Beyond Resistance: The Chilean Social Movement

What has been going on in Chile since the beginnings of this year can be summed up as a major civil unrest with the economic, institutional and political structures that were  imposed undemocratically more than 30 years ago. The student movement has made possible the actual visibility of the roots of this unrest: the forced imposition of an extreme version of the neoliberal model.

Chilean students and the majority of citizens are protesting for a structural change in our educational system. They don’t want to just improve the system (as the government likes to put it), but to change it entirely.

The student’s protests began with the opposition to a continuous process of privatization of public education that has been going on since 1981 with the implementation of the 1980 Chilean Constitution. Students felt that what still remained of public education in Chile deserved to be defended against private interests and a government devoted mostly to ensure ‘a good business climate.’ But as months went by, students felt compelled to go further and demand the ‘end of profit’, end to all usurious credits, and the restoration of public education guaranteed by the State.

They understood that the root of the disastrous and unjust Chilean educational system lay in the legal and economic model imposed by Pinochet’s dictatorship, a ‘Neoliberal experiment’, as they say to refer to the economic policies implanted in Chile since 1975 mainly by the influence of a group of Chilean economists known as ‘Chicago Boys’ (they were trained in the Chicago school of economics by Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger).

Student’s particular demands could not be resolved without tackling first the institutional arrangements created by the dictatorship. Amongst the particular demands they also reject the outrageous high fees (particularly in private universities) pushed by a loans and debt system that affects mostly the working class. Another issue is the lack of democratic procedures in universities, specially the private ones, in which there’s no say for students or education workers on key decisions.

The existing Chilean educational system was basically set up within the context of 1980 Chilean Constitution. This was an illegitimate document imposed in a military dictatorship by a fraudulent referendum. In 1990 general Pinochet approved the Organic Constitutional Law of Education (LOCE) just one day before he left power. This law set up the basic principles that would trigger subsequent conflicts and the civil unrest of the Chilean people. The three main lines of this law were: personal responsibility and rational choice of the parents in the education of their children; freedom for privatisation and market driven education; and depoticized education with minimum state control.

As you may recognize these are some of the basic principles of the neoliberal doctrine based in a combination of ‘free’ market economy with a conservative bias. Therefore, students are essentially questioning these neoliberal principles, because they have become conscious that these enable not only institutionalized inequalities but an economic assault on the working class, who is forced to go into debt with huge interest rates for life.

The emergence of this student movement is the symptom of huge contradictions in Chilean neoliberal society. Our so called ‘democratic’ society (as politicians like to emphasise) is grounded on the repression and outright exploitation of the majority of the population, much like the process of ‘primitive accumulation’ that gave birth to bourgeois society as a whole. This means that as long as this economic and institutional framework exists, Chilean society will not be able confront its own truth, which is the truth of its internal contradictions. We have only a formal democracy, almost totally co-opted by 4 or 5 families whose fortunes equal the annual income of 80% of the Chilean population.

This conflict actually started in 2006 with the first mass mobilization of high school students known as ‘The Penguin Revolution’. Back then, the student’s demands were basically the same: abolition of the LOCE law, to strengthen the role of the State, to end school’s municipalisation, and to end all profit. The negotiations between the two major political blocks excluded students and none of their central demands were addressed. The outcome was the promulgation of the General Education Law (LGE) that replaced the previous LOCE through rather superficial changes.

Between the final years of ‘socialist’ President Michelle Bachelet and 2010 when the right-wing candidate, Sebastián Piñera, got into power, the social unrest in Chile was rising for various reasons: the crisis in the transport system; the brutal repression of the Mapuche people in the south; and the outrageous and undemocratic approval of several thermal power stations across the country, destroying the environment and displacing local communities.

These problems were aggravated once Piñera got into power. This was mainly because instead of doing something about them, his administration chose to pose as a right-wing populist and media-led government, highly ideological in the neoliberal sense, and by the use of national catastrophes such as the 2010 earthquake and the miner’s accident to distract public opinion over these social issues.

At the beginnings of 2011, students from Universidad Central of Chile organized to stop the selling of the 50 % of the university and the incorporation of an investors firm in the board of directors. They demanded the expulsion of the board’s president, a member of the Christian Democrat Party. They went on an indefinite strike. These initial events helped to unravel the way in which supposedly non-profit institutions actually made huge profits. Further strikes and walk-outs progressively triggered mass protests in the months to come.

The occupations of Universities and schools started in June (with 5 universities and more than a 100 schools) while the number of people (not only students) marching weekly on the streets was rising up to 400.000 people nationally. Meanwhile the proposals of the education minister, Joaquín Lavín (a former ‘chicago boy’), got rejected by the students, and the government opted for the anticipation of the winter holidays as a way to weaken the movement. In July, 33 high school students began a hunger strike that lasted for more than 70 days. Other events included the ‘1800 hours initiative’ to run for education around the government palace, and many flash-mob demonstrations such as the ‘thriller for education’, gathering 3.000 people that danced in front of the Presidential Palace. After a rushed cabinet shuffle, the education minister was removed due to its conflict of interests and its incapacity to answer to the student’s demands. On August 24th and 25th workers and students called a National 2 days Strike demanding a major tax reform, a national referendum, and a new and democratic constitution through a process of Constituent Assembly. In the same month students occupied the offices of the new education minister, Felipe Bulnes, and then on October 20th they occupied the former Chilean congress, confronting scared politicians and making run away the minister while chanting ‘What the people needs is free education! Because the people is tired of the laws of the market/state!’ Since then, the mobilizations have turned bigger, and also the riots, violence, and police brutality, that resulted in the murder of Manuel Gutierrez, a 14 years old student killed by the police. Currently, politicians are trying to pass the 2012 budget for education, reducing the discussion only to quantative terms. The students opposed an eventual agreement between the two major political blocks, much like the one on 2006.

From students and workers unions to strong grass-root social organizations, and regular people, right now this movement is way beyond a student movement, and this because the struggle has tended to be universalized: from initial and particular requests to the government; to claims aiming to critique state’s institutions rather than passively accept its rules; to finally, when particular demands come together, an overt attack to the system as such.

I think that when we face this third stage in a massive social movement any kind of political action needs to go further than mere ‘resistance’ or ‘defence,’ and attack, fight back, and propose alternatives. Chilean people are no longer simply ‘resisting privatization but rather attacking the very foundations and assumptions of bourgeois society.

Education in Great Britain is facing a similar process of complete privatization, facing the white paper, increasing fees, and major cuts to the public sector. Like Chile, these changes are possible because a conservative government (Thatcher) set the appropriate conditions, and the subsequent ‘liberal-left’ governments just kept ‘doing the thirty jobs for conservatives’. But British students have a great advantage: the privatization process has not yet been completed. This is a major challenge for the movement in Britain. What British students are fighting for now, is what Chilean students should have fought for 30 years ago. Now Chilean students have woken up and they are trying to reverse 30 years of neoliberal repression on thought and the right to education.

October 2011, Liverpool

(Part of this report was presented at the Education Activist Network conference “The New College of Resistance” at London, October 29, 2011)

Links: Education Activist Network

Breaking NEWS: Chilean student confirmed to speak at EAN teach-in « Education Activist Network

Occupy Wall Street, Chilean student & LSX occupier join the conference + Bring your Tents! « Education Activist Network

Education Activist Network’s Statement of Support for Chile’s Student Activists « Education Activist Network


About patriciodestefani

My main focus is on the role of architecture within capitalist society and the search for a radical alternative practice.
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