29 October 2019

The real cause of the protests in Chile is institutional breakdown

By Crescente Molina

The international media have put Chile’s current unrest down to global inter-generational injustice, or as the natural result of Chile’s stark economic inequality. This may be true in part, but it’s far from the whole picture. Rather, the events in Chile are symptomatic of a larger phenomenon—one that affects, to different extents, most Western democracies: the weakening of institutionalised social life. More than a reaction to it, Chile’s massive protests are an expression of this problem.

In Chile, every social group enjoys unparalleled levels of freedom and material wellbeing. Yet both bourgeois and working-class people feel frustrated and angry at the ruling political elites, to the point of bringing the country to the verge of a standstill last week. Why? Groups cite a number of specific causes for their anger: corruption scandals in Congress, the police, and the military; the crisis of the Catholic Church; economic inequality; and the selfish behaviour of large corporations. However, I believe we must analyse Chileans’ anger as part of a broader global phenomenon. Chile, like most industrialised modern democracies, has experienced what we may call a rapid social deinstitutionalisation—a phenomenon that we may also call, following Émile Durkheim’s terminology, anomie.

Before the rise of statist socialism in the early 1970s, followed by the neoliberal dictatorship of Pinochet during the 1970s and 80s, Chilean social life was constituted by a rich, wide-ranging number of social institutions – families, the Catholic Church, workers unions, social clubs, political parties, universities – of which the state was just one.

Each of these institutions addressed and captured people’s needs in different ways. Families were primarily responsible for taking care of the elderly, and for providing care and values to children; the Church was responsible for providing people with spiritual consolation; unions for demanding higher wages and better working conditions; and political parties for championing different ideological agendas.

But these ‘intermediate social bodies’ have practically vanished from Chilean (and most Western countries’) social life.

Families have weakened (due principally to increased economic pressures), unions have been dismantled, political parties lack members, and religion is no longer a fundamental aspect of Chileans’ public and private lives. The only social institution that has survived, and become increasingly dominant, is the state. Paradoxically, its pre-eminence creates a huge problem for the state’s popular legitimacy.

Unless the state comprises an exceptionally eloquent, convincing, and effective political elite, it will always fail to provide the consolation and comfort that the massive range of social institutions of the past used to do. And the ruling political elite, both from the left and the right, have contributed to the diminishing of intermediate social bodies.

The left, instead of vindicating the importance of unions, communal organisations, and political parties, as it once did, believes that a bigger and more robust state bureaucracy is the solution to our problems. Furthermore, rather than promoting institutionalised forms of political organisation and deliberation, it glorifies street protests as the main way to promote political change.

The right, on the other hand, instead of supporting families and community values, has weakened them by pushing for economic policies that undermine their economic wellbeing. Moreover, rather than defending a free commercial society, it has contributed to the expansion of big corporate power over small and medium sizes businesses, and reacted slowly and ineffectively to the deterioration of the Catholic Church. As a result, we have a mass of citizens directing all their grievances to one single social institution: the state.

The first measure required to alleviate the situation is to acknowledge that both the anger of protesters, and the failure of the state to provide a solution, are both manifestations of the same broader problem: the weakening of social institutional life. I won’t attempt to account for the deeper causes of this phenomenon (e.g., the structures of global capitalism, the decay of traditional western values, etc.).

The point is that a structural solution will not come from the state itself. What we ought to be calling for is a state that enables us—the people—to take responsibility for both our joys and our problems; that is, to take control of our own lives by recreating the rich set of institutions that once helped us to deal with the complexities of social, spiritual, and working life.

In the current situation, besides the state’s primary role of controlling public order and protecting citizens’ rights, the Chilean government has a range of possible measures at its disposal to strengthen the role of families (e.g establishing a basic, universal family income), incentivise workers’ control (e.g., taking steps towards employee ownership of some large corporations), promote entrepreneurship and local, small and medium size businesses (e.g reducing taxes for small and medium size corporations, and protecting local industries), and transfer political power to the citizens (e.g by encouraging local participation and organisation, and some forms of direct or ‘liquid’ democracy).

In other words, the state will save itself from the people’s anger by reducing its own importance—and thus putting people in charge of their own lives.

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Crescente Molina is a Chilean legal scholar and is currently a researcher at Oxford University