News | Social Movements / Organizing - Participation / Civil Rights - Southern Cone Chile’s New Constitution and the Working Class

Sunday’s vote will either usher in a new era in Chilean politics or restore the old alliance between the middle class and the oligarchy


Supporters of the new constitution in Concepción celebrate their victory in the 25 October 2020 plebiscite that began the constitutional process. CC BY-SA 2.0, Photo: Flickr/viciovillano

Rarely has an electoral milestone been of such long-term political relevance. In Chile, the relevance of the referendum that will be held on Sunday, 4 September, has different significance according to the different history of each of the classes involved. The history of class struggles in Chile over the last decades is thus reaching a turning point that will determine whether a new unprecedented historical stage will begin, or whether the old policy of a pact between the middle class and the oligarchy will regain control of the process — with or without a new constitution.

Luis Thielemann Hernández is a historian and editor at Revista ROSA. This article was published in collaboration with Jacobin América Latina.

Translated by Quynh Anh Le ngoc.

It is of utmost importance to point out the influence of the working classes on this process, as well as the fundamental role they have played in the final vote. The weight of the event reveals all the facets of a long cycle of social and political struggles that have been taking place within the crisis of the Pinochet State. In this context, it is the different organizations and movements of the working classes, all of which have been struggling for decades, that stand out to those who have the honesty to see them. They have been the decisive force that — since 2011, but also since 2006 — unlocked each phase of this long social conflict against neoliberalism.

This Sunday will also be about their own political restructuring, their possibility and their conditions. The result of the vote will also make the limits of the social alliance calling for a vote in favour of Apruebo (“I approve”) visible.

Class Struggle for the Constitution

This social alliance has been fighting and advancing in elections for about two decades, and is made up of the youngest groups of the working and urban middle classes, with the student movement as well as the feminist movement at the forefront of all protests. The common enemy that created the “willingness to act as a class” among these groups was a series of neoliberal policies undertaken since the 1980s and intensified during the first decade of the twenty-first century. These policies have steadily undermined the reproductive capacity of the middle classes, especially professional groups, civil servants, or parastatal employees. In this way, they also discredited the promise of social mobility for the working classes.

Then, after the 2017 elections, part of the alliance — mainly, but not only the new left-wing parties associated with the middle classes — developed into an electoral alternative and gradually gained positions in parliament and municipalities, whereas the other part of the social alliance, weakened and more rooted in the working classes and some less successful left-wing parties, intensified its criticism of official policies and the neoliberal order. This was why the left-wing parties and social movements felt distant from each other during the 2019 revolt and could not act under a unified strategy, although they formally defended more or less the same ideas and pursued similar goals.

The different assessment of the parliamentary agreement of 15 November of that year, which paved the way for the constitutional process that is now experiencing its final culmination, shows the distance within this unequal alliance quite clearly. Since then and in different ways, the apparent limits of the social alliance have not ceased to hinder the political success of the immense articulated diversity of the struggles for social change that can be found in the Aprueboalternative today.

Those limits are nothing but the impossible harmony between the components of a social alliance disguised and assumed to be a popular homogeneity. This is where the differences between the direct interests of the working classes and those of the middle class, as well as between their diverse political compositions, collide and explode. At another time, I described it as follows: “on the one hand, [there is] the need of the old middle class to secure a place for themselves in the state and in its governance without changing the relations of production of that order. On the other hand, there are those who saw politics as a possibility to influence their own life crisis: teachers, proletarianized and persecuted alike, young graduates, both frustrated and living in precarious situations, students of market universities, and people in debt generally speaking. 2011 was the result of the alliance of these parties. What came after [2017, 2019–2022] was their hierarchization in the face of formal politics.”

A Missed Opportunity

Today, these limits become evident in the problems that could cause the defeat of the Apruebo camp. The unequal popular alliance is exhausted, and its leaders in the government seem to realize that they cannot or will not solve the problems of the majorities by entering a reformist conflict with the elites. For the working classes, participation in politics, in elections or on the barricades, has concrete reasons that go beyond ideology, beyond good reasons, values and principles (which are all part of how the middle classes understand politics: as a dispute of ideas within and under the order of the state.)

Class struggle is something very practical, no matter how much poetry you want to ascribe to it, and it is more likely that the Chilean working classes do not trust politics and renounce their vote than the opposite. Whether forced or voluntary — with the exception of the brief periods of 1958–1973 and 1990–1999, the working classes have generally and largely remained indifferent to institutional processes and their electoral definitions. If they have voted massively in favour of the Left in recent years, it is because — in spite of everything — the Frente Amplio and the Communist Partyknow how to represent a concrete alternative to improve their lives. What we do not know is whether it is to promote reforms or avoid the greater evil of Pinochetism.

The election campaign has also been inconsistent. On the one hand, the leaders of the government and parties took it on as an ideological battle that was filled with slogans about the destiny of the country or republican abstractions. Little was said about specific measures that would improve peoples’ lives, about power and guarantees. In this way, they corresponded to the type of scene that the Right usually sets up when they talk about love or the flag, national unity, or other things that matter little in the most precarious working-class neighbourhoods of the big cities. Those neighbourhoods, however, are strategically important for the Apruebo campaign, since they represent the masses that have led the Left to victory during this exhausting cycle of seven elections in three years and brought it into Chile’s government.

But much of the campaign no longer calls for raising the minimum wage, cancelling university debts, or cutting working hours (as was promised in December 2021, when Gabriel Boric was elected president, mainly due to the support of the working classes of the big cities), but rather revolves around immaterial issues. Little has been done to promote social guarantees, almost as if to avoid an election campaign that at the same time would also represent a conflict.

Mesocratic Republicanism or intuitive and popular classism? This seems to be the unresolved dilemma in the campaign. With the government and the parties leaning more toward the first option, things started to go uphill when the fundamental popular vote was secured. Thus, the slogans of the apruebismo (campaigns in favour of the “Yes” vote) seem to convey the message that there was never a head-on conflict of classes and cultures, but rather a misunderstood search for agreements. There could be nothing more demobilizing.

The theses that the intellectuals of the new Left always supported, that is, that the state was a field of struggle and that achieving government participation would only present one step in that struggle, no longer seemed to be taken seriously. Once they formed part of the government and secured their seats in the Constitutional Convention, the left of Apruebo Dignidad abandoned the politics of social conflict and took an administrative, that is, bureaucratic, direction.

Although there have been important mass actions in favour of Apruebo, especially in the working-class neighbourhoods, mobilization has decreased in previous years. The Right, however, has regained presence in the streets. Thus, a possible demobilization of the working classes contrasts with the strong mobilization of supporters of historical Pinochetism, which have turned the plebiscite into an all-or-nothing conflict against the Left, minorities, and anything that appears to reflect the will of the people. In this way, the possibility of making the plebiscite the beginning of a political struggle that would express the possibility of resolving deep-rooted historical and material conflicts — namely conflicts over water, land, labour, and the coexistence between Chileans and indigenous people — has been lost.

Administration Is Not Transformation

Whatever happens on 4 September, it is certain that the working classes have reached the political limits of what is possible in their composition. The cycle, during which the desire to win partial struggles always prevailed over the desire to make it to the state government and manage the crisis from the top, is coming to an end. Without their own parties, with their social organizations weakened or divided, and with a large part of their best-trained cadres destined for government work, there is no possibility of making this plebiscite the final milestone in the long struggle against Pinochetism.

Without conveying the sense that something real is at stake, it will be difficult for their fringe political parties to remobilize large masses of the grassroots of the working classes, especially the youth. Apart from some parts of the radical Left, especially the feminists, who are part of the Constitutional Convention, few forces have raised their serious concerns about the profound political consequences of a victory or defeat.

As a result, it is now a matter of either consolidating the achievements of the struggles for social change of the past in the constitution or falling back into the clutches of the parties that represent the old alliance between the middle class and the oligarchy. An alliance that since the nineteenth century has always determined the shape of the society and the state without the masses of people from the working classes, but in arrangements that have always been linked to exploitation and elitist authoritarianism.

If the “No” campaign wins, it is possible that there will nevertheless be a new constitution and that it will enshrine many of the social rights currently proposed. But what will undoubtedly be defeated is plebeian politics, the legitimacy of its defensive but not murderous violence as a political instrument, the protagonism of the working classes and indigenous nations that were inherent to the process and that have been so unbearable for the right wing, the business community, and the criollismo of the middle class. All of that will morally and materially be expelled from the polis, once again, in case the “Yes” campaign does not win.

This is the limitation of the unequal access to politics that the classes in Chile face nowadays. If the Right has managed to penetrate into the working classes by promoting the “No” campaign with lies and openly false or violent and antisocial speeches, it is because there is no material construction of leftist politics among the working classes. There are no institutions that convey reality, there is no media and no intersection between the parties and the working classes. If their lie wins, it is because nobody was imposing the truth. The idea that the neoliberal destruction of civil society in order to replace it with the market can only be overcome by building an alternative social network — an alternative and critical sociability — does not even exist.

The Left, in and out of government, has been little more than an alternative state administration that emerges during upcoming elections or demands reforms as if the wild market, that dominates and shapes all social spheres, was natural. The Left does not produce autonomous institutions, such as a mainstream press or spaces for self-education, that could combat the elite institutions, all of which are politized in favour of “No”.

Instead, it sits helplessly and watches how those spaces — ranging from bars to networks of associations that resurfaced for a brief period during the pandemic — emerge in the working classes, but does not help them establish themselves as a new popular political form, that is, a new historical bloc, in which, according to Gramsci: “material forces are the content and ideologies are the form ... since the material forces would be inconceivable historically without form and the ideologies would be individual fancies without the material forces.”

Inside or outside the state — the Left acts as a service provider or administrator towards the new popular sociability. But without that force of a new social life, without that movement which springs from everyday life, it will not win.

Approaching a Turning Point

Because if we observe history without believing that it should correspond to any republican ideal, we know that the working classes do not go into politics unless they assume that it will benefit them. Not when they are well-educated, not when they are modernized, not when they have become politicized.

They have learned to distrust the flattering promises of formal politics that protect other people’s interests, and to only participate when it is convenient for them. In recent years, they have massively campaigned for a change of the constitution and supported the Left in all kinds of different elections. During this time, they have grown stronger and regrouped as a political actor as well as a social and political force.

For the working classes, the defeat of the “Yes” campaign would have much more serious implications than for any other social group. It would be a severe blow, much more than for the middle class, whose parties will not risk losing total control of the constitutional process. The unprecedented mobilization around the constitutional change that took place over the last years, and before that during the struggles for social change, would be delegitimized. Moreover, they would be delegitimized through the words that the restorative discourse of the pact for the Transición (the Chilean transition to democracy) managed to install as a narrative. The middle class will always be able to resolve this dead-end road in parliament — after all, the state will continue to exist and its political composition will also be determined. The working classes, however, will lose a good part of their achievements.

A victory, on the other hand, would mark a major leap forward: it would legitimize the political process led by the working classes for a sufficient time to overcome the limits that are currently paralyzing them. It would not only initiate a new historical, more democratic and egalitarian constitutional cycle, but it would also re-form the republic and democracy putting the people at its centre.

For the Left, this would represent an enormous step. It would breathe new life into the vanguards of the working classes, helping them to continue to reorganize their structure and overcome historical limitations. There is a possibility of maintaining the alliance of the Chilean Left for a while, partly because the oligarchy will continue to be the enemy of the working classes and partly because there is an obligation to defend the new constitution. But the Left would be able to do that with its own resources.