26 public buses were torched by protestors. Image from SkyNews.
Chile: Nationalism No Answer to Austerity
02-11-2019 – During the last week of October, deadly riots swept Chile, ostensibly in response to the government’s increase of 30 pesos to public transport fares. While the Chilean government quickly suspended the 4% increase, it did not prevent thousands of demonstrators from flooding into the streets. Initially, the actions began by commuters jumping turnstiles and avoiding paying the increased ticket fares to ride the Metro railway in the capital Santiago – an entirely legitimate form of protest against an increase to the cost of living. However, these actions were soon eclipsed by the torching of these same railway stations by protestors, causing some trains to be burnt to shells. Reportedly, 49 subway stations were set alight, and 26 public buses were destroyed by fire.
Worse was to come. Some non-public buildings were set ablaze, along with some 200 supermarkets. In one of the supermarkets, three people lost their lives. This was after it had been looted, along with many others. This was followed by the firebombing of a garment factory in the capital, where five people perished. At one stage the subway station entrances had to be closed off, to prevent more arson. This led to commuters being stranded, unable to get home from working that day. While it is true that thousands of people also attended rallies which contained no violence, the taking of innocent lives by any movement can never be justified.
Working people in Chile have endured decades of extreme privatisation in many areas, from water to education. Hence the current slogan “It is not about 30 pesos, but about 30 years”. A political movement with the ability to combat this assault must be assembled – of this there is no doubt. Yet the current movement has dramatic overtones of populism – an attempt to build a cross-class movement for “all people”. Yet class realities can be brushed over so easily. A movement which obliterates class distinctions inevitably moves to the right, and inevitably becomes nationalist. For working people, nationalism is crippling, and often prevents even the first steps forward.
What became known as “neoliberalism” (or “austerity”), has been applied more extensively in Chile than elsewhere in Latin America, and perhaps the world. Yet neoliberalism is a misnomer. Neoliberalism implies that there can be a nicer, softer, even social-democratic, version of capitalism. It is spoken of as if it is a choice that governments choose to enact. Yet “neoliberalism” is not a policy, but the current phase of the capitalist system. There is no going back to the “welfare-state” capitalism of the post World War II period – in Australia or Chile. There can only be moves forward to socialism. This requires the overthrow of capitalism via the construction of a workers’ state, administered by a workers’ government.
This central conclusion, however, is one which the forces behind the current Chilean protests are yet to learn or accept. Rather, they have turned in the direction of populism, while some have committed criminal arson ending in murderous violence. Obviously workers cannot condone the needless elimination of human life, and nor can workers tolerate the destruction of vital public infrastructure such as buses and trains. Instead, workers could organise the occupation of public transport and public infrastructure, as this would immediately pose the question of just who it belongs to. Attempts to organise the operation of public transport by workers would necessitate some form of workers’ committees, which could form the basis of workers’ councils. From here a workers government would NOT be a bridge too far.
All Chileans together?
Worlds away from this perspective is the “all for Chile” approach. While a rejection of all capitalist politicians can be a healthy development, the #ChileDesperto (Chile Awake) movement attempts to simply change politicians, without confronting capitalism. This can be seen with their demand for the resignation of President Sebastian Pinera. Yet why did this movement not arise during the Presidency of the “Socialist” Party’s Michele Bachelet? The Bachelet government maintained and even accelerated the same “neoliberalism”, regardless of the fake veneer of being politically “left”. Moreover, the #ChileDesperto movement’s other demands are eerily reminiscent of the US backed Blackshirt thugs in Hong Kong, which aims (in vain) to uphold capitalism rather than be re-integrated into socialist China. Indeed, the following demands could have been written by the right-wing pro-US Hong Kong elements:
1. The withdrawal of armed forces from all Chilean Streets
- Lifting of all curfews
- The resignation of Sebastian Pinera
- Legal accountability of all politicians, armed forces and police members responsible for the violation of human rights.
Note there are no class demands here. All are within the framework of the existing state – which is the guarantor of the “neoliberalism” they claim to oppose. In addition, the wanton vandalism and criminal violence against public and private property, endangering human life, has been used as a rationale by the Pinera government to deploy the armed forces. This is also the reason given for the curfews – and not entirely without justification. The ruling class will skilfully use any pretext to paint their use of military force as being to “serve and protect” or to “keep the peace”. The Chile Desperto movement, and the violent and life-threatening vandalism they do not condemn, has given them just that.
To some extent, the seeming agnosticism towards politics of the Chile Desperto movement may be somewhat understandable – but not excusable. The Chilean government of Michele Bachelet from the misnamed Socialist Party (actually barely social-democratic) preceded the government of Sebastian Pinera. If “left” at all, perhaps no one noticed it, as the Bachelet government barely changed the policies of extreme capitalism (“neoliberalism”). A lack of political awareness – not by any means restricted to Chile – often gives social-democratic capitalist politicians the benefit of the doubt. Some can wait longer for a party supposedly more progressive to deliver. This is always a recipe for disappointment and demoralisation of the hopes that a more humane face can emerge from the horrors of “the market”. So it was with Bachelet, who turned out to be barely left at all.
The “left” had been in governmental power in Chile for much of the previous twenty years. The centrist Party for Democracy and then the (misnamed) Socialists, depite a left veneer, continued the capitalist austerity of the dark days of the Pinochet dictatorship, while not moving to substantially change it. The last Bachelet government was termed a “New Majority” and included the Communist Party of Chile (PCC). The PCC’s most visible member was Camilla Vallejo, a leader of the student movement of 2010, and dubbed “the world’s most glamorous revolutionary” by the New York Times. Yet the “Communist” party of Chile betrayed the very notion of socialist principle by horse trading with Bachelet’s “Socialists” to get Vallejo elected into the parliament of a bourgeois state – the same one which was the basis for the Pinochet apparatus. In return for PCC backing, Bachelet’s “Socialists” did not challenge Vallejo’s run for Congress, which led to the PCC gaining ten seats.
In parliament, Vallejo and the “Communist” Party of Chile betrayed not only the student movement, but the entire working class, by covering for the austerity of the Bachelet government. This was yet another let down by yet another “left” party which entered a capitalist government. The “Communists” came to be seen as just another set of self-interested politicians set against everyone else. Worse, the “Communists” sat in parliament and negotiated with parties of the fascistic right-wing, some containing the same personnel from the days of Pinochet. This is another example of the nationalism of so-called “Marxism-Leninism”. Under nationalist logic, all national parties are part of the nation – even fascists. Needless to say, such perfidy is the very opposite of the basic tenets of Marxism and Leninism.
There is also the “New” left in Chile in the form of the Frente Amplio, or “Broad Left”. It includes Revolucion Democratica, a centrist party modelled on the Spanish Podemos, feminists, humanists and others. They have 20 seats in parliament, but as a political formation which does not claim or seek to represent the working class, their politics are one of insufferable compromise. Even on the issue of the recent demonstrations, the Frente Amplio has reportedly temporised between taking part in parliamentary votes on the reduction of public transport fares, and abstaining until the military is withdrawn from the streets. This form of populism cannot see outside of a capitalist parliament, and thus only has the “weapon” of voting, or not casting a vote, inside it. This is hardly a solution.
Break the impasse
Inequality in Chile is at staggering levels. Pensions are set below the minimum wage. Private health insurance companies reek in profits while placing tight restrictions on coverage. The public health system is short of resources, with extremely long waiting lists for operations. The public transport costs are some of the most expensive in Latin America. Water, electricity, gas and telecommunications have been privatised, which leads to ongoing and arbitrary price rises. Working people in Chile have suffered for decades, and there needs to be a political break through. However, populism, nationalism and liberalism have no solutions. Given the betrayal of the parties which have claimed some form of leftism, from the social-democratic “Socialists”, to the ultimately conservative “Communists”, to the populist “Broad Left”, it will be difficult, but not impossible, to convince Chilean workers that there can be a genuine left.
Some Australian left parties have uncritically endorsed the Chilean protests. Socialist Alternative recognise the significant loss of credibility the left has endured, particularly the betrayals of the Communist Party of Chile. However, so far they omit any mention of the life-taking criminal arson, and the trashing of public transport. The Socialist Alliance manage to channel liberalism, anti-communism and Russophobia at the same time by comparing the neoliberalism in Chile to the reversal of Gough Whitlam’s “legacy” by the Labor Party in Australia, “sweatshops” in China, and “oligarchy” in Russia !!  Already, the Socialist Alliance is attempting to steer any solidarity movement with the Chilean protests behind the anti-China and anti-Russia New Cold War of US imperialism.
A significant problem with the Chile Desperto movement in Australia has been the overt nationalism of the solidarity actions. At one action, participants to a solidarity rally were warned that only national flags of all countries would be permitted (!), and that any flag representing any political party were disallowed. The Chile Desperto organisers claimed this was to show a “united front” which comes from the “people” and not from any political party. This is astonishing. A political rally where political parties are banned! Such “neither left nor right” movements are invariably dangerous, as they tend towards the right-wing. The banning of party symbols is primarily a move against left-wing and workers’ parties, despite claims to be “for all”. The result was a sea of Chilean national flags, alongside the Mapuche indigenous people’s flag. An exception must have been made here, for the Mapuche people are not a nation.
There will be no breaking of the political impasse in Chile, or internationally, if a movement does not break with nationalism and/or populism. There is no Marxist category which is the “people”. In Chile, as in Australia, the super wealthy rich elite all claim to be a part of the “people”. Any political alliance with them is a flagrant betrayal of the interests of the working class. The Chile Desperto movement, perhaps despite its intentions, displays the same nationalism of those they claim to stand against. What is needed is movement which proclaims that it defends the interests of the workers ONLY, in Chile, Latin America, and internationally. Opposing classes have opposing interests, in Chile as elsewhere. A workers party which fights for a workers government – not seats in parliament – is a critical pre-requisite. A genuine move towards socialism can then begin.
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