For a socialist Chile beyond neoliberalism: an interview with Fernando Atria

Fernando AtriaProfessor of Law at the Universidad de Chile, came to national prominence in Chile during the 2011 Student Movement, as his ideas on moving beyond a market society were taken up by the movement’s participants. In recent years he has been a leading figure on the left of the Chilean Socialist Party, looking to reanimate the radical tradition of Salvador Allende within the party, and was the candidate of the left for the party’s nomination at the most recent presidential election. Here Professor Atria talks with Renewal Commissioning Editor Martin O’Neill about overcoming the legacy of neoliberalism in Chile, and the hope for future political and economic transformation in the country.

Martin O’Neill:      Can I start by asking you about the state of the left in Chile, and about the position of the Socialist Party? So, obviously, the December 2017 election was a disappointing outcome for the left in Chile. Could you just tell Renewal’s readers’, for a start, what happened? And why the Left is having such a difficult time, and why the voters went back to Sebastián Piñera?

Fernando Atria:      Yes. Well, the 2017 election played out in two rounds. The first round was 19 November. The second, the 17 December. All the pundits, before the first round, all the pundits were predicting a crushing defeat for the Left, which eventually happened in December, but not in the first round. That’s the interesting thing. So, the result in November was much, much closer than it should have been, or it was expected to be.

And that of course, raised hopes for the Left or the Centre Left in Chile. Those hopes were dashed, of course, in the second round. Many people would attribute to the election result, a kind of deep sociological meaning. The claim is that it means something deep about Chileans, that we have developed a kind of neo-liberal sensitivity. But I don’t think that is the case. Michelle Bachelet won four years before with a 15 to 20 point lead. Major sociological subjective shifts don’t occur in four years, in my view.

I would say, part of the explanation is that people were fed up with the New Majority, [Nueva Mayoría], which was the Centre Left coalition that formed after the Concertación. After the return of Democracy in 1990, there were 20 years of Centre Left governments, led by this coalition, the Concertación. And then, one term of Sebastián Piñera, his first term. Then this second government, by Michelle Bachelet, with a new coalition called The New Majority.

I think that people got fed up with the New Majority. Probably. In my view, because changes were promised, but not always delivered. Some of them were delivered – I think that this second government by Michelle Bachelet was the most transformative since 1990 – but they were always delivered in a kind of roundabout way, in which it wasn’t really clear if these changes were really changes, or were kind of adjustments on what had been before. This was the image of the politics of The New Majority, and the Concertación. Eventually, it was seen as something like a failed promise. It was, more or less, the same. That was the reason why, in the first round, which coincided with parliamentary elections, there was a big shift to the Frente Amplio, which is the Chilean equivalent of Podemos.

So, the New Majority lost a fair share of the vote. That, in my view, led to Sebastián Piñera winning by an ample margin. I think that there was also a very effective campaign by the Right. They had started talking about what they call Chilezuela. Chilezuela means Chile will become Venezuela.

That plays with some peculiar trauma in Chilean society with queuing for food and so on, that is associated with a Leftist government, because of Allende. Or strictly speaking, because of the opposition to Allende, of course.

So now that the Left is in serious trouble, in my view, mainly because it’s divided between a kind of traditional Left, formed by the Socialist and Communist parties, and this kind of new left, which is the Frente Amplio. I think the division spells trouble for the future.

O’Neill:     Right. So, just as we’ve seen in Greece, or in France, everywhere where the left has split, it’s been bad news.

Atria:         It means that the right will continue to govern until the new left has completely disposed of the traditional one, like in Greece. The Greek Socialist Party had to practically disappear in order for Syriza to win.

O’Neill:     Your own role in this story is a very interesting one. You’ve been trying to change the Socialist Party away from being a party that accommodates to neo-liberalism and trying to shift it to a more socialist position. Can you tell us a bit about the process? About running for the nomination? About what happened within the Socialist Party, that meant that that hasn’t yet succeeded?

Atria:        I suppose for British readers, what happened to the Chilean Socialist Party should be easy to understand, because it basically became a Third Way social democratic party.

I ran for the nomination, for the Socialist Party’s nomination in 2017. It was not very successful, in the sense that I was not the nominee, but that was never really the point. Originally, what we thought would happen is that the nomination debate in the Socialist Party would be with candidates that were from, so to speak, the centre of the party and the right of the party. So, the idea was to put my name ahead as a way of shifting the discussion to the left. And then, Isabel Allende, the daughter of Salvador Allende, was one of the nominations. I would say she was from the centre of the party.

Everybody thought she was going to be the presidential candidate, the nominee. And then she quit. Our role in the situation changed completely, because we were trying to make Allende talk more to the left, and then, Allende was not there.

And then we fought for more democracy in the party, so that the nomination would be decided through some sort of primary election inside the party, among the socialist world, so to speak. But the existing party hierarch decided that there was instead going to be a “consultation”, as they call it, instead of a primary election.

Something interesting happens in politics, I think. Which is the other side of this Marxian dictum, that no society would confront problems before they have developed the means to solve them. This implies that societies will continue to suffer problems until they have developed the means to solve them. They suffer that each time in more obvious ways. Eventually, they suffer them in ridiculous ways, in ways that make them ridiculously explicit.

One of the problems in Chilean politics in general –  maybe it’s something global, but in Chilean politics it’s obvious – there’s a clear separation between the people and what they call the political class. So, they are them and us. That problem reproduces exactly inside political parties, in which there is a militant base, so to speak, and the leaders, the politicians of the party. Of course, this was exactly the point, about how to make the nomination decision. Whether it would be a kind of agreement between the leaders of different sections or factions of the party, or it would be a consultation with a militant base.

After the party said once and twice that this was going to be a participatory moment, and so on, they decided to cancel that, and to decide they need the central committee. But not only the central committee, the central committee had to meet in a private meeting. The tradition would be that the public is welcome to see the meetings of the central committee, but this meeting had to be closed. The vote of members of the central committee, it was decided to be secret, which is absurd with this argument, voting, the right to vote, the vote has to be secret. Of course that doesn’t count for representatives. So they decided to make the vote in a closed session, and in secret. Which cannot be more explicit of what the problem is.

Atria:            And that, of course, that lead to the nomination of another candidate, that was not from the party, Alejandro Guillier, who was eventually the presidential candidate, who was nominated not because he had any kind of political ideas, but because he was ahead in the polls. And that led to all that happened. The first consequence of the Socialist Party’s decision was that the Centre Left did not participate in the general primary elections, while all the other candidates did.  That was a big missed opportunity for campaign motivation and discussion That, I think, lead to what happened at the end, in the election.

O’Neill:           For you and people in your part of the Socialist Party, I take it that in terms of your programme of what you’d like to see happen in Chile, there’s almost complete agreement, presumably with what Frente Amplio want to bring about. Why is it the right strategy for the Chilean left to want to work through the existing party, through the traditional social democratic party, even though that’s now got this history of having gone with the third way policies, having made accommodations with neo-liberalism. Why is that the way to go, to try and rescue that party?

Atria:              Well, of course there is broad agreement between the left of the Socialist Party and the Frente Amplia. It’s not complete agreement. I remember I once told a story that Terry Eagleton tells about AJP Taylor. Taylor was applying for a position in Magdalen college, and the panel asked Taylor something like, “Is it true, Professor Taylor, that you hold radical views”? And Taylor is supposed to have replied, “Yes. I hold radical views, but I hold them in a moderate way”!

I think that the issue, at least in Chile now, is whether you can make radical transformations, but in a moderate way. In a moderate way meaning, for example, if you want to create education reform, you need the educational system to keep on going while you are doing the reforming. You cannot hit the pause button, make all the transformations, and then resume. And that creates constraints. The problem in Chile, with this idea of doing things in a way that takes into account the fact that we are starting from some point, has usually been the justification for reforms that are not reforms, but corrections. So, sometimes that pushes the discussion to an opposition that, in my view, will end up playing in the hands of the right.

I would say that, in a substantive way, that’s probably one of the main differences I have with the people at the Frente Amplio. But I don’t think that is a significant, deep disagreement, or anything. I’m sure that we wouldn’t have any problems, I mean, I know them, I’ve been talking to them. The reason why I am still in the Socialist Party is I believe that the Socialist Party can reconnect with its leftist tradition.

The Socialist Party, in a sociological way, exists beyond what the president of the Socialist Party says. It has a history and precedence in society and has had it for 70 years. It’s not something that you can rebuild in five years. Of course, if the Socialist Party is, as some people believe, has experienced a kind of genetic mutation, it cannot go back to reconnect. If that is true, of course, we have to try to create another force, and then the people of this new left would be right about the future strategy.

I think that the possibility of reclaiming the Socialist Party for the left is still, in a way, open. If that were possible, if the Socialist Party could get the whole left to be united, that would be a complete change in Chilean politics.

O’Neill:           One thing you said was, at the moment there aren’t many people in the Socialist Party that actually can talk, in an open and constructive way, with the people in Frente Amplio. That sounds like a worrying state of affairs.

Atria:               I mean, of course they can talk, in the sense that they can have a meeting! If the Socialist Party, through its president today, were to call the Frente Amplio, to create a coalition of the left. That call wouldn’t have any answer, because it’s not credible. So, in order to have the possibility of a united left, the Socialist Party has to change. Has to change to be a party that can make that message credible.

O’Neill:           I understand there’s been a change in the electoral system, and that part of the push towards things like New Majority, these sort of big conglomerations of different parties, connected with the fact that the electoral system punishes smaller units. Is that going to just change the dynamic in one way, in that kind it will create a push towards subsuming the interests of more ideologically distinctive parties within these kinds of coalitions?

Atria:                  Well, that’s something that remains to be seen, actually. I mean, the first election for the new electoral system was the November 19th 2017 election. But the binomial electoral system before that was a kind of “second past the post”, not first past the post.So, each of district would elect two representatives. The two representatives would be one from the most voted list. And the second one would be from the second most voted list, unless the first one would double the result of the second one. They [the right] knew they were going to lose forever, or for a long time after the end of the [Pinochet] dictatorship. They hoped to be second. This system would provide them, too, with a strong parliamentary presence to prevent changes, which they effectively did. In my view, this system continued to destroy the idea of political representation. That is a very, very serious problem. The idea that politics is representative in any meaningful way, I think is an idea that has been lost. In Chile, this electoral system that was designed not to represent, but to neutralise. And it doesn’t matter what these people do in office, because this system meant that Parliament, in fact, were appointed by parties. And when parties can appoint members of Parliament, that’s a power that is so big that it destroys parties, as well.

O’Neill:               Have you read Peter Mair’s book, Ruling The Void? It’s about exactly this phenomenon, the kind of hollowing out of parties and how parties can become, as it were, mechanisms for representing the interests of the political class to voters, rather than representing voters themselves.

Atria:                 This is exactly what is happening. I suppose this is connected to all the growth of a more populist left. I’m talking here about populism in a good way, rather than as the way the pundits do. Populism is an idea that it should be the other way; that parties should represent the people, not the politicians. It’s as simple as that.

The effect of the binomial system, I mean the “second past the post” system, led to a kind of political culture in which these two big coalitions who were the only ones who had presence in Parliament basically had to agree on everything. Nothing they didn’t agree on could be done.

How would that culture work, how will this country work, with this new element is something that we don’t know. In part, it depends on what the Frente Amplio manages to do. Until now, they have been basically a protest movement. When you move from being a protest movement, to having to vote in Parliament, and having to take decisions. Sometimes they say yes, sometimes say no. That is a difficult transition.

O’Neill:              It sounds like in some ways Chile, like the UK, it’s a country where the legacy of the past is weighing very heavily in all sorts of ways, institutionally, and in the political culture. These things take a long time to work through.

Atria:                  That’s one thing that is really interesting. I was here when Pinochet was arrested. I was doing my PhD. That was exactly the time in which New Labour had just won from a landslide. For them, for New Labour, Pinochet was a very easy way to show that they were still leftists. That was my view.

The thing is, I was amazed by how present the Allende and the coup, and Pinochet were, at least in that leftist generation. That generation. The generation that came to power with New Labour. I think, and I felt the Argentinian coup is not as present in the political imagination here in the UK. I mean, it’s not as significant. One of the ways, one of the reasons is that the Chilean political map, in a way is so easy to correlate to the British political map. It is not easy to place a Peron on the British political map, but you can very easily place Allende as a figure on the same map as the British left.

So when I looked at what happened with Corbyn and all this attack from the pundits, the Labour Party establishment. It’s so easy to correlate.

O’Neill:            It does sound like there are some strong structural parallels between the two countries. I think one thing that would surprise a lot of people in Britain is just how strong the economic legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship is in Chile. The kind of private provision of pensions, and education. The fact that actually, in some ways, Chilean society has got features that are much more like the United States than it is like Britain, let alone compared with West European welfare state. In Chile you have levels of inequality that are very high by comparison with European levels. I guess it’s not just the Pinochet years leave this kind of political legacy in terms of the institutions and the binomial electoral. But also, there’s this very direct and destructive economic legacy of neoliberalism.

Atria:               Yes, and the political structure that was designed to prevent any changes to the economic structure. You are, of course, right. Between ’73 and ’80, there was kind of infighting inside the military dictatorship, as to whether they were going for a nationalist line, until the Chicago boys and the neo-liberals won the day. That was from the late ’70’s.

All our discussions begin from there. All the evolution of our education system, and social security system, health system, all this evolution of those institutions during the 20th Century is completely neglected. Of course, one reason is that the dictatorship was in a position to destroy everything that was there before. They created a pension system from scratch, an educational system from scratch. And so, in a way, at least in some parts of it, there are not many connections between what was going on now, and what was going on in the ’60’s, because we have this kind of complete break created by the Pinochet dictatorship.

Atria:               There’s an extraordinary letter from Thatcher to Hayek. Which is interesting, because Thatcher is thanking Hayek for this wonderful conversation they had at dinner two or three days ago. “You mentioned all these brilliant reforms that are being undertaken by the Pinochet government in Chile and then we freed that country from the shackles of socialism, and so on “but you must understand that in Britain, with our democratic conditions and institutions, we cannot go that fast”. It’s amazing, because you have to kind of try to recreate the conversation, to which Thatcher is reporting. You imagine Hayek nagging her, “You should have gone faster! Look at what they are doing there! We should do that!” Thatcher being the moderate saying, “No, we have to go slow”.

The thing is that for Chile, the dictatorship meant kind of clean slate, basically. That, of course, affected everything that came after that. When I am in a provocative mood, I said to my British friends, You think you know what a neoliberal society is. Well, we have 70% private education. We have a pension system which is entirely made up of individual savings. That is neoliberalism. What you have is close to socialism by comparison, when you look at it from our point of view.

You have a national health service. We have healthcare for the poor, which is bad, of course, and healthcare for the rich, which is expensive. You cannot underestimate the impact that things like the NHS have on a society.

The thing is that you won’t transform capitalism to socialism in one term, nor in two terms, nor even in three terms. What you can do is, you can create institutions that respond to a different idea, a socialist idea. Institutions will, in time, create their own support. Will keep that idea alive, so to speak.

O’Neill:              I think you’re absolutely right about that. The idea that certain sorts of institutions create their own support and change the political conditions within the country, because once people have got allegiance to that institution, it’s got it’s own life. It’s got its own sociological reality. Its got its own history. It becomes a fixed point. I think the level of public affection and support for the NHS has been incredibly important picture of how politics is conducted in this country.

I was delighted to hear you talk about that. If you think about the ideas around political economy now in the Labour Party of Corbyn and McDonnell, there’s an important ide, which Joe Guinan and I have written about in terms of an “institutional turn”, that is about creating economic change that isn’t easily reversible, that actually beds in, and creates an institutional life that survives a one term administration, or a two term administration.

There’s some very interesting early thinking, at the moment in the Labour Party around the idea of a national education service, around the idea that you can have lifelong education free at the point of use. Not only free universities, but something that people can access later in their lives. That’s a very promising institutional project. If the next Labour government in the UK could create that institution, it wouldd be amazing. If you could imagine an institution that really, then, embedded into national life, and took a whole area of activity out of the market, and which expressed different kind of values, just as the NHS does.

Atria:                   We used to think that socialism was an alternative to capitalism. It was, so to speak, just around the corner. That we would live to see the demise of capitalism and the surge of socialism. I agree now with Žižek when he says that it’s easier to contemplate the end of the world, than the end of capitalism. That’s part of our political condition. Of course, that is, in my view, the reason why so many socialists, through the third way, became liberal. Because they say, well, this is impossible to do away with, so we have to humanise it. Now, what I would say, is that we have to take the socialist idea in a different way. It’s not that we have a map with a big X on it, that we know where it is and how to get there, and so our only problem is how to get there as quickly as we can.

I think that we have to think of socialism instead like this: we have a compass that would show us the direction. The main thing would be, what are those institutions that you can create, that would contain this idea and would change the conditions under which the next step would be discussed?

O’Neill:              That thinking really does fit in with the kind of agenda that we’ve often discussed within the pages of Renewal. We’ve talked about this idea of an “institutional turn” in left thinking wich, in a way, Ed Miliband, to his credit, started talking about when he started talking about ideas of “predistribution”. It’s not just that we should just let the neoliberal market economy do its thing, and then the state turns up afterwards and shifts the outcomes at the margins, but rather we think about what is the institutional structure under which economic activity happens.

Now, another thing I wanted to ask you about is, am I right in thinking that one of the things you advocate, in common with Frente Amplio is to try and overcome the dead hand of the past by having a new institutional convention, by revisiting the Chilean Constitution?

Atria:                     It’s one of the reasons that explains the beginning of my political career. The idea of a new Constitution, of having constituents an assembly and so on. The thing is, you have to understand that the problem of Chilean politics now is related to the Constitution. Because the 1980 Constitution, Pinochet’s Constitution, was the answer to a problem they had. The problem was what they saw happening in Spain.

In Spain, there had been this dictatorship that had been in power for something like 40 years. And had prided itself of the fact that they had left everything very well tied up. Two years after the death of the dictator, Franco’s death, there was something similar to constituent’s assembly, and a new Constitution came from all this. And now of the institutional structure created by Franco, there was nothing. Of course, I’m not saying that Francoism disappeared. But Spain moved towards being a social democratic state with guaranteed social rights, education, and so on. Now for the people in power under Pinochet, the question then was: We have this moment in which we can, basically, design everything from a clean slate. Social Security system, education system, healthcare system, tax system, everything. How can we ensure that this will prevail after the dictatorship finishes? How can we protect it?

Their answer was the Constitution, which created a political system that was constitutionally incapable of taking transformative decisions. The binomial electoral system was part of that, because it ensured the right wing parties a significant presence in Parliament, even if they lost elections. So, what you have now, 30 years after that, is a political culture that flourished underneath this Constitution, a political culture that thinks that serious talk of reform runs the risk of unleashing a civil war.

That is a culture that cannot undertake the task of reforming, of transforming the country. It’s called a Constitution because it constitutes politics. It sets the basic way in which political power is created, and exercised. We need a new Constitution because we need a Constitution that would enable politics to be able to respond to what I believe is still a significant social demand for transformations. I mean, we Chileans are not masochists. We do not want to continue to live under the neo-liberal system.

O’Neill:               Let me ask you a bit about your own case. You’re an academic. You’re a professor of law at the University of Chile. But now you’ve made the shift across into being a political participant.

Atria:                  My work in legal theory has always been, so to speak, sensitive to politics. If you want to talk about legal theory, you are talking about politics. Before I came to the UK to do my PhD in Edinburgh, I was impressed by analytic legal theory, which could be seen as talking about law, disregarding anything of political substance. Then I got to Edinburgh, and that changed my view of what legal theory should be. That legal theory and politics was a much more interesting connection than what is usually taken to be, what the problem between legal theory and law, or morality. It seemed much more interesting to look at law and politics than law and morality. The second one is more a kind of purely philosophical exercise. So I was a scholar. I always had this political engagement, but it was not in my plans to do it myself.

Then I wrote this book in 2007, on education, markets and citizenship in education. Of course, the book went unnoticed. And then, and I always said this, because it’s not my fault. In 2011, there was a journalist who had made some interviews with me about Constitutional issues. He called me once. He had read the book. He said, “Fernando, we need that book, but not in book form!” We need that book in a form that can be printed out and be held by participants in demonstrations. Of course, from my ivory tower, I told him, I see what you mean, that is so important, but I have this conference to attend, I have this paper to finish, so I cannot do it. To his credit, this guy kept nagging me until I told him, just for him to stop nagging me, alright, I’ll do it. So we wrote out a series of columns in an electronic journal-newspaper called Ten Common Positions on Education and Why They Are False, rejecting the idea of markets being for freedom.

They were printed out, and they were read by the demonstrators, and then people started calling me. The demonstrations in Chile in 2011 and the student movement created space for me to have a voice that was politically relevant. And my connection to the student movement meant that make put me in the fortunate position of being able to talk both to the Socialist Party and to the new left in Chile.

After that, then we tried to go for the nomination of the Socialist Party, and what we talked of before follows from them. So, here I am.

O’Neill:              So, you obviously completely love this more active engagement in politics, and you’ll be doing more of that, right? You’ll be running again in the future?

Atria:                Yes, I completely love doing it. I would be doing more of that, not necessarily running again, but of course I’m open to that possibility!

With many thanks to Pablo Aguayo Westwood, Javier Gallego Saade, James Hickson, Claudio Santander Martinez, and Nicole Selamé Glena.