Chile and Bolivia

Dora Longo Bahia, Black Bloc, 2015 Silkscreen on fiber cement, 50 x 79 cm
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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK*

In both cases we see a rare overlap of “formal” democracy (free elections) and substantial popular will.

Two recent developments have brought some hope to these dark times. I am obviously referring to the elections in Bolivia and the APRUEBO referendum in Chile. In both cases we see a rare overlap of “formal” democracy (free elections) and substantial popular will. I mention the two events together because although I think what happened in Bolivia is different from what is happening in Chile, I hope that both share the same long-term goal.

The January coup in Bolivia was legitimized as a return to parliamentary “normality” against the “totalitarian” danger that Morales would abolish democracy, transforming the country into a “new Cuba” or a “new Venezuela”. The truth is that, during the decade of the Morales government, Bolivia actually managed to establish a new “normality”, uniting democratic mobilization of the people and concrete economic progress. As the new Bolivian president Luche Arce, who was Minister of Economy and Public Finances at that time, pointed out, during the decade of Morales' government, Bolivians enjoyed the best years of their lives. It was the coup against Morales that shattered that hard-won normalcy and brought a wave of chaos and misery. Therefore, Arce's electoral victory means that Bolivians will not have to start a long and painful process of building a new social order – they just need to take back what was already there until January, and follow from there.

In Chile, the situation is more complex. After years of direct dictatorship, Pinochet introduced his own “democratic” normalization in the form of the new constitution that guaranteed the safeguarding of the privileges of the rich within a neoliberal order. You protests that exploded in 2019 they are proof that Pinochet's democratization was a farce, as happens with any democracy tolerated or even promoted by a dictatorial power. The APRUEBO movement made the wise decision to focus on changing the constitution. With that, he made it clear to the majority of Chileans that the democratic normalization coordinated by Pinochet was an extension by other means of that dictatorial regime: Pinochet's forces remained behind the scenes as a deep state making sure the democratic game didn't get out of hand. Now that the illusion of Pinochet normalization has been shattered, the real hard work begins. Unlike what happens in Bolivia, Chileans do not have a pre-established order to return to: they will have to carefully build a new normality for which not even the glorious years of the Allende government can really serve as a model.

This path is fraught with danger. In the coming weeks and months, the Chilean people will often hear from their enemies the eternal question: “Ok, now that you won, could you tell us exactly what you want, you can decide and clearly define your project!” I think the correct answer to this situation is to be found in the old American joke about an experienced woman who wants to introduce an idiot to sex. She undresses him, masturbates him a little and, as soon as he gets an erection, she spreads her legs and inserts his penis in her vagina. At this point she says: "Okay, here we go, now just move your penis out a little bit and then in, out and in, out, in..." After a minute or so, the idiot explodes, furious: “Can you decide at once!? Is it inside or is it outside?”

Critics of the Chilean people will act exactly like this idiot: they will demand a clear decision about what new form of society Chileans want. But APRUEBO's victory is obviously not the end, it's not the conclusion of a fight. This victory is, rather, the beginning of a long and difficult process of building a new post-Pinochet normality – a process with many improvisations, retreats, advances. In a way this fight will be more difficult than the protests and the campaign for APRUEBO. The campaign had a clear enemy and it was enough to articulate its objectives with the injustices and miseries caused by the enemy on a comfortable level of abstraction: dignity, social and economic justice, and so on. Now the Chilean people will have to operationalize their program, translate it into a series of concrete measures, and this will bring out all their internal differences that end up being ignored in the ecstatic solidarity between people.

I remember a similar shift occurring around 1990, when "really existing socialism" was crumbling in Slovenia. There was the same global solidarity, but as soon as the opposition moved closer to power, cracks began to appear in that edifice. First there was a split between conservative nationalists and liberals; then liberals themselves split between western-style capitalist liberals and the new left; then the communists who were in power tried to join this new left and present themselves as a new social democracy… It should not be underestimated how the enemy will seek to exploit this necessary process. Many members of establishment they will pretend to be allying themselves with the Chilean people, joining them in celebrating a new moment of democracy, but soon they will start to warn against the “new extremism” and to work subtly to manage to maintain the same order under a new guise, the same structure with just a few cosmetic changes. The emperor won't admit that he's naked, he'll just put on a new outfit...

So, going back to my lewd joke, I would say that the Chilean people should treat their opponents exactly like sexual idiots should be treated. You must tell them:no, we are starting a long and joyful process where there is no quick conclusion, we are going to come and go slowly, in and out, until the moment when the Chilean people are fully satisfied!".

*Slavoj Žižek is a professor at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). Author, among other books, of The year we dreamed dangerously (Boitempo).

Translation: Arthur Renzo

Originally published on Boitempo's blog.

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