THE EYES OF THE LEFT, all around the world, should be on Chile. Over the next twelve months a Constituent Assembly, comprised of 155 elected Chilean citizens, will draft a new constitution for their battered and abused country. New constitutions are not written very often. South Africa, post-apartheid, wrote one – to world acclaim. So did Venezuela – and the rest of the world ignored it. Undaunted, the left-wing Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, had the Constitution’s key provisions printed on milk cartons, so every citizen, even the poorest, could know their rights.
Chile’s new constitution, however, is being written from scratch, an exercise that has not been attempted in a well-established nation state for more than twenty years. What’s more, with the Constituent Assembly dominated by the Left (in New Zealand, they’d be branded “Far Left”) the constitution which emerges from its deliberations will likely break new ground. Already, the members of the Constituent Assembly (MCA) are committed to ensuring that the rights of Chile’s indigenous people (roughly 10 percent of the population) are constitutionally protected.
The legislation establishing the Constituent Assembly mandated an equal number of male and female members. Interestingly, so radical was the popular mood that considerably more women ended up being elected to the Assembly than men – requiring the men’s numbers to be topped-up! Clearly the rights of women – in all political, economic, social and cultural spheres – will constitute a central pillar of the new constitution.
Given Chile’s tragic post-1973 history, it is also widely anticipated that the new constitution will explicitly repudiate the neoliberal tenets embedded in the constitution imposed upon the Chilean people from above by the military dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, in 1980. Chilean political commentators are predicting the inclusion of a slew of “social chapters” restoring to the state its key responsibility for maintaining the welfare of the people. The privatisation of key utilities – most particularly the water supply – may well be reversed as constitutionally untenable.
Essentially, Chile is engrossed in an extraordinary exercise aimed at reimposing the status-quo ante. Taking the nation back to the point it had reached under the socialist Popular Unity government of President Salvador Allende immediately prior to the military coup d’état of 11 September 1973. Allende died in that coup, and thousands more Chileans were murdered in the months and years that followed.
In the early 1970s, Allende’s government had been one of the most progressive in the world, making it that most dangerous of things – an example other peoples might feel inclined to follow. The USA, in particular, was terrified that Allende’s brand of democratic socialism might spread across Latin America. US President, Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, summed-up the Administration’s position when he declared: “I don’t see why the United States should sit back and watch a country turn communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
With the Left crushed, Chile became the proving ground for the neoliberal theories of Professor Milton Friedman. All the measures with which the rest of the world would soon become agonizingly familiar: deregulation, privatisation, regressive fiscal policies, abandoning economic protectionism and opening the economy to foreign investors, dismantling the welfare state and destroying the trade unions; were tested out on the politically defenceless Chilean people.
Although a measure of democracy was restored to Chile in 1990, it was heavily circumscribed by the point-blank refusal of the political class in general (and the armed forces in particular) to countenance the slightest attempt to dismantle the neoliberal order Pinochet had so firmly established. It required nothing less than the global Covid-19 pandemic to generate the massive popular rising necessary to force the Chilean powers-that-be to sanction the calling together of a constituent assembly to re-write the rules of the political game.
There are a number of lessons here for Aotearoa-New Zealand – providing its progressive forces are ready and willing to learn from the Chilean example.
The first of these is that ending neoliberalism requires massive and militant action on the ground. Between 2019 and 2020, the young and the poor made Chile ungovernable. Engaging in running battles with the Police and facing-down the army’s bullets, they rendered the political class and its mainstream media mouthpieces increasingly irrelevant to what was happening in the streets, offices, shops, factories, schools and universities of the nation. In the course of making this uprising, the young and the poor learned “on the job” how to conduct their own politics – independent of the political parties which had traditionally represented their interests. (In the elections for the Constituent Assembly, the ruling right-wing party received fewer that 30 percent of the votes, and the equivalent of our Labour Party was outpolled by a combination of communists, anarchists, feminists, indigenous Chileans and environmentalists.)
The second lesson to be drawn from recent events in Chile, is that changing the rules of the game – i.e. drawing up a new constitution – is not something to be left to elite theorists meeting behind closed doors. New ideas, revolutionary ideas, cannot be imposed upon the population from above and remain progressive ideas. (Never forget that Rogernomics was a revolution imposed from above – with disastrous results for workers and beneficiaries.) If what the radicals and revolutionaries who pulled together the He Puapua Report are proposing is any good, then the young and the poor will make it their own. When that happens, all the rest will follow. Demand the election of a Constituent Assembly to write Aotearoa-New Zealand’s bi-cultural constitution. Let the young and the poor chose their own candidates. For the first time in decades give them the chance to cast a vote that matters. Throw an additional 700,000 votes onto the electoral scales – and see what happens.
There’s a third lesson to be drawn from Chile’s experience. Not, this time, from its recent experience, but from the experience of 1970-1973. And that lesson is: Make sure you have someone watching your back. Because who, in the end, can protect the work of Chile’s Constituent Assembly from the same forces that destroyed the work of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government? Who will stand between the people and the armed forces – guided and resourced by the United States? That’s not just a question for Chileans. Were the young and the poor of Aotearoa-New Zealand to successfully outmanoeuvre their own political class, where should they look for protection? Australia? The United States?
In the end, it’s the question that all revolutionaries must be ready to answer: “Having made the revolution, how do we keep it?”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 10 June 2021.