We know our rights! Chile and citizen power

International press has extensively covered social uprising in Chile, pointing to the highest level of socioeconomic inequality that the country has in the developed world. A sequence of events escalated quickly, in a context of strained political atmosphere, fuelled, in the previous weeks, by obnoxious comments made by ministers. The metro fare hike catalysed deeper and broader grievances. It turned minor actions organised by students through social media (jumping over paying turnstiles into mass fare-dodging) into something bigger, which ended up including adults.

At that point, evasion actions, and the destruction of some turnstiles, provoked the closing of several metro stations. That was on Friday, the 18th, at noon. The brutal repression stirred up people´s anger and frustration, which ignited protests, cacerolazos (pan/pot banging) and demonstrations with barricades and traffic interruption at evening, after the closing of all metro stations during the afternoon.

Vandalism and looting, during that night, after a president’s photo having dinner in rich neighbourhood restaurant had gone viral in social media, marked the turning point in the social upheaval, named thereafter 18/O. But, the question is: How did a minor alteration of public order escalate into a nation-wide and largely pacific social mobilisation?

Socioeconomic inequality as breeding ground, but not as a cause
It is not surprising that there is a relative consensus on the role of high socioeconomic inequalities as breeding ground of the social uprising. For almost a decade scholar have warned about socioeconomic inequalities and living conditions in Chile, as United Nations Development Program (UNDP) summarizes in a 2017 report.

However, establishing a causal relationship between socioeconomic inequalities and social uprising is more problematic. Nobody claimed that Chilean society was about to experience a nation-wide civil unrest.
Among local and international elites, Chile’s proverbial political stability and institutional strength reputation, largely confirmed by international agencies (as recent as 2018, Chile showed low social conflict intensity) may have acted as a sort of self-confirming bias. Elites continued reading these rising public demonstrations as structural elements in the “normalization of democratic politics, as different social actors now conceive of themselves as bearers of rights”. Even president Piñera described the country as “an oasis in Latin America”.

In fact, previous massive demonstrations met the formalities to occupy public space, required by local authorities. Meanwhile, the deepening social conflicts associated to inequalities kept increasing the gap between the ordinary citizens and the traditional political class, lowering the political system’s capacity to absorb and process social conflict.

This belief was also common across the local academic community. Scholars could not predict this wave of social uprising, as a consequence of increasing inequalities, possibly due disciplinary and methodological bigotry, but mostly due to the lack of (comparative) empirical evidence.

Within this context, a novel longitudinal study, presented three weeks before the 18/O, showed stable trends in political and social participation, an increasing valuation of democracy, and an unstable valuation of social movements, which experts interpreted as lack of support. In fact, between 2016-2018 only 6.4% of interviewees mentioned same social movement. Among them, around a third declared participation, and even a smaller proportion informed active participation in marches, not related to online activism.

The study also confirms a meritocratic bias.

This is common in neoliberal systems. Neoliberal policies tend to reinforce notions that success and setbacks depend on individual merit, or lack thereof, consistent with recent sociological studies.

However, the study demonstrated also a widespread belief in the idea that success depends on a core ascriptive factor, being born in a wealthy family. Such a result was largely downplayed by the study.

A flammable oasis
There is ample evidence of the social and economic inequalities in the country. A bird’s-eye examination of macro-level economic trends shows the apparent contrast between steady average income growth and the level of inequality and poverty.

The relative poverty rate trend, measured as the percentage of population under the poverty line (50% of median income), and the poverty gap ratio, both indexed to income distribution have been stable (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Average Income (PPP US Dollars 2018), Relative Poverty and Income inequality in Chile

Not surprising, the Gini index shows a relative stability in income inequality in the same period. The decreasing rate seemed to slowdown in the last ten years. The Palma ratio, which is sensitive to changes at the top and at the bottom of the distribution, suggests a slightly worsening trend since 2015, especially for working population.

In the case of the retired, this trend started four years earlier. This can be interpreted as the top 10% increased their share of income over that of the bottom 40%, which could reflect the rise in living cost (due to property concentration, monopoly abuses, retail chains collusion, skyrocketing real state and renting prices, among others).

Regarding the macro-level political factors during the period, it can be pointed out a strained political atmosphere, seeded by corruption and abuse scandals in several institutions, involving political parties, electoral campaign, government authorities, the military, the police, retail chains, and even the Catholic Church.

The low, inadequate or lack of penal sanctions may have contributed to the general perception that the political opportunity structure, its institutions and the set-up of the configuration of power was closed to challengers, for instance, social movements, highlighting, therefore, entitlement and privileges as well as a general lack of capacity to process social grievances.

These trends are even more suggestive if we recall the subjective dimension of inequality.
A 2017 UNDP report shows that about 41% of interviewees reported some kind of abuse experienced in the las 12 months, related to social class, gender, place of residence, clothing and job or occupation, alongside the increasing rate in the belief about the importance of well-off social origin to be successful in life, reported in the local longitudinal study.

Additionally, only 8% of interviewees believe that wealth distribution is fair. Moreover, there is a declining trend in perceived life chances and general frustration of expectations alongside the higher level of distrust towards all kind of institutions, as a Bicentenario survey reports.
I interpret these results as an increase in the perception of relative deprivation.

It links with the ways through which grievances are socially constructed and subjectively perceived. Literature suggests that a widespread individual feeling of relative deprivation increases the chance to participate in unconventional or “extra-institutional” modes of action. Furthermore, a negative economic context just increases the chances of unconventional participation, as it amplifies the likelihood of participation among less privileged social groups.

Overall, the closing of the political opportunity structure, jointly combined with distrust towards institutions and abusive political practices, may have worsened individual grievances, and thereby, the perceptions of relative deprivation, increasing, therefore, the gap between political actors and citizens, and the chance to join social mobilization.

Yet, the question remains: why now?

Actually, social mobilization in Chile became apparent during late 2000s, and particularly with a 2-year long (2011-2013) student mobilisation, the Pension movements in 2016 and 2017, the Feminist movement in 2018, and the Pension movement again this year.

The social movement momentum
The ticket fare hike was generally understood as “the drop that spilled the glass” in the cumulative grievance narrative, popular across many opinion columns and articles nowadays. Over the last decade, the intensive use of public space, and use of social media in participation of social movements, among youngsters, due the low costs of accessing information and resources, have facilitated coordinate actions and large scale social mobilization. But, despite the fact that students arguably followed the same strategy, this time the impact on society has been different.

During the first weeks, authorities did not take very seriously students’ evasion actions. However, under the current economic and political conditions, a single non-violent action, made by secondary students -jumping over turnstiles- broke ta rather illusory social contract. Non-violent direct action of resistance against social norms and regulations, removed the barrier, and shortened the gap, between routine incidents from full-fledge riots. A threshold was surpassed this time.

The continuity of their actions over time attracted more people, students and common working people, which increased the strength of the movement. The concentration of these activities in time deployed momentum, as they increased the number of participants (mass) in several protest or demonstrations activities in a specific time frame (velocity), which increases the chance of major political changes. Non-violent direct actions provoked a chain reaction that impacted directly in a strategic service in Santiago, the subway network, which deteriorated rapidly the life quality of large proportions of the population, and in that way, increased the perceived relative deprivation. That is a key condition for riots.

On Friday, the 18th of October, subway network was operative in the morning. The people of Santiago started business as usual. In the morning, a massive mobilization provoked serious incidents, forcing the closing of few metro stations. The strength of the evasion mobilization was at this point too big, and unstoppable. The social movement momentum brought even more people to take streets. The recipe for chaos was around the corner.

For over the past four weeks, Chile´s social uprising, or 18/O, has shown and ongoing and massive social mobilization with no signs of decline. The visibility given by the occupation of large areas of Santiago and the intensive use of social media may have helped to morph in a nation-wide civil unrest, boosting the social movement momentum.

Social movement momentum creates repeated and visible interactions between dissidents and state elite.
The lack of political responsiveness from the government, or the inadequate way to enforce the law, could be interpreted as lower level of coupling with complex scenarios due to administrative vulnerabilities (for instance, lack of regulations, administrative near-sightedness due idiosyncratic factors, like specific organizational culture driven by ideological reasons), which generate blind spots about downward spiral in institutional development.

Despite all this, Chilean mobilization is setting the seeds for a new social contract, one that could hopefully take seriously widespread sources of injustice and disenfranchisement.

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About Francisco Ceron

Francisco Ceron

Francisco is PhD candidate at the Sociology department of the University of Amsterdam and affiliated with the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR), Amsterdam Centre for Inequality Studies (AMCIS), and the programme group Institutions, Inequalities and Life courses (IIL). His PhD research focuses on the social processes that generates inequalities in individual educational outcomes, both academic performance and decision-making in access to educational opportunities over time, in Chile as country case. His research interests include the sociology of education, social stratification and mobility, labour market outcomes, educational inequality as well as quantitative methodology. He has extensive experience in empirical research and public policy, in both private and public organizations. He has worked previously as researcher and research coordinator at the National Assessment Office, Chilean Ministry of Education, and as researcher and consultor in private companies, in areas of public affairs and customer and employee relationships. He holds a master’s degree in social policy (research) from the London School of Economics and Political Science. For his academic work on his thesis in this programme he won the IEA Bruce H. Choppin Memorial Award 2014, conferred by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). He also holds a master degree in sociology from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

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