Inequality and the center-left of Chile

Students marched through the main avenue of Santiago de Chile on April 2017, demanding a free, quality, democratic, non-profit public education, as well as rejecting the educational reform project. Mauricio Gomez/NurPhoto. PA IMages. All rights reserved.

This article is part of the series "Persistent inequality: disputing the legacy of the pink tide in Latin America" produced in alliance with the Institute of Latin American Studies and at the Instituite of Sociology of the Freie Universität Berlin.

For twenty-four out of the last twenty-eight years, Chile has had a center-left coalition
government. The first twenty years (1990-2010), uninterruptedly, under the name
of Coalition of Parties for Democracy.

It returned to power in 2014 under the
name of New Majority, this time in alliance with the Communist Party. This year
(2018), a version of the party associated with its left-wing base had to
concede the government to the center-right coalition which has put an end to
its long stay in power.

It is in this
context, focusing on the legacy of center-left governments over the previous
years, that we desire to consider the issue of inequality, however we want to do
so from a slightly different perspective than the usual one.

Inequality can only be perceived as such and then politicized if it is recognized as something unacceptable, mostly by those who suffer the consequences.

We start off with
the premise that any social transformation requires legitimacy, because this is
an essential requirement to make it sustainable. For it is precisely the
transformation of a relationship or a situation into an legitimate one that paves
the way for politicization.

Inequality can only be perceived as such and then
politicized if it is recognized as something unacceptable, mostly by those who suffer
the consequences – as shown, for example, in the case of the issues promoted by
feminist movements.

What have been,
therefore, the returns of the center-left governments at this level? For the
sake of brevity, it is useful to focus on two types of inequality, emphasizing
the novelty and importance of the second one at the present time.

It is clear that
under the governments of the Chilean center-left, the issue of legitimacy of
economic inequalities was not particularly questioned – not, at least, until
the last New Majority government led by Bachelet which, beyond its arguable success
or failure, tried to promote reforms that dealt with structural dimensions.

The legitimacy of inequality was not questioned, not only because the development model was not questioned either.

Chile is still affected by high levels of inequality. It is the most unequal
country in the OECD, and it is one of the most unequal countries in the most
unequal continent, Latin America. One figure suffices to grasp the sheer extent
of the phenomenon: in Chile, 1% of the population retains 33% of the overall wealth.

But the
legitimacy of inequality was not questioned, not only because the development
model was not questioned either. Nor was the regulation of wealth accumulation faced
in a consistent way, and nor were the spheres of social life subjected to commodification logic.

This is because the principles of the social order that prop
up the neoliberal establishment (competition, individual improvement,
confidence in ones own effort, differential compensation according to
individual performance) were not dismantled, neutralized or nuanced, but rather
the opposite.

This was not
without consequences. Economic inequalities are not considered as particularly legitimate in Chile. An example of the political expression of this is the
fact that, faced with government measures aimed at de-commodifying school
education, promoted by Bachelet’s last government (2014-2018), parents
themselves protested against them much to the surprise and dismay of the
government and other sectors of the left.

This is a complex and multifaceted issue,
but it could be argued that this shows that training in facing ordinary social
life in a particular way has produced, on the one hand, shared common values according
to which the wealth and the social goods obtained by someone are understood as
a direct result of his or her personal effort; on the other hand, the widespread
conviction that you have to pay for a "service" persists. These two
beliefs ultimately justify the existence and permanence of economic
inequalities.

But there is
another aspect of the relation between the Chilean center-left governments and
inequality that merits attention.

The expansion of
the concept of rights and citizenship was strongly promoted by these
governments, and this has had an unforeseen effect on the political class.

The inequalities which are rejected the most in Chile are the ones which have to do with the daily interactions between individuals and between individuals and institutions.

The
legitimacy of a particular type of inequality has been put into question and
this has become relevant element, as we will see, in the construction of social
and political demands, and with regards to the ways in which people think about
politics and their relationship with it. 

As several
studies have shown, the inequalities which are rejected the most in Chile are
the ones which have to do with the daily interactions between individuals and
between individuals and institutions.

Of course, inequality in interactions is
essentially viewed because of how a person’s social position is defined –
mainly, though not only, due to being poor. A sensitivity to economic
differences exists, the differential forms of treatment are at the core of the perception
that individuals have of their social experience in Chile, and are the building
block on which they establish their relationship with society.

They also
increasingly fuel their demands and political judgments – which has an enormous
effect on the forms democracy and politics take. 

The emergence and
relevance of this type of inequality is related to the so-called "process
of citizenship", which has entailed the pre-eminence of the figure of the
citizen and the strengthening of the idea as a tool for structuring social
order.

In the case of Chile, this process went hand in hand with the return of
democracy beginning very early in the nineties. The modernization of the State,
one of the proposals of the center-left when it first gained power, included
the establishment of this new paradigm as a framework for State action.

 Citizenship and the paradigm of rights carried the promise of equality.

There
were several reasons for this. On the one hand, international pressure,
primarily through international organizations, made the transfer of funds conditional
on the adoption of this perspective.

On the other hand, citizenship and the
paradigm of rights, which carried – and this is essential – the promise of
equality, offered the center-left a renewed formulation of its political goals
and its commitment to society. 

The magnitude and
consistency with which this paradigm cemented itself in the relationship between
the State and society was quite unexpected, and the issue of rights and the
promise of equality expanded in Chilean society.

This happened because of the ways
in which the State approached members of society, but also through the actions
of other actors from social movements, the media, and the political sphere. These
issues took shape in forms such as electoral propaganda, public policies, state
programs, or new legal regulations.

What is more, as results of empirical
research show, equality became embedded as an ideal in individuals. This means
that equality became a central component from which people built their
expectations of how society should be, of their relationship with others, and of
what they should be getting from the world.

But, as we have
seen, the establishment of this promise of equality occurred in Chile in an
innovative way. This is explained, at least in part, by an increasing appeal to
the individual as an agent responsible for himself and as the axis of his own
life and experiences, by virtue of the consequences of the commodification of the
different spheres of life and the shrinking of the State.

The promise of equality dealt with mainly social matters, particularly those relating to social relations.

But also because of the
weakening of the model of relating to the collective through politics. The
promise of equality dealt with mainly social matters, particularly those relating
to social relations. What has emerged from this are expectations of receiving a
more horizontal type of treatment in relationships that are both symmetrical (between
peers or passers-by) and asymmetric (hierarchical superiors or political
authorities).

It is these interactions that are put to the test in everyday and
ordinary situations such as getting on a bus, applying for a job or going to a
public hospital.

Therefore, what
is critical is the perception of not only the distribution of social goods
(health, wages, education), or of institutional symbols (recognition of
individuals as political subjects or subjects of rights), but of actual
relational practices such as the use – or not – of signs of respect,
containment in the use of power, and considerations of justice, or of kindness,
among others which is new.

Individuals equipped with this new social lens – the
promise of equality applied to the sphere of interactions – have clearly
perceived the effects of the still very much in force social logic which has traditionally
determined social relations in Chile (the logic of privilege and
authoritarianism, among others), and have recognized them as unacceptable
offences against the dignity of others.

The perspectives
gained from this process have become a tool for interpreting society and have thus
acquired greater political importance. They have played a role in shaping
judgments about society and social actors, attitudes towards politics and politicians,
adherence to politics and society, and also in the structuring of social and
political demands. 

Political actors are judged less by their big actions than by their small actions.

This is clearly
shown in the changing criteria through which politics and politicians are
judged. Here, two essential questions are at play. On the one hand, the
importance that the dimension of ordinary interactions linked to interpersonal
relationships has acquired implies that people focus their attention on what
their actual social experiences tell them rather than on discourses and abstract
notions.

Political actors are judged less by their big actions than by their
small actions. On the other hand, closely related to the above, abuse and
disrespect have become the usual language to express what are deemed
politically and morally intolerable attitudes.

Today, ordinary abusive behaviour
is considered as lacking public and political legitimacy and, even more so, it constitutes
a valid argument for disobedience. 

The demands for democratizing social relations have become, in fact, a central structuring element of collective action.

However, things
have gone a little farther. The demands for democratizing social relations have
become, in fact, a central structuring element of collective action: the basis
of political demands, of their rhetorical forms, of the ways in which they are
justified are decisive factors for the potential support they can gather.

This
is clearly shown in the recent massive mobilizations of university students
against gender based violence and sexism in education in Chile but, above all, in
the widespread support they gained among the population – quite unexpected given
the historic trajectory of these kinds of movements.

Another social impact of
collective action is, undoubtedly, the importance of abuse as the main
rhetorical element to legitimize demands ranging from complaints against
transportation to mobilizations against the Pension Fund Administrators (AFP). 

Therefore, the center-left
has contributed to the erosion of the legitimacy of differential forms of
treatment and to the emergence of new forms of perceived inequality. It has
helped legitimize the demand for the democratization of social relations.

And without
necessarily having perceived it and even less so learned from the consequences of
it, these new ideas have increasingly manifested themselves as the main expression
of the politicization of inequality.

These two
inequalities may be different, but they both have something in common. They
are, undoubtedly, essential achievements for the center-left, that has been in
power for some time, which now needs to retrace its steps in the face of its
setbacks.

For the new left converging as the Broad Front which is trying to
build more defined political proposals for the country these considerations
also matter. They are essential because the way they have evolved constitute the
key to understanding political challenges in Chile in the coming years.

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