one of the most neoliberal societies on the planet is well known. But there’s been a remarkable reversal over the last few years. Chile’s current president, Michelle Bachelet, less than a year into her second, non-consecutive term, is advancing an ambitious legislative agenda, related to voting, education, labor, same-sex civil unions, abortion and the environment.
But she is doing it—or able to do it—only because she is being pushed from below. Chile, long held up as a model of “free market” orthodoxy, has become a different kind of example. It’s become model of intersectionality on the march: social movements, students, environmentalist, worker, LGBT—have not only scored concrete victories, they are showing that it is possible to de-neoliberalize policy and resocialize consciousness.
Before the details, take a second to consider the chronology of Chile’s political history since Augusto Pinochet, who seized power in 1973, stepped down as formal head of state in 1990. For twenty years, between 1990 and 2010, Chile was led by a series of democratically elected Concertación governments, a center-left political coalition that simultaneously consolidated (and legitimated) Pinochet’s neoliberal economic model while gradually working to democratize society.
In 2009, at the end of Bachelet’s first term, Concertación lost (since the “transition to democracy”) its first presidential election, to Sebastián Piñera, a right-wing businessman who made his money in that sine qua non of neoliberal economics: the credit card. This conservative interregnum (2010–14) jump-started a mobilized left. Popular protests, constrained during the rule of nominal Concertación allies in previous governments, picked up steam. Especially environmentalists (who last year won a major victory, scuttling plans to despoil Patagonia) and students took the lead.
Piñera had many historical connections to Chile’s old death-squad Pinochet right. But to get elected he successful passed himself off as something like a European conservative, a modern technocrat. Protest movements, in particular those led by students—hundreds of thousands of them occupying high schools and universities and taking over public spaces across the country—utterly destroyed Piñera’s effort to present himself as a center-left moderate. His poll numbers plummeted and never recovered. Here’s The Economist’s lament, in 2012 : “Two years ago Mr Piñera, a billionaire businessman, led the centre-right Alliance to power after two decades of rule by the centre-left Concertación coalition.… [in 2010] his approval rating soared to 63% … Thanks mostly to the students, it is now just 29%.” Thanks, students!
The movement had specific demands having to do with de-privatizing education (more on that below). But it linked demands to a comprehensive analysis. The placards, slogans, memes, innovative tactics, and alliances with other social groups, especially unions, made it clear that despite whatever they weren’t learning in the classroom, they were learning something somewhere: Pinochet was singled out as the founders of a “system” that had a local expression in Chile, but was global in its reach: Neoliberalismo. And they made it clear that neoliberalismo was much more than a set of policies or privatizations, it was the colonization of consciousness, a “way of life,” a capitalist metaphysics. Dressed as zombies, protesters staged public performances of Michael Jackson’s Thriller followed up by mass public kiss-ins. Social-solidarity life against neoliberal death.