Chile: The Hot Potato Changes Hands


But What Does Electoral Victory for the Left Mean for Autonomous Movements?


On the weekend of May 15-16, 2021, voters across Chile chose delegates to attend the convention that will compose a new constitution for the country. This vote, itself, was a concession earned via the uprising of 2019. The right wing was soundly defeated in these elections, but no institutional left party gained a majority, either. The corporate media are heralding this as a victory for “independent” politics—but what will this mean for the autonomous movements that gave the left politicians momentum in the first place? In the following analysis, our correspondent in Chile explores the irreconcilable tension between the politics of representation and the politics of direct action.

The electoral victory for the non-institutional left in Chile is the latest development in a story that has been going on for years, from the “Pink Tide” that brought left politicians like Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to power in Brazil to the victory of Syriza in Greece following the movements of 2011. In each of these cases, the failures of right-wing and centrist politics paved the way for these electoral victories. But left parties have struggled to deliver on their promises, and even more extreme right-wing politicians have succeeded them—Bolsonaro in Brazil, New Democracy in Greece. How can horizontal social movements navigate the situation arising from left electoral victories, so as to ensure that their prospects are not tied to the fate of political parties and governments?

Chile has a history of right-wing anti-government direct action, which further complicates matters. In an era when state power is like a hot potato that can burn whoever holds it, even at moments when it seems that the ruling order has been defeated, we should look into the future and prepare for the next round.

Part I: Fragmentation in the State Apparatus

Ahead of the constitutional referendum last October, we offered these thoughts on the upcoming wave of electoral campaigns:

Although the one-year anniversary of the Chilean revolt is quickly approaching, we are unsure of what the future holds in Santiago. We have seen the discourse surrounding this movement shift from a movement for Dignidad (dignity) to a movement against the constitution inherited from Pinochet’s dictatorship. On October 25, a week after the anniversary of the Chilean revolt, Chileans will vote in a nationwide referendum to decide whether to hold a convention to rewrite the constitution inherited from Pinochet. The institutional left is quick to blame society’s ills on the current constitution—it is a way to divert attention from how the institutional arrangements between the dictatorship and its opposition created this situation… when they supplanted the thousands who fought bravely against the military and police in the streets to become the designated leaders of Pinochet’s opposition.

Consequently, our present conflict pits the new community of revolt against both the state and its institutional opposition. This struggle will determine whether the Chilean revolt will be about living life with dignity or perpetuating the institutional arrangements that alienate us from our experiences, our histories, and each other. Despite the ways that the suspension of protests has rendered the community of revolt invisible, we see its presence everywhere… The movements in the streets have a greater role than just “protecting street marches” or applying pressure to whatever public official walks through the revolving doors of state governance. They serve to create the conditions for other ideas to take hold, for other possibilities to take root.

The Constitutional Election

The weekend of May 15-16, 2021 saw a mega-election in which voters nationwide chose from candidates competing to be city mayors, city council representatives, and delegates to the convention that is to compose a new constitution for Chile. This was originally planned for April 15, but political parties agreed to postpone the election a month and hold it over two days, in response to the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Chile.

The neighborhood assemblies and social organizations that have participated in these elections emphasize three main principles regarding how political governance should function in Chile:

1.) Popular sovereignty: Change the political system to make the government reflect the interests of everyday Chileans and not the political class (both left and right) that has thus far governed via institutional arrangements. Respond to longstanding social demands which up until now have gone un-answered.

2.) Popular power: Politicians should represent the interests of social movements, the non-institutional social organizations via which everyday Chileans articulate their social demands.

3.) Territorial autonomy: Change the centralized political system that gives far more power to the national government at the cost of local municipalities that have an immediate connection to everyday Chileans.

In the months since the referendum, political parties and social organizations compiled lists of candidates and campaigned in these elections. Social organizations had an opportunity to act like political parties, creating their own electoral slates for the constitutional convention and holding their own primaries to choose mayoral candidates.

The right wing was sure that they would gain the full one third of votes that they needed to obtain veto power in the constitutional convention. In an interview last February, the Secretary of State, Jaime Bellolio, asserted that, in the elections to determine who will participate in the process to establish a new Chilean constitution,

“We believe that we are going to win 3-0: Vamos Por Chile is going to be the most voted list, it is going to be the list that it is going to get the greatest amount of constituents, and it is going to be the list that by itself will get 1/3 of the constituents.”

That’s not how things turned out.

  • Vamos por Chile: Sebastián Piñera’s coalition of center-right and Pinochetista political parties.
  • Apruebo Dignidad: The slate composed of the Communist Party, Frente Amplio, and their affiliated social organizations.
  • “Apruebo”: Comprised of la Concertación, the coalition of center-leftist political parties that came to power after the Pinochet dictatorship.
  • Del Pueblo: A coalition of independent candidates, many affiliated with social organizations with no ties to political parties.
  • Nueva constitución: A coalition of independent candidates with political party affiliations who did not run for election on their political party’s slate.
  • Others (otros): 13 independents who ran as delegates for their district without any ties to an official list.
  • Indigenous People (Pueblos indígenas): The 17 reserved delegate seats for Chile’s Indigenous people, elected on a special ballot only available to recognized members of one of Chile’s nine Indigenous nations.

While many neighborhood assemblies organized to promote their own candidates, anarchist assemblies attempted to read the present situation and determine our position in this shifting institutional terrain. Ahead of last weekend’s mega-election, anti-institutional tendencies assumed the following would occur:

1.) There would be low turnouts in the polls, which would skew the votes in favor of the right.

2.) The right would gain at least one third of the seats in the constitutional convention, enabling them to block any major institutional changes.

There was indeed a low turnout: only 43% of eligible voters came to the polls. But even though this low turnout signals a lack of the “popular participation” that the institutional left associates with its principles of popular sovereignty and popular power, the right wing suffered a major loss in the elections. Moreover, no coalition of political parties gained veto power, because independent candidates won 42% of the convention seats. The corporate media here in Chile has presented “the independents” as the major winner of the constitutional convention election, an emergent political bloc emerging from the estallido social (the “social outburst,” i.e., the 2019 uprising). But these independents are not a composed coalition—they are a patchwork of different slates, different candidates from different social organizations, and different histories of political activity in Chile.

This creates a unique situation in which there is no single political party or leader that represents the entirety of the social movements.

“Tia Pikachu.”

Notable winners in the constitutional delegate election include “Tia Pikachu,” a 43-year-old school bus driver in Santiago, who became an icon of the protests in Plaza Dignidad and won a seat in the constitutional convention in the “lista del pueblo” slate, and Machi Francisca Linconao, a human rights defender and Mapuche spiritual leader.1

Officialism versus the Opposition, “The Political Class” versus “The People”

Some anarchists have suggested that, in 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. According to this theory, alternative tendencies and political practices can flourish so long as they are able to present themselves as opponents of ruling order, but these tendencies tend to lose popular support once they are reduced to political platforms that politicians can claim to represent, or else become associated—rightly or wrongly—with the governing party.

In Chile, the dominant political parties failed to gain a foothold in the constitutional convention because they all presented visions of technocratic crisis management, which has been discredited by the Chilean uprising and the COVID-19 pandemic.

More people participated in the 2017 presidential election than the May 2021 election. In 2017, the current president, Sebastián Piñera, won with 53% of the vote. Piñera’s supporters pointed to Venezuela’s political and economic crisis, threatening that Chile could experience the same problems if it strayed from its neoliberal path. They also mobilized anti-immigrant fears: almost two million immigrants, most of them from Venezuela, have fled to Chile in order to escape economic crises elsewhere. The right wing warned that a victory of the Frente Amplio (a relatively recent left coalition) or the socialist party would turn the country into a “Chilezuela” with rampant inflation, high unemployment, evaporating pension funds, social unrest, and empty grocery stores, declaring that the only way to ensure a stable future was to stick to right-wing neoliberal policies.

The specter of “a ‘Chilezuela’ with rampant inflation, high unemployment, evaporating pension funds, social unrest, and empty grocery stores.”

Ironically, the reality of an unstable “Chilezuela” has materialized under the right-wing government. While the revolt proved that there was widespread disillusionment with Chile’s neoliberal model, the state response to COVID-19 showed that it was incapable of responding to crisis. So far, the government’s chief form of economic relief has been to allow Chileans to withdraw 10% from their state-managed private pensions (AFP). In June 2020, the first major protests since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic took place, as people demanded that the government approved these withdrawals; the government approved two withdrawals in June and December. In April 2021, congress sought to approve a third withdrawal, and Piñera did everything in his power to block it. The right wing feared that these withdrawals could irreparably damage the mega-corporations that the AFPs invest in.

The right had enough congressional seats to block the vote. If congress passed it, Piñera could challenge congress in the Supreme Court, which many feared would side with him. Yet after apparently considering Piñera’s abysmal approval rating (roughly 15%) and the upcoming elections, over two thirds of congress approved the law, including many representatives from Piñera’s party. That same day, Piñera spoke on TV, flanked by the two most promising right-wing presidential candidates, Joaquín Lavín and Evelyn Mathei, announcing that he would challenge congress in the Supreme Court. A week later, the Supreme Court ruled against Piñera and approved the law.

The system of governance of Chile has historically invested a great deal of power in the executive branch of the federal government; this predates Pinochet’s constitution of 1981. No matter how politicians from the governing party coalition try to distance themselves from the president, their success in elections is tied to the president’s actions and policies. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Piñera declared a state of emergency, introducing restrictions on movement and assembly and concentrating even more power in the executive branch.

The government’s failure to recuperate the revolt and the economic and social crises attending the pandemic enabled the opposition to build power by showing the weakness of Chile’s neoliberal system. While Piñera’s approval rating plummeted and his disapproval rating skyrocketed, the coalition of right-wing parties fractured as their politicians tried to present themselves as an opposition to Piñera. This proved futile, as their political visions were pegged to the neoliberal model that had failed to offer stability through the waves of crisis that began in 2019.

At the same time, the political opposition was also associated with the technocratic model of governance that has preserved neoliberalism in Chile for years after the Pinochet dictatorship. Widely seen as part of the same political class as the parties that hold power, these politicians represent the paradigm of the “transition to democracy” that sought to maintain stability by slowly reforming the policies of the dictatorship. Pursuing bipartisan agreements, developing policies informed by university-trained experts, they represented the promise that the state could progressively ease the catastrophic social effects of the neoliberal model.

While they proved themselves to be out of touch with the “social demands” of the social uprising, they also made themselves irrelevant by failing to block any of the “officialist” policies. When Piñera required congressional approval to extend the state of emergency after one year, the opposition criticized his policies but nonetheless approved the extension. These opposition parties had hoped for increased financial relief and social assistance—in particular, stimulus checks and price controls (which are unconstitutional, but could in theory be implemented during a state of emergency). Yet the executive government refused to implement most of these proposals. Every step of the way, the opposition spoke about how they would manage the crisis if they were in power, or if the 1981 constitution was changed. However, they proved the poverty of the parliamentary model, as they were unable to push forward alternative projects, even during a state of emergency when it was possible to sidestep the Pinochet-era constitution.

Prior to the Estallido Social, the coalition Frente Amplio was the poster child of the new Chilean left, presenting a vision of electoral politics that broke with the institutional opposition. This coalition emerged from the 2011 student movement, specifically the Autonomist movement, which sought to break the Chilean Communist Party’s commanding role over social movements. Their political platform was supposed to be informed by listening to Chile’s grassroots social movements rather than to technocrats. Their representatives in congress were supposed to represent their parties’ base, only voting in congress according to the consensus of the party members. Their members would be active members of social movements and autonomous neighborhood activities in order to keep a finger on the pulse of social issues that their elected representatives could address. The coalition gained 20% of the presidential vote in 2017 and elected two former student movement leaders into congress, Gabriel Boric and Giorgio Jackson.

Yet rather than surging in popularity as the representative voice of the revolt, as such parties have in Greece and elsewhere, the party all but collapsed in the months following October 2019. At the peak of the uprising, while the Communist Party and other leftist parties refused negotiate with the far right, Boric went against the consensus of his party to sign the “Agreement to Peace and a New Constitution.” Later, he voted for the “Anti-barricade, Anti-looting, Anti-mask, and Anti-land occupation” law, which increased the penalties for the direct actions that were central to the Chilean revolt. Consequently, thousands of Frente Amplio militants and social organizations cut ties with the coalition. Former Frente Amplio militants recount being harassed in their neighborhoods and spit on in assemblies.

This image of Gabriel Boric sitting with the right wing to announce “Agreement to Peace and a New Constitution” has become a meme, appearing in reply to any posts that Frente Amplio politicians make on social media.

The rise of independent candidates in this election is a direct rejection of the contradictions of the new Chilean left, in which young politicians claim to represent popular power and social movements yet vote against these very principles. Of the independent candidates elected to the constitutional convention, many were political party militants who left Frente Amplio and members of social organizations who decided they could only gain political power by winning their own seats in office. Others were activists who had never trusted electoral politics until now, but consider this constitutional convention the first time in Chilean history that politicians and the Chilean elite could be kept out of writing the constitution.

The new alternative is represented by the various independent blocs that won in the constitutional delegate elections. In many ways, this represents an attempt to develop an electoral politics to re-work the state in response to the failures seen in Venezuela, Bolivia, and other countries that have experienced the so-called “Pink Tide,” the surge of left electoral victories at the beginning of the 21st century. For those on the left, no central figure or political party embodies the hopes and desires of the current moment of change. For the political elite and the right wing, it appears that there will be no left regime to boycott or demand foreign intervention against.

The newly elected Communist Party mayor of Santiago.

Mayoral Elections

Despite the crisis of legitimacy of the Chilean political system, some people have maintained more faith in municipal politics. The left has sought to gain power in local elections, ostensibly to challenge national government’s policies when they go against the wishes of locals. The metropolitan centers of Chile—Santiago, Viña del Mar, and Valparaiso—have all elected or re-elected left-wing mayors. These candidates’ victories were due to presenting themselves as instruments for Chilean social movements. Leading up to the Mayoral elections, the Communist Party and social organizations put forward an alternative primary election, called “Alcaldia Constituyente,” in which the cities could vote on mayoral candidates put forward by social organizations and political parties. The low turnout for this primary became a meme in Santiago, with photos of empty polling stations circulating on social media. Nonetheless, the Communist Party candidate and current City Councilwoman, Irací Hassler, won the primary and later won the election to become Santiago’s first Communist mayor in recent memory.

Banner in Parque Forestal, Santiago, reading “No More Tear Gas, you are poisoning us!”

Hassler defeated the incumbent Santiago Mayor, Jorge Alessandri, an active opponent of the weekly protests in Plaza Dignidad and the informal vendors in Santiago’s streets. In the first weeks of the Estallido Social, neighborhood assemblies proliferated throughout Santiago. Hassler, already on the Santiago City Council, was actively involved in her assembly in Parque Forestal, a neighborhood directly adjacent to Plaza de la Dignidad. The current mayor, Jorge Alessandri, actively coordinated with police to militarize Plaza Dignidad, exposing residents daily to tear gas, rubber bullets, and armored vehicles charging through the streets at protestors. In interviews, Hassler consistently emphasized the daily police brutality that threatened neighbors in the area, which posed more of a risk than the specter of delinquency that Alessandri continued to allude to.

When Anti-State Movements Become Tied to New Governing Institutions

For now, members of the institutional left are asking themselves the following questions regarding political strategy: How can we prevent the right wing from building power and influencing governance? What new forms of governance can allow the new political system to better respond to crises?

But we should be asking ourselves different questions: What role will autonomous, ungovernable force play in social conflicts and crises? How can we prepare to act differently from the autonomous tendencies in the past, who failed to break away from the institutional left and ultimately faded into irrelevance?

In scrutinizing the failures of previous left-wing governments that also claimed to represent “the people,” we might learn more about the messy world of attachments, heresies, allegiances, and patronage. The problem with enthusiasm about the constitutional convention is that it can distract us from everything that we can do outside the terrain of (representational) politics, while the conceptual framework it presumes also leaves us unprepared for what right-wing movements can do outside the terrain of (representational) politics. The risk is that we will let the right wing gain momentum as the new “anti-state” force (with all the ironies already banally familiar from the Trump era), while left movements end up relying on the police to suppress right-wing movements—the same police that will eventually be used to suppress us when the right wing rides that momentum back into power.

Examining how to employ direct action in ongoing social conflicts will ensure that we continue to have a means to assert autonomous positions in a terrain that will otherwise increasingly confine the solutions to crisis to a framework of new and improved governance.

Sabotage targeting a logging truck in rural Chile.

In the metropolitan centers, it’s easy to forget that extractive industries are the foundation of the Chilean economy: mining, industrial logging plantations, and industry fisheries. In the Chilean hinterland, these industries have been in a decades-long conflict with local Indigenous communities, who seek to reclaim their land and halt the disastrous harm that these industries have been inflicting on their territories. Since the 1990s, Mapuche communities have increasingly turned to direct action to exert territorial autonomy. After decades of failed promises that institutional reforms would help Mapuche communities to regain their land and limit industries’ ecological impact, several land occupation movements got underway. Some of these started with the participants holding ceremonies and events on the usurped land, then building houses and planting crops there. Every year, more acts of sabotage have destroyed forestry companies’ logging equipment, more rural protests have barricaded rural logging roads, and more logging trucks have been hijacked by anonymous and armed highway robbers.

As the conflict over ecological devastation and property is bound to continue in the Chilean hinterland, Mapuche communities will continue to take direct action rather than wait for promised institutional reforms. In response, even without representation in government, the far right could gain power in the hinterland by utilizing direct action towards their own interests.

For example, after a truck driver was injured during an armed robbery, Chile’s largest truck unions declared a strike to demand increased government protection in rural Chile. For seven days, truckers blocked cargo transportation on every on-ramp to the Pan-American highway in Araucanía as well as other rural sections of that highway. In the rural Chilean towns blocked by the strike, grocery stores ran out of basic goods and gas stations rationed fuel. At the same time, the striking truckers throw a party on the freeway in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Videos circulating online showed the striking workers dancing with strippers they hired to attend their party.

The trucker strike.

Both Indigenous peoples and the Chilean left denounced the truckers as right-wing, sexist, and potentially fascist. In this evaluation, they were correct. But at the heart of the leftist critique was a condemnation of the right-wing government’s double standard: brutalizing the protesters in Plaza Dignidad but leaving the striking truck drivers alone. While the carabineros employed all the force at their disposal to quell any social protest in Plaza Dignidad, the national government ended the strike by meeting the drivers’ demands and guaranteeing increased policing in an already militarized region.

Rather than developing a strategy for how to engage in social conflicts like these outside of electoral politics, the left imagines that these problems will disappear once the new Chilean constitution is created. Behind the critique of the right-wing strike is the reality that the left, while condemning the state for not cracking down on right-wing social movements, has no strategy for what to do when groups use the power of logistical disruption to push right-wing demands by being ungovernable. While the leftist delegates in the constitutional convention envision a Chilean society that acknowledges its debts to Indigenous peoples and puts a stop to the rampant police violence against Indigenous communities, they have no strategy to respond to right-wing groups who use economic power to prevent such social reforms.

A protest in Los Lagos, Chile against the salmon industry.

In part, this is because the dream of a future Chilean political system that responds to the demands of social movements takes for granted that social movements will always be inherently anti-neoliberal and inherently “of the people.” Popular. But who are the people? As we have seen in Brazil and elsewhere in the world, the far right can also grow through social movements that make this same claim to representing “the people.” Dismissing social movements like the truckers’ strike as right-wing and in the interests of the economic elite provides an easy alibi for not confronting tough questions with complex answers. For example, it is assumed that the new constitution should guarantee workers safety and Indigenous rights—but what happens when workers claim that Indigenous people are threatening their safety? Why do workers continue to adopt right-wing politics when a new government in power is trying to represent their interests?

Part II: Risks and Opportunities

Some of the possible futures emerging from this election.

Risk: A Non-Institutional Right Wing Leveraging Economic Power

If we don’t develop a strategy for how to engage in social conflicts outside electoral politics, we risk leaving ourselves with few tactics as we confront the social conflicts that will indubitably occur outside of the new institutional arrangements. The leftist notion of the labor strike—leveraging the economic power of the working class—does not address the scale of the economic and labor power the elite can also leverage when pushed out of political institutions.

The danger is that after the constitutional convention, left and autonomous movements will abandon the terrain of ungovernability and economic disruption to the right wing. We can see how in Venezuela, the imposed economic sanctions and the war of wealthy business owners against the Chavez regime both increased generalized suffering, showing the weakness of the government when it came to responding to the crisis they generated and effectively reducing the range of possibility to the double bind of Chavista or anti-Chavista—a catastrophe for horizontal autonomous movements. Rather than taking at face value the promise of a better society under a new and improved constitution, we must confront the historical precedent that the right wing and economic elites will leverage their economic power to throw any newly constituted “revolutionary” government into crisis.

The Allende years offer an obvious example of this. Kissinger declared that he would end the Allende regime by making the Chilean economy scream; Chile’s metropolitan regions starved as the coalition of anti-Allende forces cut off the country’s logistics. This was not just the result of international policy and economic sanctions blocking the country’s imports. Food also ceased to make it into the metropolitan centers, basic goods stayed in warehouses, and imports were trapped in the ports. The right wing grew in power with each far-right labor strike coupled with economic sanctions, by presenting the rampant unemployment, the rationing of basic goods, and increased daily struggles for survival as a sign of socialism’s political illegitimacy.

There are several reasons why workers in these industries sided with their employers rather than the Allende government. Many simply decided to support the more powerful side that they assumed would better guarantee their personal security amid the country’s economic crisis. The norms of patron/client relationships endure in Chile; for some workers, it was a safer bet to maintain the patronage of their employer than to seek the patronage of the national government. Some workers received immediate rewards for supporting their employers; others feared their employers’ retribution. These labor strikes presented a complex situation in which some labor unions disrupted the economy to demand the end of a government that ostensibly represented “their interests.”

The success of these strikes showed that the façade of “political power” via representation in the Chilean state meant little compared to the economic power that capitalist interests were able to leverage through logistical disruption. In Hinterland, Philip Neel argues that the leftist emphasis on new models of popular representation—popular among the denizens of metropolitan centers—fails to consider the understandings of power in the hinterland and, in turn, opens up spaces for far-right cooptation:

“The real political advance visible in the far right—and the thing that has made possible its ascendance—is the pragmatic focus on questions of power, which are religiously ignored by the American leftist, who instead focuses on building elaborate political programs and ornate utopias, as if politics were the exercise of one’s imagination. It is this focus on building power in the midst of crisis that distinguishes the partisan from the leftist, and the oath is the present organizational form of partisanship.”

The constitutionalist strategy, by promising future security on the condition that people sacrifice in the present, is the same strategy adopted by the previous politicians of the neoliberal institutional order. While at present, the Chilean right has been shattered due to its association with Pinochet-era state politics, a massive institutional overhaul could create the conditions for the right to adopt the tools of economic disruption once again, benefitting from an era when it is not difficult to mobilize people against the ruling party.

According to Neel, “By providing material incentives that guarantee stability, combined with threats of coercion for those who oppose them, such groups become capable of making the population complicit in their rise, regardless of ideological positions.” Just as crisis created the conditions for a constitutional convention by laying bare the weakness of the previous institutional order, crisis will also create the conditions for the growth of the non-institutional far right by laying bare the weakness of the new institutional politics.

And the hot potato will change hands again.

Risk: Intensifying the Police and Carceral System

In the irreconcilable tension between the politics of direct action and the politics of representation, we face the danger that a future constitutional order could perpetuate the same politics of “law and order” that produced the current police apparatus in Chile. Until now, the state has maintained stability amid escalating social conflicts by militarizing the police and expanding the carceral system.

Sebastian Pinera presenting the jungle command, a special police force trained in Colombia.

For example, starting in the early 2000s, the national government radically expanded the police apparatus in “the red zone of the Mapuche conflict.” Through racially discriminatory protocols, police began to systematically detain Mapuche activists and community leaders. This created the conditions for Chilean police to detain or murder countless Mapuche youth, as in the case of Camilo Catrillanca, killed in 2017. They began to hold Mapuche people for months or years before their trials, using racist judicial reforms that normalized “preventative detention” against suspects who were presented as threats to public safety. During the Estallido Social, the Chilean police and courts adopted this same system of preventative detention, with the consequence that thousands of prisoners from the revolt are still in jail awaiting trail.

The constitutional convention envisions a future Chilean political arrangement that reduces social conflict by finally conceding to social movement’s longstanding social demands.

Of the demands of the revolt, the demand to free all political prisoners is likely the most controversial. Days after their electoral victory in the constitutional convention, the list “del pueblo” announced that they would not negotiate with the right until all prisoners of the revolt are free. Others demand that all the Mapuche political prisoners jailed under the current racially discriminatory judicial system must also be freed as a condition of the constitutional convention. After all, the current opportunity to re-write the Chilean constitution is partly the consequence of the brave and militant political action of these political prisoners. Furthermore, if Chile is to acknowledge and address its debt to Indigenous people, this includes dismantling its systemic judicial racism against the Mapuche people jailed for their struggle for autonomy.

In August 2020, protesters in a Mapuche political prisoner solidarity march took over the City Hall of Curacautin, Araucania. Later, an angry mob violently evicted them.

Yet once again, this constitutional project of freeing political prisoners and demilitarizing the Chilean police as a concession to social movements’ demands does not include a strategy regarding how constitutional politics should address direct action in pursuit of right-wing demands. Against the politics of representation, the central philosophy of direct action is that it is possible to leverage economic and social power to force governments or public institutions to concede to demands. It should not be surprising if, faced with less police protection of their property and seeing their longtime enemies released from jail, the far right utilizes direct action to pursue their own agenda.

Facing this strategy, it seems entirely plausible that a new political arrangement could opt to maintain the same policing and judicial apparatus as a concession to the far right—or even as a purported way to control far-right violence (as we see Democrats in the United States clamoring to do in response to the events of January 6)—while claiming to care deeply about their historic debts to Indigenous peoples and political prisoners. The governments of Syriza, in Greece, and Dilma Rousseff, in Brazil, did exactly that, paving the way in both cases for the repression of the social movements that had originally supported them.

In a political crisis triggered by escalating direct actions from both the right and the left—as occurred, for example, in Brazil in 2013—the politics of law and order presents itself as a means of maintaining stability. In Araucanía, the right-wing truckers’ strike is just one example of broader right-wing organizing. Agrarian business associations are petitioning the government to increase the police presence in the area while former military personnel organize self-defense groups to protect their property, a step towards the sort of paramilitary violence familiar in Colombia. Armed groups such as Comando Trizano and APRA have organized patrols on the pretext of defending landowners’ property; they doxx Mapuche and environmental activists to threaten them.

Despite the right wing describing it as terrorism, Mapuche direct action has taken the form of self-defense in this context of state- and extra-state violence against Mapuche communities. It is likely that, when the political tools of mediation and bipartisan accord reach their limits, political institutions that seek to govern will turn the tools of state violence against those who lay bare the fact that political representation cannot resolve the crises of our time.

A Mapuche land reclamation in Curacautin.

The Potential: Carve out Spaces that Are Ungovernable

The major success of independent candidates in the constitutional convention has created the conditions for people to talk about “independent” candidates as a new fourth bloc of power countering the three major coalitions of political parties. However, there is no unified “leftist” bloc in political power; these independent delegates come from an array of political tendencies and personal backgrounds. The fractured terrain of institutional politics presents a situation in which street politics could exacerbate the tensions between political parties and social movements. A fragmented parliamentary landscape may offer an opportunity to exploit politicians’ desire to be representatives in order to carve out spaces that are ungovernable.

Once again, we can learn from the Allende years, during which leftist anti-institutional politics escalated throughout Chile while in parliament, Allende’s political coalitions jockeyed for power against the centrist political parties. Prior to Allende’s presidency, land occupation movements proliferated throughout Chile as rural campesinos and Santiago’s urban poor seized land to carve out spaces for life. In no small part, Salvador Allende’s electoral victory was a response to the police massacre of squatters in Puerto Montt during the Frei administration, a tragedy that Victor Jara eulogized in his song “Preguntas por Puerto Montt.”

Victor Jara: “Preguntas por Puerto Montt.” Jara was brutally tortured and extrajudicially murdered by army officers participating in the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet; his corpse was tossed out on the streets of Santiago riddled with over 40 bullets. It took 42 years for his murderers to face charges. This is why we fight against the police and fascism.

While Allende’s promises of land reform and a socialist system led to his election, campesinos and pobladores continued to organize autonomous land occupations rather than waiting for the government’s promises to come true. A myriad of militant, autonomous revolutionary groups emerged in opposition to Allende’s program—the VOP (Vanguardia organizando el Pueblo) and the MIR (Movimiento Izquierda revolucionario) became the most prominent, gaining power in the squatter settlements that faced police brutality both before and after Allende’s election.

Although public rage against police violence towards squatters led to Allende’s election, under Allende, police once again killed a teenager while raiding a squatter settlement in Lo Hermida, Peñalolen. Leftist politicians jumped to the defense of the police, who had raided the settlement looking for weapons, declaring that the urban guerilla groups were outside agitators inciting the squatters to violence and that, by fighting against the police, the militant left was responsible for creating the situation in which an innocent teenager was killed. Despite politicians’ statements, public outcry against the police continued. After it was revealed that the victim was actually a member of the MIR, the MIR was able to discredit the accusations that they were “outside agitators.” Not all of the squatters were miristas, nor were all the miristas residents of the land occupation movement. Neither “insiders” nor “outsiders,” those involved were nonetheless fellow residents deeply committed to the squatter settlement’s daily life and shared future.

While Allende’s party was still opposed to groups like the MIR, on August 7, 1972, Allende attended the funeral of the MIRista teenager killed by the police. This conflict between the institutional and non-institutional left forced the state to legitimize the squatter settlement—a neighborhood that exists to this day.

Salvador Allende attending the funeral of the MIRista teenager murdered by police.

The histories of autonomous left groups in Chile have been overshadowed by nostalgia for Salvador Allende. This is not the most tragic outcome of the Pinochet dictatorship, but it is an obstacle to learning from the past. Pinochet’s coup was followed by a campaign to disappear many of the revolutionaries involved in the neighborhood. The survivors of groups like the MIR were driven underground, abandoning their previous strategies of community organizing for the strategies of secretive anti-Pinochet armed revolt. Consequently, we will never know whether the internal tensions within Allende’s Unidad Popular could have offered opportunities to create ungovernable spaces. Nonetheless, one can imagine a moment of conflict in which elected officials, fearful of the political repercussions of evicting an autonomous space—whether a squat, an occupied plaza, or an encampment defending a forest—concede territory to autonomous ungovernable forces that remain active outside the electoral system.

Potential: Respond to the Crisis by Building Inter-Territorial Autonomy

Just as crisis created the conditions for the constitutional convention by laying bare the weakness of the previous institutional order, crisis also creates the conditions for the growth of other non-institutional tendencies that could respond to these crises and lay bare the weakness of the next institutional arrangements. The non-institutional far right has the opportunity to exploit and expand forthcoming crises, while promising security and stability if they are permitted to govern. Against the paradigm of responding to crisis through escalation and critique, we have to build an ungovernable force by expanding practices of autonomy that provide for our and others’ sustenance and well-being.

Here, we can learn from the economic collapses that often follow the ascension of left-wing governments, thanks to the machinations of the economic elite, and from the successes and failures of Allende-era projects to grapple with crises of production and logistics. In response to right-wing sanctions and sabotage, the Allende government adopted the first system of cybernetics, Project Cybersyn.

This distributed-decision-making support system, receiving up to date economic and production information, sought to assist in factory self-management by receiving information from centers of production and sending out directives to factories after projecting simulated outcomes. By 1972, this system was able maintain Chile’s logistics despite increasingly effective right-wing truckers’ strikes.

The enduring limit of such cybernetic interventions in production and distribution is its inability to account for the role the informal economy plays in ensuring access to resources within a territory. When the urban poor adopt side-hustles and sell products on the street as a basis of survival, cybernetic interventions see them as a threat to stability. Right-wing regimes criminalize such activities as urban blight; left-wing regimes do the same, branding them a “black market” that takes advantage of scarcity. Quite apart from ideological opposition to cybernetic solutions to economic crisis, projects that aim to establish a “planned economy” rarely produce their intended effects because they have to redirect or dismantle the heterogeneous systems created by people acting to secure their livelihoods.

Hortalizeras, Mapuche farmers who sell their produce in the streets of Santiago, responding to a police raid on their unpermitted produce market.

Meanwhile, under Allende, the Communist Party and anti-Institutional leftist groups began to organize Juntas de Abastecimiento Popular (Popular Sustenance Councils, or JAPs) within urban territories to ensure access and fair prices for basic goods. Neighbors would take stock of what they had access to and share their available resources with their communities. As Benito Bravo argues, these autonomous neighborhood relief initiatives proliferate throughout Chile during times of crisis. As leftist groups became increasingly involved in such neighborhood initiatives, they draw more support because of their attention and respect towards local informal economies. Through the JAPs, collective decision-making to set the prices of basic goods in each neighborhood enabled participation in the neighborhood’s material politics. In what is perhaps the darker side to these councils, they also practiced a form of community self-defense, sometimes violently confronting neighbors who were hoarding goods to sell or who were price-gouging the community.

Facing a new era of institutional change and crisis, we can also learn from what people didn’t do during the crises of the Allende years. The cybernetic project of Cybersyn presented a planned economic solution to production and distribution across territories, and the JAPs presented a model of autonomous and collective resource distribution. Yet there was no alternative project or vision that sought to autonomously link disparate territories to develop alternative logistics outside the economy. Within each JAP, the limit of its power was the limit of what resources could reach the neighborhood’s territory. As a result, it was not only dependent on the central government’s cybernetic project, but also weakened by the same enduring forms of structural violence and economic inequality that create the unequal distribution of resources in the first place.

Today, we should seek to develop new projects that engender relationships between urban and rural territories and the ways that people and resources flow between them, in order to propose a vision of what it could mean to be autonomous and ungovernable within crisis. It has become obvious that the neoliberal model exacerbates inequality. The socialist response is to ensure that goods are re-distributed to those without previous access. However, this model of re-distribution cannot respond to a crisis of production in which there is a scarcity of goods. The way that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the global economy, causing shortages of key goods like Penicillin and construction materials, shows that our political projects risk irrelevance if they depend on the possibility of returning to capitalist normalcy.

In an increasingly volatile world, autonomous groups and social movements can grow if they base their projects on the starting point of scarcity, developing alternative ways to work with people to meet their basic needs.

Conclusion: The Case of Greece

Under Syriza, the Greek government left many occupations alone between 2015 and 2018. To some extent, the neighborhood of Exarchia became an unpolicable zone, with riot police keeping their distance and residents generally settling conflicts among themselves. As a consequence, in response to the so-called migrant crisis beginning in 2015, anarchists were able to work with migrants to squat massive buildings to house refugees by the hundred.

Prevented from using the full extent of their violent capabilities, Greek police settled for pushing anti-social crime and illegal capitalism, especially illegal drug sales and use, into Exarchia, the university campuses, and other spaces of autonomy in hopes of delegitimizing and discrediting them. Alongside right-wing propaganda about Syriza and these autonomous zones (not unlike FOX News coverage of the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” in Seattle), this succeeded in providing the New Democracy government with some of its major talking points in preparing for the elections. Syriza had failed to deliver on most of its promises to the public—not least because in a neoliberal global economy, it’s very difficult to protect the citizens of one country without global finance cartels taking their capital elsewhere.

Consequently, New Democracy won the elections, coming to power on a platform of promising to crush the anarchist, squatting, and refugee solidarity movements by brute force. These movements were not prepared for this—the few years of “breathing room” they had received under Syriza had not expanded their fighting capacities. For the most part, Greek anarchists didn’t associate themselves with Syriza—but they still suffered from the waning of Syriza’s public support.

Arguably, the moral of the story is that it’s dangerous to win gains through any means other than the actual grassroots strength of the movement, as you can misunderstand yourself to be more powerful than you are and, consequently, become the chief target of the state when you are least prepared for it. There’s no substitute for actual social power. If we are thinking in terms of years rather than months, the question is not whether it’s possible to exploit fractures in the state to secure zones of autonomy, but rather, when we do so, how do we prevent our adversaries on the far right from mobilizing against us, specifically? How do we continue to build our capacity to fight, even under left governments—and how do we ensure that popular disillusionment with socialist governments doesn’t enable right-wing forces to seize the state and turn it directly against us, as has occurred in Chile as well as Greece?

These are questions we’ll have to address in practice.

  1. In 2008, Machi Francisca Linconao submitted an action to the Supreme Court in Chile to stop illegal logging in sacred areas of the Chilean forest where medicinal plants that Mapuche people use can be found. This made her one of the first Indigenous rights defenders in Chile to successfully invoke the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. On January 4, 2013, she was arrested and accused of responsibility for the deaths of Werner Luchsinger and Vivian Mackay. The home in which Luchsinger and Mackay lived had been set alight before dawn by demonstrators commemorating the fifth anniversary of the death of the Mapuche activist, punk, and anarchist Matias Catrileo, who was killed by the Chilean armed forces while participating in a demonstration. In 2018, the Criminal Court of Temuco acquitted Machi Francisca Linconao and eight Mapuche men of all charges relating to the 2013 deaths.