Perspectives from Chile on the Constitutional Plebiscite
In October 2019, an uprising exploded throughout Chile. For a while, the police and armed forces lost control. Seeking to placate the rebels, the government announced a plebiscite about whether to replace the constitution, a relic of the far-right dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. A majority of the parties in congress drew up a roadmap for this process, calling it the “Agreement for Social Peace.” In May 2021, elections to determine who would participate in the constitutional process were hailed as a victory for “independent” politics—though we expressed concern that this process would chiefly serve to pacify social movements, pointing out that today, it is much easier to rally opposition to a government than it is to make change via state institutions. As it turned out, in the plebiscite of September 4, 2022, a majority of Chileans voted to reject the proposed constitution—shocking many Chilean leftists, who had not expected such a resounding defeat.
Hoping to gain insight into these events, we sent a series of questions to several thoughtful participants in autonomous social movements. Some of them suspended their rejection of state politics to participate in the constitutional process, while others remained outside the process, taking note of the ways that it shaped the possibilities in Chilean society at large.
Looking on from a distance, the events in Chile strike us as part of a familiar pattern. The institutions of capitalism and the state impoverish and oppress people, precipitating revolt; the defenders of those institutions scramble to channel anger and desire for change back into reforming the prevailing institutions; as they shift their attention to reform and electoral politics, the rebels lose leverage on those who hold power, and the cycle repeats itself.
In fact, electoral politics has served to subdue revolutionary movements since the emergence of modern democracy. In France, immediately after the revolutions of 1848 and 1870, elections served to return reactionaries to power; at the apex of the May 1968 uprising, president Charles de Gaulle regained control by calling a new election for June 23. Transformative social change takes place at a different pace than the establishment of majorities. Seeking to legitimize proposals by majority vote—rather than opening up space for experimentation by decentralizing the processes that distribute agency and legitimacy—will always reduce political possibility to the lowest common denominator.
The same repressive process can play out even via direct democracy, especially when it becomes separated from the force of revolt that offered it leverage in the first place. Movements that wait to reach consensus before taking action tie their hands from the start, as we can see by comparing different encampments during the Occupy movement. In Bosnia in 2014, an uprising that began with the burning of government buildings ended with a whimper when the plenums that had crafted a proposal for social change discovered that the reconstituted government no longer had any need for reform once the threat from the streets had abated. It seems to us that the transformative process of revolt itself is the important thing to self-organize, not formal processes to achieve social change through the institutions of the state. Anything that distracts us from this priority can only weaken our movements.
We still remember how, at the high point of the 2019 revolt, for about a month, Santiago and many other parts of Chile were self-organized via a decentralized network of neighborhood assemblies employing a wide array of decision-making structures. Each one was shaped by the participants, focusing on the matters that concerned them and discussing what could be done immediately with the resources at their disposal. This remains the high-water mark of popular power in Chile.
After the constitution was approved, the cabildos (town hall meetings) began in many of the same spaces. They appeared to mimic the neighborhood assembly format, but focused on discussing the constitutional process. The immediate power that people had experienced in their neighborhood assemblies gave way to a sense that power came from the state—or at least through the state—and that their desires would eventually be fulfilled at the end of a long, orderly, democratic process. (“And you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”)
Comparing the events in Chile with the grim end results of other left electoral victories in Brazil, Greece, and Spain—which admittedly did not go so far as to propose to establish a new constitutional basis for government—it seems to us that anything that draws us back into trying to reform the institutions of power can only sidetrack us and obscure our real proposals by associating them with the inevitable failures of the state. From our perspective, the failure of the constitutional process in Chile is a cautionary tale. At the same time, if we want to foster movements that can reject such compromises and continue building strength through changing circumstances, we will have to innovate ways to make them sustainable.
We’ve edited the responses for brevity and clarity. The original answers will appear in the Spanish version of this article. The photographs appear courtesy of Frente Fotográfico, who write, “The fantasy that the nostalgic Chilean oligarchy of the dictatorship is going to give up its privileges through democratic means has once again led us to defeat.”
A Mapuche Anarchist Perspective
How would you like us to describe you?
I am a queer Mapuche anarchist nihilist involved in the rebuilding of an active anarchist library, support for anarchist political prisoners, and neighborhood organizing, focused more on creating encounters and sharpening thought among anarchists specifically, with little faith in “the people.”
Did you have any hope for what might come out of the constituent process? What was the best possible case?
The revolt of October 18, 2019 awakened a great hope for political change in Chile. There were clear demands to change the country’s policies on a structural level.
Social unrest was widespread, advancing demands about health, education, the Private Pension System (AFP), basic human rights—which today are inoperative in any modern democracy—gender perspectives, women’s rights, the LGBTQIA+ community, animal rights, ecological rights, and Indigenous rights. The fundamental issue was the need to put an end to the constitution that was created during the dictatorship, which organizes the country as a big company, tying the hands of ordinary people so they cannot do anything to put a stop to resource extraction, corruption, and exploitation.
The entire political class failed to appease the demonstrators for several weeks—despite many deaths, hundreds of people mutilated by gunshots, hundreds of people imprisoned. In the face of this, President Sebastián Piñera summoned the political parties of all stripes to create an “Agreement for Peace.” Behind closed doors, they organized to stop the social crisis that was happening.
The ruling class and the political class were desperate. The most conservative parties and the left parties agreed that the situation could not go on; they announced that they had decided to call for a plebiscite to decide whether people wanted a new constitution and how it should be shaped.
The “Agreement for Peace” rejected any attempt to restrict resource extraction, including water use, mining, forestry, agriculture, and livestock. Of course, these are the main causes of inequality and impoverishment.
The cabildos, or popular assemblies, arose in all the territories. They were convened around questions, so that the participants in the constitutional process would know the thinking and wishes of the people. The cabildos were organized by territory or by community. So, for example, there were feminist, ecological, and LGBTQIA+ cabildos, in which any person who felt called could participate.
The trap of these spaces was that the political parties structured them and imparted a bias to them. So the questions varied depending on the social classes or territories involved, creating different points of view.
Still, throughout that stage of the process, there was an atmosphere of citizen cooperation—people began to understand better how everything is organized, how everything is connected between the different institutions, and how this economically affects all aspects of life in a neoliberal system.
There was no way to avoid taking a position on the issues that arose with the revolt. The social movements that existed before the revolt strengthened their struggles and many more people became politically involved in confronting various forms of social precarity. In this sense, the fear generated by the dictatorship vanished, opening doors to debate and criticism of the system.
The desire to overturn the old rules that govern this country after so many years of political blindness and social apathy—the fact that everyone is talking about the issues that affect us as a society—this is undoubtedly a great achievement, generated by all of the people who took to the streets to fight for a more just society for all.
Do you feel that the popular social movements that participated in the Constituent the constituent convention compromised their principles?
The issue of whether to participate in the constituent process did not generate much conflict. It was clear that this process, which has always been comprised of a select few from the aristocratic and business elite, should include Indigenous peoples, who have always been outside of any state organization and decision-making throughout the history of this and other territories.
Gender parity has always been relegated to the sidelines. We know that there are often women on the right and women on the left. Women on the right are strongly opposed to feminism, but it was also necessary for feminist women to be involved in shaping the laws that will condition the lives of millions of them.
People from the underclass or middle-class sectors, who raised important issues during the revolt, involving the whole population in the future organization of this country—they deserve to be involved in the process, too. I will never believe that legal means are the way to bring about real social change, but I believe that at a symbolic and representational level, this is very important.
The participants in the constitutional convention were elected from all the regions of the country, from all the Indigenous ethnic groups, including openly Indigenous ethnicities, as well as people openly opposed to the new constitution. All the social sectors were represented in one way or another. It is important to emphasize that participating in a constitutional convention does not prevent one from participating in other forms of organization.
One event that seemed to me to be symbolic occurred on the first day that the convention met at the palace of the former congress. At the opening ceremony, while some were trying to sing the national anthem, other convention members were shouting to demand freedom to the political prisoners of the revolt.
Because of the differences between the 155 people who made up the constitutional convention, many of the debates and agreements were public, especially on issues of national interest. There was also a cable TV channel where you could watch the day-to-day process and listen to the declarations and the positions of each participant.
This new formula of citizen participation made it clear that the democratic spectacle is useful to subdue social movements, that real change is created in the streets, in the towns, in the workplaces, and in every place where repression takes place, not from the actions of politicians.
As the date of the vote approached, what characterized the sides that coalesced around accepting or rejecting the constitution?
After the election of the convention participants, they began to prepare the political advertisements that were broadcast on television and on all the national channels. In these ads, they sought to debunk the fake news that was bombarding social media networks and radio and television channels, urging people to reject the new draft constitution.
This campaign showed that the new constitution included housing rights, more resources for health, education, and the elderly, infrastructure for those with disabilities, environmental protections, animal rights, recognizing the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples, harsher punishments for corruption, and other issues that the old constitution did not address.
The right wing responded the way they always have, with information campaigns based on fear and lies, provoking confusion and delegitimizing the members of the constitutional convention. They spent hundreds of millions spreading propaganda to make people believe that approving the constitution would make things worse.
Those who lacked a clear political position before the revolt began to doubt the campaign as it progressed—both the proposals and the process. This showed that the dictatorship and the capitalist system have succeeded in creating resistance to change, spreading fear of social policies that would benefit the poorest. Many people believe that the state addressing social problems is “communism” and therefore reject a more equitable constitution, preferring the old one—even though the old one was made with bloody hands and favors private companies.
The right wing has always been aggressive in protecting its interests, directly attacking policies that could generate economic support for the lower social classes, justifying the discourse of meritocracy according to which the poor are poor because they want to be poor. They take advantage of the Mapuche conflict to pressure the current government and the constitutional process, claiming that it is not possible to negotiate with the Mapuche people who maintain their stance of confrontation. The polls and the media took the rejection of the constitution for granted from the beginning.
Based on the results, we can ask ourselves more questions and offer criticisms regarding everything that has happened. Even after a generalized social revolt, the result of the plebescite threw this whole process in the garbage, leaving us in the same situation as we were before.
It is really quite shameful as an inhabitant of this country. But at the same time, many of us have never believed in the state. We know that real change emerges in struggle on the front line. We do not participate in their media circus, even less so now that it has been shown how the mass media play their role.
Thousands of people say that their votes were determined by the information they received from the television about the new draft constitution, that they did not agree with some of the points, that they did not want to lose their houses, that they would lose their pensions, that their healthcare would get worse, that they would not be able to access anything private because the state was going to prohibit it… so many opinions totally misrepresenting the actual proposals, demonstrating that the hundreds of millions of pesos spent in this campaign, that the decades of a neoliberal system and more than 500 years of colonization have served to create an ignorant people. In spite of the real data, what really determines what they vote for are symbols, the fear that Chile will become like Venezuela, that the Indigenous peoples will have more value and privilege than the Chilean people. Effectively, people said “we don’t want everything for free, because we are we are the proud offspring of the exploited.”
Have there been examples of projects that continued building their own social power autonomously from the constituent process, or has it been difficult to prevent that process from impacting all projects for liberation?
In this territory, there is a strong tradition of popular struggles, including radical left political groups and various strands of anarchism. There are many examples of autonomous projects that have not changed or stopped. The majority of them have only become more determined not to delegate the task of organizing our lives to political parties.
The democratic game is only one option. There are many other ways of relating. The defense of our territories, of our loved ones, of our communities, of animals, of our own bodies—this is a daily resistance.
Currently, the most important issue impacting the security of the state is the Mapuche conflict, which runs parallel to the social revolt. The Mapuche struggle has its own axis, phases, and demands. The conflict is getting worse every day, the militarization of the Walmapu (Mapuche territory) has proceeded since the first days of the government of current president Gabriel Boric. This shows that all the political campaigns, all the appeals to the government for change, were a farce.
Since Boric assumed office, right-wing policies have only gained ground in regards to resource extraction treaties such as the TPP-11 (the Trans-Pacific Partnership), forestry, the student movement, and the criminalization of protest via more severe laws.
Life in this territory will continue to be in conflict. The defenders of life will never cease to confront domination, we will never stop creating networks and spaces where they can never reach, where their where their laws will not guide us and where their beliefs will never have any value. Ancestral energies remain alive in spite of hundreds of years of trying to subjugate us. Weichafes [a Mapuche name for Warriors], anarchists will not rest in building a future based on respect, love, and solidarity.
After the vote in May 2021, we wrote:
“Some anarchists have suggested that, the 21st century, state power is a hot potato—arguing that because neoliberal globalization has made it difficult for state structures to mitigate the impact of capitalism, no party will be able to hold state power for long without losing credibility.”
Undoubtedly, today’s states no longer fulfill the determinant role they played at their inception. Today, multinational corporations and moguls use the structures of the states for their own benefit. Chile is a social laboratory: in the last ten years, several leftist and right-wing political parties have emerged representing new social sectors. Those of us who participate in these are part of the cycle that perpetuates this system.
In this sense, the capitalist system has the advantage of continuously reinventing itself. For example, previously, to be vegan was to be anti-system, anti-capitalist; today, we already know that veganism is one more branch of capitalist development. By the same token, I believe that as some parties become obsolete, new parties will emerge. But the central conflict, the struggle with the state and capital, continues.
I would like to thank the CrimethInc. team for the opportunity to provide a critical view of the latest processes that affect the territory dominated by the state of Chile and Walmapu, which is Mapuche territory. Thank you for listening to a Mapuche-queer-anarchist-nihilist comrade who believes that life in this society and in the cities, with all its attendant problems, is absurd and meaningless—who invites others to connect with the earth, to create ties and networks of connection, to realize our desire for the world, here and now.
An embrace to all those who carry a new world in their hearts.
A Participant in the Constitutional Convention
The following responses come from an anonymous contributor who was involved in the constitutional convention but has otherwise chosen to remain outside of institutional processes.
What did you hope might come out of the constitutional process? What was the best case scenario?
We hoped for something more than what is usually possible in an institutional framework: the possibility of rebuilding the relationships between people and nature. We hoped to de-privatize water, to move towards a more just society. In that sense, despite not achieving those goals today, hope remains. As long as land, water, and nature are privatized, there will continue to be social ecological conflicts [e.g., the struggles against exploitation and dispossession that are exacerbated by extractive industries and mega-corporations consuming resources and destroying ecosystems].
We in the social movements remain firm in our programs. From the beginning, we proposed a feminist, ecological constitution and a rule of law designed to protect freedom and well-being.
There is a fierce conflict between nationalism and plurinationality. [The concept of “plurinationality” is familiar from Bolivia, where a 2009 referendum ratified a constitution introducing a “plurinational” state, recognizing Indigenous rights and autonomy.] I think that this is where the rejection of the constitution won the most ground: in glorifying a hegemonic nationalist culture, denying the existence of other peoples and identities and shutting down the possibility of spaces where they could exercise their rights of autonomy. There, we lost outright.
Yes, I believe that it will be difficult for this defeat not to have an impact on projects of feminist emancipation, Indigenous liberation, gender dissidence, and the struggle against neoliberalism in general. Still, perhaps it will open the doors to new processes, new forms of collective construction, outside the institutional framework. We will continue to build from the territories [i.e., from the ground up in local communities], through practices of autonomy and self-management, according to a non-institutional logic.
In May 2021, we wrote:
“In the 21st century, state power is a hot potato: because neoliberal globalization has made it difficult for state structures to mitigate the impact of capitalism, no party will be able to hold state power for long without losing credibility.”
Were you anticipating the outcome of the vote on September 4, 2022? Why do you think that so many people rejected the proposed constitution?
I agree about the difficulty of mitigating the impacts of neoliberalism, but also from Modatima1 [the Movement for the Defense of Access to Water, Land, and Environmental Protection—a non-governmental organization including paid organizers], we have made the decision to compete for local and regional government positions and intervene from there.
Since May 2021, we have seen an onslaught of fascism and the extreme right. In addition to gaining a powerful representation in parliament, they have been able to popularize racist ideas and pressure the government to implement repressive measures, including against Indigenous peoples.
I always thought there was a chance that the “No” vote would succeed, but never by such a margin. As we have already pointed out, we were not able to confront the lies of the right and reach out to the common people.
From our perspective, the proposal to draft a new constitution for Chile was a concession achieved by the uprising of 2019. Could that uprising have aimed for another goal, with different results? If you could go back to May 2021—or even to October 2019—what would you do differently?
In fact, we have many criticisms regarding how the negotiations between the parties were carried out, excluding the protagonists of the uprising. This agreement ended up capturing the forms of political participation within the institutional framework. Today, we have to evaluate whether participants in the social and popular movements made any gains by participating in the constitutional process.
If we could go back to the revolt and do things differently, we would be less innocent regarding the communication strategies of the right. We would engage in more popular education about the constitutional process and move towards more participatory and less elitist deliberation.
I never thought that the constitutional process was a process of liberation. I believe that real transformation takes place elsewhere. Those are slower paths, of popular organization and shifting consciousness. Perhaps the uprising made us believe that we had advanced much further there, and in that, we were wrong.
How should we describe you?
We are a couple of Popular Educators (Compas Educadorxs Populares) who have been involved for a long time in self-managed education projects, in both free schools and formal schools. Starting years before the uprising, we have been part of the solidarity network supporting Mapuche political prisoners and prisoners from anarchist, autonomous and anti-authoritarian spaces; since the popular revolt, we have been active organizing activities, resources, and support for political prisoners from the revolt.
Did you have any hope regarding what could come out of the constitutional process—either from the process itself or from parallel effects? What was the best possible case?
Regarding the first question—before speaking about the constituent process itself and as a preamble to all the questions—let us say that we still retain hope in the popular movement that broke out in October 2019, understanding this so-called estallido (“outbreak”) or revolt as an expression of popular discontent rejecting a model of life that is against life itself. Although the political awareness necessary to analyze this malaise and propose self-organized alternatives is emerging—to the same extent that political organization is appearing among the common people—this revolt takes several forms:
- First, an awareness, termed despertar [“awakening”] in the discourse of the protest movement that broke out in October 2019. We feel that discontent appeared more as a reaction to the accumulation of violence and abuse on the part of those in power than as a force unfolding with clarity about how to build a society that would be more just, less oppressive, and more egalitarian in our differences. In that sense, everything was on the table to be debated and reinvented.
- Second, an accomplishment of the struggles of various social movements (students, NO+AFP2, movements for decent housing, Mapuche movements, feminist movements, environmental movements) in the sense that they instilled in the collective consciousness—or at least raised the possibility—that we live under a social order that benefits a few at the expense of the majority and that, in its most concrete expression, reduces us to struggling to survive in the rat race, without time to enjoy ourselves, with strenuous work days and transportation to and from work, with debt, without enough space and time to socialize and build community.
- Third, the possibility that the open space in the streets, in protests, in consciousness, in speeches, and in political practices (local assemblies, councils, and the like) could function as a catalyst to speed up historical time and harvest the underground work carried out by the popular movement and the extra-institutional left over the last 30 years. This could occur in two different spheres—never completely separate, but necessary to distinguish—organization and political-economic.
As far as organization is concerned, the possibility opened up of resuming the thread of history from before the transition to so-called democracy (1990-2019, the transition that was never completed): popular, grassroots organization that walked alongside the revolutionary left and, going further back, to return to the time that preceded the dictatorship, of a union of workers and the construction of popular power that preceded (and perhaps partly explains) the military coup.
The councils (cabildos), or assemblies, supported and sustained in the space of street fighting and direct confrontation with the forces of repression, offered another space for building organization and symbolically undermining the foundations of the reigning social order.
In the political-economic sphere, the harvest of the revolt consists in giving cohesion to the isolated critiques of the system (of patriarchy, the pension system, inequality in health and education, hydroelectric plants, the dispossession of the Mapuche people, and so on) in order to build an analysis from below revealing the common and transversal elements connecting all of these issues. In other words, a critique of the neoliberal capitalist system as the root cause of all of these issues, and of the fundamental problem—the loss of meaning that we are experiencing as a people, which became so clear to us all on October 18, 2019.
- Fourth, and lastly, we see a more subtle and profound shift that emerges from the consciousness of the people in the days of the uprising and which, contrary to expectations, we believe will continue to find places to sprout, like a weed in cracks in the asphalt: the clear recognition of the artificial, sick and sickening, grotesque nature of the way of life we have been condemned to. Not only with respect to exploitation of labor and neglect by the formal state—low wages, insufficient social rights, long workdays, and the so on—but also with regards to the non-culture that has been imposed upon us, a non-culture of individualism, unfettered consumerism, isolation caused by so-called “social networks,” and a capitalist mentality that interprets everything through the lens of gains and losses.
The widespread use of the Mapuche flag in the protests, the growing appreciation (prior to October 18, 2019) of the Mapuche culture and other cultures originating from these lands as seen in murals, the widespread use of certain words, costumes, and practices—we believe and perceive on a more subtle level that this corresponds with the profound desire to return to the earth, the breathe in peace, to live in harmony with those around us through mutual support and conversation. This also implies that, although we speak of threads that are taken up again, there are also new understandings based on the historical experience of this territory and at a global level, which imply questioning and recreating more horizontal forms of organization, calling into question capitalism and its patriarchal and colonial roots, in order to place ourselves in reciprocity with the land and all living beings—to refuse to participate in the race to increase production/exploitation of life on earth without a thought for the life and culture that this machine demolishes. Perhaps this also means revisiting an older narrative, one which has always been in the stories and culture of the first peoples of this land.
Of course, this last point could be interpreted as an idealization of the movement of October 2019. It is important to emphasize that we are talking about a force that is beginning to emerge and spread into the collective consciousness, but it is still only tiny seedlings that peek into the sunlight, not the ancient forest of the earth’s wisdom reborn, not yet.
After this great preamble, the answer itself: the constitutional process was an agreement carried out by the Chilean political caste.3 This agreement that was formulated on November 15, 2019. We consider it primarily a concession that the constituted powers considered necessary to preserve their position. Of course, their positions and motivations were diverse and, to be sure, those in the most reformist sectors (somewhat on the left) within institutional political spaces did not see this as a concession but as an achievement. Nevertheless, in a more general sense, this was something completely undesirable for the traditional right and the “second” right (the former Concertación, the compromise the emerged from the end of the dictatorship) and desirable for the pseudo-left of institutionalized politics (some of the people from the ex-compromise/New Majority and part of the Frente Amplio, “Broad Front”). A separate case is the Communist Party, which was excluded from the negotiations but actively participated in the process.
Explain the problems with the agreement of November 15.
First, it saved President Piñera and his government, who were hanging by a thread in those days, having already sacrificed the minister of the interior, his cousin, Andres Chadwick.
Second, the agreement ignored, and in the short term deactivated, the emerging organization in the territories. Instead of fostering popular organization and taking advantage of the momentum to transform political practice into one that genuinely seeks to foster and represent a solid social base upon which a project of profound socio-economic change could be based, the political caste designed a process that once again moved the problem to the electoral level, sustaining a political-advertising logic.
Third, the two sectors of the right wing skillfully (and the pseudo-left clumsily) designed a constitutional process that met the conditions so that, in the end, the transformation would be minimal and favorable for the economic right (possibly what we are experiencing now). This served to reverse the transformative forces and return everything to the reactionary status quo.
From this point of view, although there was hope that this process of constitutional change—regulated by the same elite that has propagated the model of profit with minimal social rights—as one more possible path to follow and not to dismiss a priori, we are certain that the paths to real transformations do not abide by the timelines of the institutions or their mechanisms and representative procedures, which serve to depoliticize rather than to foster participative political culture.
Let’s see… now we will review all of its specific limitations:
- They put forward an accelerated timeline of ten months, without regulation or previous experience.
What does this imply? It takes a long time to design a process within a time constraint; there is time pressure from the very beginning, which increases bickering and errors, and offers valuable content for the media (which are dominated by the economic right in collusion with the Concertación that put an end to left-wing media in the 1990s) and social media with which to plant the idea that those in the convention do not work, that they are lazy, that it is a circus in there, and so on. This generalizes individual actions and ignores the arduous daily work carried out by many participants, who were defenders of territorial and social organizations facing serious environmental and exclusion problems.
- A quorum of two thirds was established to approve any article. This made it impossible to achieve structural change such as the nationalization of natural resources including copper and lithium or an authentic and deeper protection of water. (The provisional regulations in the proposed constitution restricted the implementation of some important articles, like the one pertaining to water rights.)
In addition, the need to reach such broad agreements led to “Frankenstein” solutions in order to keep different sectors happy, so that that many of the sections of the newly proposed constitution do not appear to have a clear and coherent vision and seem to be simply a collection of unrelated parts with the intention of pleasing everyone. The endless negotiations imposed by the two thirds quorum on top of the short timeframe impaired the quality of the new constitutional project; the Rejection campaign used this to conceal its class interests so they could disguise their critiques as merely technical (as we often see technocratic neoliberals claim to be non-ideological and objective).
- This prevented the emergence of a constitutional power, instead negotiating it on the terms of established power. That meant that the constitutional process had to stick to the norms set forth by the parliament instead of forming its own rules. It did not establish the renewal of parliament for the eventual implementation of the new constitution (had it been approved), and that served as the final hurdle for any progress that might have been achieved in the process.
Our vision, from the beginning, which was refined in our own reflections and nurtured by the reflections of other organizations, was that the convention was a space ceded by the existing power, which effectively opened up space for certain political positions that have been excluded from the hegemonic political conversation for the last thirty years. Instead, we saw a space that was deliberately and cunningly designed to demobilize the movement (with the exception of the political caste, which took this time to reorganize), to dilute and draw out the discussion, severing any connection with the period of the uprising (thanks in large part to the pandemic and the isolation that came with it), leaving exposed weak points in the constitution by design that would delegitimize it, water it down, and finally lead to it being rejected (which was accomplished in the end).
For us, the constitutional process at least had the potential to offer (within the terms which were allowed by the institution) greater levels of protection for nature, which had been devastated in our country (as in all countries condemned to the category of “Third World” that survive on the exportation of raw materials to the global economy) and an improvement in social rights, which can have a real impact on people’s quality of life and undermine at least one aspect of the economic system (even though it did not take down the model of accumulation at its core), as state subsidies tend to give priority to the public state sector when it comes to social rights, opening the doors to end ISAPRES (the system for provisions in private health) and AFP (private pension funds insurance). And of course, it is necessary to mention reproductive and abortion rights as well as animal rights and environmental protection.
All of this was implemented by a right-leaning parliament with a pseudo-leftist group who came to an agreement before they won regarding how to move the constitution to the center in order for it to gain approval, with transitional regulations that would impede the effective implementation of some of the most important aspects of the new constitution. Despite being better than what currently exists, in political terms, it skirted the argument, beginning from a lowest common denominator in social, political, and economic aspects. Perhaps the greatest change this new constitutional project would have introduced would have been establishing a right-wing social state without changing the system of accumulation; this might have deepened awareness of the necessity of making changes to the economic system, since guaranteed rights are useless without the economic backing which would enable the state to put them into effect.
With respect to the groups that participated in the constitutional convention: I think that it is important to be self-critical as a popular social movement. Although much can be said about certain groups individually to evaluate their actions, there was an inability to work in unison, not only within the convention, but also in critically analyzing the process and taking actions and making denunciations accordingly. This involved both individual and collective egos, the splintering within the most radical left, the prioritizing of individual projects over more structural societal issues that impact a range of demographics, and a lack of understanding that many of the ideas that were put forward in the proposed constitution not only didn’t represent much of the population, but also weren’t understood by them, as they were topics foreign to the conversations and daily experiences of the majority of people immersed in a neoliberal society. In conclusion, more than giving up on their principles (which in some cases was already in motion and had been imposed, whereas in other cases, we saw that people didn’t actually adhere to the principles that they claimed to espouse) it seems to us that cohesion was rendered impossible by the vulnerability of the left and some of the popular social movement to infiltration and destruction from within (as was the case with the “Lista del Pueblo,” the coalition of independent candidates that participated in the 2021 elections to the constitutional convention), the difficulty of building a popular organization due to the onslaught of neoliberalism from the 1980s until present, and a certain dogmatism, puritanism, and messianism from some of the groups, which all claim to possess an uncompromising truth, as if pigheadedness were the greatest revolutionary virtue.
Perhaps this discourse seems bitter, but we feel it is necessary, as the enemy will always look to weaken and destroy us. We aim to find, within our own actions, the origin of our failures, even if they are institutional and don’t respond to the logic of the political practices that mobilize us, since we are situated in the social landscape and the understanding of the people, of which we are a part. This is what guides us on our collective path and makes it possible for us to take action to transform certain conditions of our oppression.
As the date of the vote was nearing, what positions emerged around “no” (reject) and “yes” (approve)? And on the other side, were there examples of grassroots social movements that managed to continue building autonomously outside of the constitutional process, or was it difficult to avoid the impact of this process even in autonomous projects?
The multiplicity of the aspects contained in the constitution, paradoxically, led to the multiplicity of critics. Catholics, Protestants, and Evangelicals came together in rejecting the new constitution, since it established the right to abortion.
The proposal for plurinationality faced a formidable smear campaign from the right as well as a failure to establish what this would mean in the popular understanding, which led to a revival of nationalist and racist sentiment. One example of how the contradictory versions of this conversation took shape in the minds of the public was the speaker who, clearly partial to the rejection of the new constitution, told a story about her son not getting accepted into a public kindergarten in order to give the spot to a Mapuche child. Across the institutional political spectrum, the media reproduced the idea that Indigenous peoples would become a privileged group and characterized political violence against capitalist forestry extraction in Wallmapu as terrorism.
These same tropes were applied to the migrant population, which media narratives associated with the increase in crime. We experienced another example of these false narratives when an adult female student in one of our education spaces, asked about the consequences of the 2019 social uprising, referred to migration and people from Venezuela being given priority in access to jobs.
On the other hand, after the approval, the majority of those who had historically supported the Concertación (those of the “30 años,” the thirty years since the fall of the dictatorship) lined up. At least in the eyes of the people, an important part of the social movement unrelated to institutional politics and often critical of the Concertación and even more to the left than Frente Amplio also joined. But in practice, this appeared to represent a historical continuity of the Concertación and the eternal lure of the “lesser of two evils” (as we saw with politicians who were in favor of approval saying that they did not believe in the new constitution, but it was either this or Pinochet’s constitution).
The right was camouflaged like never before. They cherry-picked people from the supposed center-left (Christian Democracy and others from the ex-Concertación), and some pathetic remains of the world of junk culture and intellectualism in order to carry out their chameleon-like exercise of concealment, which is where a group who called themselves Amarillos por Chile (“yellows for Chile”) comes in. Even former President Piñera and candidate J. A. Kast were hidden during the campaign in favor of “common people” “without a party” (or from the “Center Left”) who “only want the best for Chile,” stating that the constitution that was to be drafted should be a “house for everyone” and not this new “partisan” constitution (in the words of former President Lagos, a fervent supporter of Chile signing the TPP, who received a standing ovation from the entire business community at the end of his term).
As always, the right puts on a piteous face and warns that any new path would mean a direct descent into the abyss. The new element this time around was that the argument did not focus solely on anti-communism or on supposed ideological differences in which every social right would be characterized as “extremist,” or that it sought to create the greatest possible transformation (when in reality, they would be minimal concessions in a subsidiary state). However, the right also pointed more to a technical question, claiming neutrality and apparent temperance in its opinion, supporting this narrative with the faces of the center-left, right, and apolitical, affirming and installing in the collective imagination the belief that a new constitutional process would be able to draft a better constitution. Finally, they started spreading catchy slogans without any argumentation or explanation, like “This thing sucks” or “Not like this.”
Following the vote in May 2021, we wrote:
“Some anarchists have suggested that, in the 21st century, state power is a hot potato, arguing that due to neoliberal modernization it has become difficult for structures of the state to mitigate the impact of capitalism and that no political party will be capable of maintaining state power for long without loosing credibility.”
Personally and collectively, we have built a path which has more to do with autonomy than it does with taking state power. That said, this doesn’t imply indifference or neutrality regarding the positions of political movements at an institutional level or a lack of acknowledgment of the impact that they have on the positive or negative sentiments with respect to the strengthening of the popular movement.
The question of taking the power of the state in the 21st century in particular (but also in the 20th century) depends largely on the levels of consciousness within society, among the people, and—absolutely tied to consciousness—the degree and quality of political organization. Any political project that aims to seize power from the state must confront the means of reproduction of capital and, in order to achieve deeper changes, should be prepared to resist the offensive of national and international capitalism and its pressure mechanisms. This offensive can have effects on the economy and thus on the lives of the people, as we see in Bolivia.
This requires a political organization that has an impact on the process, that is well informed about what is being done and why, that feels supported, protected and genuinely listened to through real participation mechanisms and that, in turn, is sheltered in the community-organization space and sustained by ethics and motivations beyond immediate benefit to themselves or their families. All of these have been undermined by the neoliberal model, which has been in a crisis in Chile for the last ten years but has not been replaced by another practice and political discourse: there is a consensus of discontent, but how to interpret this discontent is a fertile ground for conflict and outright manipulation.
Have you seen evidence of a political change in Chile since the elections in May of 2021?
There hasn’t been profound political change, because the convictions and interpretations aren’t profound (even if discontent is). We see an effective manipulation, which was planted on November 15, 2019. Conversely, we have seen the establishment of the “reject” vote as the dominant opinion, chiefly in the popular sectors, due to a disinformation campaign based on defamation and lies with a very high budget—carried out by traditional media and social networks adopting big data analysis strategies and fake news.
The arrival in the government of Gabriel Boric and the identification of his government as supporters of the “Approval” vote was not very helpful. The automatic transmission of the popular opposition to whoever holds the position of president (regarding the thesis you raised, with which we agree, we remember how, in 2021, Piñera’s support plunged as low as 6%), on top of unpopular measures adopted by the government and a climate of fear and insecurity (crime, deliberate increases in inflation from the Central Bank, and the pandemic) both real and fueled by the mass media and digital networks—these created the perfect ecosystem for the “reject” campaign to triumph, since it has been gaining strength by leaps and bounds as individualism and social fragmentation reestablished themselves in the wake of the 2019 uprising.
Faced with a choice between the certainty of at least continuing as we were or the uncertainty of change, in the absence of a sustained collective program, people’s strength and decisiveness were compromised. In this sense, there appears the idea that the huge degree of uncertainty over the past few years partially caused the subsiding of the confidence that had been garnered from the uprising and the impulses towards transformative social change.
Did you anticipate the results of the September 4, 2022 vote? Why do you think so many people rejected the proposed constitution?
Between the two of us who are writing these reflections, one expected that the constitution would be approved by a narrow margin and the other anticipated from June onwards that the “reject” vote would win. The huge demonstrations for the “approve” vote and a study conducted by Big Data a few days before the plebescite predicted a win for “approve,” which made us unsure who would win the days leading up to the vote… but one of us definitely thought that “reject” would win.
I think that the “reject” campaign won because they had a strategy. They planned their victory (or failing that, a weak win for “approval,” undermining its mandate) starting on November 15, 2020. The pandemic weakened the revolutionary will that predominated until February 2020; the fear, uncertainty, and isolation wore down the spirit of the people.
In May 2021, [in the elections to the constitutional convention], the “approve” vote won the majority, although it did not yet have any content and it was also partially supported by the traditional right, who started changing their discourse when they realized their disadvantage, like Trojan Horses (another highlight of the strategy of the right) cynically supporting “approval,” knowing beforehand that they were merely there to make the case for the “reject” campaign, this technique we already mentioned of feigning impartiality and apoliticism in order to change sides.
On the other hand, we also think that a certain naïveté on the left and within the popular social movement also played a role in the loss, as well as the social disconnection of the more passive part of the population that does not usually vote. When the vote became obligatory, it incorporated a social group with whom there were no common political, social, or organizational ties. There was also a lack of experience in the institutional field, which stems from the fact that it does not make sense to pour out one’s own forces in an electoral process, and a general misreading of the situation. On November 15, the movement had the strength it would have needed not to reject compromises with the political caste, but it seems that thirty years of experience were not enough. Repression was also strong—young people were losing their eyes systematically, hundreds were killed and tortured in police stations and there were rumors circulating about a potential coup de etat.
In other words, the movement was pushed into a constitutional process without the political and social organization it needed, without prior discussions to coordinate criteria and formulate analyses and strategies with which to approach the process in such a way that the result was an expression of the popular struggles to achieve legitimacy and validity—for example, by means of an intermediary plebescite that would accept or reject particular proposals or ways of participating in the process of drafting a new constitution.
Some within the left attribute the victory of the “reject” campaign to some of the politics assumed by the government of Boric. We agree with some of these arguments (such as not allowing the withdrawal of funds from the AFP), but unfortunately, we believe that the detention of Hector Llaitul, leader of the CAM [Coordinadora Arauco Malleco, a militant Indigenous organization seeking Mapuche autonomy] and the repression of students were not relevant factors in determining the results. After a brief faltering of the continuity of the hegemonic narrative, the press regained their power and influence over the population in the final months of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 (until COVID consumed the entire news cycle) and reestablished the well-known discourse of “reject” by a large portion of the population (including the “progressives”) who were against all manifestations of political violence, both from students and from autonomous Mapuche groups, labelling anyone who employed political violence as criminals and delinquents (and sometimes terrorists). In this way, they managed to demobilize and undermine the strategies of the groups most interested in transforming the economic model. Thus, Boric’s government took on the character of containing these transformative social forces, just as we anticipated.
From our perspective, the proposal to draft a new Chilean constitution was a concession won by the October 18, 2019 uprising. Is it possible that this uprising could have pursed other goals?
I want to stress that the uprising was not a cohesive movement of a previously defined political force, but rather a heterogenous social force, without representatives, programs, or the leadership of political parties. It is necessary to keep this in mind in order to comprehend that what the movement wanted is something that can be traced back and deduced through discourse, emerging political practices, and symbolic elements, but there is no program that can be tracked and read that necessarily represents the movement. (Even fascist-nationalist groups claimed and welcomed the October rebellion, for example.)
In our view, there was a process of strengthening organization and communication, a reworking and proliferation of ideas at a grassroots level, and critical lessons developed by sectors of the social and popular political movement during the last decades. In this sense, the goals of the people (which may or may not have included a new constitution) should arise from the popular movement itself, which means expanding, strengthening, and developing cultural and relational work within and between social and political organizations. This was all centered on the possibility of a sustainable transformative project with a real social base, with its feet well planted in the soil of the territories in order to resist the attacks of capital, and nourished from the roots of a people that builds and liberates itself. Symbolically, burying the Pinochet constitution provided the possibility of making a clear break with the neoliberal policies it enshrined and integrating the various struggles into a common goal. Now the question of how to generate these transformations has become a difficult step in approaching social maturity, which requires revisiting the same questions of personal and individual accommodation as they apply to the large sector of people who are less convinced.
If you could go back to May 2021—or even October 2019—what would you do differently?
Maybe we would go back to November 2019 and try to get everyone not to accept the agreement, instead looking for paths forward that could strengthen the organizations, popular power, and autonomous direct actions without the pressure of institutional power. Now, if the movement had accepted the agreement anyway, we could have tried to strengthen the conversation from there, as well as the discussions prior to the constitutional convention, in order to advance a clearer and more unified proposal for the new constitution: both involving the key aspects that it should include as well as the sort of procedures necessary to ensure that more people would participate in and identify with the project. And from there, we could generate spaces for information, communication, and group learning that would have made it possible to understand the complex legislative language that lends itself to numerous interpretations and thus gave space for confused and erroneous ideas.
Have the results of the plebecite changed your analysis regarding which strategies will be most effective for liberation and social change?
In broad terms, it has not significantly changed our analysis, when it comes to our own political practice, but we do feel a greater urgency to continue to invigorate the spaces we described above; we consider this to be equally necessary after the results of the plebiscite. Without a doubt, the electoral processes that have taken place since the popular revolt of 2019 have served to discipline genuinely subversive political currents, channeling political expression into a representative framework of agreements in which questions are defined by power groups and limited to consultation via vote, and all of this takes place by the least direct route, which has the effect of demobilizing the population. Even as we are still evaluating the recent results, we ask and challenge ourselves: “How do we sustain a radical social dialogue which, on one side, enables us to participate in political processes, debate, and discussion about the basic rights of the people, while on the other, enables us to reveal the limitations and superficiality of ‘representative democracy’ as a giant machine intent on dampening social revolutionary processes in order to maintain the status quo?”
Starting from the political structure of the “state,” and even more so in the global capitalist neoliberal context, makes it incredibly difficult to achieve transformation and the liberation of the people. The story that repeats itself is one of assimilation, co-optation, and increasing domination; progressive movements often allow and encourage this (sometimes even more than the right itself). We acknowledge the reality of the state and we do not mean to devalue authentically leftist groups that fight for social change from within the institutional sphere of political power, but our vision is to strengthen territorial autonomy in terms of thought, culture, resources, and health, undermining the very foundations of power, demonstrating its artificiality and its way of creating needs and addictions. We recognize that institutional changes impact social and cultural processes, which is why we are neither indifferent nor neutral, but this is not how we approach work or transformation. The institutional struggle has demonstrated its limitations, at least in this phase of the development of consciousness.
Perhaps there are other strategic issues that we will see more clearly once this stage of the process is over, such as the necessity to confront the cultural hegemony of neoliberalism, the possibility of creating a counterculture that it has a greater scope. We also foresee the necessity of establishing genuine dialogue between those who identify as part of the revolutionary left, especially those who do not engage with the institutions. The usual propaganda and criticism, mutual defamation, and invalidation of differences renders dialogue more difficult.
In order to form a sense of collectivity, we should value humility, wisdom, freedom of expression, being a good guest and a good host, caring for and developing the sort of expression that builds bridges and validates our differences, compassion and the ability to see the virtues within every person and their individual, genealogical, and ancestral sufferings, which run through us all and cloud our judgment. That is to say—we should listen to, care for, and accompany each other more, practices that enable us to build a collective sense. We consider all of these things important for getting together (without creating a hegemony) towards a common horizon. The construction and practice of a culture and ethics which comes forth from the earth and is nourished by the sky.
Appendix: Rejecting the Agreement for Social Peace
The following reflection from the streets of Chile appeared on our podcast in November 2019, only a few weeks into the uprising, in response to the original proposal for a plebiscite introducing a constitutional process. It still strikes us as a wise response.
On November 15, a majority of the parties in congress approved a more specific deal for how the plebiscite will be run, calling the deal “The Agreement for Social Peace.”
There was some anxiety in the movement that this concession would finally placate a critical mass of people in the streets. Some of the popular assemblies and cabildos, or, colonial style councils, started to orient their discussions around a new constitution. Even some politicians were encouraging cabildos. I was nervous that what Piñera couldn’t achieve with the iron fist of the military, he was achieving with the velvet glove of democratic potential. I was wrong though. The most important slogan of the movement arose to the surface again, just like it had with previous concessions like Piñera’s tablescrap social reforms, the cancelling of the metro fare hike, and when he fired his cabinet: “Aún No Ganamos Nada” or, “We Have Won Nothing Yet,” basically a call to keep filling the streets, to not settle for scraps, to keep fighting for dignity.
There’s a spectrum of opinions within the movement about the demand for a Consitutional Assembly. Most anarchists, for example, see it as a distraction and a way for the state to recuperate the legitimacy that it has lost. On the other hand, I think Piñera’s announcement did actually surprise people and give them a sense of their power—a plebiscite to decide whether people wanted a new constitution is totally historic. That wasn’t even on the table during the 1988 plebiscite that ended the dictatorship. However, I think most of the popular assemblies and people in the streets, including some anarchists, see the process Piñera proposed as illegitimate because they don’t see it as leading to a “true” constitutional assembly, and a “true” constitutional assembly means all kinds of different things to different people.
Just to give you a taste of what this sounds like, here’s the communiqué about rejecting the “Agreement for Social Peace” from the neighborhood assembly in Plaza Bogotá:
“We wholly reject this agreement. The content and proposal of this illegitimate ‘agreement’ do not seem motivated towards generating a consititutional process that is representative and participatory for the people, rather, it simply reproduces the old form of making deals that benefit the elite. We do not accept any constitutional process that doesn’t work towards truth and justice—we say NO to impunity. We demand that President Piñera step down immediately, having been the chief politician responsible for multiple violations of human rights. Our assembly considers any agreement without a solution for the current needs of justice and dignity to be an illegitimate agreement.
“We will self-organize a people’s plebiscite in coordination with other regions and neighborhoods. We will work to build horizontal links of organization and coordination with other self-organized popular assemblies toward the goal of holding a people’s plebiscite that can be carried out in different areas and, through this, we can freely and sovereignly self-determine what it is the people actually want in a new constitution.
“We will not give up the streets. We will keep protesting actively in our territory since we believe that the struggle must go on in order to demonstrate our rejection to the imposition of the state and its institutions onto the current process of social constitution in the streets.
“We call on the people to reject this agreement, in which we weren’t invited to participate or form, which is presented to us today as an exit from conflict. Furthermore we call on people to join this call for an autonomous plebiscite throughout the territories as an exercise of our own independent power. Until diginity becomes the custom.”
As an anarchist, there are some things I agree with in the communiqué, and some things I don’t, and surely there were even other anarchists who helped shape the communiqué. Overall, though, I wish more of the assemblies were oriented towards things we can do rather than what we think about ongoing issues…because when it comes to ideology, we’ll never all agree. The assembly in my neighborhood involves Trotskyists, anarchists, liberals, and those identities aren’t changing any time soon, and whenever we talk about what needs to happen with the constitutional assembly it’s just a broken record of grand schemes for social change. Instead, I wish we were discussing things like, if martial law is declared again, what will we do? What is our neighborhood’s policy on looting—like, maybe immigrants and mothers get first pick? How do we stop our neighbors from getting evicted? When something big goes down, where will we gather? Orienting the discussions around breaking the law, together, rather than shaping the law. The communiqué about the plebiscite does call for the most important thing, however, which is not giving up the streets in light of the Agreement for Social Peace.
- Modatima and other organizations are part of the broader social movement “No más zonas de sacrificio” (no more sacrifice zones) against industrial pollution in Chile. They approach environmental justice with a class analysis, recognizing that national economic development relies on extractive industries, foreign investment, and international corporate profits. For example, the plantation lumber industry has done considerable harm to water in many Mapuche communities; some of the most insurgent Mapuche communities happen to be the ones that do not have enough water to meet basic human rights standards. ↩
- The NO+AFP (“no more AFP”) movement organizes protests against the Pension Fund Administrators (Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones, or AFP). ↩
- Interviewee’s note: We refer to the political caste because it is comprised of groups, the majority of which have developed in the political institutions without considering the real popular base or the world of the workers. Even though new groups have emerged within the political institutions following the initial student movement (such as Frente Amplio, the principle collective coalition of the government), they have adopted the same political marketing strategy: rather than building from and with social bases, offering a publicity product. ↩